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 “The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It seems to be absurdist alternate history/horror and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Regan is a Radium Girl. This means she works in a factory where women paint radium onto watch dials to make them visible in the dark. The women use tiny brushes and moisten and point them with their lips. This means Regan has developed terminal cancer from the radiation and her mouth and throat are rotting out. Because the women are dying, management buys up surplus elephants and puts them to work in the factory instead. Regan and an elephant named Topsy communicate in sign language and become friends. Regan is laid off from the factory and sent home to die. Topsy kills one of the staff that abuses her and is sentenced to death by electrocution. Can the two of them get their revenge?

This is a mashup of actual historical events. The Radium Girls and Topsy are both events that look like horror stories to us now. There is also a thread of elephant folklore running through the work and a sequence about a scientist named Kat who wants to use elephants as sentinels to guard nuclear waste sites. This is a very angry piece, as Bolander attacks capitalist owners for the ways they exploit and abuse their workers and pass on public costs like radiation and nuclear waste to the rest of us. (Remember, business regulation by the government is for a reason.) You can also throw animal cruelty in there, too. Bolander has put some imagination into world-building as far as elephant sentience and culture goes, creating a collective voice for the folklore. The different threads are written in different dialects, helping us to keep track. The plot device intended for exacting revenge is also interesting, another example from real past science.

On the not so positive side, this has some issues. The first is readability. The four narrative threads (Kat, Regan, Topsy, folklore) are hard to follow and leave the reader jumping around in time and space—Regan and Topsy are obviously working together, but the folklore traces an apparent history, and Kat seems to live well into their future. Next, there is very little description of the factory, and I’m left wondering how they got the elephants in there to work. Do they sit at long metal tables like the girls, or did the owners build stalls and bring in hay? And last, the ending is a total washout—the story just stops. There are some clues to what happened at the beginning, and about 2/5 of the way through we get an explosion. So, I did a little research on what might be expected to happen here. As Regan walks Topsy to her execution, she passes along a sample of radium in a glass vial that the elephant hides in her mouth. When the electrocution occurs, we’re assuming that expanding gasses within the vial will cause it to explode. I saw a couple of descriptions of this as a nuclear bomb, but that’s bad science. We’re not going to get megatons of explosive power out of a little radium sample—maybe a little pop. Assuming the explosion is enough to shatter an elephant’s jaw, this is likely to be a dirty bomb, dangerous to the poor city sanitation grunts that have to clean up the mess and the innocent kids that use the park every day. It’s more public costs, Brooke. Let’s not advocate for terrorism.

Three and a half stars for the message (minus the revenge part).

Review of “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Tor.com in July of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Saffron is the confection taster for the Regent Searle, serving as a hostage because her husband Danny is currently the Regent’s pastry chef. The Regent has grand dinners where he features the pastries and their magical effects of memory and emotion. Saffron takes her place at the Regent’s side. He seems to be in a good mood tonight, and the guests relax somewhat, expecting the dinner will go well. The first course is the Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth, and Saffron experiences the scene where she met and flirted with Danny for the first time. The memories grow darker as the dinner continues, featuring the agonized death of her sister at the Regent’s command. Is there any way Danny can poison the man and not kill her?

This is written in an artistic, low-key style, where even the descriptions of torture are understated. Saffron experiences bittersweet memories of better days, and of emotional pain, all the while smiling for the Regent and his guests as if nothing touches her. Danny, the unseen consummate artist, orchestrates the leisurely flow of the banquet, bringing it to a well-deserved close. There’s not much plot here, mostly backstory provided by the memory pastries and then a close, but it held my interest. The characters are well-developed, and there are loving descriptions of everything, especially the pastries.

On the less positive side, there’s no suspense here at all, and very little threat to Saffron and Danny expect their positions on the Regent staff—we just read along and the story unfolds. This means it leaves a good feeling, but I don’t think it’s going to be especially memorable except as an art piece.

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 “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published in Apex magazine in February of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

A librarian watches as a skinny black child discovers the library. The boy clearly loves escapist fantasies and chooses books like The Runaway Prince. He turns out to be a foster child. The librarian feeds him a compendium of fantasy books, but keeps away the book that he really needs. When he tries to hide in the library overnight, she decided not to notice. When he starts to smell of futility and the death of yearning, she begins to wonder: What should she do?

This is another character-driven story without anything much in the way of plot. The boy comes into the library over a period of time and the witchy librarian watches him. This is an allegory, I expect, of what actual librarians see in rural counties when disadvantaged children come in and discover a different world outside their own circumscribed place. It has an upbeat feel at the end, as we can assume the boy uses the magic book to build a successful life somewhere else.

On the negative side, this feels long and relies on mechanics that are a little too visible. It’s clearly aimed at avid fantasy readers who will love the books the boy reads. It uses pity to make an emotional impact as the poor kid spirals deeper into depression. The story has a couple of digressions about other disadvantaged children that make the social justice topic clear, but I thought this detracted some from this particular boy’s story. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the magic book is that she gives the boy to rescue him. Of course, this is symbolic, but it leaves something of a gap in the narrative. Actually, why aren’t they passing out magic books for everybody?

Three and a half 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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