Review of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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I think this novella is meant to be science fiction. According to the authors, Gladstone wrote Red and El-Mohtar wrote Blue. It was published by Saga in 2019, and runs 209 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Red and Blue are transhuman operatives in a time war, augmented with technology and able to change shape at will. Red works for the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia, and Blue works for the Garden, a consciousness embedded in all organic matter. The two scheme against each other and eventually begin to admire the other’s work. They start to leave messages for one another and eventually fall in love. However, there’s a risk in this, and eventually they become suspect. Can they engineer a scheme where they can be together?

On the positive side, this has evocative scenes and makes good use of poetic metaphor. There’s a symbolism in the opposition: technology versus nature. The time war seems to make use of butterfly-effect actions and weapons that echo down through the time threads and may or may not change the course of history, depending on whether the other side can analyze the effects and counter quickly enough. This was a pretty quick read, as the lack of significant events allowed for skimming. The solution to the problem is fairly clever.

On the not so positive side, this has very little in the way of either plot or world building. It’s an art piece: a series of nebulous, fantastical scenes unmoored in either time or space, interspersed with poetic letters that do little to clarify the situation. This means the characterizations are also poor. The whole thing is so vague that we can’t get a grip on either the two main protagonists or the flow of side characters that have no names and only a transient presence. Plus, I don’t see any reason for these operatives to fall in love. There’s very little content here, and the book comes off as mostly nonsense.

Two stars

Wrap up of the 2018 World Fantasy Reviews

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That’s all the World Fantasy reviews, so now I’ll attempt an analysis of the list. When you look through these, a few interesting patterns emerge.

First, the diversity breakdown. Apologies if I miss anybody here:
BEST NOVEL: 1 man, 4 women, 1 Asian, 1 African American and 1 Native/African American. 1 LGBTQ
BEST NOVELLA: 1 non-binary, 1 man, 3 women, 1 African American, 1 Asian, 2 LGBTQ
SHORT FICTION: 1 man, 4 women, 3 Jewish, 1 Hispanic, 2 LGBTQ.
The totals add up to: 3/15 men (20%), 11/15 women (73%), 1/15 non-binary (7%), 2/15 Asian (13%), 1/15 Native American (7%), 1/15 Hispanic (7%), 3/15 Jewish (20%), 2/15 African American (13%), 5/15 LGBTQ (33%). Roanhorse complicates this calculation, but I’ve listed her as only Native America.

This year’s ballot continues the apparently universal trend toward mostly female writers, with only one token male nominated in each category. The system for nomination has done well in featuring at least one non-binary, Hispanic and Native American writer. Asian writers are, as usual, over-represented considering their 5% US population demographic, as are Jewish writers with a 1.5% US population demographic. The overrepresentation of Jewish writers this year follows the same pattern I found in the Nebula and Hugo Awards. The LGBTQ component here is also overrepresented, as the self-identifying gay and lesbian US population demographic for 2018 was 4.5%. Hispanic writers, as usual, remain hugely underrepresented with a US population demographic of 18%.

After reviewing the Nebula and Hugo Award finalists, I only had to read three short stories, one novella and two novels to finish out the set. There are a couple of possible implications to this. First, it suggests the Nebula and Hugo Awards might be trending to fantasy, and second, it indicates a convergence in the US fiction awards to particular works in any given year. The three awards work differently: the Nebula is awarded by the professional membership of the SFWA; the Hugo is awarded by members of WorldCon: and the World Fantasy Award is partially juried. Members of the current WFA convention and the previous two vote two nominations onto the final ballot, and the other three are named by a panel of judges. For the 2018 awards, the judges are Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas Kilworth, and Tod McCoy.

Of course, there is the argument that particular works are elected by all three awards because they really are the best, or the more circular argument that these become the best because they’re elected. However, this kind of convergence in the major US awards remains troubling. It suggests a lack of diversity in either the marketplace or in the US awards systems. If more Native Americans were published, for example, all three awards might not elect the same writer, or if more African Americans were published, all three awards might not elect the same work.

Plus, there are also other possible explanations for convergence, such as a preference for certain content within the awards system. Of the three major US awards, the World Fantasy Award has the reputation for being the most literary, which suggests a definite preference in that direction. There is also evidence that the WFA system rewards creativity and artistic effect over standard story structures. Some of these works had little or nothing in the way of plot, and some might have qualified for a creative essay category instead. Others had serious suspension of disbelief issues. I notice there are some differences of opinion on quality out there in the readership audience. In checking out the authors, I encountered a few blogs that actually challenged the suitability of some works based on their content or execution. I personally think the Locus List has a big effect on convergence in the US awards, but interestingly, 4/15 writers (27%) of shorter works beat the odds and made it to the WFA ballot with entries that did not appear this year’s Locus List (although three of the four did appear for other works).

There was a reasonable diversity of publishers. Print magazines are clearly a failing paradigm where the awards are concerned—all the shorter finalists came from online magazines. As usual, Tor.com stood out, mostly because of the novella category, with 4/15 entries or 27%.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This novel dark fantasy/horror and is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This review contains spoilers.

Soldier Dana Mills was captured by the enemy and video of her beheading circulates. Somehow not dead, she is recovered, scarred but alive, and pregnant. She returns to her ancestral family home, now replaced by a subdivision called Herot Hall, and takes shelter in caves under the mountain. She delivers a son she names Grendel, and the two of them continue to live on the fringe, outside the bounds of the estates below. Willa Herot is the carefully groomed wife of Roger Herot, a doctor and heir to the property. She resents the way her mother has orchestrated her life and despises her husband and son Dylan. Grendel is attracted by the sound of the child Dylan playing the piano, and the two become secret friends. Mills is horrified when she finds out. What will the Herots do when they discover her son at the house?

In case the names don’t ring a bell, this story is a retelling of the Scandinavia epic Beowulf. Headley has modernized the tale and made some symbolic substitutions, a scarred soldier for Grendel’s mother, a police hero for Beowulf, a philandering doctor for the king, a bored socialite for his wife, and a watch and/or train for the dragon. Headley also name-checks the Beowulf Nowell Codex, making Nowell into Willa’s maiden name. The symbolism in the story is fairly postmodern (a.k.a. inconsistent) but various clues lead me to think this is about 1) the monsters that live inside us all, and 2) how the rich make monsters of the disenfranchised (a.k.a. from Beowulf, the children of Cain). There’s a lot of social commentary here. Reading this, I got a really strong feeling that Headley comes from a small town with a full quota of mean girls—she’s characterized them very well here, as well as the men they use as pawns in their machination. In a modern twist, it’s Mills who lives to get her revenge in the end, something that feels satisfying.

On the not so positive side, this was really hard to read. First, it is seriously depressing. There’s a lot of darkness in the original Beowulf, and Headley has magnified it here. We know how this story goes. The creation of monsters is a cloud that hangs over the whole narrative, and we’re not disappointed—the characters go down one by one to a bloody end at the hands of their creations. The somewhat satisfying ending didn’t do much to lighten things up. And next, as is usual these days, this was hugely padded. Heatley winds a plot that would have supported a short story out to 300 pages with fairly nonsensical ruminations that, as far as I can tell, are mostly used to create mood.

This is another case where I have to give points for the cynical look at society and the artistic effect, but it’s one of those “read at your own risk” books. Big trigger warnings.

Four stars.

Review of Someday by David Levithan

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This is young adult fantasy romance novel published by Knopf and runs 392 pages. It follows Every Day and Another Day, novels with the same characters, a prequel “Six Earlier Days” and the short story “Day 3196.” The novel Every Day was a New York Times Bestseller and nominated for a Lambda Award. It was recently made into a motion picture which is also available for rent/purchase. This review contains major spoilers.

This novel picks up where Every Day leaves off. The protagonist, who calls themself A, is a non-binary consciousness that wakes in a different body each day. They fall in love with the girl Rhiannon, and as a result, reveal too much of themself. This leads to wild accounts of demon possession and the arrival of the fundamentalist Reverend Poole, who turns out to be an evil version of A. Scared by all this, A goes on the run. A means to leave everything behind. They delete their email address and flee the Northeast for the Denver area. But A is starved for affection, and when they find a message to them on Rhiannon’s Facebook page, they are drawn back to her like a moth to a flame. Once in contact, they find the evil and dangerous Poole (also known as X) is holding their friends hostage as a way to get to A. What can they do?

I was really taken by Every Day, which develops a lot of suspense at the end very suddenly, so I’ve been waiting a while for this sequel. It continues a lot of the strong points of Every Day. It’s clear Levithan is interested in the worth of every individual, and a lot of this is about respecting others and treating them well, regardless of who they are. A’s existence is dependent on stealing bodies, but they maintain very strict rules about respecting their hosts and trying to do their best not to make anyone’s life worse during the one-day possession. This novel develops that theme further, including an equality march on Washington D.C. where a lot of the action takes place. Definitely Levithan’s strongest point in this series is how he presents the lives of A’s hosts, a one-day glimpse of each, with all their joys and problems.

On the not so positive side, this doesn’t develop much angst, conflict, drama or suspense. Early in the book A goes through some tough hosts, but this issue clears up once they are back in the Northeast and reunited with Rhiannon. It’s clear that A has to do something about X, and A does come through at the end, but there’s no buildup in the action line to this point. There is a suggestion in the text that A might go over to the dark side, but events don’t support this or provide any discussion of the morality involved. Instead, the book continues to concentrate on the “everybody’s okay” equality theme to the point that it’s intrusive. As a result, Levithan can’t resist making X a sympathetic character. Someone has apparently told Levithan A needs to use the pronoun “they,” too, which leads to the usual grammatical muddle. And last, all these people eventually started to sound the same, which means the author gave up characterization to use his own voice instead.

This isn’t the thriller sequel I’d hoped for, but it is still a valuable book for kids struggling to deal with difference.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Gallows Black by Sam Sykes

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This is a standalone epic fantasy novella from Sykes’ Grave of Empires universe. It’s published by Orbit and is supposed to be 140 pages, but a lot of this turned out to be taken up by advertising, so I’d guess it’s more like 100 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The Freehold city of Last Word in the Scar is about to become the latest flash point in a war between the Imperial forces and the Revolution. Sal the Cacophony is there to attend an execution where Zanze, one of the people on her revenge list, is scheduled to have his head cut off. Sal waits for Zanze’s turn and a clear shot, meanwhile loading her magical gun Cacophony. She is interrupted by an Imperial Mage, who continues to chat while the next victim, the infamous and powerful freemaker Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, is escorted onto the scaffold. All attention is on the woman, and Sal sees Zanze is about to slip away. She starts to head him off, but the mage grabs her, exposing her scars, her tattoos—and the magical gun. He raises the alarm and she shoots him. Chaos ensues. After a brief battle with Imperial Judge Olithria, Sal gets away with Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, who confides that her real name is Liette. Can Sal fulfil her quest to find and kill Zanze? What should she do about Liette?

This is grimdark, heavily atmospheric and action-oriented. It launches with a spray of blood from the execution and moves right on to the destructive effects of Cacophony, a magical, blood-thirsty, black and brass pistol with dragon eyes and a gaping, blood-thirsty maw. Besides that, Liette is working on necromancy. All the heavy-weights in this story are women except for Zanze, presumably the villain, that we only glimpse from a distance. Despite the heavy action orientation, the characters are well developed and interesting, while alluding to a backstory that I expect we might find in other books. This novella ought to suit fans of the grimdark sub-genre well.

On the not so positive side, this basically consists of a lot of explosions connected by brief conversations that reveal the political factions and how they hate each other. In the brief lulls, Sal and Liette manage to build a quick relationship and have sex. The plot is simple, but adequate for something this length. Still, I got exhausted well before the end. I’d rather have learned more about the world and about the people who live there. The magical system is also unexplained, and everyone just seems to have amazing powers that they pit against each other while the common people flee. The end result is that it didn’t hook me, regardless of the early promise.

Three and a half stars.

Review of A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

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This novella is alternate fantasy, is published by Tor.com and runs 46 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Clark, he won the 2019 Best Short Story Nebula Award for “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” published in Fireside magazine. The same story is currently a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. This review contains spoilers.

This story takes place in an alternate Cairo in 1912. Fatma el-Sha’arawi is employed by the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and works as a Special Investigator of disturbances between the mortal and otherworldly planes. She and her co-worker Inspector Aasim Sharif are called to work on a case where a djinn apparently committed suicide with an exsanguination spell, leaving odd glyphs and an angel feather behind. Following up on these clues, Fatma quickly encounters a plot that involves ghouls, assassins and angels, and seeks to replace this Creation with another one. Can Fatma save the world as she knows it? And what does she need to do about that saucy infidel Siti?

This is a nice little adventure story with a slightly bawdy, tongue-in-cheek humor. Although the style and humor detract some from character development, Fatma has some eccentricities that round her out as a real person. There’s a touch of steampunk here, as the city seems to run on clockwork technology. There was some excellent imagery in the description, and I’m also impressed by Clark’s facility with Muslim culture and mythology, even if this isn’t quite reality.

On the not so positive side, we might have saved the bawdy for a little later in the story instead of starting off with it. The dead naked djinn was something of a speedbump we had to get over in order to enjoy the rest of the narrative—which was completely unnecessary. The story was entertaining and stood very well without that.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

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This novella is science fiction, published by Tor.com, and runs 119 pages. Kaftan won the 2013 Nebula for Best Novella with “The Weight of the Sunrise,” published in the February 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. This review contains major spoilers.

Bianca del Rios is incarcerated in the dark cave prison of Colel-Cab. The only other prisoner is Chela, a woman Bee has to rely on because she has no memory of the past. Chela says they are powerful telepaths who destroyed a starship, committing mass murder. But then Biana feels the thoughts of another telepath who tells a different story. Chela warns her away, injures her when she insists on trying to escape. The other telepath is Jasmine, Bianca’s wife, who has been searching for her for ten years after Bee was T-locked. Jasmine rescues her and tries to help her heal and regain her memory as they hide out from the authorities. They plan a trip to the beach where Bianca first woke telepathic ability in Jasmine, but there are threats to their safety. Can Bianca regain her memory? Take control of her powers?

This is described as a psychic thriller, and it’s a quick read with a cool, stream-of-consciousness flow. There’s not really any plot, only experience: of the cave, sex with Chela, impressions of a hospital room, the pain of injury, water on the beach. The imagery and description carry the story along and the narrative eventually creates meaning and emotion. This seems to be a story about how talented people get shut down and crippled by people around them. Chela seems to be an alter ego of Bianca who begs her to hide out, while Jasmine, awakened to possibilities, tries to help her heal.

On the not so positive side, the meaning here is all you get, and that’s pretty murky. I notice descriptions of the novella in various places only include the prison and don’t really try to outline events—that’s for a reason. If you like plot-based stories, this isn’t for you. Still, I expect some readers will identify with the pain and darkness, and enjoy the lesbian relationships.

Vylar gets a lot of credit for creating meaning and emotion in this, but not for clarity or significance. I ended up thinking there wasn’t much here.

Three and a half stars.

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