Review of “Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This short story was a finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was originally published by Nightmare.

Natalie is the Littlest Wife of the Preacher, a cult leader in Miracle. She’s at a sleepover when the cult suicides and the compound goes up in flames. Along with her surviving widows Reese and Scarlet, she is adopted by the Stuart family, and starts school. When the carnival comes to town, the girls go to what looks like a strip show, but the woman in the skimpy costume turns out to be Valerie, an angel from heaven who has come to contact them. Valerie has the Preacher in a cage and the girls confront him. She has also brought a shipment of T-Rexs from heaven that she lets loose to take care of some mistakes on the Earth. The four of them escape in a crop duster.

Good points: This story takes on a serious subject, which is how girls and women are often mistreated in patriarchal religious cults. It also takes a jaundiced view of miracles in general that fuel this kind of cult. It’s features good characterization, as we get background on the girls. They’re immigrant children, which suggests the problem with human trafficking.

Not so good points: This has a touch of surrealism, as the story moves from what could be reality to clear unreality when the girls meet Valerie. At this point, it’s actually less interesting. I was hoping it would follow through on the dramatic opening. Instead, this looks like another attack on the patriarchy. There are no male characters that don’t leer, and all the women are avengers. Even the dinosaurs are all female. Also, I’m not sure what the pterodactyl is about.

Three stars.

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Review of “The Fall Shall Further the Flight In Me” by Rachael K. Jones

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This short story was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was originally published in Clockwork Phoenix 5. The title (and maybe the idea) is taken from a George Herbert poem titled “Easter Wings.”

Ananda is an earthbound holy woman, attempting to rise through repentance and self-denial so she can carry prayers upward to the heavens. She eats only seed cakes and works in her thorny garden. In this way, she expects to eventually become thin enough, and light enough, to step into the air like her grandmother. One day one of the winged sky people falls into the garden, bringing a message. Ananda rescues the creature Sano and tends her wounds. Sano kisses her, and Ananda locks her in the hut. It takes a week to purge the defilement. It took Ananda’s grandmother 40 years to rise, and her mother failed in flight, but Ananda is already so light that she puts rocks in her pockets to keep herself grounded. Her mother discovers this, and then Sano in the hut. Can Ananda and Sano escape?

Good points: The best thing about this story is the creative idea. It seems to be surreal fiction about the clash of conflicting worldviews, as the sky people think earth is heaven and the earthbound think the sky is heaven. Neither can answer the prayers of the other. The imagery is excellent. I can’t find any overt political message here (as has been popular lately), but maybe this is a vote for harmony.

Not so good points: The surrealism thing makes this pretty nebulous. There’s not much plot–it’s mostly philosophy–and the little glimpse I got through the imagery seems to be about the extent of the world-building and characterization. Ananda’s grandmother has risen skyward, and somehow this has invoked an impending war? Hm. I ended up with a lot of questions.

I’ll give it extra points for the creativity. Four stars.

What If? Attacks on Rocket Stack Rank

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A furor erupted this week in SFF cyberspace about pronouns and how reviewer Greg Hullender of Rocket Stack Rank has made light of them. For anyone just tuning in, Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) is a review site run by Hullender and Eric Wong that provides brief reviews of stories eligible for the major SFF awards, including the Nebula, the Hugo, and presumably the Bram Stoker and other awards.

The site has received a lot of positive notice, and recently Hullender was tapped to serve on the Locus panel that feeds the major awards. In response, a group of SFF authors posted an open letter complaining about the pronoun issue and Hullender’s take on trans and non-binary characters in the reviews, also calling him a racist for good measure. Since I’m not trans or non-binary, I’m going to refrain from commenting on this. Everybody is entitled to their own feelings. However, I just wrote the last blog on virtue signaling, so I’m looking at this dust up through that lens.

Hullender promptly posted an apology to “all readers and authors we’ve harmed and offended.” This was judged unacceptable because he also wrote a response to the charges with evidence to demonstrate how they were questionable. Of course, it’s unsupportable to discriminate against people because of their race, gender or trans status, but what if this is actually about something else?

David Gerrold recently made some interesting comments at Amazing Stories. He basically says that members of the SFF community have to stand up and take sides in the progressive/conservative fight in order to save their reputations. This is troubling because it suggests you can’t just remain neutral. Instead, you have to take sides, and then to signal your virtue through word and action in order to be accepted in the community. So why are Hullender and Wong being attacked? Have they not done this properly?

The authors of the open letter think they’re insensitive racists. Hullender seems to think they‘re thoughtful progressives. So, are they posting discriminatory reviews, or are they just posting equal opportunity bad reviews for stories they don’t like?

Trans is the current cause célèbre. Is critiquing the stories not proper virtue signaling? What are members of the community expecting instead?

Review of DAS STEINGESCHÖPF by G.V. Anderson

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This is the short fiction winner of the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Strange Horizons.

In 1928 Herr Hertzel has recently been made journeyman, and the Schöpfers’ Guild has given him his first commission. Frau Leitner has written from Bavaria to request a small restoration. Hertzel makes the journey and finds Frau Leitner in a small village. She is an older woman with a bad cough, and she takes him to the piece that needs work, a Steingeschöpf housed in her attic. The piece’s name is Ambroise, and he was carved in Queckstein by the French Master De Loynes during the seventeenth century. Ambroise’s eyes are so deteriorated that he can hardly see to paint, and he shows other signs of decomposition, as well. Hertzel feels inadequate to restore a piece of this history, and he tries to refuse the job, but Frau Leitner talks him into it. There are dangers. The Queckstein dust can destroy the lungs and working it absorbs life and memory. Is Hertzel up to the task?

For anyone wondering, Steingeschöpf roughly translates as “stone creature” or “stone golem.” The imagery and characterizations here are first rate. You can smell the snow, and feel it crackle underfoot. Hertzel is a Jew in the years between the World Wars, and working the Queckstein reveals his story of love and loss. The tale also reveals the love between Ambroise and Frau Leitner, and how little time they have left. It’s a very touching story, without a lot of plot, but filled with subtle, understated emotional content. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

World Fantasy Awards

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While I’ve been doing my own thing, the World Fantasy Awards have happened. Here’s the list of nominees. Many of these are the usual suspects, but I’ll try to do some reviews to fill out the rest of the fiction categories. Many congrats to the winners!

Novel
• Winner: The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (Redhook; Orbit UK)
• Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
• Roadsouls, Betsy James (Aqueduct)
• The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
• Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff (Harper)

Long Fiction
• Winner: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
• The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
• Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
• “Bloodybones,” Paul F. Olson (Whispered Echoes)
• A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)

Short Fiction
• Winner: “Das Steingeschöpf,” G.V. Anderson (Strange Horizons 12/12/16)
• “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” Brooke Bolander (Uncanny 11-12/16)
• “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
• “Little Widow,” Maria Dahvana Headley (Nightmare 9/16)
• “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me,” Rachael K. Jones (Clockwork Phoenix 5)

Anthology
• Winner: Dreaming in the Dark, Jack Dann, ed. (PS Australia)
• Clockwork Phoenix 5, Mike Allen, ed. (Mythic Delirium)
• Children of Lovecraft, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Dark Horse)
• The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, Karen Joy Fowler & John Joseph Adams, eds. (Mariner)
• The Starlit Wood, Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe, eds. (Saga)

Collection
• Winner: A Natural History of Hell, Jeffrey Ford (Small Beer)
• Sharp Ends, Joe Abercrombie (Orbit US; Gollancz)
• On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, Tina Connolly (Fairwood)
• Vacui Magia, L.S. Johnson (Traversing Z Press)
• The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu (Saga; Head of Zeus)

Artist
• Winner: Jeffrey Alan Love
• Greg Bridges
• Julie Dillon
• Paul Lewin
• Victo Ngai

Special Award, Professional
• Winner: Michael Levy & Farah Mendelsohn, for Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction(Cambridge University Press)L. Timmel Duchamp, for Aqueduct Press
• C.C. Finlay, for editing F&SF
• Kelly Link, for contributions to the genre
• Joe Monti, for contributions to the genre

Special Award, Non-Professional
• Winner: Neile Graham, for fostering excellence in the genre through her role as Workshop Director, Clarion West
• Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies
• Malcom R. Phifer & Michael C. Phifer, for their publication The Fantasy Illustration Library, Volume Two: Gods and Goddesses (Michael Publishing)
• Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny
• Brian White, for Fireside Fiction Company

Review of The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This novella is volume 6 of the Penric and Desdemona tales, following Mira’s Last Dance. It was published by Spectrum Literary Agency in October 2017 and runs about 139 pages.

Temple sorcerer and demon host Penric and his friend the widowed Nikys have successfully escaped to the duchy of Orbas, but Penric has put off returning to his work as a temple scholar, hoping Nikys will accept a proposal of marriage. She stalls, concerned about the chaos demon that Penric always carries around with him. However, she accidentally intercepts a letter to her brother saying her mother has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in Cedonia. She comes to Penric for help. Can the two of them rescue mom? Will Nikys ever accept Penric’s proposal of marriage?

Like all the other novellas in this continuing story, this is a quick, entertaining read. The novella is nothing really profound, but Bujold is an accomplished writer and her characters are well-developed, absorbing and entertaining. The world is pretty well built by now, and I don’t have any problems visualizing the houses, towns or shrines. I thought Mira’s Last Dance was a little weird, but maybe it was all to put Nikys off. She’s having to make up her mind here if she can buy the package deal.

Recommended. Three and a half stars.

Review of The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

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This is the debut novel for Rivera. It runs about 500 pages and was published by Tor in October 2017. Rivera is Puerto Rican and currently lives in New York City.

Qorin tribeswoman and warrior Shefali Arsalayaa writes a letter to her friend and previous lover O-Shizuka, Empress of Hokkaro. In this letter, Shefali details their childhood together beginning at age three, and follows Shizuka’s growing conviction that the two of them are divine, favored by the gods and destined for great deeds. Shizuka becomes an accomplished swordswoman while Shefali favors a bow. The two of them slay a tiger at a young age and then move on to tackle the demons that are sucking life out of the kingdom. This is a difficult and dangerous task, and they both suffer for it. They become lovers, but are separated when Shefali is exiled by Shizuka’s uncle, then Emperor of Hokkaro. Can the two of them find one another again?

Tor’s announcement bills this as Mongolian inspired, and Shefali might be, but Shizuka and her culture come across as heavily Japanese. This generated knee-jerk complaints on Tor’s website about a “white” woman appropriating Asian culture, which degenerated into something of a mess when others pointed out that Rivera isn’t white and others questioned whether non-whites can appropriate culture. Certainly Rivera hasn’t written the book about her own cultural heritage.

Good points: The Tor editor described this as “stunning,” and the prose is very well done. The imagery, especially Shefali’s descriptions of her lover, is sometimes striking. Characterization of the two main protagonists is also well-done, as the two of them have depth and substance. There’s a suggestion of power plays in the court, but the intrigues aren’t the main story.

Not so good points: I like women’s adventure, but the literary device of the letter made this primarily about the love story. It also removed all immediacy from the action and events. Who writes a 500 page letter detailing whole lives and mooning about the attributes of their lover? The result was that I got bored about 1/3 of the way through and had a hard time finishing. Despite the imagery, the world isn’t well defined, and I had a hard time integrating the steppes and the kingdom. Characters other than Shefali and Shizuka tend to be flat and don’t always ring true. There’s a huge gap of years here, and no indication of how Shizuka displaced her uncle to become Empress. Did he die childless? Did she off him in some way? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Three stars.

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