Review of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is apparently Martine’s debut novel, and is listed as #1 in this series, suggesting we’ll see more on the same topic. It was published by Tor on 26 March 2019 and runs 472 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the multi-system Teixcalaani Empire. She has been dispatched in haste, and her imago implant holding the memories of her predecessor is hastily installed and out of date. When she arrives, she finds political unrest related to the Emperor’s impending death and a planned expansion war that will annex Lsel Station. Besides that, the previous ambassador Yskander Aghvan has apparently been assassinated, and Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass seem to be next on the list. With the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, Mahit threads her way through the politics, where it becomes clear Yskander made inappropriate deals with the Emperor Six Direction, plus political heavyweights in the succession fight, Minister Nineteen Adze, opposition leader Thirty Larkspur and General One Lightning. Mahit’s imago fails, apparently because of sabotage from back home, and she receives frightening messages that Lsel Station pilots have encountered alien spacecraft—apparently the leading edge of some other inimical space empire. Is there a way Mahit can sort through the mess, straighten out her imago and save Lsel Station from annexation?

This is an impressive space opera intrigue, strongly plotted, with highly complex world building and attractive, well-developed characters. There’s a solid political structure and workable economics underlying the empire versus the independent mining stations, and notable cultural differences between the practical Lsel Station and the Empire, which seems highly literate and given to layered, nuanced communications framed in poetic verse. There are shocks and speed bumps, of course, but Mahit manages to sort out the issues, and at the end of the book is headed back to Lsel Station, apparently to report to the Council and confront Councilors Darj Tarats and Aknel Amnardbat about the sabotaged imago. This signals where the next book might lead.

On the less positive side, I had an issue with the imago timeline. The implant Mahit is given on the Station is fifteen years out of date, but after it fails, she experiences flashes of memory that seem more recent. I thought maybe the implant had picked up some of the dead Yskander’s memories when Mahit viewed his preserved body, but given later events, this doesn’t seem likely. So, either I’ve misunderstood the timeline or else this is just unexplained. Next, I’m a bit surprised that Mahit has only a single liaison for staff—considering her position and the political unrest, it seems she ought to have a security force, at least. And last, Mahit develops a sexual interest in Three Seagrass, her liaison and junior staff member. In the age of #MeToo, this is romantic, but also definitely transgressive, and the narrative skims over it. Mahit doesn’t even seem to repent for overstepping her bounds.

This will likely seem slow and boring to action-adventure space opera fans, but it’s highly recommended for the poetic at heart.

Five stars.

Review of “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 1/23/19. This review contains spoilers.

Binu is an ordinary man who years ago left his mundane life and joined the traveling Majestic Oriental Circus in India. He has worked his way to the position of trapeze master and also appears as Aladdin in the highly popular illusion act based on the old Persian story. One detail that makes this act really different is that the jinni character Shehzad Marid is real, has his own scruffy lamp, and has chosen Binu as his master. The circus is set to perform at the palace of the Thripuram raja for the wedding of his daughter, and in the evening, a procession of Devadasis, holy temple courtesans, brings prayer offerings to the gods. Later in the night, one of the temple girls comes to Binu at the circus and asks him to help her escape. Against his better judgement, he agrees, but his boss Johuree tells him that any consequences are on his own head. When a terrible storm overtakes the circus, Binu goes out to confront the vengeful kuldevi who has brought the storm. “No man or woman is property!” he tells the goddess, but angry about the loss of her slave, she asks for the jinni in return for their lives. Can Binu let him go?

This is a fairly straightforward story with high diversity. It has a strong #OwnVoices feel, and is based the idea that the old jinns and kuldavi have adapted and are still out there, regardless of modernization in India. Binu is sexually attracted to his jinn, giving it an LGBTQ angle. The story also presents the ugly issue of temple slavery, an institution apparently still alive and well in the 21st century.

On the less positive side, there’s not much depth in the characterizations and not much in the way of description or background on the setting—I don’t get much flavor of circus life. The narrative makes a single reference to another story where these same characters apparently appear, but still, not much background. The story would have been more entertaining with a twist or so, maybe if Binu and Shehzad Marid had tried to outsmart the kuldavi instead of just giving in to her demands.

Three and a half stars.

Review of by “Not Pounded by Romance Wranglers of America: The Endless Cosmic Void” by Chuck Tingle

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Since the meltdown of the Romance Writers of America over racism charges is trending, I should probably take this opportunity to make another comment on author bullying. No surprise; I’ve been beaten to the punch by the ever-ready Chuck Tingle, so I’ll preface my remarks with a review of his story. His newest release is now available on Amazon, adding to a fairly extensive bibliography. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Chuck Tingle, he normally writes witty porn and crashed into prominence with a Hugo nomination in 2016 for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a novel about an over-sexed dinosaur and an exotic dancer. Tingle seemed to be thrilled by his Hugo nomination and responded with Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination. Lately he seems to be leaning to satire and has produced several non-sexual adventures. As part of the promotion for this e-book release, Tingle put up a website for Romance Wranglers of America.

Gorblin Crimble has been writing romance novels with some success, but he’s starting to feel burned out. For support in getting through his next novel, he joins a local writers’ group. The first meeting goes well, and Gorblin makes friends with Amber, who suggests he should also apply to the larger romance writers’ organization Romance Wranglers of America. Their headquarters is only a short distance away, and Amber drives Gorblin there in her car. On the way, the two of them bond and start to wonder if they might be characters in a Chuck Tingle story. On arriving at the headquarters, they see a humanoid dinosaur stumbling away from the building, covered with a yukky tar-like substance. The building itself looks to have been infected with a black, cancerous growth that sticks out of huge cracks in the façade. It breathes softly like a horrific, living thing; pools of black ooze drip onto the sidewalk, and the whole place stinks like burning. They are greeted by a man named Demon, who explains the black ooze is a “remodel” project. Can Gorblin and Amber escape before they become infected?

Okay, so Tingle makes his points with a sledgehammer. This doesn’t have a lot of depth, characterization or world-building, but its strong points are timing and social commentary. Gorblin and Amber are both nice people, as are the other writers in the small group. They write about love and relationships. They’re very welcoming, and some are even fans of Gorblin’s work. However, on a greater scale, the Wranglers are tarred black and oozing cancerous sludge. They’re administered by a demon, and it smells like the place is burning down.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Summer Frost” by Blake Crouch

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, also edited by Blake Crouch. (Let’s hear it for self-actualization!) Crouch is best known as the author of the Wayward Pines Trilogy. The story runs 75 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Maxine is a non-playing character in a video game from WorldPlay. She’s meant to die in every play, but something goes wrong with the code, and she starts to behave erratically, exploring her environment and fighting back against the killers. Game-developer Riley pulls Max’s code out of the game and starts to develop her as a separate AI. After a while, Riley becomes obsessed with the process of creation, neglecting real world relationships and eventually falling in love with Max. She makes plans to embody the AI in a human-like chassis and to give her appropriate values, but what if Max has ambitions of her own?

This is based on a 2010 thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk. Proposed by user Roko on the Less Wrong community blog, this scenario uses decision theory to show that powerful AI could be expected to turn on humans that imagined the creation but did nothing to bring the AI into existence. It’s called a “basilisk” because just hearing the argument puts you at risk of identification and torture from the hypothetical AI.

On the positive side, this is very character driven. Riley and Max seem very real, and side players like Brian, owner of the company, and Meredith, Riley’s wife, put in strong appearances. Riley spent most of the story ungendered, but Brian calls her “bitch” about three-quarters of the way through, revealing that she is female. The setting here is a little nebulous, as part of this takes place virtual reality and the rest in some apparent near future that is poorly defined and is possibly another layer of virtual reality. The game Max comes from is set in a place that looks like Brian’s coastal estate, and the story has a circular structure, as it both begins and ends at the estate. There’s a sudden twist near the end that should be predictable if you’ve been following the foreshadowing—we just don’t have the details until the end. And of course, I love the basilisk idea. Am I in trouble now for reading this book?

On the less positive side, leaving Riley ungendered until near the end felt like the author was playing games with the reader. I spent a bunch of imagination visualizing her as a nerdy little guy with a beard and big glasses, so I had to rework the whole thing when I got to the “bitch” comment. My personal opinion is that descriptions like this should happen early in the story so I don’t get annoyed, or else just not happen at all so I can go on visualizing the nerdy little guy. There were minor inconsistencies: Riley uses a device called a Ranedrop that sounds like the successor to a phone, but then mentions she has an “old-school phone.”

Four stars.

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Winners!

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Here’s something I meant to post a while back. I left a space for it and then didn’t get it posted. Since I’m running so far behind on it, I guess I should add some commentary to make reading it worthwhile.

First, the tie here in short fiction is interesting. This is a juried award, and there are 5 judges, which is supposed to mean there won’t be a tie. I read elsewhere that this was a unique situation, but actually there was a tie last year, too, in the Best Novel category. That means the results are a clue about how the judges come to a decision. It suggests that rather than blind ballot, the judges discuss the finalists and come to a consensus decision on who should be the winners. Not that this matters a whole lot, but it does offer some insight into their awards process. The end result ends up being fairly diverse, which suggests the judges took this into consideration.

Next, I don’t see much intersection between this award and the Dragons, even though the Dragons have 5 possibilities for a fantasy win. Presumably this is because the finalists in the Dragon’s didn’t submit to the (strongly literary) World Fantasy Award for consideration. I would have expected Little Darlings by Melanie Golding, for example, to compete well in the WFA.

Last, I’m glad to see Polk’s novel win a major award this year. Although her novel is low key and a fantasy romance, it still addressed some important social issues. I enjoyed her writing style, and I’ll try to get the sequel in the queue for a review when it’s released in February.

Interestingly, Barnes & Noble did a roundup of major awards (minus the Dragons) and pronounced The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) the big winner this year with three awards, and Martha Wells and P. Djèlí Clark in a tie for second place with two awards each for Artificial Condition (Tor) and “The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” (Fireside Magazine). That means science fiction did somewhat better than fantasy this year in these particular awards.

Anyhow, for anyone who hasn’t seen the list, here are the WFA winners:

Best Novel: Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella: “The Privilege of the Happy Ending“ by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 8/18)

Best Short Fiction (tie): “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed 10/18) and “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny 3-4/18)

Best Anthology: Worlds Seen in Passing, by Irene Gallo, ed. (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Collection: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell (Saga)

Best Artist: Rovina Cai

Special Award – Professional: Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)

Special Award – Non-Professional: Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

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This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

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This novel is a dark fantasy/psychological thriller and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. Golding is a UK based author, and this looks to be her first novel. I also notice it’s soon to be a major motion picture. It was published by Crooked Lane Books in April, 2019, and runs 315 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After a difficult delivery, Lauren Tranter is the new mother of twin boys, Morgan and Riley. A crazy woman in the hospital ward tries to take Lauren’s babies and substitute her own. Lauren hides in the bathroom and calls the emergency number for help, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of anyone there. The doctors suspect mental health issues. The Tranters take the boys home to the Peak District, and after his brief paternity leave is over, Lauren’s unsupportive husband Patrick moves into the guest room, leaving her to care for the boys both day and night. Lauren struggles with exhaustion, but with encouragement from her friends and a shove from Patrick, she finally gets it together and takes the boys out for a walk along the river. The babies are kidnapped–quickly found in the brush. But, the creatures now looking out of their eyes aren’t Lauren’s babies any longer. What does she need to do?

This is the classic changeling story, placed into a modern setting. Best points are the depth of the characterizations, the details of Lauren’s postpartum struggle, and the uncertainty throughout the whole thing about whether Lauren is suffering from postpartum psychosis or whether the crazy woman who wants the babies really is fay. There are some other themes here, too, including how women struggle with the heavy responsibilities of motherhood and how bonding can so easily turn to an unhealthy anxiety. Police investigator Joanna Harper follows up with research on historical events that suggest the problem is a recurring issue in this locale, and the narrative dips into some real horror as Lauren falls into the clutches of the mental health establishment.

It’s hard to find something to say on the less positive side of this. Maybe Joanna’s background seems slightly contrived. The author is trying to give us reasons why she’s so obsessed by the case, but she comes off more rebellious than conscientious, and not always a clear thinker. Patrick is something of a stereotype, too, put through some unflattering motions.

Regardless of little niggles, this story really delivers the goods. It’s no surprise it’s won the Dragon and been picked up for a film.

Five stars.

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