Review of “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine July-August 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, there were three raptor sisters named Allie, Betty and Ceecee. They are happy, but one day a fair but stupid prince totally ignores all the signs in the surrounding lands and rides into their forest, whereupon Ceecee eats the prince’s stallion. He seems unconcerned. Suspecting treachery, the three sisters confer and Ceecee volunteers to accompany the prince to his nest to find out what is going on. At the castle, she is greeted by the prince’s fiancé (who is also a witch), and lodged in the stable. At first there seems to be no treachery, but eventually Ceecee is drugged and trapped by iron shackles to become the prince’s personal plaything. Meanwhile, her two sisters set out to look for her. The princess witch comes to their rescue, casting a glamour to make two raptor sisters look like humans and unlocking the shackles so Ceecee can escape. The sisters take the witch away with them to live in their forest, and all goes well for a while. Then the four of them have occasion to ride through the prince’s lands again and encounter him on the road. The hunt is sweet.

On the positive side, the narrative here reflects the sisters’ point-of-view and unfolds like a fairy tale that a raptor parent is telling her brood. The narrator’s tone is warm and entertaining, and the humans are generally characterized as terrified and inferior; except the princess witch, of course, who is a huntress and one of their own; and the prince, who is exceptionally stupid and obnoxious besides. One interesting detail here seems taken from tiger lore: the farm workers wear masks on the back of their heads to discourage the raptors from attacking. The picture of the witch living in the forest with the raptor sisters also evokes some fairly strong archetypes.

On the not so positive side, this feels long and is easy to predict. Although the raptor sisters are an interesting take on dragons, they still end up lacking depth, and the human characters tend to be totally flat stereotypes. It’s a fairly long story, and most of the words are used in creating effect rather than revealing what this world is like. Of course, the story is quite sexist, too. The ending where they all go back to the prince’s lands seems pasted on, as if Bolander thought the story wasn’t strong enough when the women just went off and did their own thing. Instead, it has to go on to demonstrate how stupid the prince’s assumption of authority over them is. And of course, they eat him up in the end.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine November-December 2018. For anyone who doesn’t know, T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon that she uses for adult works. This review contains spoilers.

Rose MacGregor has a problem keeping up with her sheep. She continually meets handsome faery men and uses the sheep as a pretext for striking up an uh-hum…relationship. However, Rose is not about to pine away over anybody. Instead, she’s married the blacksmith. The faery men discuss this around their campfire, and how hard it is to keep up with her in a physical way. They trade stories, the selkie and the pooka relating how Rose used them and tossed them away. Meanwhile one of the men weaves a bouquet of foxglove. Rose is at home with her granddaughter, carrying an iron nail in her pocket to remember her husband by. There’s frost in the air, and her granddaughter reports there are flowers on the step. “Ah… that time of year already, is it?” comments Rose with a smile.

This is a sly little story that turns the issue of pining after faery men backward and has them pining after Rose instead. It’s lightweight and fun, and the granddaughter turns out to look a lot like the selkie. On the not so great side, this hasn’t much in the way of substance other than the statement about pining. There’s room for some darkness, as dealing with the faery is supposedly full of pitfalls, but maybe Rose’s nail protects her from all that. This also has a definite sexist feel, which I’m sure is the author’s whole point.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It runs 466 pages and was published by Del Rey/Macmillan. This review contains spoilers.

Miryem comes from a family of moneylenders, but her father is really poor at it. He’s lent out his wife’s dowery and can’t collect payment, so the family falls into poverty. Winter seems to extend longer and longer. When her mother Panova Mandelstam gets sick, Miryem takes things into her own hands. She goes through her father’s books and begins to make collections for him. This angers the people in the village, but Miryem continues to work at it until her family is back on the road to prosperity. When one angry, alcoholic debtor says he can’t pay, she contracts for his daughter Wanda and later his son Sergey to work off the debt as servants in her family’s house. After her success, Miryem makes an unfortunate boast about being able to turn silver into gold, which attracts the fay Staryk king. He sets her three tasks as a test, and in a panic Miryam carries the Staryk’s silver to the city of Vysnia where her grandparents live. She asks her cousin’s fiancé Isaac to help, and he fashions the silver into a ring, a necklace and a tiara that he offers to the duke. The duke buys the fay works for his daughter Irina and then presents her to the young Tsar Mirnatius as a bride. Because Miryem has passed his tests, the Staryk king carries her away to his frozen kingdom to be his queen, leaving Wanda to manage the Mandelstam household and business. Mirnatius is possessed by the demon Chernobog who wants to devour Irina, but she has a strain of Staryk blood and uses the silver to pass through into the Staryk kingdom every night when the demon manifests. Miryem and Irina meet and develop a plot to be rid of their evil husbands. Can they make it work without destroying both worlds?

On the positive side, this uses Russian folklore to create a complex and suspenseful tale that’s both strongly plotted and character driven. It also provides great role models for girls. Miryem and Wanda both grow into excellent businesswomen and managers at a young age and Irina develops into the power behind the possessed tsar that will deal with politics and keep the kingdom running on an even keel. It’s clearly about women taking care of things themselves and not waiting for someone else to do it for them. There’s also a certain symbolism underneath: As Miryem becomes colder, more prideful and harder-hearted, the winter king comes for her. Also on the positive side, Novik has come out in support of capitalism for women when other authors seem to be fairly unsupportive just lately.

On the less positive side, there’s never much chemistry that develops between these characters. The secondary characters are the warmest and most caring, while the three female protagonists remain cold and hard-hearted through the whole thing. Regardless of the strength of the role models they present, I’m not sure this coldness is a great message to send to young girls. Miryem and Irina also seem fairly single-minded, coming up with their plot without actually investigating what’s going on behind the scenes, where the Staryk king is trying to balance the effects of the tsar’s demon. Irina’s father suggests this, but I thought his sudden acumen and respect for Irina at that meeting was inconsistent. He’s not been represented as highly intelligent, politically incisive or respectful of her up to this point.

Four 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.

Patterns in the Nebula finalist list

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I had mentioned in the comments section of my announcement of the Nebula finalists that I thought recent shifts in the makeup of the SFWA membership had led to changes in the ballot. To clarify, this is the sudden appearance of indie press military/hard SF on the finalists list when it had been recently trending (as in most awards) to primarily female and fantasy nominees. As it turns out, some other people noticed this pattern shift, too. In the last few days, there has been a huge and embarrassing battle raging on Twitter about a recommended reading list posted before the vote at 20booksto50K a self-publishing writers co-op. Although the post stated that this was NOT intended as a slate, it was still taken that way by some readers who claimed it had unfairly influenced the results.

Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos (apparently still suffering from PTSD acquired from their experience with the 2015 Hugos) challenged the list on Twitter and demanded that the finalists whose stories had appeared on it withdraw. Author of the post Jonathan Brazee immediately issued an apology and offered to withdraw his novella from consideration. Other nominees hunkered down in horror and kept their mouths shut, as did the SFWA Officers and Board of Directors. However, Sri Lankan writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, angered by racist accusations that he cheated because he couldn’t otherwise make it as a POC, stepped up to fight it out. Welcome to the SFF community Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Bellet and Yudhanjaya eventually kissed and made up on Twitter, but not before fairly serious damage was done to both their reputations.

I’m sure no one knew who Yudhanjaya was before his name appeared on the Nebula finalist list. For folks still in the dark, he is an established novelist and a hybrid writer, with both traditional and self-published works. His novelette “Messenger” with R.R. Virdi appeared in the anthology The Expanding Universe 4, and scored 15 recommendations on the 2018 Nebula reading list, plenty of votes to get the nomination without any slate. So, this comes off like another case of bullying successful POC writers.

See File 770 for a roundup of posts on the issue here and here. See Yudhanjaya’s blog here about this enlightening experience with the Nebulas so far.

Moving on to some other observations, once you get to looking for patterns in the Nebula finalist list, then there are at least a couple more that show up. I had meant to discuss this after the reviews, but since it’s been pointed out on other venues, this seems to be a better time. The dominance of certain traditional publishers on the list is troubling, for example, Tor. In the categories where Tor publishes (novelette, novella, novel) about half of the finalists this year were released by Tor. I’ve discussed this issue in the past, and the most likely explanation is the system of promotion, which includes give-aways, recommended reading lists, and reviews and recommendations in elite publications. I really almost think I could predict the finalists from a review of these promotions, and the same choices tend to appear in the Hugo Awards. The promotions determine what books everyone has read, so they become the award-winners, too.

The last pattern that shows up in the Nebulas is the inclusion of SFWA insiders on the list. This year, four members of SFWA Board of Directors out of five appear on the list of finalists, including: Sarah Pinsker, Andy Duncan, Lawrence Schoen and Kelly Robson. According to the rules, officers are ineligible for Nebula nominations because of their administrative access, but board members remain eligible. Mary Robinette Kowal, in line for president next year, is also a finalist. When asked about this on the SFWA forum, board members brushed it off as inconsequential.

There are also some patterns in the themes and styles this year, but I’ll get to that in my wrap up after the reviews.

Conservative vs. Liberal in the SFF Community

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Following up on the last blog, why do liberals/progressives feel like they have to force change? Why does N.K. Jemisin, for example, feel like she has to stand up in front of the WorldCon audience and accuse the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minorities (i.e. racism)? Is she right? And once she’s been privately called “graceless” because of this, why do some members of the community feel they have to leap to her defense?

I’d like to suggest this is because liberals remain in a distinct minority within the community, and the fact that liberals remain a minority means they have to try harder to be heard. Minority status for liberals in the SFF community somewhat defies conventional wisdom. There’s been quite a split in the community in recent years along political lines. I’ve seen a ton of articles about how the community is now more progressive because it’s inclusive of minorities and women. Supposedly there has been a big swing in publishing toward works these members read and write. Meanwhile, the big seller this year was classed as hard SF, Andy Weir won the Dragon Award, and I met an engineer last night who asked me for a list of authors who wrote books he might like.

So, have the demographics actually changed that much? Since there aren’t a lot of studies about readership in the SFF community, I’ll have to look at general demographics. In the US Gallup says conservatives and moderates heavily outnumber liberals; about 42% of the population identify as conservative, 35% as moderate and 20% as liberal, with 3% other. If you assume the SFF community also breaks out this way, then liberals are actually a huge minority. Even if the community has a much bigger liberal faction than the general population, this still likely leaves this group well into minority status. The Daily Dot recently identified WorldCom as a conservative organization. Because of all noise about diversity in the Hugo Awards, this may seem a little surprising, but maybe it’s not, after all.

Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race

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Since I discussed ethnicity and culture in the last Daredevil post, maybe this is a good time to go back to the Silverberg/Jemisin issue that played out after the events of WorldCon 2018. For anyone who’s been under a rock and missed the whole thing, Silverberg was displeased by Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her 3rd Best Novel win. In a discussion group he thought was private, he commented that he thought her conduct at the ceremony had been graceless and offensively political. He was immediately attacked as a sexist and racist. He made various attempts to defend himself against these charges, which were labeled just more evidence that he didn’t recognize his own shortcomings.

This is a fairly common occurrence these days, where someone makes a comment they think is a reasonable opinion, or even a private one in this case, and then is mercilessly attacked. I’ve commented before that the accuracy of the charges doesn’t really seem to be a question, only that it’s taken as an opportunity to attack, generally by the enforcers of a particular political agenda. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to say who’s right in the Silverberg/Jemisin fuss. What I want to look at is the cultural conflict that’s playing out behind this kind of conversation.

Because cultural norms and expectations are permanently in the process of negotiation, researchers consider them to be a contested zone. Culture is something that moves and changes, sometimes very quickly and sometimes hardly at all. It can be based on specific locale, with different norms just a few miles down the road, or it can be based on group membership, when a person’s expectations about how other people should behave is defined by social groupings within their culture. This means that when Silverberg, a past award winner, complained about Jemisin’s speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it meant she hadn’t met his expectations about how an award winner ought to behave. In particular, he seemed to be complaining about the political content of her speech.

Presumably if Jemisin had said something supportive of the SFF community’s history and values, praised its elders, etc., everything would have been just fine. However, she apparently considers herself a political activist and uses her speaking opportunities to attack institutions for their shortcomings, rather than saying things that show her support of the group—in this case she accused the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minority aspirations, i.e. racism. This tactic is meant to be provocative, as Jemisin is calling attention to the fact that the community doesn’t meet her standards. Her comments did trigger a conversation of sorts, but basically a disruptive one that generated hard feelings all around.

Actually, the reception for Jemisin’s speech seemed to be fairly warm at the time, and folks like Silverberg who were offended remained polite about it. It was only later when he thought he was in a private venue that he revealed his offense. So, were her comments appropriate? There’s where the question of culture and the “contested zone” comes in. It’s been fairly common in recent years for award winners to take an opportunity for political statements. See the Academy Awards, for example. However, there is always a backlash. This tactic is a matter of trying to force cultural change, rather than encouraging it. Why not have a conversation about solidarity instead?

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