Review of The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is alternate history/fantasy, runs 108 pages and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Creeper is an orphan, thirteen years old, and sleeps in an alcove off an alleyway in the free city of New Orleans. Her space is invaded by conspirators that talk about a Confederate plot to kidnap a Haitian scientist from the Free Isles and obtain his terrible storm weapon The Black God’s Drums. Creeper decides to use this knowledge to negotiate a position as crew with Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine of the Midnight Robber airship from the Free Isles. She locates the captain in Madam Diouf’s brothel and climbs in the window to make her offer. The captain is skeptical, but goes along with Creeper to investigate the plot. It turns out to be all too real, and New Orleans in Matti Grà is in danger of being destroyed. With the help of the orishas, can Creeper and Ann-Marie save the city?

This is a great little adventure story with the feel of young adult. The alternate history scenario is that the Union and the Confederacy signed a series of armistices but are now separate nations and are still technically at war. Slavery is legal in the Confederate states, where the slaves are drugged to keep them compliant. The Haitian Revolution was very successful and led to establishment of the Free Isles in the Caribbean, and New Orleans remains neutral ground. Both Creeper and Ann-Marie have Afrikan orisha goddesses who look after them, but Ann-Marie needs some help in accepting hers. The characters are entertaining, and have French creole accents. Creeper takes us on a tour of the alternate city, and seems equally comfortable with the Madam, the local nuns and their wild child Féral.

On the not so positive side, the way these goddesses operate was a little confusing. Generally the orisha’s “ride” a person for a particular length of time, but the book explains that isn’t what’s happening here. It seems to be more of a protection relationship. This is also mostly a surface level story without much depth of ideas or meaning. The author does come out strongly in favor of finishing up your schooling before you try to get a job.

One interesting note appears in the acknowledgements: Clark thanks the New Orleans police for the introduction to their great city in a case of ah-hem, mistaken identity. I guess we’re lucky he didn’t get shot.

Four stars.

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Review of Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/space opera and Book 1 of the series The Navy of Humanity: Wasp Squadron. It runs 154 pages, and was published by Semper Fi. This review contains spoilers.

Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay flies a tiny Hummingbird craft and is employed as an exploration pilot by the corporation Hamdani Brothers (HB), which scouts for habitable Alpha worlds and sets wormhole gates. When Floribeth enters the SG-4021 system, she immediately thinks she’s going to get a bonus to send back to her family, but before she can do a detailed assessment of the apparent Alpha world, she is attacked by an unknown spacecraft. There was no gate in this system when she arrived, so that has to be an alien craft. Floribeth fries her AI so she can pilot the craft herself and manages to escape through some fairly reckless flying, then destroys the gate she set behind her. Her managers at HB are not amused. They refuse to believe her story and fine her a huge amount for the lost gate and damage to her Hummingbird’s AI. However, Floribeth is approached by members of the ruling class who are interested in her experience and offer her an opportunity to qualify as a Wasp flyer in the Royal Navy. Can she make the grade?

There was a moment when Floribeth was detained by the HB company that I thought this was going to be a thriller, but Brazee opts for the experiential instead. This has the same warm, positive, you-can-do-it values as other of Brazee’s work I’ve reviewed, and you get to ride along with Floribeth as she outruns the aliens, then proves herself in training and in space battles as a recruit for the Royal Navy–even though she’s unusually tiny and sort of old to be changing careers like that. She has to overcome prejudice from her superiors and fellow flyers because her hasty advancement makes her look like a political appointment. This shakes her confidence a little, but in response she only resolves to work harder. I notice there are a couple more novellas already on Amazon from this series, so I expect there is a certain amount of bad politics in the future that will connect the space battles and keep things going.

On the not so positive side, we get almost nothing about the aliens in this installment and nothing about a possible political opposition that could strengthen the plot. Floribeth has two encounters with the apparent aliens in space, but there’s no description of their craft and their weapons seem to be very similar to the Royal Navy’s. We have no idea what they want, and these still might be renegades of some kind—I’m not totally convinced.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It seems to be absurdist alternate history/horror and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Regan is a Radium Girl. This means she works in a factory where women paint radium onto watch dials to make them visible in the dark. The women use tiny brushes and moisten and point them with their lips. This means Regan has developed terminal cancer from the radiation and her mouth and throat are rotting out. Because the women are dying, management buys up surplus elephants and puts them to work in the factory instead. Regan and an elephant named Topsy communicate in sign language and become friends. Regan is laid off from the factory and sent home to die. Topsy kills one of the staff that abuses her and is sentenced to death by electrocution. Can the two of them get their revenge?

This is a mashup of actual historical events. The Radium Girls and Topsy are both events that look like horror stories to us now. There is also a thread of elephant folklore running through the work and a sequence about a scientist named Kat who wants to use elephants as sentinels to guard nuclear waste sites. This is a very angry piece, as Bolander attacks capitalist owners for the ways they exploit and abuse their workers and pass on public costs like radiation and nuclear waste to the rest of us. (Remember, business regulation by the government is for a reason.) You can also throw animal cruelty in there, too. Bolander has put some imagination into world-building as far as elephant sentience and culture goes, creating a collective voice for the folklore. The different threads are written in different dialects, helping us to keep track. The plot device intended for exacting revenge is also interesting, another example from real past science.

On the not so positive side, this has some issues. The first is readability. The four narrative threads (Kat, Regan, Topsy, folklore) are hard to follow and leave the reader jumping around in time and space—Regan and Topsy are obviously working together, but the folklore traces an apparent history, and Kat seems to live well into their future. Next, there is very little description of the factory, and I’m left wondering how they got the elephants in there to work. Do they sit at long metal tables like the girls, or did the owners build stalls and bring in hay? And last, the ending is a total washout—the story just stops. There are some clues to what happened at the beginning, and about 2/5 of the way through we get an explosion. So, I did a little research on what might be expected to happen here. As Regan walks Topsy to her execution, she passes along a sample of radium in a glass vial that the elephant hides in her mouth. When the electrocution occurs, we’re assuming that expanding gasses within the vial will cause it to explode. I saw a couple of descriptions of this as a nuclear bomb, but that’s bad science. We’re not going to get megatons of explosive power out of a little radium sample—maybe a little pop. Assuming the explosion is enough to shatter an elephant’s jaw, this is likely to be a dirty bomb, dangerous to the poor city sanitation grunts that have to clean up the mess and the innocent kids that use the park every day. It’s more public costs, Brooke. Let’s not advocate for terrorism.

Three and a half stars for the message (minus the revenge part).

Review of “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Tor.com in July of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Saffron is the confection taster for the Regent Searle, serving as a hostage because her husband Danny is currently the Regent’s pastry chef. The Regent has grand dinners where he features the pastries and their magical effects of memory and emotion. Saffron takes her place at the Regent’s side. He seems to be in a good mood tonight, and the guests relax somewhat, expecting the dinner will go well. The first course is the Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth, and Saffron experiences the scene where she met and flirted with Danny for the first time. The memories grow darker as the dinner continues, featuring the agonized death of her sister at the Regent’s command. Is there any way Danny can poison the man and not kill her?

This is written in an artistic, low-key style, where even the descriptions of torture are understated. Saffron experiences bittersweet memories of better days, and of emotional pain, all the while smiling for the Regent and his guests as if nothing touches her. Danny, the unseen consummate artist, orchestrates the leisurely flow of the banquet, bringing it to a well-deserved close. There’s not much plot here, mostly backstory provided by the memory pastries and then a close, but it held my interest. The characters are well-developed, and there are loving descriptions of everything, especially the pastries.

On the less positive side, there’s no suspense here at all, and very little threat to Saffron and Danny expect their positions on the Regent staff—we just read along and the story unfolds. This means it leaves a good feeling, but I don’t think it’s going to be especially memorable except as an art piece.

Four 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.

Review of “The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It is (somewhat) hard science fiction and was published by Future Science Fiction Digest in December of 2018. Full disclosure: Schoen is a member of the Board of Directors of SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

The narrator works for the State Department in Washington D.C. and finds an alien has landed in China near his grandmother’s house. Rushing to her aid, he books a flight to Beijing and then makes his way to the small rural village, forgetting to tell anyone where he is going. The alien’s ship looks like a giant pearl floating in the river. The alien itself seems friendly and has been teaching local children how to make grass float in the air. The narrator introduces himself and offers an exchange of knowledge. The alien, named Foom, is concerned that the narrator is darkened by “unlife” things like synthetic clothing and a cell phone, but the narrator works this out by changing to some of his grandfather’s old clothing. Foom then exchanges knowledge: instruction in Grandmother’s indigo Batik craft for instruction for the narrator in how to change and influence natural things to avoid the environmental damage caused by unlife manufacturing. It turns out Foom intends to release an infertility virus to remove the unlife problem from Earth. What can the narrator do?

On the positive side, this is an interesting reinvention of the hard SF genre, where Schoen uses the standard format to present a message about irresponsible damage to the environment. This is a problem most people never think about, where manufacturing that produces wealth for some is given a free pass to cause public costs for everybody else. In other words, we’re blind to the debit side of the balance sheet where we should be recording damage to resources and poisons in the environment. The plot here is creative, and Grandmother is a wonderful character who makes everybody behave, including Foom.

On the less positive side, Schoen makes no useful suggestions about how we might successfully ditch capitalism and change back to a simpler and safer lifestyle. If he thinks a cottage industry of Batik dyeing is an example of this, then he’s misinformed—indigo is a toxic dye. Next, this story feels really long and slow, and would have been much more entertaining at about half the length. Using Foom for the alien’s name may have been a questionable choice, too. For me, this immediately invoked the evil, shapeshifting dragon lord Fin Fang Foom from Marvel Comics. But then, that creature is an alien, too, so I wonder if Schoen meant to make the connection. And last, isn’t this cultural appropriation?

Three and a half stars.

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