Review of Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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This dark fantasy/science fiction novel is also billed as The Locked Tomb Trilogy #2, released by Tor.com on August 4, 2020. It runs 512 pages. Number 1 in the series is Gideon the Ninth and #3 Alecto the Ninth will be released in 2021. This review contains major spoilers.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus has not submitted well to Lyctorhood. Instead of absorbing the essence of her dead cavalier Gideon Nav as expected, she has partitioned her brain, leaving Gideon Nav her own space. The alterations leave Harrow sick and hallucinating, barely in touch with reality. As new Lyctors, she and Ianthe Tridentarius have been accepted into training in the Necrolord Prime’s (a.k.a. God’s) company. In self-defense, the two of them form a fragile alliance. Harrow replaces Ianthe’s foreign arm with one of bone, allowing her to achieve the skill with a rapier that she needs, and Ianthe keeps letters for Harrow that she wrote before damaging her own brain. Harrow’s mentor, the Saint of Duty, tortures her as a means of training, trying to get her to integrate her caviler, and Harrow fights back with all her talents as a necromancer and bone magician. Meanwhile God, who has ignited the sun Dominicus and placed the space habitat Nine Houses in its orbit, is being pursued by Resurrection Beasts, the ghosts of dead planets he has left in his wake. Even in her altered state, Harrow is realizing things are not as they should be. A Resurrection Beast attacks God’s space station, preceded by heralds, and in the defense Harrow is lost in the River (of dead souls). Gideon has to take over Harrow’s body on the station, and her sudden appearance sets a plot against God into motion. Who’s going to live and who’s going to their final rest in Hell?  

On the positive side, this whole series is amazingly well plotted. The first installment ran like a murder mystery, where candidates for Lyctorhood began dropping like flies. This one is heavily surreal, but the overall plot eventually emerges that ties the Locked Tomb of the Ninth House to what God and his little band of Lyctors have been doing. The narrative includes sharp imagery and the characters are very well drawn, with clear differences between the Houses. God and his Lyctors are very down-to-earth, and God especially comes across as a nice person, but evil in deed and really hard to assassinate. Most of the state of things emerges from their arguments. The theme here is apparently from “Anabel Lee”: how love transcends death.  

On the less positive side, there is a serious readability problem with this installment, meaning it was a really hard slog. The timeline of event is jumbled and much of the 512 pages is questionable because of Harrow’s brain damage. She has cut Gideon out of her memory and constructs a different version of the events in the first book and how actions are proceeding on the station. Things come together for a while when the level-headed Gideon takes over and Harrow’s consciousness goes away to set up a reality bubble in the River, but then after various revelations and the hit against God, things fall into a muddle again.  

Major spoiler alert: I’m sure people will be looking for reviews that explain the ending. Here’s what I make of it: God has escaped with his single remaining Lyctor, Ianthe Tridentarius. Everyone else is either crippled or dead. Harrow is rescued from the River by rebels and revived; however, she is still brain damaged. Gideon, revealed to be God’s daughter, is still narrating, so is presumably around somewhere. I’m expecting that Alecto the Ninth will be the eventual synthesis of Gideon and Harrowhark, who may challenge God for his place in the universe. But maybe not.

Minor niggles: As I understand it, Gideon is God’s clone or partial clone, so why isn’t she male? We’re given to believe that the cavaliers are all destructively absorbed by their necromancers, but this is clearly not the case with God, and not apparently with the Saint of Duty, either, as death of his necromancer leaves the cavalier present and still completely functional. And last, how did Harrow know to write the letters for herself? Is she prescient somehow?

I’m tempted to give this a low score because of the readability mess, but it’s still a pretty decent book. Four stars.

Review of The Lost Sisters by Holly Black

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This e-novella is a companion piece for the Folk of the Air trilogy, a look at The Cruel Prince’s story from Taryn’s viewpoint. The e-file also contains a one-chapter intro to The Wicked King. This was published by Little Brown in October of 2018, and runs 50 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This is basically a short recap of the first book, written in second person (you), and addressing Taryn’s twin sister Jude. It features Black’s lyrical style and flow, and investigates the cruel interpersonal relations that go on between the Folk of Faerie and the mortal Taryn and her sister. There is also some introductory commentary about traditional fairy tales and how they discriminate against women in the realms of power.

Clearly this was meant as a marketing tool for the next installment of the main series, but it may have also been meant to give life to Taryn’s character—the first person structure of the Folk of the Air trilogy means we always see others from Jude’s perspective, and the other characters remain a little flat. However, if this was the purpose, it didn’t work very well. This ends up sounding mostly like an apology from Taryn for bowing to circumstances and not being there for her sister when Jude tries to fight back. In this narrative, Taryn comes off like a whiny victim who never manages to take control of her own life, falls for a clearly duplicitous guy, makes a poor marriage, and then constantly apologizes for being what she is. Part of Black’s intent may be to set up Taryn as Jude’s foil just to illustrate the contrast between the fighter and the victim mentality. Neither of the two is particularly likable, and neither is completely successful in trying to deal with the system. However, the idea that the characters (twins) might be laying out two paths for the same person is interesting.

Besides this, I have to hand it to Black for taking on the issue of submission. A big chunk of media these days is pushing girls to take charge, but nobody is presenting the real-world challenges. We’re seeing some of it here. Jude fights her way to the top, but struggles because she hasn’t the skills to make alliances and wield power. Meanwhile, Taryn tries to blend and take a traditional role, but then turns out to be boring to a dismissive, two-faced husband.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Nebula Winners!

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The Nebula Conference was virtual this year, but here are the fiction awards announced on May 30:

Best Novel : A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Best Novella: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)

Best Novelette: Carpe Glitter by Cat Rambo (Meerkat)

Best Short Story: “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)

Additional awards:

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Riverland by Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing: The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Good Omens: “Hard Times” by Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)

Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award: Lois McMaster Bujold

Review of The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga/Angry Robot on 19 March 2019 and runs 369 pages. The novel is an expansion of the author’s short story “The Light Brigade” published by Lightspeed in November 2015. This novel is not appropriate for children, and it gets a trigger warning for adults, too, as it includes graphic descriptions of death in a war. This review contains spoilers.

After São Paulo is depopulated by the Blink, Dietz wants to be a hero. She signs up for the Corporate Corps to fight against the Communist Martians that everybody knows are responsible. She goes through basic training and then is deployed on missions with a technology that breaks combat grunts down into particles of light and reassembled them somewhere else. However, for some soldiers this light-speed travel causes time glitches. Dietz experiences the war in a jumble of out-of-sync missions, but keeps her mouth shut about it because of rumors people who talk about things like that disappear. After a while, the jumble of missions starts to assemble into a picture that causes Dietz to question the very basis of the war. Is there anything she can do about it?

First the literary allusions: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854 about the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here’s a short sample: “Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” Besides this, the transport technology strongly suggests Star Trek.

This novel is another in the recent trend to surrealist writing, and the accomplishment is fairly impressive. The main theme seems to be how easy it is to believe in lies and never think for yourself, and the story also functions as an anti-war screed. There is a definite plot, but it’s jumbled because of the time glitches and has to be assembled by the reader (you might want to take notes). Next, it seems Hurley has read Marx, who predicts that the end game of Capitalism is a small number of huge, wealthy and powerful corporations that ruthlessly fight to eliminate the competition. Hence the corporate wars in this novel. The Big Six are pitted against one another, and will commit any atrocity to win. While the rich corporates get richer, the poor are dying in the ruins. The Martian resistance is the Marxist revolution. We don’t get a clear picture of how these rebels carry on their business, but they are presented as living free lives and are labeled by the corporate leaders as dangerous Communists who threaten an important way of life.

On the less positive side, the author’s tool for creating impact includes constant graphic descriptions of violent death and dismemberment. Just be warned—I flinched at the first few incidents, but after a while I got desensitized and just plowed through the carnage. Next, the book makes an excellent case against the dangers of uncontrolled Capitalism, but suggesting that Communism is a simple, easy answer to the problems is another lie. Economists know that neither system is a panacea, and the best solution is a middle ground that stimulates enterprise while still providing opportunity for all. The important issue becomes how to provide that, especially for vulnerable members of the population. And one last annoyance: this is written in first person, and Dietz remains ungendered through the whole book until a friend calls her by her first name on page 351. Please, either let us know about gender early on or else let the protagonist remain ungendered. This device is clearly meant to be a gotcha, and it is not a twist ending.

Four stars.

Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards, a stand-alone novel written in the universe of the Wayfarer series. It was published 3 September 2019 by Harper Voyager/Hodder & Stoughton and is billed as 176 pages, but it looks more like 136 in the ebook. There’s an extensive acknowledgement section and “exclusive content” at the end that is an interview Chambers conducted with her (mom) science consultant, Nikki Chambers, an astrobiology researcher and educator in Southern California, that makes up the rest of the advertised length.

It’s the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is part of the Lawki 6 team sent to explore exoplanets. The team has an assigned itinerary, and spends the time between arrivals in torpor storage where they are adaptively somatoformed so they can move freely on each particular world. Aecor has an ice crust with phosphorescent creatures that live under the ice. Mirabilis is a riot of life. Opera is terrible, fraught with storms that ultimately prevent them leaving the ship. Votum is tidally locked and at first appears deserted, but they find caves that hold secrets. Somewhere along the way Lawki 6 has stopped receiving bulletins from Earth. The team receives a final transmission from Lawki 5, damaged and attempting to land on Earth, but then nothing else. Is there any reason to continue their mission?

For anyone who’s wondering, this title is from a quote by UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim, 1977, recorded on the Voyager Golden Record as a message to any sentients who might intercept the interstellar probe.

I’d rate this story moderately high on the hardness scale because of the projections and the amount of real science that’s included, and as is usual with Chambers’ work, this contains a pretty big emotional wallop. The characters include two men and two women, with one of the men maybe trans, but this is only hinted and remains respectfully private and unclear. All characters are appealing and they respect each other, getting along with a minimum of conflict. The group is immersed in work they love and they experience the joy of discovery, but the mission turns dark when they start to suspect something bad has gone wrong on Earth. Besides this, Chambers engineers traumatic events in the mission that strongly affect the team members’ mental health.

On the less positive side, this probably needs a trigger warning because of its representation of murder, depression and attempted suicide. I would also have liked to read more on the ethics of killing aliens. The issue is given as cut and dried here, but it looks like a huge philosophical problem to me. The story also leaves us with an inconclusive ending. In the scenario provided, there’s no way around the team being stuck. It looks like a return to Earth might be a poor idea. They could extend their mission, but eventually they will run out of fuel. This raises the question of how they’re getting around. I’m just not sure the technology for a mission like this would be based on fuel that runs out. Shouldn’t the ship be at least nuclear powered?

Four stars.

Review of “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

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This fantasy/alternate reality short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 23 October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nyma is ten years old and the chosen child. Her country is at war and Otto Han has just been elected president. The military has the seres missiles that will most certainly stop the war, but will also cause terrible destruction to the cities of the enemy. Nyma has the access codes for the missiles buried next to her heart, and the president has a ceremonial dagger that can be used to retrieve them. Nyma’s tutor Tej tells her to establish a relationship with Han, so she reads him poetry, and after a book of her poems is published, she becomes recognized nationally as a poet. However, their country is losing the war and pressure is mounting to use the missiles. Will Han sacrifice her to get the codes?

This is a highly creative mashup of atom bombs and access codes with human sacrifice. The Order, creators of the system, have put a human face on the codes, a child that the president has to kill with his own hands and that the people in the country know and love. Han has to complete this step before he can bring the missiles to bear on the enemy, a task that might otherwise be easy, callous and unfeeling. Stress builds, while we wonder if Han has the stomach to do it. As I was reading, I had visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people had no warning of the firestorm coming down on them.

On the less positive side, this is a little too pat. The characters carry out their roles and we get the message, but there’s really very little conflict other than the inevitability of the decision Han will have to make. Everybody remains obedient to the system, even though I expect military interests could come up with several ways to get around the issue of killing a child. We get to know Nyma through her poetry, but she remains mostly a cipher. The world and the situation also remain vague, and I ended up with very little in the way of solid images or details. Shouldn’t Nyma have had a security detail?

Three stars.

Molly Crosses the Rainbow Bridge

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Here’s another sad memorial post. We’ve lost another member of the family. Molly sat at my sister’s doorstep for 17 years, which made her 119 in dog years. She lost a foot to a mower in her youth and didn’t walk well, so she stayed close and concentrated on becoming the world’s best watchdog. She was dearly beloved and we miss her a lot.

Molly

Wrap Up of the 2019 Nebula Reviews

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This was pretty much a whirlwind tour, as I had only read and reviewed a couple of the Nebula finalists this year before the list was announced. As usual, I’m now going to have a look at what patterns seem to emerge.

First, the diversity count. Here’s what I get from a quick search—apologies if I’ve missed or mischaracterized anybody. The gender count in the novella category adds up to 10 people and is slanted to male because of the two works with multiple authors. The other categories follow the recent awards pattern of leaning heavily to white, female, LGBTQ authors. In all, 24 works and 28 authors were nominated, with the approximate percentages as follows:
Gender: 8/28 (29%) men, 18/28 (64%) women, 2/28 (7%) non-binary.
Ethnicity: 4/28 (14%) Jewish, 1/28 (4%) Hispanic, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 3/28 (11%) African American, 5/28 (18%) Asian, 18/28 (64%) white.
Sexual orientation: 7/28 (25%) LGBTQ.

The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% this year because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. Whites at 64% were slightly above the US demographic of 61%; Asians at 18% were well above the 5.6% demographic in the US population, and Jewish at 14% were also well above 1.8-2.6% of the US population. All other ethnicities were underrepresented. The 25% representation of LGBTQ authors leaned heavily to women and remains well above the estimated US national demographic of 4.5%. This strong trend to LGBTQ and Jewish writers continues from previous years. Besides these forms of diversity, there was also a good representation of non-US authors in 2019, including several UK and Canadian residents. As far as main characters go, 19/24 (79%) of the works had a female protagonist, 4/24 (17%) had a male protagonist and 1/24 (4%) had a cat as the main character.Two of the male protagonists were gay, a good showing for a group that is so underrepresented in the authors.

It was a little hard to sort out genre this year because of the extremes in creativity and style. I count 12/24 (50%) works that made some attempt to be science fiction, 10/24 (42%) that look like pure fantasy and 2/24 (8%) that look to be a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. Although a fairly high percentage used SF settings, there was nothing here that really rates high on the SF hardness scale. Gannon and Chiang’s works are more traditional, as they include some discussion and hands-on tech action, but none of the rest rate more than a 1.0 on the hardness scale, meaning that they use a SF setting, but include little or no actual science. Space opera was clearly popular in the novel category, and absurdist and surreal works dominated the novella category, a style that seems to be rising in popularity.

A quick look for the dominant publishers shows Tor with 6/24 (25%) and Uncanny Magazine with 4/24 (17%) of the finalists. F&SF squeaked in a nomination for 2019, something that’s getting to be rare for the paperback print magazines.

As far as themes go, angry political messages seem to be down slightly this year. These were more common in the short story category than in the longer works. Political screeds include Wise, Sen and Harrow with the theme of women killing men and taking over their power. Greenblatt covered climate change and ecological disaster. Other themes seem to be more related to social change. In the novel category, both Pinsker and Gannon offered the dangers of addiction to virtual reality. Solomon and Osborne’s works considered the subject of erasing history. Several other works, taking the opposite position, presented real-world historical outrages like past treatment in asylums and colonial injustices. Love and revenge both seemed to be highly popular as topics.

After noticing last year that a high percentage of Nebula finalists were also officers or directors of the SFWA, I checked this statistic again. Sarah Pinsker, currently with two nominations, is a director-at-large of the SFWA, and Cat Rambo was the outgoing president in 2019. Several of these authors are perennials, notably Gannon and Pinsker, and Wise is also a finalist in two categories, but nominees also included several new voices this year.

As an extra bonus, see comments for a guess at who will win.

Happy Holidays!

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A Merry Christmas to those who observe it, and a happy New Year to all! Everyone please have a safe and peaceful holiday season.

bells

Review of “Emergency Skin” by N.K. Jemisin

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, edited by Blake Crouch. Jemisin is the multi-award winning author of The Broken Earth trilogy. The story runs 33 pages, and this review contains major spoilers.

An agent is sent to Earth, which the Founders of a new colony abandoned years ago. Most of the inhabitants of the new colony wear an artificial composite skin, but the Founders have promised the agent a perfect white skin and a long penis if they are successful in retrieving samples of the HeLa culture for use in life-prolonging applications. In order to monitor and direct the operation, an AI is implanted in the agent’s brain. Although the AI says the Earth is likely destroyed and the inhabitants ugly and devolved, the agent finds everything healthy and beautiful, with residents living in elevated cities that do little or no harm to the environment. The residents recognize the agent’s composite skin and readily offer samples of the HeLa culture. Intrigued, the agent activates their emergency skin, which produces a dark covering that includes “wooly” hair, and makes plans to stay with one of the Earth residents. Should they abandon their mission?

This is an experimental format, as the author writes in second person (you) and records only what the AI and the Earth residents say. This means the reader has to infer anything the agent thinks or says in return. As usual, Jemisin has set up a resonant foundation for her story. This particular one seems to be an allegory of rich whites fleeing the neighborhood while taking advantage of black contrubutions. Because of the format, there’s not much in the way of world-building, action or characterization. All that remains nebulous, second-person hearsay, and the reader has to work a bit to translate the message, which takes shape gradually as the story progresses.

HeLa is a culture of cancer cells harvested from Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died in 1951. The culture is apparently immortal and has been proposed for species-hood because it has a unique genome derived from both human and HPV chromosomes. It has been used for scientific and medical research since the 1950s, in important and highly profitable projects including Salk’s development of the polio vaccines. The culture has never been patented, and because of its commercial value, it remains controversial because the Lacks family has never been considered “owners” or compensated for its use.

Besides featuring the HeLa culture, Jemisin injects racism and genderism into the story by having the Founders dangle white-maleness as the sought-after reward in their culture. However, judging the difference between the worlds, the agent chooses a dark and (possibly) female skin over this, in order to better experience the culture of Earth, where getting rid of the wealthy elite has allowed the “ugly” dregs of humanity left behind to come together and save the world.

I know it’s necessary for the allegory, but there’s a fundamental inconsistency in what the Founders’ AI says. If the Founders think the Earth is in such bad shape, why have they sent an agent to look for the HeLa culture there? It lives in a science lab.

This is well executed as long as the message is seen as political commentary meant to provoke emotion. However, in real world terms, the idea of removing wealthy whites to improve the world seems simplistic. On the other hand, is Jemisin suggesting that black people need to stop lusting after whiteness and take care of things themselves? That’s a more complex subject.

Four stars.

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