Review of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and was published by Hodder & Stoughton/Harper Voyager. The story falls into Chambers’ Wayfarer series, following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It runs around 358 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After trashing Earth, a group of humans left several centuries ago for interstellar space in an Exodus Fleet of generation ships. They eventually encountered other species and settled planets in the Galactic Commons free market, but some humans still stayed resident in the Fleet, allotted an orbit around a small star. This narrative (including an archive history written by the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan) follows the personal stories of a group of characters on the ship Asteria: Kip, a boy from the Fleet who wants something more; Sawyer, a young man from a planet who wants the security of his family’s roots on the Fleet; Eyas, the ship’s caretaker and composter of human remains; Isabel, the archivist; and Tessa, a young mother and salvage supervisor. Humans are integrating into the Galactic Commons, and these people are all faced with change in the culture that has maintained them for generations aboard the Fleet.

This is what is called a slow burner, as there’s no action line, very little conflict and not even much in the way of events in the first three-quarters of the book. The Fleet community seems to be a Utopian communist co-op, where everyone is guaranteed a home, air, an education and enough to eat, while expected to spend time in working for the common good. Money is not used aboard the ships, and trade is handled through a barter system. This is that safe space everyone is looking for, and the community is warm and welcoming. Asteria does seem to be experiencing a certain amount of stagnation, which is a real issue for societies that fail to balance capitalism and socialism well enough, and everyone has to deal with the austerity. Of course, now they’re now threatened by innovation and the Commons free market, and the question is rising about they can or really need to maintain the insular security of the Fleet any longer. I couldn’t identify anything much of a theme; maybe just the continuance of the human race? Purpose? There are statements, however: 1) All sapients are respected and valued; 2) death is a positive opportunity to recycle people into resources for others; 3) everybody needs to find their purpose; 4) there are givers and takers in the universe; and 5) it’s easy to accidentally destroy a species.

On the not so positive side: This is hard to get into, mainly because of the lack of action and conflict in most of the book; plus, I wasn’t immediately engaged by the characters. The story does offer comments on the human condition, and it gets emotional suddenly in the last quarter. However, I’m suspicious about the Utopian quality of the Fleet culture. The book doesn’t say what they do about mental illness, irresponsible layabouts and criminals in this society, or why there isn’t a huge crush of planetary immigrants seeking welfare—the kind of problems that plague real socialist economies on Earth. Also, I’m wondering how the same people who destroyed Earth would come together to create this utopia within the Fleet, with everybody suddenly cooperating and doing their part and not trashing the ship’s environment.

Four stars.

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Congrats to the 2019 Hugo Finalists

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Here they are. I’ll start reviews right away.

Best Novel
The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Best Novella
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (Tor.com publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Best Novelette
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com, 11 July 2018)
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com publishing)
“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)

Best Short Story
“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Best Series
The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older (Tor.com publishing)
The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross (most recently Tor.com publishing/Orbit)
Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
The October Daye Series, by Seanan McGuire (most recently DAW)
The Universe of Xuya, by Aliette de Bodard (most recently Subterranean Press)
Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)

Best Related Work
Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee (Dey Street Books)
The Hobbit Duology (documentary in three parts), written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan (YouTube)
An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton (Tor)
http://www.mexicanxinitiative.com: The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 (Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, John Picacio)
Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon (Tin House Books)

Best Graphic Story
Abbott, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami Kivelä, colours by Jason Wordie, letters by Jim Campbell (BOOM! Studios)
Black Panther: Long Live the King, written by Nnedi Okorafor and Aaron Covington, art by André Lima Araújo, Mario Del Pennino and Tana Ford (Marvel)
Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)
On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden (First Second)
Paper Girls, Volume 4, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher (Image Comics)
Saga, Volume 9, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Annihilation, directed and written for the screen by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (Paramount Pictures / Skydance)
Avengers: Infinity War, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios)
Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler (Marvel Studios)
A Quiet Place, screenplay by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods, directed by John Krasinski (Platinum Dunes / Sunday Night)
Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley (Annapurna Pictures)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
The Expanse: “Abaddon’s Gate,” written by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck and Naren Shankar, directed by Simon Cellan Jones (Penguin in a Parka / Alcon Entertainment)
Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab,” written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs (BBC)
Dirty Computer, written by Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning (Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records / Atlantic Records)
The Good Place: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett (NBC)
The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy,” written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O’Donnell (NBC)
Doctor Who: “Rosa,” written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai (BBC)

Best Editor, Short Form
Neil Clarke
Gardner Dozois
Lee Harris
Julia Rios
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
E. Catherine Tobler

Best Editor, Long Form
Sheila E. Gilbert
Anne Lesley Groell
Beth Meacham
Diana Pho
Gillian Redfearn
Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist
Galen Dara
Jaime Jones
Victo Ngai
John Picacio
Yuko Shimizu
Charles Vess

Best Semiprozine
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, editor-in-chief and publisher Scott H. Andrews
Fireside Magazine, edited by Julia Rios, managing editor Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, copyeditor Chelle Parker, social coordinator Meg Frank, special features editor Tanya DePass, founding editor Brian White, publisher and art director Pablo Defendini
FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, executive editors Troy L. Wiggins and DaVaun Sanders, editors L.D. Lewis, Brandon O’Brien, Kaleb Russell, Danny Lore, and Brent Lambert
Shimmer, publisher Beth Wodzinski, senior editor E. Catherine Tobler
Strange Horizons, edited by Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, Vanessa Rose Phin, Vajra Chandrasekera, Romie Stott, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons Staff
Uncanny Magazine, publishers/editors-in-chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, managing editor Michi Trota, podcast producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue editors-in-chief Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and Dominik Parisien

Best Fanzine
Galactic Journey, founder Gideon Marcus, editor Janice Marcus
Journey Planet, edited by Team Journey Planet
Lady Business, editors Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay & Susan
nerds of a feather, flock together, editors Joe Sherry, Vance Kotrla and The G
Quick Sip Reviews, editor Charles Payseur
Rocket Stack Rank, editors Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

Best Fancast
Be the Serpent, presented by Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske and Jennifer Mace
The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
Fangirl Happy Hour, hosted by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams
Galactic Suburbia, hosted by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch
Our Opinions Are Correct, hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders
The Skiffy and Fanty Show, produced by Jen Zink and Shaun Duke, hosted by the Skiffy and Fanty Crew

Best Fan Writer
Foz Meadows
James Davis Nicoll
Charles Payseur
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry
Alasdair Stuart
Bogi Takács

Best Fan Artist
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Likhain (Mia Sereno)
Spring Schoenhuth

Best Art Book
Under the WSFS Constitution every Worldcon has the right to add one category to the Hugo Awards for that year only. Dublin 2019 has chosen to use this right to create an award for an art book.

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press /Gollancz)
Daydreamer’s Journey: The Art of Julie Dillon, by Julie Dillon (self-published)
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer (Ten Speed Press)
Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, ed. John Fleskes (Flesk Publications)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The Art of the Movie, by Ramin Zahed (Titan Books)
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, ed. Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library)
There are two other Awards administered by Worldcon 76 that are not Hugo Awards:

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book
The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black (Little, Brown / Hot Key Books)
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
The Invasion, by Peadar O’Guilin (David Fickling Books / Scholastic)
Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House / Penguin Teen)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Katherine Arden*
S.A. Chakraborty*
R.F. Kuang
Jeannette Ng*
Vina Jie-Min Prasad*
Rivers Solomon*

Comparing Brazee’s Fire Ant to Kowal’s The Calculating Stars

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For readers following along, I’ve just finished reviewing the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Award. When I started looking at patterns, I noticed that many of the authors used similar literary devices and plotlines. I’d like to take a closer look at a couple of these. In the first comparison, Jonathan Brazee and Mary Robinette Kowal have used the same plotline to write their books on the ballot this year, while expressing completely different worldviews in the results. I thought it would be interesting 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 how the plotline goes: There’s a threat to the survival of the human race. A minority woman who happens to be a pilot is front and center for the threat, and as a result gets an opportunity to advance her skills and experience in order to be instrumental in saving the human race.

Brazee’s heroine is Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay. Her name suggests mixed racial ancestry: O’Shea is of Irish origin, Salinas is Hispanic and Dalisay is Tagalog/Filipino. Floribeth seems to be from an humble background, and she works hard so she can send money home to her family. When she encounters an alien spacecraft, she uses her wits and skill to survive and escape. The company she works for refuses to believe her story and fines her for damages to their equipment. However, word gets out, and Floribeth is approached by government officials who offer her a chance to enter the Royal Navy as a pilot. Floribeth takes the chance and goes through the training. When she does poorly in the first live exercise, she acknowledges the damage to her reputation, but doesn’t let it affect her drive and belief in herself. She ignores snide comments about her qualifications and concentrates on doing her job. She goes on to heroically rescue a member of her unit as a last ditch effort in a real firefight with the aliens.

Kowal’s heroine is Elma York, a Jewish woman from a comfortable background with PHDs in physics and math. She has wartime experience as a pilot and works as a human computer for NACA, the space administration where her husband Nathaniel also works as an aerospace engineer. When a meteor strikes the Northeastern US and threatens life on Earth, NACA starts an accelerated program to develop space flight and establish a colony on the moon. Elma’s PHDs are aimed at research and teaching, but she has applied for a job well below her qualifications. She suffers from panic attacks when asked to make presentations of her work in public, takes tranquilizers and hides to puke in the bathroom. When her husband asks her to help him with a presentation before Congress, she totally freezes up and leaves him to labor through it alone. While the people around her try to give her opportunities to promote her abilities and expertise, Elma complains constantly about discrimination in the space program. When the astronaut corps is opened to women, she applies and is accepted. Once there, she carps about other women being advanced above her and bullies others in the group she feels are less qualified than she is. When an emergency arises, Elma successfully demonstrates her ability to make complex mathematical calculations in her head and is installed as pilot on the upcoming moon launch.

So, what do the writers mean to accomplish with these works? Brazee’s book has a very positive, you-can-do-it vibe. We get to follow along with Floribeth as she experiences terror in space and anger at the company. Then, given the opportunity, she takes risks and builds on her skills. She is rewarded by success and warm acceptance into her naval unit. On the other hand, Kowal’s book is meant to provoke anger at how Elma and her minority friends are mistreated by the society around them. We’re led to believe that Elma’s activism makes the space program more accepting of women, and that she ought to be recognized for her brilliance and promoted regardless of her poor career performance. Kowal has written the book as an alternate reality, drawing on real historical documents and events that blur the line between fiction and real history, and produced a very slanted story that serves as a condemnation of NASA and the US Apollo program.

Which is more fun to read? That depends on your reading taste, of course. If you want to read a success story in a universe that doesn’t discriminate based on sex or minority status, then choose Brazee’s work. It’s experiential and leaves you with a nice warm feeling that Floribeth is going to make everything okay, regardless of the huge hurdles in front of her. If you want to get angry about how women and minorities might have been treated at the end of World War II, then read Kowal’s work, which provides fictionalized examples designed to provoke you. (One note about this: It’s not that I don’t think the US space program was discriminatory in the 20th century, but any analysis of the program should include a look at World War II, the Cold War and the politics and huge societal changes that took place during these years.)

And last, which of these women characters is a better role model for young women considering military, technical or science careers? Elma and her paralyzing anxiety about performance, or Floribeth and her I-can-do-it attitude?

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 The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It is fantasy, Kuang’s debut novel, runs 527 pages and was published by Harper Voyager. This review contains spoilers.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a dark-skinned peasant girl, orphaned as a toddler and taken in by a family of opium dealers. They plan to give her in marriage to the disgusting, old village import inspector to improve their business opportunities. Rin frantically studies for the Keju test and scores high enough for admittance to the elite Sinegard military academy. With her tutor’s help, she leaves the village and travels to the school. As a backward peasant girl, she has to work harder than most, and she makes both enemies and friends among her new classmates. After the first year, she finds a master in the strange lore master Jiang, who teaches her meditation and tells her she has the ability to channel the gods and become a great shaman. Her studies come to an abrupt end as war breaks out between the Nikara empire and the nearby Mugen Federation. Students at the academy are conscripted and given posts within the military, and because of her studies, Rin is sent to the Cike, a small, disrespected division of warriors with shamanistic powers. The commander of the unit dies, and Altan Trengsin, a recent graduate of the academy, moves into his place. Can this motley crew of shamans save the empire? Or will Rin lose her soul instead?

This story is written in two parts. Part I starts off as a great adventure story set against some excellent world-building. Rin overcomes prejudice because of her complexion, her gender and her poverty, and through hard work and determination gets on track for a successful military career. She makes a non-traditional choice for a master, and with Jiang’s help, goes on to explore her heritage and her unusual talent for channeling magic. Then in Part II, the Third Poppy War and a lot of bad politics interferes in Rin’s life, leaving her struggling in a world she doesn’t understand. For anyone familiar with Asian language, there are some interesting associations in the names Kuang chooses. There are also some good descriptions of the military strategy and martial arts study. In Part I, I thought the theme was going to be success against adversity, but later in the story it’s trending more to ignorant misuse of power.

On the not so great side, Part II is full of gross inconsistencies in the characters, their powers and the progress of the war. The story degenerates into a Disneyesque state where Rin, instead of applying discipline and intelligence, screams at everyone, can’t carry her weight as a shaman because she’s blocked by a ghost, and makes a series of emotion-driven choices in defiance of all warnings. What happened to all that study at the academy? Didn’t she learn anything at all? The action line starts off well in Part I, but in Part II the author tries to raise the ante through detailed descriptions of torture and atrocities committed in the war. This book got really unpleasant, and the ending didn’t resolve anything at all. Presumably all the hate and self-destruction will continue into an upcoming sequel.

Two and a half stars for the gross inconsistencies.

Review of Witchmark by C.L. Polk

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Polk is a Canadian author. This is her debut novel and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and billed as Book 1 of the Kingston Series. Book II, Stormsong will be available in June of 2019. This runs 318 pages and was published by Tor.com. It’s also a finalist for the 2018 Lammy Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Sir Christopher Miles Hensley was born a witch and a healer, which means he is unvalued because the aristocratic leadership of Aeland needs storm-singers instead to maintain a livable climate. To avoid being enslaved to a storm-singer as a secondary or imprisoned in a witch’s asylum, he runs away and joins the war effort against neighboring Laneer. As the war ends, he fakes his own death and returns as Dr. Miles Singer to work in the capital city of Kingston as a psychiatrist in a veterans’ hospital. This comfortable career is destroyed when Tristan Hunter brings a dying witch to the hospital’s emergency room. Singer is unable to save him, but when the man’s body mysteriously disappears from the hospital morgue, he and Hunter embark on an investigation, looking for evidence to present to the police. Complications to Singer’s life immediately set in: Returning veterans start committing mass murders. Another doctor at the hospital begins to suspect Singer is a witch. Singer meets his sister Grace at a hospital fundraiser; and under his human disguise, Hunter turns out to be one of the fay and beautiful Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from the mortal world. The Laneer are arriving in the Capital to officially surrender, but are they planning a last effort to win the war? Can Singer solve all these mysteries and still maintain his freedom? And what should he do about Tristan Hunter?

This starts off like a wonderfully charming little Edwardian mystery, enhanced by the extra fantasy dimension, but as we move along, the plot unfolds into complexities. Miles’ aristocratic family turns out to be deep into politics and his father behind a horrific infrastructure that keeps Aeland prosperous and successful but consumes souls. The loss of souls in this scenario is so bad that it has attracted the attention of the otherworldly Amaranthine, whose leadership is thinking of interfering. There are some pretty serious structural horrors in the society, but it’s all low key and background enough that you have to think about it to reveal the symbolism about slavery and consumption of souls. Instead, the main storyline is the developing relationships between the characters, the evasions of the guilty, and how Miles, Tristan and Grace work to expose the underlying horrors in their world and deal with them to create a better tomorrow.

On the less positive side, it’s a little hard to believe that Grace is in line to replace her ailing father and still doesn’t know what Aeland’s infrastructure is built on. And how does Miles transition from a surgeon to a psychiatrist? Did he fake credentials, too? Next, there might be a touch too much complexity in the plot, as either the Laneer’s necromancy plot or the Aeland infrastructure issue would have been plenty to fill out a novel of this length. These are two competing subplots for a long time, and it seems a stretch that Miles manages to deal with both problems in one huge wrap-up at the end. Also, I’m wondering why someone with healing gifts would be so undervalued. Don’t the Aelanders understand what witchy healers could do for all those sinus infections? And last, I think the romance between Miles and Tristan was a little too pat. We’ve been warned about the Amaranthine all the way through this book, and now Miles is going to fall into his arms? I wouldn’t rush into anything, Miles.

I’m going to go 5 stars on this one.

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