Review of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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This dark fantasy/science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 10 September 2019 by Tor.com and runs 437 pages. This is Book #1 of The Locked Tomb Trilogy. The second installment, Harrow the Ninth, is scheduled for release in June of 2020, to be followed by the third, Alecto the Ninth. This review contains spoilers.

The God Emperor has the need of new Lyctors for his service. As a result, he has called on each of the Nine Houses to send a necromancer heir with their cavalier to the First House for evaluation. The decrepit Ninth House that guards the Tomb only has one necromancer, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and no available cavalier, so they draft the only possible candidate, Gideon the Ninth. She was a foundling that somehow survived a pestilence that killed all the other children of her generation before Harrowhark was born, and the two hate each other’s guts. Harrowhark swears Gideon to silence to keep her mouth shut, provides her with appropriate black robes and skull face paint, and they arrive at the First House as expected, along with the other candidates. Gideon has no experience outside the decaying Ninth, but she starts to make tentative friends. There are no instructions on what they’re to do. Harrowhark thinks it’s a matter of research through the forgotten labs of the First House to learn talents and abilities that make one a Lyctor, but maybe it’s a competition instead, as some of the candidates start to die in horrific ways. As the field of candidates narrows, Gideon and Harrowhark start to wonder why anyone would want to be a Lyctor anyhow. Is there a way to avoid it?

This is absolutely brilliant as far as style, world-building, plotting and characterization go. The story has a science-fictional setting, as the Nine Houses circle the sun Dominicus, and are presumably planets or space habitats. The Ninth House is furthest from the sun, darkest and coldest. The God Emperor sealed the Tomb there and apparently thought the caretakers he left behind would die off, but instead they have managed to maintain a small, desperate population. It took a huge magical sacrifice to produce the brilliant Harrrowhark, which leaves her warped and burdened by guilt that spills over on Gideon. Otherwise, this is basically a mystery plot, with a final twist ending as the path to Lyctorhood is revealed. Muir credits Lissa Harris for the sword work, which stands out for detail and authenticity.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering where Gideon gets her porn magazines if Ninth is so desolate. Also, I expect the author watches a lot of horror flics, as the imagery has the feel of slightly cliché special effects. The array of characters is also somewhat stereotypical, and as a long time mystery reader, I didn’t have much trouble picking out the perp—she was just too sweet. I didn’t see the twist coming, though.

Five 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.

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of Infinite Lives: Short Tales of Longevity, edited by Juliana Rew

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This anthology is #26 in the series, issued in October of 2019, a collection of speculative fiction short stories related in some way to long life or immortality. It’s edited by Juliana Rew and is offered as both an e-book and a paperback. There are 28 stories that range across genres, and the book includes some short humor pieces at the end. This review may contain spoilers.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is now pretty well-established as a source for solid, well-written stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. I’d love to mention all the stories but I don’t have the space here. The selections include “Tunnels” by Brian Trent about a long-lived man looking for the woman of his dreams; “A Billion Bodies More” by Sloan Leong where a woman dies a million deaths; “At the Precipice of Eternity” by Ingrid Garcia about an alien nano-swarm that communicates with a Madrid-based scientist; “Abe in Yosemite” by Robert Walton where Abe Lincoln and John Muir have a conversation about that event at the theater; “Cold Iron” by Wulf Moon about a Spaniard and an Indio woman trying to lay the Conquistador Pizzaro to a final rest; and “Find Her” by Konstantine Paradias, where an angel and a demon fight one another through eternity. The short humor pieces provide a laugh at the end, including letters to an Airbnb host and a listing of “best-selling” items from (ghost story writer) M.R. James’ collectibles catalog.

These offerings follow that standard, including everything from hard SF to out-and-out mythology. The cast of writers is diverse and international. Authors include: Brian Trent, Sloane Leong, Matt Thompson, J. B. Toner, Larry C. Kay, David F. Schultz, D. A. Campisi, Russell Dorn, Samson Stormcrow Hayes, Ingrid Garcia, Maureen Bowden, Brandon Butler, Caias Ward, Leah Miller, Megan Branning, Robert Walton, K. G. Anderson, Louis Evans, John Paul Davies, David Cleden, Tom Pappalardo, Philip John Schweitzer, Martin M. Clark, Wulf Moon, Mack Moyer, Konstantine Paradias, E. E. King, and Sarah Totton.

Four stars.

Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Review of Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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This is a science fiction/fantasy/horror novella published by Tor in May of 2018. According to the description it’s “the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original,” and leaning to Lovecraftian horror. The original chapbook was published in 2013 by Subterranean Press, and this version runs 208 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Near Deer Isle, off the coast of New England, a fallen star has poisoned the sea. Authorities evacuate everyone they can, blow up the bridge and fire rockets from Black Hawk helicopters, but still fail to stop the Great Old Ones from rising out of the sea. The agent Ptolema waits at a pub in Dublin for agents from the other side, who have maybe turned, but maybe not. When they arrive, she plays a recording that alarms them. In a later meeting, one of the agents identifies the important characters in the recording as psychiatrist Dr. Twisby and albino twins. The twins, Bête and Ivorie, are the result of sadistic experiments, lovers, and maybe entangled quantum particles on the run in a chaotic universe. Ptolema later assassinates the two agents she spoke with. Twisby has Ivorie killed, collapsing the twin souls into Bête. Years later, the White Woman drops the vial that poisons the sea.

On the positive side, this seems to have a theme. The agents apparently represent chaos versus order, playing a symbolic chess game with butterfly effects through the years. There are layers of post-modern symbolism where we encounter various literary allusions, a chess game, quantum entanglements and a time loop. The characters are very well developed, and given a recognizable conflict to work with, might actually be likable. The author provides chapter headings that describe place and time—somewhat helpful to track the way this skips around.

On the not so positive side, this has serious readability issues. The story gets off to a promising start with Ptolema and the two agents in Dublin, but after that, it pretty much collapses into chaos. Although there are a couple of linear threads that weave through it, most of the chapters seem nonsensical and unrelated; put together, they achieve no apparent meaning. Be prepared to break out your French language; one chapter is written almost entirely in French. There’s some gratuitous sickness here, too, where a production company streams seppuku type suicides. (The victim hesitates, maybe not sedated enough…) Ick.

Two stars.

Review of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a young adult science fiction novel published by Delacorte in November of 2018. It runs 515 pages. This is described as a trilogy, and book #2 called Starsight will be released in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Spensa is seventeen. She lives below ground on the world Detritus, which is a desert planet encased in space junk. Periodic openings in the junk layer allow Krell fighter ships to descend and launch attacks that could crack the caverns and destroy human habitation on the planet. The DDF is in dire need of fighter pilots to defend both the surface Alta Base and the caverns. Spensa wants to fly like her father, but he was branded a deserter and a coward after the Battle of Alta, so she has to battle a lot of prejudice to get into the pilot training program. She finally succeeds and enters a class taught by her father’s wing mate Cobb. Because of the shortage of pilots, the cadets are forced into combat almost immediately, and members of the class start to die. Spensa stumbles over an ancient, abandoned fighter ship in a cavern near the military base. When she starts to rebuild it, she finds there are a lot of questions about the situation that she needs answers to. And was her father really a coward?

The characters are very well-developed here, and we get attached to the cadets. There’s a lot of experiential time devoted to the mechanics of the fighters and the experience of flying, a la military SF, but the best thing about it is the always-dependable Sanderson themes. The first is the nature of cowardice, and the next is the issue of independent thought. Spensa is a scrappy outcast, always having to fight to get ahead, and this gives her a different perspective than the entrenched wealthy and politically powerful people she is dealing with. As her goals turn out to be questionable, she starts to think for herself about the society where she lives. Her friend FM wonders what it does to have a military government and to glorify fighting instead of building a better society. “Most people never question,” FM says, “and doggedly go through the motions of an obedient life.”

On the not so positive side, I thought the resolution to this was a trifle simplistic. Besides that, it pretty much changes the meaning of everything that’s gone before, and leaves all of Spensa’s attitude, goals and efforts in this book completely empty. There was some foreshadowing of unexplained issues, of course, but nothing to predict the extent of the lies. Do the leaders of this society even know what it’s based on? It’s like all of the fabric of reality crumbles, and we have a sudden, fairly jolting shift in perspective. Sanderson says something in the acknowledgements about this being fueled by his own experience as a kid, so I’m thinking it’s an intended symbolism. There are also a few loose ends that I’m suspicious about. We’ll have to see how this develops in Book #2.

Four and a half stars.

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