Review of City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s released by Harper Voyager and billed as The Daevabad Trilogy #1. It runs 569 pages. The next novel in the series, The Kingdom of Copper, should be available 22 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nahri is a con woman in 18th century Cairo who poses as a healer and palm reader to cover her real work as a thief. She sets up a zar to sooth a crazed girl, and while singing some old songs, accidently summons Dara, a magical djinn warrior. The girl turns out to be possessed by an ifrit, which attacks Nahri. Dara carries Nahri away from Cairo and takes her to Daevabad, the hidden City of Brass. He introduces her to the djinn King Ghassan as the last of the powerful Nahid family, and the court seems to welcome her. It turns out there are nasty undercurrents in the politics, simmering resentments between the six djinn tribes and the half-breed shafit. Nahri struggles to learn the healing arts they try to teach her, and Ghassan thinks she’s at most a half-breed human, but still plans a political union by marrying Nahri to his oldest son Muntadhir. He sends his youngest, the scholarly subversive Prince Ali, as a tutor to win her over to the plan. When Dara hears of it, he tries to carry Nahri away again, but Ali interferes and they are caught trying to cross the magical lake that guards Daevabad. Dara is killed, Ali possessed and banished, and Muntadhir’s companion Jamshid badly wounded. Ghassan is determined the marriage will go on as planned. Can Nahri turn any of this to her advantage?

So, counter to the depressive trend in the WFA finalists this year, this is a romance and an intrigue. All these people are lying to each other, and political groups are plotting right and left. Daevabad is exotic, the details of the city life, the temples and the palace very well assembled. I didn’t have any problems visualizing the people, the creatures or the scenery–the author has done a lot of research. She’s also done a great job in blending tradition with modern sensibilities. The characters are slightly flat, but the story is more focused on the action and intrigue than on revealing their deepest inner thoughts. The reader is left to deduce a lot of what’s going on from their actions.

In case you can’t tell from the synopsis, this is a cliffhanger, as everybody is at risk at the end, and the political tides are still rising. Nahri mostly lets people push her around in this book, but her political faction didn’t abandon her over the marriage, so she’s now well placed to be a power player in the next novel. Without Dara and Ali, she’ll have to find other protectors.

On the negative side, the magical world here was a little too complex for me to keep up with the way I read the book, which was a piece here and a piece there. Politics in the city was fairly clear by the time I was done, but a lot of other creatures seem to be circling Daevabad, just waiting for some chance to get in. I didn’t get a clear idea of the motives or alignments there. One other note: this seems to be an unfortunate choice of title, as it’s apparently shared with a successful video game. That means a search for the book turns up mostly the game info instead. However, I guess Chakraborty’s fans can tell the difference.

Four and a half stars.

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Are POC tokens in the major SFF awards?

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It took me a long time to get through Crowley’s book, and I’ve got one more novel to review for the World Fantasy Awards. While I’m working on it, here is some commentary on the Locus Reading List that is one of the major feeders into the SFF awards.

For the last couple or three years Natalie Luhrs has done an analysis of the Locus Reading List, checking the gender and race breakdown. Here’s her analysis for 2017, and here’s the one for 2018. In the 2018 conclusions section, she’s noted that the list is important because the effects go way beyond just recommendations on what people should read. It’s also about how readers draw from lists like this or sites like Rocket Stack Rank, for example, to make their nominations for the awards.

Luhrs’ results for 2017 shows a slant toward male writers and a tendency to repeat the same person-of-color (POC) writers across categories and years. The analysis for 2018 shows the list achieved closer gender parity as a whole and slightly expanded non-binary writers, but actually fewer POC were included than in 2017. On the positive side, in 2018 Luhrs found a few additions to the list of favored POC.

Luhrs then went on to complain that “We don’t have nearly enough women or POC editing anthologies.” I’m suspecting this could be a mistaken assumption. Locus listed only three, but if you check, there are a bunch of female and POC editors out there trying to do it. The problem is that the Locus List hasn’t recognized the women and POC who are editing anthologies.

So what does this mean? Is the perception that women and POC can’t edit good quality anthologies? Are their anthologies actually substandard? Do these editors/publishers struggle to get professional quality submissions because they’re not considered competent? Do they struggle to get professional level review?

I’ve had the conversation with Greg Hullender of Rocket Stack Rank about how “quality” is defined in the SFF community. This boils down to accepting that the most successful magazines, publishers and editors get the best works, and you can make a list of the “best” by reading just these magazines and looking at the releases of these publishers or these few recognized editors. This system further promotes the sources, of course, which means they become more successful and continue to shut out minority editors struggling to be found in the small press. That’s why the same people appear on the Locus Reading List every year. The system is self-perpetrating.

If we really want to achieve something more than tokenism, shouldn’t we look for another avenue for editors to make it into this system?

Review of In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Tachyon and runs 174 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Claudio Bianchi is an aging farmer and sometimes poet in Calabria, Southern Italy. His farm is remote, generally visited only by the postman, and he’s gotten used to having no company but his own. That means it’s a surprise when a unicorn begins to build her nest under his chestnut tree. After a period of gestation, she drops a black colt. The secret gets out and suddenly news reporters, tourists, unicorn hunters and animal rights activists are trampling over Bianchi’s farm, looking for the mystery beasts. The unicorns are elusive, and eventually the horde of people thins, but then Bianchi gets a visit from a representative of the local crime syndicate. Bianchi refuses to sell the farm, which puts everything he has at risk, including his newly discovered love for the postman’s sister Giovanna. The crime syndicate ups the pressure, but there’s something no one has considered. Where is the male unicorn?

This story is character driven and is a positive, enjoyable read. It has a simple plot, and Beagle’s prose has a magical, Old World feel to it. Bianchi is a simple man who enjoys his wine, his cows, his cats and his poetry. We get a good feel for the farm and the old house, plus revelations about what made Bianchi the near recluse that he is. The best thing about this is the symbolism, though. As soon as we see that demure little unicorn on the front cover of the book, we know it’s going to be about sex, right? Bianchi is revitalized by his developing relationship with Giovanna, and the ending is very powerful. Beagle is a pro, after all.

On the not so great side, there’s not much in the way of action here—it’s not that kind of book. I didn’t come away with a good feel for the village, either, or the surrounding countryside. Also, there’s not much character development for anybody but Bianchi. Giovanna comes across fierce, but we don’t know anything much about her but that.

Four and a half stars.

World Fantasy Award Finalists 2018

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I’m running way behind on this, as the finalists were announced in July. Congrats to all who made the ballot! Winners will be awarded the first week in November at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore MD. I’ve already reviewed several of these works, as they’ve appeared on the Nebula or Hugo Ballots, but in the next few weeks, I’ll have a look at the others.

Best Novel
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (Harper Voyager)
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley (Saga)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf; riverrun)
The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Best Long Fiction
The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery (TTA)
In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon)
Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones (Tor.com Publishing)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
“Old Souls” by Fonda Lee (Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM“ by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou (Strange Horizons 12/18/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

More on Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140

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Looking back at Kim Stanley Robinson’s body of work, I get the idea that he’s sort of interested in the idea of engineering both social and environmental problems, and that he thinks these two areas are heavily intertwined in producing threats to the future of humanity. Most people won’t want to commit to the intellectual exercise of slogging through all 600 pages of the teensy font and slow-moving plot in New York 2140 to unpack his ideas, so I’m going to summarize some of it here and ask for discussion. This summary includes major spoilers, of course.

Robinson’s first economics lesson is on the tyranny of sunk costs. This means the money already invested in putting New York City where it is and adding utilities, infrastructure and population. Because of this, nobody wants to move it somewhere else when the tide starts rolling up Wall Street and into the Theatre District. Instead, everybody copes.

Change is definitely coming in the next century, regardless of your political persuasion. Robinson has suggested methods for dealing with the need for different housing and transportation methods as sea levels rise and fossil fuels near exhaustion. This includes a return to airships and clippers ships, plus solar power and villages floating both in the air and on the water. Building methods make a difference. Because many of the NYC buildings are anchored into bedrock, they will continue to stand and be usable, like a new Venice, but buildings built on a slab won’t do this. (That’s just for informational purposes. See also Miami Beach, which continues to stand through major hurricanes while cheap development housing washes away.)

It’s clear Robinson thinks the recent US propensity for uncontrolled capitalism is the cause of a number of social ill, and a couple of his schemes relate to bringing this under control. First, he mentions in passing that people should be housed vertically, rather than in the spread out single-family developments currently popular in the US. This is already implemented in Europe, which has high population density. I was there in the 1990s and saw it then. A recent trip confirmed the continued policy. In Germany, for example, it’s really hard to get a permit to build a single family home outside of a city–though it is fairly easy to get a permit to renovate old buildings. Plus, home mortgages are really expensive and hard to get. Therefore, most of the population stays in vertical housing, allowing for extensive farms, parks and woodlands. Amsterdam has about 800K people and about 900K bicycles. The main streets consist of a bicycle lane, a car lane, and a tram lane. The cars will stop for you to cross but the bikes won’t. In contrast to this, many towns and cities in the US encourage extensive development of farm and woodlands to increase revenue from real estate taxes, while having no public transportation at all. As buildings age, they are abandoned for new development, leaving urban blight in the central cities. This system of constant new development generates wealth, but is really bad for local ecologies, and also the people trapped in the blight, who have little access to jobs and services and are therefore unproductive and need lots of police and social services.

Robinson’s next question is, whose fault is this? He thinks it’s government policy, of course, because government is owned by capitalists. It looks like he’s still steaming about the Bush recession of 2008. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention, this was brought on by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and because of automation, bank controls and globalization trends, it resulted in a “jobless recovery.” This is what current President Trump is trying to change with his negotiations in trade policy. However, Robinson thinks the people, a.k.a. the democracy, should have demanded a different response in 2008. The financial crisis caused major failures in large corporations in the US, especially financial firms on Wall Street, similar to the Great Depression. The Obama administration took over trying to fix things, as Bush’s term was up. The government tried to just let the market handle things, which is what capitalists always say should be done, but it quickly became clear this would destroy both the US and the world economies. In other words, some of these firms are just “too big to let fail.” The government bailed out banks and Wall Street firms with taxpayer money, which Robinson thinks was never fully paid back. In other words, this was a huge transfer of wealth from the US middle and working class to the wealthy. Robinson thinks the government should have bought the companies instead and nationalized the financial firms, which would have generated a considerable profit for the taxpayers. He’s suggesting the voters insist on this the next time around.

Besides that, I get the impression Robinson has no patience with amateurs who mess with animal migrations and habitats. His air-headed Cloud star is a real eye-roller.

Recommended.

Wrap up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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Now that I’ve reviewed all the works, it’s time to take a look at the Hugo finalists, and how they fell out this year. Most notable is the absence of Vox Day’s Rabid Puppy inputs, which in the past couple or three award cycles has provided the male diversity. That means ordinary cis men were totally shut out of three of the four Hugo fiction categories for 2018, with Best Short Story, Best Novelette and Best Novella featuring only women, trans and non-binary authors. The Best Novel category also featured two finalists who are possibly political appointees meant as a slap-in-the-face to Vox Day, these being his nemeses N.K. Jemisin and John Scalzi. That leaves the white-male-masterful-crusader Kim Stanley Robinson as the really big wild card in the whole thing.

The next notable feature was the high rate of correspondence between the finalists for the Hugo and the Nebula Award. For the Best Short Story category the only difference was that two men nominated for the Nebula were replaced by women or trans writers. In the Best Novelette category, the same thing happened, but one additional woman was nominated. The most significant difference was in the Best Novel category, where only two of the finalists were the same. This strongly suggests how the same limited system produces both sets of nominees.

Next, the Hugo Awards drew from the same restricted number of publishers as the Nebula. In the novel category, this included: 4 from Orbit, 1 from Tor and 1 from Solaris. In the novella category: 5 from Tor.com and 1 from Uncanny. The novelette and short story categories showed slightly more diversity, drawing from Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex. Looking at these results, it’s clear why Rocket Stack Rank only reviews particular magazines. This is pretty much the list of shorter-than-novel publishers with inputs into the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Print magazines are doing so poorly, RSR can probably leave Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF off pretty soon without missing anything important.

Looking at what’s normally counted for diversity, the Hugo has done reasonably well. Best Novel includes 3 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novella includes 5 women, 0 men, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novelette category includes 4 women, 0 men, 2 trans and 3 Asian writers. Best Short Story includes 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian and 1 Native American writer. Those who recall my comments from last year will know I’m glad to see a Native American writer appear in the finalists, but we’re still short of Hispanics. These figures work out to be 75% women, 12.5% trans, 8% men and 4% non-binary. Looking at the counted racial categories, it works out to be 55% whites, 33% Asian, 8% African American and 4% Native American. Clearly the preferred finalists are young white and Asian women, while men, African Americans and Hispanics are all hugely underrepresented based on their population demographics. The one finalist works out okay for Native Americans, who are about 2% of the US population.

A couple of things stood out in the themes. First, the list included several repeat appearances from previous years, and also followed the Nebula tendency to nominate the same author in multiple categories. These included Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee. The list of Hugo finalists avoided the tendency the Nebula finalists showed for editors, publishers and other industry insiders, but included at least a couple of short works written by popular novelists within the universe of their novels. I took this as unduly promotional. Like the Nebulas, there seemed to be a strong preference for stories with non-binary or trans characters.

This list leans heavily to fantasy and soft science fiction, with a serious lack of ideas and/or hard science fiction. I don’t think Nagata’s work qualifies, regardless that it’s set on Mars. The real stand-out, different work here, again, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which actually attempted to deal with hard science, real politics and real threats to humanity’s future. This is the kind of important work I’d prefer to see appear on the awards ballots.

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