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 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.

Review of “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

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This novelette is a finalist in the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/fantasy and was published in the anthology Expanding Universe, Vol. 4, edited by Craig Martelle and published by LMBPN Publishing. Virdi has been a finalist twice for a Dragon Award, once in 2016 for the fantasy novel Grave Measures, and again in 2017 for Dangerous Ways. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an established novelist, and this appears to be his first major award nomination. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid called Messenger passes Earth; then another crashes into the moon, followed by an alien landing in Bangalore, India. Arjun Shetty is caught in the destruction and loses his wife and daughter. He is called up to fight and becomes one of the first Shikari called Vishnu, a giant cyborg warrior designed to fight the alien war machines. He brings down one of the machines in the ocean, drags it to shore where scientists are gathered to analyze it, and then suffers a malfunction—for a second he sees only the enemy, starts to fire on it again. Diagnostics can’t find anything wrong. An emergency in Bay 6 needs his attention. Bay 6 houses the Kali-Skikari, which has desynced and run amuck. Vishnu-Skikari destroys her, reports for debriefing and is sent in a transport back to Base. The transport is intercepted by war machines. Can Vishnu-Skikari defeat them?

I can see why these guys made the list of finalists. This is great stuff for a usually dull sub-genre—full of imagery, style and fire, featuring the Shikari cyborgs crashing over the line into violent godhood psychosis. Hm. Or are they? It’s is all pretty much steam-of-consciousness from Vishnu’s viewpoint, which gives us depth in understanding what goes on inside his systems. The other characters are poorly developed, but considering what Vishnu has become, their flatness and insignificance from his viewpoint is sort of understandable (and gets worse as the story goes on).

On the not so positive side, I’m not sure whose war machines attack Vishnu in the final battle. I suspect these are friendly forces, but a few better hints about this would have been helpful. And another little niggle: how many arms does Kali have? Four? Six? Or does she just sprout more as she needs them? Hm.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is hard science fiction from the anthology Bridge Across the Stars, edited by Chris Pourteau and Rhett C. Bruno and published by Aethon Books in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid is about to strike Earth, and Trass Industries is readying a ship to evacuate a group of 3000 humans that will establish a colony on Titan. A horde of people is camped outside the Arizona desert compound, hoping to make the grade for the project. Knowing he will bear the fate of everyone he doesn’t accept on his conscience, company director Darien Trass is conducting interviews, trying to sort out the best and the brightest of humanity to take along. As the launch date arrives, violence on Earth increases, and some other colony ships are destroyed by angry mobs. When they start loading the Trass ship, Darien’s daughter Kara alerts him to a problem: one of the accepted colonists Frank Drayton has attempted to smuggle his small daughter aboard. The mob outside has found out, and now they attack the compound, triggering retaliation from Trass security. The crew and passengers take refuge inside the ship, but now there are too many people on board. They need to launch now. What can they do?

This is a fairly standard hard SF setup, with a world-threatening event, a high-stakes tech problem and an emotional dilemma. There is some subtle foreshadowing in Drayton’s interview that suggests he’s lying about his family situation. I also liked the imagery that places the big, ugly asteroid in the night sky right alongside the moon.

On the less positive side, after reading a bunch of stories I thought were too long, I think this one is a little too short. There are some issues that could have added depth to the story if they’d been addressed. For one thing, the foreshadowing went a little too far, making the solution to the problem too obvious. The characters seem manipulated to suit the plot, which leads to suspension of disbelief issues. For example, I didn’t quite buy the fact that the elderly Trass could outrun the mob storming his compound. Any why was his security so faithful? Clearly they were going to be left behind. Why didn’t they panic and storm the ship, too? I would have also expected panic from the passengers. This could have been quite a bit more complex.

Three stars.

Review of “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published in Fireside Magazine in February of 2018. I’m not going to try to summarize–because of the structure that would be hard. This review contains spoilers.

The best thing about this story is that it’s based on an actually bit of history, pointed out in a quote at the head of the story. Contrary to popular belief, George Washington’s false teeth weren’t made of wood. Instead, they apparently were constructed of a metal frame inset with human teeth. Info from Mt. Vernon’s account books suggest Washington bought nine teeth from his slaves that probably went into the dentures. So, Clark took this bit of history and ran with it, imagining the lives of the slaves who contributed the teeth and how their magic might have affected Washington in his private moments. (Well, at least the man paid for the teeth!) The story is thoughtfully written with a clear “own voices” flavor that readers should enjoy.

On the not so positive side, I’m not really sure this is a story. It provides a brief characterization of each person’s life who contributed teeth. Does that make it more of a series of character studies? It’s got no plot at all, but when you put the whole thing together, it does have a great theme.

Three and a half stars.

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