Review of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is published by Solaris, and is third in the Machineries of Empire series, following Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, also awards finalists. It’s published by Solaris and runs 400 pages. There’s an accompanying collection of stories from this universe called Conservation of Shadows, plus a few singletons about on Amazon. This review contains major spoilers.

This book picks up roughly ten years after Raven Stratagem leaves off, though we have flashbacks that fill in some events since then. A new Shuos Jedao wakes, resurrected by the ancient and powerful Hexarch Kujen. Jedao finds himself in an alien, chimera body that reflects the scars and traumas of an older man, but he only remembers being a seventeen-year-old cadet at military school. He finds Kujen wants him to be his general and lead the forces of the hexarch against the upstart Protectorate formed when the rogue general Cheris-Jedeo took over the Kel forces and Hexarch Mikodez staged a coup. Plus, it quickly becomes clear that Kujen is a cruel tyrant, and that the young and inexperienced Jedeo has no free will in the matter. Can he find a way to victory?

On the positive side, this installment is a great setup to continue the investigation of consensual reality and free will that runs through this series. The Kel on board Kujen’s command ship Revenant hate and fear the new Jedeo, both because of what he is now and what his predecessors did in the past, but they have to follow him because of the Kel formation instinct. In turn, Jedeo quickly finds he is a captive, meant only to be Kujen’s tool and that he has no free will, either. Even his aide is forced to submission through psych surgery. Besides this, the mothships are also slaves, an alien lifeform harnessed to serve in the human wars. As usual, the characters are well-developed, and there’s a light strain of humor that runs through the whole thing, despite the horrors and decadence of the empire. Some of the asides are very touching. The pacing and plot run better in this installment than in the last, with plenty of action, suspense and conflict to keep the reader interested. Last, Kujen’s physical attraction and sexual manipulations bring a strain of S&M to this installment of the series that I didn’t pick up in the predecessors.

On the less positive side, I was disappointed by Cheris-Jedeo’s character in this installment. When the young Jedeo woke, I thought, “Oh, goody! It’s going to be a contest between the two Jedeos,” but it didn’t turn out that way. The young Jedeo is brilliant, of course, but Cheris-Jedeo seriously under-performs, is suddenly incompetent as an assassin, fails to communicate where they should and falls into knee-jerk reactions where they ought to know better—although they do finally come through with some helpful insight that wins the final battle. Besides this, I ended up with some questions about events and motivations. These may suggest this is all getting too complex to manage and/or that Lee has forced his characters into particular roles to send social messages. First, it looks like physical mods are widespread in this universe. People make themselves younger and more beautiful and apparently change genders at will. So, why is Brezen still worrying about sex prejudice and wearing something as uncomfortable as breast bindings to look like a man? Second, if the Protectorate is going to ditch the old order and bring a new freedom, why are the Kell still programmed and enslaved to formation instinct? Next, how is it that, in a universe where math is so basic to reality, the young Jedeo makes a simple sign error in his battle calculations? Doesn’t he check his work? With all those servitors around, doesn’t he have a friendly AI to help out? Or is he keeping these in his head because they’re such a dark secret? The issue seems simplistic and contrived (maybe a message to young readers about math?), and I think it would have been better to leave his error undefined. Next, after it’s clear the Revenant has rebelled, why doesn’t Jedeo give the order to abandon ship? I know it’s questionable whether anyone could have gotten off, but it looks really unethical for the brass to clear out like that and leave the crew to die onboard. And why didn’t all the other mothships rebel at the same time? They could have killed all the humans and escaped. Wouldn’t the sudden calendrical spike have affected their crews’ control of them? Last, if Kujen maintains the black cradle, how is it that he only seems to have had one copy of Jedeo’s consciousness? Apparently he let a big part of this get away from him when Cheris claimed Jedeo as her weapon of choice, and now he’s only left with Jedeo’s cadet memories? Of course, it’s possible that he just wants a Jedeo too young to have formed subversive opinions, but statements seem to indicate this is all he has left to work with. Still, maybe he has multiple copies now, as he’s made previous, unsuccessful constructs with other clones. I’m left scratching my head about this one.

Final verdict: Negatives are inconsequential. This is an entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine November-December 2018. For anyone who doesn’t know, T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon that she uses for adult works. This review contains spoilers.

Rose MacGregor has a problem keeping up with her sheep. She continually meets handsome faery men and uses the sheep as a pretext for striking up an uh-hum…relationship. However, Rose is not about to pine away over anybody. Instead, she’s married the blacksmith. The faery men discuss this around their campfire, and how hard it is to keep up with her in a physical way. They trade stories, the selkie and the pooka relating how Rose used them and tossed them away. Meanwhile one of the men weaves a bouquet of foxglove. Rose is at home with her granddaughter, carrying an iron nail in her pocket to remember her husband by. There’s frost in the air, and her granddaughter reports there are flowers on the step. “Ah… that time of year already, is it?” comments Rose with a smile.

This is a sly little story that turns the issue of pining after faery men backward and has them pining after Rose instead. It’s lightweight and fun, and the granddaughter turns out to look a lot like the selkie. On the not so great side, this hasn’t much in the way of substance other than the statement about pining. There’s room for some darkness, as dealing with the faery is supposedly full of pitfalls, but maybe Rose’s nail protects her from all that. This also has a definite sexist feel, which I’m sure is the author’s whole point.

Three and a half stars.

Comparing Polk’s Witchmark to Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

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I’ve just finished reading the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula. Interestingly, some of the authors have used the same plotline to write their books, but expressed completely different worldviews. I thought it would be helpful to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books. Here’s the second comparison of works from the Nebula ballot.

C.L. Polk and last year’s winner N.K. Jemisin have used basically the same plotline: Highly talented witches are enslaved and their power used to preserve and fuel the societies where others live in relative comfort and safety. Renegade witches manage to break the system and install a new order.

Jemisin’s three-part tale should be fairly familiar, as it’s a multi-award winner. A land called the Stillness is seismically active. Stills are ordinary people and orogenes are witch talents able to control the seismic activity. Orogenes are hated and feared, and Guardians capture the children and enslave them to work for the kingdom. Besides this, nodes in an earthquake suppression system contain children who have been mutilated and lobotomized. These slaves protect the land, but live in constant agony. The orogene Essun kills her firstborn son to keep him from this kind of slavery. Angered by the system, her lover Alabaster breaks the land, and refugees stream south away from the epicenter. Essun follows the flow, searching for her daughter Nassun. She finds Alabaster dying in the settlement of Castrima, and he asks her to complete the task of destroying the world, to recapture the moon and establish a new order. Essun finds her daughter and they struggle for control of the Obelisk Gate. Nassun wins, but convinced by her mother’s sacrifice, she goes on to capture the moon and reestablish seismic order in the world.

In Polk’s book, witches who are not storm-singers are enslaved as secondaries to supply power to the storm-singers that maintain the climate of Aeland. Witches who are not bonded this way are kept in prisons/asylums and used to process souls into the aether grid used for lights and power in Aeland. Miles Hensley (a.k.a. Miles Singer) is a member of a powerful family and a witch who has faked his own death to avoid slavery and establish a career as a military doctor. He is located by his sister Grace and forcibly bonded to her as a secondary. However, he has a friend and lover in Tristan Hunter, a fay Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from Aeland. When Grace fails in her bid to take over the elite counsel of storm-singers, she travels to a witch’s asylum with Miles and Tristan, where they find the truth about the power grid in Aeland and combine forces to destroy it.

What do the writers mean to accomplish? The plot is basically LeGuin’s “Return to Omelas” plot about righting the wrongs of slavery used to support a society, so we have to assume this is the message. What do the writers mean to accomplish with their rendition of it? Jemisin’s work is an ugly tale about hate and anger. Her characters kill and torture their own children and they abhor and abuse each other, totally debased by the system. The powerful orogenes are slowly turning to stone. Those who are already reborn as stone-eaters could probably help with the plan to rescue the world, but they stand by and do pretty much nothing. No one is heroic here, and the angry abused child Nassun really means to destroy the world with the Obelisk Gate until her mother interferes. On the other hand, Polk presents warm, likable characters who are aware of the tip of the iceberg of witch slavery and how this supports the common good. They discuss methods of improving the system, but being young, they aren’t totally aware of what’s going on. When the time comes for them to take over from the previous generation, they discover the truth about how their society consumes souls. They act immediately to end the system, putting their lives on the line to force social change. I’d have to evaluate Jemisin’s work as an angry warning about a dying society, and Polk’s as encouragement to act immediately on the injustice we see.

Which is more fun to read? Again, that depends on your reading taste. Jemisin’s work is hard to read. She disguises her characters and it takes some digestion of the whole trilogy to understand the story. It is not fun to read, and the readability problems mean that her message is probably lost to many readers. On the other hand, Polk’s work is warm and character-oriented. The message may suffer from too much subtlety; that it’s complicated by a separate subplot, and the fact that it only comes into full focus at the end of the book. However, this one is definitely more entertaining to read.

Which provides the better role models for potential saviors of the world? I could do without all the hate and anger in Jemisin’s work—that provides for very poor role models—but is that necessary to call attention to inequalities in our society? Is Polk’s work too warm and sweet to capture the necessary attention?

Wrap up of the 2018 Nebula Reviews

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I’ve already reviewed Artificial Condition by Martha Wells and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, so this finishes up the works in the 2018 Nebula fiction categories—I may get to the Norton works later, but I won’t get them done before the voting deadline on March 31. I already wrote a blog on patterns after accusations of irregularities in the voting flew around a while back, so now I’ll look for a few more.

Similar to last year, this list of fiction finalists contains what I think is real diversity. There’s a wide variety of different voices, styles and types of fiction, though some categories feature more than others. For the demographic breakdown, there appear to be 4/24 (17%) writers of African ancestry, 4/24 (17%) writers of Asian ancestry, maybe 3/24 (12.5%) Hispanic/Native Americans and 5/24 (20.8%) Jewish. That leaves about 32.7% other. For the gender breakdown, it looks like 14/24 (58%) are women and 10/24 (42%) men. It’s a little harder to pin down sexual orientation, but about 4/24 (17%) look to be LGBTQ. This is a pretty good fit to US population demographics except for Hispanic/Native Americans, currently about 35% of the US population and underrepresented again this year. I don’t see any writers of Arab ancestry on the ballot, currently about 1% of the US population and 6% of the EU population.

A rough breakdown by genre looks like 10 (42%) works of science fiction, 12 (50%) works of fantasy and 2 (8%) hard to classify/sort of alternate reality. Three were military SF and maybe 2 to 3 would qualify as hard SF. Nine of the works (37.5%) would likely qualify as “own voices” where the writer presents a viewpoint from his or her particular ethnic background. Interestingly, I’m wondering if this trend in the marketplace may have encouraged Jewish writers to feature their ethnic backgrounds more prominently.

There was also pretty decent variety in the themes and devices this year, although these seemed to me a bit too predictable. Four out of six of the short story finalists (17% of the total), for example, used endangered children as a device to create emotional content. Eight of the works (30%) used threat of climate change or environmental poisoning as a device to create conflict. Five of the works (21%) included gender, sexual orientation or sexual abuse as devices to create progressive content. There were also a couple of folks who used the same basic plot lines, or plot lines similar to recent winners. I’ll get to that comparison in future blogs.

As far as quality goes, these are generally well-written stories with the standard devices, plot lines and themes meant to appeal to the writer’s particular audience. I don’t think anyone could point out that indy or traditionally published works, for example, were any worse or better than others. The increase in military and hard SF over recent years has reduced the amount of “literary” work on the list, but that just reflects the current makeup of the SFWA organization. I do think some of the works could have used an editorial reality-check, but that’s not a problem you can pin down to any one particular group.

Review of Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

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This novel is science fiction and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It runs 325 pages and was published by Ecco/Orbit. This review contains spoilers.

Qaanaaq is a city resting on a grid platform inside the Arctic Circle, built by a group of investors called shareholders. Because of an influx of refugees from climate-damaged countries, there is now an acute housing crisis, rising crime syndicates, a huge gap between rich and poor and a spreading epidemic of illness called the “breaks” caused by nanites. A woman named Masaaraq arrives, bonded to an orca and accompanied by a caged polar bear. She brings together a group of diverse characters who didn’t know they were family in order to rescue her lover Ora, a subversive imprisoned in the Cabinet. These are Kaev, a cage/beam fighter; Ankit, an administrator for the city manager; Soq, a slide messenger, and Go, a female crime boss. Can they deal with shareholder Martin Podlove and his grandson Fill to resolve any of the city’s problems? Can they come up with a workable plan to get Ora out?

On the positive side, this is a well-imagined future-tech scenario with an idealistic, come-together theme. The nanites were originally intended for bonding, but when the host remains unbonded, they cause mental deficiency and an eventually fatal mental illness. The cure is to bond with other people or with harmonious animals like the orca, the bear or Ankit’s monkey. The scenario also features the results of climate change and an indictment of power structures including wealthy shareholders, city government and crime syndicates. In this case, the city manager is a helpless civil servant manipulated by others who can’t deal with the problems and is mostly concerned with reassuring the population and winning reelection. There’s gender diversity here and the story includes gay sex, something that seems unusual in mainstream publishing and lists of awards finalists.

On the less positive side, this was another long, slow development and the characters never quite catch fire. Masaaraq’s arrival provides a spark of interest in the action line, but then she drops into obscurity. There isn’t really any further development in events until about half way through when Soq and Fill meet, and then Fill becomes a sacrifice to Martin’s past dealings. This story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, as it’s hard to believe Masaarq, armed with her primitive halberd, is superhumanly successful in battles within the high-tech city. It’s also hard to believe this motley group can carry out a successful assault on the well-protected Cabinet. I know it’s all about the idealism and the symbolism, but I wasn’t pleased with the ending, either. Does this group think they’ll be any less corrupt than the previous owners of the city?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. It is alternate history/fantasy and was published in the collection An Agent of Utopia, released by Small Beer Press. Duncan won a Nebula in 2012 for the novelette “Close Encounters.” Full disclosure: Duncan is a member of the Board of Directors of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Thomas More has been arrested for treason against King Henry VIII and imprisoned. Aliquo, an agent of Utopia, arrives in the city of London and arranges with the gaoler to meet with More, offers him assistance in escaping the king’s anger. More, who is intent on self-flagellation, refuses. He is tried, sentenced and executed. Afterward, his head is displayed on a pike on London Bridge. Aliquo is then approached by More’s daughter Margaret to steal the head away so she can bury it respectfully. Can Aliquo accomplish this task for her?

This starts off with a lot of potential. More is a historical figure and the story follows the history faithfully, including the part where More’s daughter Margaret is thought responsible for the theft of More’s head from London Bridge. Aliquo is a great addition to the plot, a romantic figure out of More’s best-known and most controversial literary work. The character seems quite taken by Margaret, and either possesses supernatural powers or else is the resident James Bond, ready to accomplish prison breaks and master thefts at will. The narrative is written in the language of the day, and there is some very nice imagery in the description of the city and the characters.

On the not so great side, this seems to lose its way as we get further along, as if Duncan lost confidence in his plot and his characters. He never follows up on the interesting connection to Utopia, sticking with events in London instead. The plot drifts off toward horror, as Aliquo becomes haunted by More’s voice. Why? Then there’s a postscript where Aliquo turns out to be a woman in disguise and writes a denunciation of abuses in her homeland. I guess this is supposed to be a twist ending, but it just looks like a different story to me, that got pasted on here by accident. Is the diatribe to make it more politically correct?

Two and a half stars for failure to make good sense.

Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

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