Review of Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s historical urban fantasy and was published by Tor.com Publishing.

The venue is San Francisco. Helen Young, an elderly woman who knows her end is near, takes a cab to one of her properties and removes a carefully preserved pastel from its hiding place in the basement. This is a hitherto unknown drawing from the pulp artist Haskel, and Young sells it to a dealer. We cut to 1940s San Francisco, where Young and the bisexual Loretta Haskel are friends. They go out to a queer club and Haskel discovers Emily, who sings under the stage name Spike. Emily ends up needing a place to stay for the night and Haskel offers her apartment. The two of them hit it off and start a tender romance, but then Haskel’s long-lost husband reappears, drunk, abusive and demanding money. Can Haskel and Emily find a way to be together? We return to the dealer at the end to find out the answer.

This is a sweet love story. Haskel and Emily end up sacrificing a lot to have the lives they want, mainly because of the discriminatory laws of the time period. These sound really strange today. For example, some of their lesbian friends were arrested for not wearing the required three items of women’s attire. The characters are well-rounded and the pre-WWII setting well developed. We end up with a compelling picture of the women’s lives and how they deal with living on the fringe.

On the negative side, this is a fairly mundane read, more historical than fantasy. The conflict is also fairly ordinary, where the two women end up threatened by the laws and the difficulties inherent in dealing with abusive ex-spouses. The magic seems forced and extraneous, even though it needs to be integral in order for the story to really work. The ending was also very easy to predict. Although I appreciated the characters, I didn’t really connect.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse

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This story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards and was published in Apex Magazine. Roanhorse is biracial Native American and African American and lives in New Mexico. This review contains spoilers.

Jesse Turnblatt is a Native American working at a business that provides “authentic” Native American experiences to tourists through virtual reality. His boss isn’t really concerned about how his employees feel about the offerings, but Jesse really needs to keep his job, as a recent bout of unemployment has strained his marriage. Luckily, most people just want a simple Vision Quest. Jesse has a customer, so he enters virtual reality, presenting himself as a noble savage with muscled abs, and goes into his routine. However, this doesn’t seem to be what the customer wants. Instead, the man is waiting for him at the neighborhood bar afterward. The man looks white, but thinks he’s part Cherokee, and just seems to want to talk about Native Americans. They become friends, meeting a couple of times a week at the bar to talk. Then Jesse catches cold, and when he recovers, he finds “White Wolf” has taken over his job, his friends and his household. Jesse falls into depression, goes on a bender. Is there anything he can do about this?

So, the big question here is about what’s reality and what’s not. It might be hard to figure out, but Roanhorse has given us plenty of clues: a quote from Sherman Alexie at the beginning and a disconnect at the end that suggests it’s VR. But then, it’s the author’s reality, too. You can read this as fantasy, if you want, as reality that’s suddenly dropped into surrealism, or as SF, where it’s all just a virtual reality experience. Whichever, Roanhorse’s message is clear.

Good points: It’s very well constructed, and the meaning slips up on you gradually. There’s a feeling of foreboding about it when Jesse starts meeting the guy in the bar, so you suspect things aren’t going to go well.

Not so good points: This is a social justice message, but the narrative seems mainly intellectual, and it only skims along the surface. It’s not deep or disturbing enough to represent the disadvantages Native Americans actually face (or worse, have faced in the past). Roanhorse let us off the hook at the end.

Four stars.

Review of “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards, and was published in Uncanny Magazine.

The doorperson takes the dime of curious patrons. If she determines you are worthy, she will tell you how to open the panel and let you have a look and a souvenir. Past the Entrance is A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed, A Radium Room, A Room of Objects That Are Really People, Our Curator’s Special Collection, A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp, The Hall of Criminals and Saints and then the Exit. Can you get out of the exhibit whole and in once piece?

Nothing is clear in this story. The scenario sounds like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the bizarre and unusual. There are whispers and giggles in the shadows, a few clues in the narrator’s account. She isn’t especially reliable, but we gather that the curator is missing and the freaks are now running the show and looking for revenge. Enter at your own risk.

Good points: I would guess this falls into the category of experimental lit. You have to study it, something like a puzzle, to put together things like comments about beautiful hands, sticky carpets and the taste of brine. It’s also very surreal and atmospheric, the prose creating images and sensory experiences something like an art installation.

Not so good point: This is pretty much just an experience, like an art installation. There’s not really a story here—no characterization, no setting, no plot, no conflict—only revelation. Because of the puzzle quality, it’s pretty opaque, too. There are a couple of events/situations in there that I can guarantee as pretty likely, but I’m not really sure.

Most likely appreciated by literary horror fans.

Three stars. It’s very literary, but I can’t recommend it as a story.

Review of “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Zee has a silver key in her back that the maker uses to wind her up every day. She has a strong mainspring and so a lot of energy. She lives in Closet City with her Papa, who never has any turns left over for adventure because he works so hard to help Granny and Gramps. When the carnival comes to town, Zee meets a carny boy named Vale. On her 200th day, she gets adult limbs and new paint on her face, and soon afterward Granny and Gramps wind down for the last time and are recycled. Since her Papa has only himself to take care of now, she leaves with Vale on carnival train 9 to make a life for herself as a carny. The two of them build a child they name Mattan, but the boy has a weak mainspring. Vale refuses to accept the child’s disability, so Zee takes Mattan back to her Papa in Closet City. Can she find a way to support her special needs child?

Good points: This is a very creative idea. I’m visualizing a toymaker somewhere with a whole village of windup dolls and model trains. The story, of course, takes us into the life of the dolls, limited as it is by the number of turns their mainsprings will hold. It has an inspiring message, as Zee gives up her dreams to care for her disabled child.

Not so good points: The world building here is limited, and I don’t end up with much of an idea of what the setting looks like. I gather there are carnivals on at least nine trains, houses for the dolls and recycling centers. Because of the limited background, the characters also tend to be flat. Mattan, especially has little personality because of his disability. Winding down is fairly matter-of-fact, and there’s not much investigation of the emotional issues behind the characters’ actions. True, these are dolls, but I’d like to understand their motivations, regardless.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Wrap Your Body in Time by David Neil Drews

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This is a first novel, self-published in October of 2017, and runs about 750 pages. David Drews is a Jewish writer and suffers from multiple identity disorder.

Arron has esophageal cancer. He has watched his dad die slowly of chemotherapy and makes the decision to refuse it. Instead, he sets out to really live in the time he’s got left, to exercise, to see the world, to enjoy friends and family—and to deal with the ghost of his abusive father. On the journey he meets his schizophrenic grandfather, finds a potential wife. Can Aaron defeat his own demons before he reaches the end of his road?

This is a pretty sweeping novel that chronicles the bout with cancer on the one hand, while providing human interest through absorbing characters on the other. It didn’t have much of a hook, but by chapter 2 when we got the cancer diagnosis, the book had hit its stride. There’s a touch of magical realism here, including chatty animals and the various ghosts that lurk about. There’s a sort of wry humor that runs through it, and a lot of play-by-play for sports fans.

Four and a half stars.

Thoughts on the 2017 World Fantasy Awards

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I’ve pretty much finished all the reviews of the World Fantasy Awards fiction nominees. I’m not going to look at the collections, so it’s time for a wrap up of what I thought.

What really jumps out is the considerable overlap this list has with other major SFF awards, especially the Hugos. In order to complete reviews of the whole World Fantasy list, I had to read 2 novels out of 5 nominees, 1 long fiction out of 5 and 3 short stories out of 5. All the others I had already reviewed as part of either the Nebula or the Hugo Awards. This makes my reviewing job easier, but again, it points out the inbred nature of the SFF awards and the lack of diversity in sources the works are drawn from.

Speaking of diversity, this list is notable for leaning heavily to black and white nominees and totally shutting out both Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. Counting up the ethnicity, it looks like there were three black authors out of fifteen or 20% of the nominees, which well beats the approximately 12% African American population demographic in the US. The list gets extra diversity points for having one nominee of Arab descent, but Arabs are currently designated white in the US.

There are a couple of folks who are LGBTQ and advertize disability diagnoses. Again, the absence of Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native Americans could have to do with the lack of diversity in sources the fantasy audience draws from. Gender breakdown was 4 women to one man in the novel category, 2 women to 3 men in the long fiction category and 5 women to 0 men in the short fiction category. This adds up to 10 women to 5 men, following the current trend to strongly favor women writers in the awards nominations. There was also fair diversity of publishers except in the long-fiction category, where Tor.com published 4 out of 5 of the nominees.

I’ve already reviewed each of the works for quality, content and logical coherence. All of these were well written, with a few real standouts. I don’t have any complaints about the winners. They were first class in all categories. I did note some strong political messages in some of the works. This is a troubling issue. Doesn’t it affect readability when the author’s political views are so obviously promoted that they take over the story?

Again, many congratulations to the World Fantasy Winners!

Review of Roadsouls by Betsy James

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This novel was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and reads like young adult. It’s published by Aqueduct and runs 338 pages. The following may include spoilers.

Duuni is betrothed to a man who has previously abused her and already taken her mother to wife. She rebels and is sentenced to public beating. She escapes and is taken by the Roadsouls. Raim is a hunter and weaver blinded in an accident of overconfidence. In is anger, he refuses anyone’s help and runs away from his family. He is taken by the Roadsouls. The caravan travels from place to place, picking up abandoned children, and supports itself by performing at country fairs while Duuni and Raim face hazards along the road. Can they accept one another and find sanctuary?

Good points: This starts off to be really promising. I love stories about people who are down and out and overcome their disabilities through courage and determination, and this had that feel. The characters and the world are very well drawn with the countryside laid out around a central holy mountain. It’s settled by diverse people with different languages and beliefs, and there’s at least a suggestion of how the economy works. This includes what is likely a good description of a factory at the turn of the 20th century—a reminder of why we have unions and child labor laws. Many people are also going to like this because it’s about rape culture and finding safe spaces in a dangerous world.

Not so good points: It’s a long list. First, there’s not really any fantasy here. There’s no magic other than maybe an imaginary lion that Duuni thinks follows her around. Then it turns out to be about victims and predators. Although warned against it, Duuni and Raim repeatedly go off by themselves, act like victims and get captured and mistreated by bad people. The plot is forced and there are logical failings, especially toward the end, where Amu comes back to the factory where he has sold Raim as a laborer, allowing himself to be killed. He really didn’t need Raim for what he was planning. Miraculously, there’s no pursuit after Raim and Ratling escape and are rescued again by the Roadsouls. This feels anti-capitalist, as factories and “paidmen” are bad elements, while the sanctuaries are communes of artisans and wild children with not much visible means of support. I also gather this is about consent, as Duuni repeatedly makes love with Raim and then says no at the last minute. He waits patiently while she overcomes her fears because he loves her. At the end of the book, he’s still waiting. Everybody robs the dead here. There’s no respect on either side.

Two and a half stars because of the logical failings.

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