Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two and a half stars.

Review of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is apparently Martine’s debut novel, and is listed as #1 in this series, suggesting we’ll see more on the same topic. It was published by Tor on 26 March 2019 and runs 472 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the multi-system Teixcalaani Empire. She has been dispatched in haste, and her imago implant holding the memories of her predecessor is hastily installed and out of date. When she arrives, she finds political unrest related to the Emperor’s impending death and a planned expansion war that will annex Lsel Station. Besides that, the previous ambassador Yskander Aghvan has apparently been assassinated, and Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass seem to be next on the list. With the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, Mahit threads her way through the politics, where it becomes clear Yskander made inappropriate deals with the Emperor Six Direction, plus political heavyweights in the succession fight, Minister Nineteen Adze, opposition leader Thirty Larkspur and General One Lightning. Mahit’s imago fails, apparently because of sabotage from back home, and she receives frightening messages that Lsel Station pilots have encountered alien spacecraft—apparently the leading edge of some other inimical space empire. Is there a way Mahit can sort through the mess, straighten out her imago and save Lsel Station from annexation?

This is an impressive space opera intrigue, strongly plotted, with highly complex world building and attractive, well-developed characters. There’s a solid political structure and workable economics underlying the empire versus the independent mining stations, and notable cultural differences between the practical Lsel Station and the Empire, which seems highly literate and given to layered, nuanced communications framed in poetic verse. There are shocks and speed bumps, of course, but Mahit manages to sort out the issues, and at the end of the book is headed back to Lsel Station, apparently to report to the Council and confront Councilors Darj Tarats and Aknel Amnardbat about the sabotaged imago. This signals where the next book might lead.

On the less positive side, I had an issue with the imago timeline. The implant Mahit is given on the Station is fifteen years out of date, but after it fails, she experiences flashes of memory that seem more recent. I thought maybe the implant had picked up some of the dead Yskander’s memories when Mahit viewed his preserved body, but given later events, this doesn’t seem likely. So, either I’ve misunderstood the timeline or else this is just unexplained. Next, I’m a bit surprised that Mahit has only a single liaison for staff—considering her position and the political unrest, it seems she ought to have a security force, at least. And last, Mahit develops a sexual interest in Three Seagrass, her liaison and junior staff member. In the age of #MeToo, this is romantic, but also definitely transgressive, and the narrative skims over it. Mahit doesn’t even seem to repent for overstepping her bounds.

This will likely seem slow and boring to action-adventure space opera fans, but it’s highly recommended for the poetic at heart.

Five stars.

Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 10 July 2019. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the eighteenth century, and poet Christopher Smart thinks God has commissioned him to write The Divine Poem. As a result, he’s been committed to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. He works away at his poem, writing it in blood on the walls when he’s short of pen and paper. Meanwhile, the poet’s cat Jeoffry and his friends protect the inmates, fighting off the imps and demons that plague the halls. When he devil himself comes around, demanding an evil poem from Christopher that’s due from an old bargain, it seems Jeoffry will have to stave off the apocalypse, too. Is he up to the task? Or is he over matched this time?

This story seems to be a tribute to real poet Christopher Smart (11 April 1722 – 21 May 1771), best known for religious works and for serving stints in both an asylum and a debtors’ prison. We know he had a cat named Jeoffry, because the cat appears in his poem Jubilate Agno. This story is written from Jeoffry’s point of view, and is highly entertaining. I have to give special mention to the style and imagery, and also the devil’s wig gets a special shout out.

On the less positive side, this was way too short. I’d love to follow more of Jeoffry’s adventures in the defense of his poet. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Review of “Carpe Glitter” by Cat Rambo

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Meerkat in October 2019 and runs 62 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Grandmother Gloria’s motto was always carpe glitter (seize the glitter). She was a glamourous Vegas performer at the Sparkle, but a hoarder in her old age. After she dies, her granddaughter Persephone starts to clean out the house and finds a magical Nazi artifact from World War II, an automaton named Heinrich that seems to be currently disassembled but still alive. Her mother makes a desperate attempt to get control of it, and Persephone also finds that mysterious men in black have an interest. The automaton could be dangerous. What should Persephone do about it?

On the positive side, this is an interesting little mystery that emerges slowly out of Persephone’s efforts to clear away the mess left by her grandmother. (Hoarders out there, are you listening?) She works through piles of family history and moldering sequins, trying to sort out anything of worth, and eventually happens on the still-working parts of the evil automaton. Along the way, we start to get a feel for how Persephone relates to her grandmother and her mother, and reconnect with Eterno, who might be Persephone’s grandfather.

On the not so positive side, Heinrich doesn’t seem to be evil enough for all the fuss and the climax isn’t climactic enough—there’s not enough at stake. Heinrich turns out to be relatively easy to deactivate, so why didn’t somebody do that a long time ago instead of dissembling the parts as an attempt to disable it? If the parts can move around, why haven’t they crawled to one another and put themselves together? Also, some of the events that shape this feel like afterthoughts, not really significant enough to drive the story. Why didn’t Gloria have some bigger investment in the automaton? She could have been a spy during the war, for example. Or it could have been her lover. And if Eterno is Persaphone’s grandfather, why hasn’t he been a guiding presence in her life before now?

Three stars.

Review of “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt

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This science fiction short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published in Clarkesworld 2/19. This review contains spoilers.

Ecological disaster is looming on Earth. Hazel is hiking from her spaceship through a barren, inhospitable landscape to the Library. As she walks, she records a message for her brother Saul, which will take six months to reach him across 32 light years. She thinks she might be the last astronaut ever and her expensive, high tech spacesuit doesn’t seem to be working very well. She sends the family her love. Despite the creaky suit, Hazel makes it to the Library and is admitted. She continues to record messages for Saul, describing the physical plant, the Archivists, and the contents of the Library. The messages give us info on first contact with explorer Librarians and how Hazel was chosen as a cheap solution (because she has an eidetic memory) to do research on possible disaster remedies at the alien Library. When Hazel finally locates the memory tablet she is looking for, the researcher Dr. Ryu appears. Rhu is pretty snippy, diagnoses Hazel as having a depressing worldview, and at first refuses to share her research. Hazel convinces her with a description of how hopeful her brother and his family are for a future with children, and reveals that she, herself, aborted a child years ago out of hopelessness. She’s not coming back to Earth. Love to the family. ‘Bye.

This is a creative format, written in second person, with everything accomplished within the messages Hazel records for her brother. What we get is adequate to describe the setting, the situation back on Earth and something of the history of how Hazel got where she is. However, this doesn’t really come alive, and the messages end up having the feel of exposition, a.k.a. info dumps. Despite the SF setting, there’s no real science in the story. The bleak setting for the Library and the presence of the Librarians is briefly explained, but none of this feels real or reasonable. For one thing, the Library has no visible means of support. Is there a spaceport somewhere, or did Hazel crash land her ship on the surface? If the world is so dead and barren, where do supplies come from? Are the Librarians creating everything out of rock? Shipping stuff in? What miracle cure does Hazel expect to find here? And how did Hazel get across 32 light years in a timely fashion? I expect the description of disasters on Earth, the revelation of Saul’s hope versus Hazel’s hopelessness, and the aborted child are all included to create an emotional thread through the story, but this didn’t capture me.

Three stars.

Review of “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne

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This science fiction short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine in March of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

The dead captain explodes at his funeral, and steerage is suspected of planting a bomb. Mey is a sin-eater on a generation ship voyaging on a search for the world Paradise. Through nanobots in her blood, she absorbs the consciousnesses of dead captains who relive their sins and try to manipulate her for their own agendas. By containing these sins, she keeps them locked away from the other inhabitants of the ship so that the voyage continues smoothly. Mey knows the captains can’t be trusted, but she is unable to communicate this—she is blocked from saying it. After the ceremony to install nanobot virtues in the new captain, Mey locates the steerage sacristy, now used as a storage room, which conceals a pile of bones and a photograph that shows the world Paradise. The ship has already been there and come away without planting a colony. The new Captain Bethen will know this. How can Mey prevail on her to give up power and admit the captains’ sins?

This is another of the artistic, difficult to follow stories that are increasingly popular. A sin-eater is a person who spiritually takes on the sins of a dead person through eating a ceremonial meal. In this case, the ceremonial meal is blood loaded with nanobots. There is something of a plot here, as well as meaning, that takes gradual shape as you work through it. It becomes clear that things are not as they should be on the ship, and values like education have fallen along the wayside. This is a dramatic scenario, where the system of nanobots frees the captain to make unhindered decisions, while the sin-eater passes judgement on the appropriateness and quality of these choices as they relate to the inhabitants of the ship. The system has gone badly wrong somewhere along the line, and Mey needs to fix it.

This is fairly free of political messages, and the system of sins and virtues is interesting and creative, but the style causes a serious readability issue. I came away with a good grasp of what it’s about, but not much in the way of details. I’d like to have a more extensive discussion of the relationship between power and sin, for example. This story would be more entertaining and meaningful with a little more structure and a little less artistic flair. Of course, it might not have been nominated that way.

Four and a half stars.

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