Review of The Lost Sisters by Holly Black

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This e-novella is a companion piece for the Folk of the Air trilogy, a look at The Cruel Prince’s story from Taryn’s viewpoint. The e-file also contains a one-chapter intro to The Wicked King. This was published by Little Brown in October of 2018, and runs 50 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This is basically a short recap of the first book, written in second person (you), and addressing Taryn’s twin sister Jude. It features Black’s lyrical style and flow, and investigates the cruel interpersonal relations that go on between the Folk of Faerie and the mortal Taryn and her sister. There is also some introductory commentary about traditional fairy tales and how they discriminate against women in the realms of power.

Clearly this was meant as a marketing tool for the next installment of the main series, but it may have also been meant to give life to Taryn’s character—the first person structure of the Folk of the Air trilogy means we always see others from Jude’s perspective, and the other characters remain a little flat. However, if this was the purpose, it didn’t work very well. This ends up sounding mostly like an apology from Taryn for bowing to circumstances and not being there for her sister when Jude tries to fight back. In this narrative, Taryn comes off like a whiny victim who never manages to take control of her own life, falls for a clearly duplicitous guy, makes a poor marriage, and then constantly apologizes for being what she is. Part of Black’s intent may be to set up Taryn as Jude’s foil just to illustrate the contrast between the fighter and the victim mentality. Neither of the two is particularly likable, and neither is completely successful in trying to deal with the system. However, the idea that the characters (twins) might be laying out two paths for the same person is interesting.

Besides this, I have to hand it to Black for taking on the issue of submission. A big chunk of media these days is pushing girls to take charge, but nobody is presenting the real-world challenges. We’re seeing some of it here. Jude fights her way to the top, but struggles because she hasn’t the skills to make alliances and wield power. Meanwhile, Taryn tries to blend and take a traditional role, but then turns out to be boring to a dismissive, two-faced husband.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

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The Queen of Nothing is the third novel in the Folk of the Air series, preceded by The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King to complete a three-novel set. The Queen of Nothing was published by Little Brown in November of 2019, and runs 320 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Jude had been banished by the High King to the mortal world for her murder of Prince Balekin. She is living with her sister Vivi, Vivi’s girlfriend Heather and her brother Oak in Heather’s apartment, and makes money to help with the rent by hiring out as an errand-girl for a local faery. She accepts a job and ends up fighting a duel with Grima Mog, Redcap general of the Court of Teeth, who then reveals a plot to dethrone the King of Elfhame. Soon after, Jude’s twin sister Taryn arrives. She reveals she has killed her husband Locke, and she wants Jude to stand in for her at the inquest so she can use her resistance to glamour in order to lie. Jude agrees, and disguised as Taryn, she re-enters Elfhame. The inquest seems to go well until Nicasea insists Taryn be searched for a charm, and King Carden offers to examine Taryn himself. Once they are alone, he reveals he knows who she is. Madoc attacks the palace, attempting to rescue Taryn, and captures Jude. She wakes in Madoc’s war camp, where she continues to pretend she is Taryn and learns about the plot to remove the High King. When Madoc’s forces arrive at the palace to capture the crown, Carden destroys it and then turns into a monstrous serpent that defiles anything it touches. Is there anything Jude can do to save the kingdom and claim her rights as Queen of Elfhame?

My first impulse that this is an allegory for high school turns out to be correct. Jude and Taryn are Average Kids trying to enter a clique of the Right People. Nicisea is the Mean Girl, Locke is the Gamer, and Carden is the abused child who grows up to be a monster that Jude tries to salvage. Jude continues to fight her way through everything, while her twin Taryn tries to blend. At the end, everybody ends up getting pizza together at the local shop. On top of this, author Black spins the surface story of Faerie and the scheming around succession to the throne. In general this works well, and the story manages to be entertaining on both levels. It continues the theme of fighting for power versus submission to the system, and Jude continues to fail in her struggle to deal with a powerful position. Black’s trademark style is fairly lyrical and this is strongly plotted, if a little abrupt sometimes and short on transitions.

On the less positive side, the surface story seems to be wearing a little thin toward the finale as the allegory starts pulling the strings. Jude constantly overestimates her abilities, takes on more than she can handle and then despairs—after a while, she ought to know better. Maybe the constant murders are an allegory for “cutting people dead,” but the high attrition rate continues to be worrisome. Also, it would be nice if Jude and Carden would just talk. A little bit of communication would go a long way in resolving the issues between them. Instead, Jude remains defensive and suspicious, refusing to recognize that it’s about anything but Jude. As far as I can tell, she never grows much as a person, always grandstanding solo rather than taking the reins of power and working within the structure that should be in place to defend the king and the kingdom. I’m wondering why so much space is used up by descriptions of women’s gowns, and also why everyone uses just swords and knives. Maybe there’s some magic in Faerie that prevents the use of firearms, but in the mortal world, why does Jude still show up for a fight with just a knife? There are other ways, dear.

This is a good story, regardless of the niggles. Highly recommended for young adult.

Four stars.

Review of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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I reviewed The Wicked King, second in this Folk of the Air series, which won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2019, but thought it would probably help if I’d read the first book in the series, too. The Queen of Nothing completes the three-novel set. This novel was published by Little Brown in 2018, and runs 385 pages. Apparently it was optioned for a film in 2017. This review contains spoilers.

Jude’s mother was a mortal married to Madoc, a general of the High King of Faerie. She had one daughter Vivienne with him, and then ran away with a human artisan to the human world, where they had two more daughters. Madoc followed them, killed Jude’s mortal parents and spirited the girls away to raise with his new wife and son Oak. At seventeen, Jude wants desperately to fit in, but she is tortured by the young fay of her social circle, especially the cruel Prince Cardan, youngest son of the High King. Although her twin sister Taryn yields to the abuse and finds a place, Jude remains defiant, determined to win some kind of power to make her tormentors sorry. She schemes and intrigues, allying with Prince Dain, who is expected to succeed the High King, but then the coronation goes wrong, leaving the kingdom on the verge of civil war. Can she come up with a plan to save her family and make peace in the kingdom?

This is a pretty awesome intrigue, strongly suggesting the author had a tough time in high school. The story starts off with a bullying episode and gets successively more gripping as it goes along. Nothing and no one is what they seem, and all the characters are gray, rather than black and white. The Faerie are all cruel and hungry, but they love each other, too, and they fear loss. The characters take on dimension slowly as the tale progresses, as Jude fights her way through the love, hate and ambition, trying at first to achieve something for herself, and then once things go wrong, to save the people she loves. The Faerie kingdom and its rules are well-laid out, and now and then Jude slips back into the mortal world with her fay sister Vivi to shop at Target.

It’s hard to find anything really wrong with this. Considering the setting, I did start to suspect the characters were two-sided early on, so it wasn’t really a surprise when they showed a different face. One questionable issue here is what Jude is turning into—maybe becoming just as cruel, evil and calculating as the fay? She’s been cursed, so we’ll have to see how it turns out.

Five stars.

I’m going on to review the Queen of Nothing. If you’d like to read my review of The Wicked King, here’s a link to it.

Statement from SFWA on Black Lives Matter and Protests

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The SFWA issued this statement after the recent protests. I thought it bears reblogging:

“We give lip service to acceptance, as though acceptance were enough.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

People ask how worlds like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower can exist. It happens through the slow creep of power aided by the complacency of those shielded by their position in society.

It is not enough to have an anti-harassment policy and call that good. We must work for equity and diversity to make sure that underrepresented voices are heard, to increase inclusion in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, in the larger ecosystem of publishing, in our writing community, and in life.

We support Black Lives Matter and the protesters who are seeking justice for centuries of white supremacy and police brutality.

We acknowledge that SFWA has historically ignored and, in too many instances, reinforced the injustices, systemic barriers, and unaddressed racism, particularly toward Black people, that have contributed to this moment. We have allowed those who spoke for change in SFWA to be drowned out by those who clung to the status quo. We have a responsibility to admit our failings and to continually commit to dismantling these oppressive and harmful systems, both within this organization and ourselves.

“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”

― N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became

These are the actions that SFWA is taking as first steps to clean our own house and work towards making our community safer for Black writers.

For the month of June, 100% of registrations for the Nebula Convention content will go directly to the Carl Brandon Society and the Black Speculative Fiction Society.

We are creating a matching program for the Nebula convention so that each registration purchased this month creates a seat for a Black writer.

For the next year, we are waiving fees for SFWA membership for Black writers.

We are waiving registration fees for next year’s Nebula conference attendance for Black writers.

We are creating a travel fund to help defer the costs of Black writers attending the Nebula conference

We are committing to reaching out to Black-led science fiction and fantasy organizations about applying for the additional grant money that we have available.

For those who wish to learn more about what you can do to help, here is a list of resources:

An Antiracist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi

We Need Diverse Books Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion

Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (from ALA’s Public Programming Office’s Great Stories Club)

List of Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners (books for children and young adults)

People of Color in Publishing

Many of us are feeling helpless in the face of racist terror, but there are ways for all of us to do our part with the time, money, and resources we have available. Our choices matter now more than ever. What we know from writing science fiction and fantasy is that the present we find ourselves in was avoidable but our nation chose not to avoid it. We can still choose a just and equal future, if we work together as a community to dismantle white supremacy.

If you wish to donate to organizations or causes, Black Lives Matter has curated a list of organizations that could use your support. In addition to those, these groups are part of the science fiction and fantasy community.

Black Science Fiction Society

FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

Carl Brandon Society

Black Tribbles

People of Color in Publishing

I Need Diverse Games

We Need Diverse Books

Let us know about additional resources that we can add to these lists.

Unanimously signed,

The Board of Directors of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

Congrats to the 2019 Nebula Winners!

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The Nebula Conference was virtual this year, but here are the fiction awards announced on May 30:

Best Novel : A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Best Novella: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)

Best Novelette: Carpe Glitter by Cat Rambo (Meerkat)

Best Short Story: “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)

Additional awards:

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Riverland by Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing: The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Good Omens: “Hard Times” by Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)

Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award: Lois McMaster Bujold

Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews

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That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor/Titan on 12 February 2019 and runs 348 pages. This review contains spoilers.

January is a tidally locked planet, in a synchronous rotational orbit around its sun. That means it’s divided into dark and light, a permanently frozen darkness on one side and deadly, scalding sunshine on the other. Human colonists have built two main settlements in the twilight zone in between. Xiosphant is authoritarian and highly regimented, a system that curtails individual freedoms but provides for all. Argelo is a free-wheeling party city, ruled by competing aristocratic families, and if you’re not well-connected, you starve. Sophie is a working-class student with a scholarship to the prestigious Gymnasium in the city of Xiosphant, sleepmates with her upper-class friend Bianca. Mouth is possibly the last survivor of the nomad group Citizens, who normally works as a smuggler between the two cities, and sleepmates with co-worker Alyssa. Bianca is a student subversive, working toward the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Xiosphant. When she casually steals food chits, Sophie steps in to take the fall for her and is exiled from the city. She is rescued by the Gelet, mysterious native creatures that are often hunted for meat. She sneaks back into the city and hides out, finding a job in a coffee house. Bianca, thinking her dead, moves further into subversive activities, and her group starts planning a revolution. Conditions outside the cities are worsening, and after a tough run, Mouth and Alyssa are in Xiosphant. Hearing about a Citizens artifact stored in the palace, Mouth joins the revolution to get in, but escapes as the rebellion goes bad. Her group flees and takes Bianca and Sophie with them to Argelo. Bianca establishes herself quickly in Argelo, aligning with the head of a powerful family. Still intent on overthrowing the government of Xiosphant, she plans an invasion. Meanwhile, Sophie’s contacts with the Gelet show that Mouth’s adored Citizens accidently undermined the Gelet’s climate controls that make the Twilight Zone livable, and that both cities are likely doomed as a result. If Bianca can take over the Xiosphanti government, will anything change?

So, this needs a trigger warning for anyone who suffers from depression. It’s a pretty dark work, and it was a hard slog for me to get through it. The sun never shines, and the climate is going from bad to worse. Poor Sophie starts off naive and does her best. She tries to love Bianca, and to mediate between humans and Gelet, all without much success. The theme is clearly stated: the failure of grand ideas. The students start off thinking they will change things for the better, but all their efforts are wasted. Bianca leaves a trail of death and destruction behind her, and when she takes over the government, she becomes just what they’ve hated all these years. There’s also an interesting symbolism set up with the dark and light, and the population living in the gray area in between. The City in the Middle of the Night is the Gelet city, mostly underground, where Sophie is transformed to something half Gelet and half human.

On the less positive side, this has readability issues because of the depressive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a little messy. The theme is supported very clearly through both action and pronouncements, but there are also a lot of other things going on that are less clear. One issue is Mouth’s devotion to the Citizens, who all died and left her, and how this turns to ash when she finds out more about them. Another is the presence of the Gelet, who have to represent another way of doing things, but this remains unclear. Another issue is the folk living outside the cities, the smugglers and salvage operators, and the horrific creatures that kill them off in the wastelands. And last, Sophie is transforming to an alien. Maybe this is actually about midlife crisis?

Anders is a little older than I thought, actually Gen X instead of Millennial, and if we’re going to pick out important works as part of the awards process, then this is it, a warning to all those idealistic young kids who think they can change the world and not become corrupted themselves. There’s also a message here about the results of party city versus working hard.

Five stars.

Review of The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga/Angry Robot on 19 March 2019 and runs 369 pages. The novel is an expansion of the author’s short story “The Light Brigade” published by Lightspeed in November 2015. This novel is not appropriate for children, and it gets a trigger warning for adults, too, as it includes graphic descriptions of death in a war. This review contains spoilers.

After São Paulo is depopulated by the Blink, Dietz wants to be a hero. She signs up for the Corporate Corps to fight against the Communist Martians that everybody knows are responsible. She goes through basic training and then is deployed on missions with a technology that breaks combat grunts down into particles of light and reassembled them somewhere else. However, for some soldiers this light-speed travel causes time glitches. Dietz experiences the war in a jumble of out-of-sync missions, but keeps her mouth shut about it because of rumors people who talk about things like that disappear. After a while, the jumble of missions starts to assemble into a picture that causes Dietz to question the very basis of the war. Is there anything she can do about it?

First the literary allusions: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854 about the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here’s a short sample: “Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” Besides this, the transport technology strongly suggests Star Trek.

This novel is another in the recent trend to surrealist writing, and the accomplishment is fairly impressive. The main theme seems to be how easy it is to believe in lies and never think for yourself, and the story also functions as an anti-war screed. There is a definite plot, but it’s jumbled because of the time glitches and has to be assembled by the reader (you might want to take notes). Next, it seems Hurley has read Marx, who predicts that the end game of Capitalism is a small number of huge, wealthy and powerful corporations that ruthlessly fight to eliminate the competition. Hence the corporate wars in this novel. The Big Six are pitted against one another, and will commit any atrocity to win. While the rich corporates get richer, the poor are dying in the ruins. The Martian resistance is the Marxist revolution. We don’t get a clear picture of how these rebels carry on their business, but they are presented as living free lives and are labeled by the corporate leaders as dangerous Communists who threaten an important way of life.

On the less positive side, the author’s tool for creating impact includes constant graphic descriptions of violent death and dismemberment. Just be warned—I flinched at the first few incidents, but after a while I got desensitized and just plowed through the carnage. Next, the book makes an excellent case against the dangers of uncontrolled Capitalism, but suggesting that Communism is a simple, easy answer to the problems is another lie. Economists know that neither system is a panacea, and the best solution is a middle ground that stimulates enterprise while still providing opportunity for all. The important issue becomes how to provide that, especially for vulnerable members of the population. And one last annoyance: this is written in first person, and Dietz remains ungendered through the whole book until a friend calls her by her first name on page 351. Please, either let us know about gender early on or else let the protagonist remain ungendered. This device is clearly meant to be a gotcha, and it is not a twist ending.

Four stars.

Review of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

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This science fiction/fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 7 May 2019 and runs 492 pages. Interestingly, McGuire says she tried to sell this book on spec, but couldn’t explain it to anybody, so had to write it to make the whole thing clear. This review contains spoilers.

Roger and Dodger are twin geniuses adopted by parents who live on different coasts. Roger’s talent is language, and Dodger’s is math. The children are quantum entangled, so by an early age, they’ve found they can talk to each other inside their heads. It’s fun to have an imaginary friend that will talk back to you, but when Roger mentions Dodger, a scary woman comes to the house and threatens to take him away from his parents. This is Leigh Barrow, an evil assistant to evil alchemist James Reed, who is churning out genetically engineering pairs of children in an attempt to achieve the Doctrine of Ethos and the Impossible City through a guide laid out in the children’s book Over the Woodward Wall by his creator A. Deborah Baker. Terrified, Roger withdraws from his interactions with Dodger, but later he actually meets her at a chess tournament. They somehow both end up attending Berkeley, and soon start to realize they’re really brother and sister and a possibly dangerous combination. Meanwhile, Reed is getting impatient with their slow development and thinks he has achieved a more promising and tractable pair of children. In order for that pair to fully mature, he needs to get rid of Roger and Dodger. Can they defeat him and his evil minions? And then what?

First some background: Middlegame in chess is the part of the game in between the opening and the endgame. The Doctrine of Ethos, defined by Pythagoras, is about balance, especially between language and mathematics. At the time this book was published, Over the Woodward Wall did not exist, but it is now a novella scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020, by Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker. In Middlegame, McGuire describes Baker as “the greatest alchemist in North America, spreading her calm propaganda masked as fantasy.” It’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek glimpse of the author.

The best part of this story is the developing lifetime relationship between Roger, Dodger, their parents and friends. The characterizations, for the most part, are excellent, and we feel the children’s pain of separation and loneliness as bright children, especially Dodger, who is the math genius. The author lives in the San Francisco Bay area, so we get detailed descriptions of the setting where most of the story takes place. I’ve encountered the themes and devices used here elsewhere over the last couple of years, but this is definitely a creative synthesis of what’s out there.

On the less positive side, this could be considered a thriller, but there’s not that much to the plot, and at 492 pages, it moves very slowly. The first couple of hundred pages were gripping, but I was tired before we got to the end. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the timeline changes a couple of times, so you have to accept that events are not immutable. Luckily, the pivotal events seem to be fairly enduring. The novel is a tour-de-force as far as symbolic construction goes, but eventually I think it got stuffed a little too full of themes and ideas, where the asides start to distract from the main storyline. Reed, Barrow and the association of alchemists are only sketched in, when they might have been used to provide a stronger power struggle underlying the story. The pathway supposedly outlined in the children’s story remains totally vague, and the absurdist references to this eventually detract from the seriousness of the story. There’s a lot here, from advice to bright children, to finding balance, to maintaining your own ethics, to fighting evil, to understanding what to do with power. Although it has a science fictional framework, the inclusion of undefined alchemy and the powers granted by achieving the Doctrine of Ethos give it a strong fantasy feel.

Four and a half stars.

Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards, a stand-alone novel written in the universe of the Wayfarer series. It was published 3 September 2019 by Harper Voyager/Hodder & Stoughton and is billed as 176 pages, but it looks more like 136 in the ebook. There’s an extensive acknowledgement section and “exclusive content” at the end that is an interview Chambers conducted with her (mom) science consultant, Nikki Chambers, an astrobiology researcher and educator in Southern California, that makes up the rest of the advertised length.

It’s the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is part of the Lawki 6 team sent to explore exoplanets. The team has an assigned itinerary, and spends the time between arrivals in torpor storage where they are adaptively somatoformed so they can move freely on each particular world. Aecor has an ice crust with phosphorescent creatures that live under the ice. Mirabilis is a riot of life. Opera is terrible, fraught with storms that ultimately prevent them leaving the ship. Votum is tidally locked and at first appears deserted, but they find caves that hold secrets. Somewhere along the way Lawki 6 has stopped receiving bulletins from Earth. The team receives a final transmission from Lawki 5, damaged and attempting to land on Earth, but then nothing else. Is there any reason to continue their mission?

For anyone who’s wondering, this title is from a quote by UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim, 1977, recorded on the Voyager Golden Record as a message to any sentients who might intercept the interstellar probe.

I’d rate this story moderately high on the hardness scale because of the projections and the amount of real science that’s included, and as is usual with Chambers’ work, this contains a pretty big emotional wallop. The characters include two men and two women, with one of the men maybe trans, but this is only hinted and remains respectfully private and unclear. All characters are appealing and they respect each other, getting along with a minimum of conflict. The group is immersed in work they love and they experience the joy of discovery, but the mission turns dark when they start to suspect something bad has gone wrong on Earth. Besides this, Chambers engineers traumatic events in the mission that strongly affect the team members’ mental health.

On the less positive side, this probably needs a trigger warning because of its representation of murder, depression and attempted suicide. I would also have liked to read more on the ethics of killing aliens. The issue is given as cut and dried here, but it looks like a huge philosophical problem to me. The story also leaves us with an inconclusive ending. In the scenario provided, there’s no way around the team being stuck. It looks like a return to Earth might be a poor idea. They could extend their mission, but eventually they will run out of fuel. This raises the question of how they’re getting around. I’m just not sure the technology for a mission like this would be based on fuel that runs out. Shouldn’t the ship be at least nuclear powered?

Four stars.

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