Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Finalists!

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The World Fantasy Convention where the award is presented takes place October 31 – November 3, 2019 in Los Angeles, CA. Two finalists in each category are chosen by previous convention attendees and the other three are added by judges. The panel of judges for 2019 is international, including: Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas and Tod McCoy. This year there’s a noticeable overlap between the fiction categories here and the Nebula and Hugo finalists I’ve already reviewed. I’ll start up some reviews of the rest in the fiction categories right away. I don’t know if I’ll get to the anthologies and collections.

NOVEL
In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey (John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)
Witchmark by C. L. Polk (Tor.com)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press)

NOVELLA
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)
The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Aug. 2018)
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION
“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine, July 2019)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed, October 2018)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny Magazine, March-April 2018)

ANTHOLOGY
Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler (Ate Bit Bear)
The Book of Magic, edited by Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books US/HarperVoyager UK)
Best New Horror #28, edited by Stephen Jones (Drugstore Indian Press UK)
Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (Saga Press)
Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo (Tor.com)

COLLECTION
The Tangled Lands, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (Saga Press/Head of Zeus UK)
Still So Strange, by Amanda Downum (ChiZine Publications)
An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories, by Andy Duncan (Small Beer Press)
How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Phantom Limbs, by Margo Lanagan (PS Publishing)

ARTIST
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
Jeffrey Alan Love
Shaun Tan
Charles Vess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL
C. C. Finlay, for F&SF editing
Irene Gallo, for Art Direction at Tor Books and Tor.com
Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)
Catherine McIlwaine for Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition (The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford)
Julian Yap, Molly Barton, Jeff Li, and James Stuart for Serial Box

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL
Mike Allen, for Mythic Delirium
Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny Magazine
E. Catherine Tobler, for Shimmer Magazine
Terri Windling, for Myth & Moor

Review of Time Was by Ian McDonald

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This is a time travel novella released by Tor.com in April of 2018. Print length is 144 pages. McDonald is an award-winning author, having won the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This review contains spoilers.

Emmett Leigh is a sometimes poet and book dealer who specializes in the World War II era. At a bookstore closing, he finds a copy of a poetry book titled Time Was by E.L. Anonymous. Inside is a letter from Tom to his lover Ben. Emmett posts to Facebook, asking for any information on the principals, and is answered by Thorn Hildreth, who recognizes the names. She lives in Lincolnshire, inherited an archive of WWII memorabilia from her grandfather, and also has a photograph. Emmett’s friend, an Imperial War Museum archivist with a photographic memory, locates other photographs for him, but oddly, these are from different time periods. Emmett and Thorn are forced to the conclusion these two men may be immortals, but further research shows they may be time travelers instead, who use the poetry book as a way to leave messages for each other in different eras. Can Emmett unravel the mystery?

The narrative switches between Emmett’s research and the lovers’ encounters. The story comes together gradually as Emmett investigates, and we learn about the wartime research project that created the time stresses, still playing out, that left Ben and Tom lost in time. We also learn about Emmett’s personal associations as he researches. He strikes up a brief relationship with Thorn, which soon fails, and finds out interesting things about Tom’s mentor, the author of the little book of poetry. The big standout in this novella is the imagery, as the text is accompanied by magical, haunting, atmospheric descriptions of the surroundings, including visuals, sounds and scents.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much in the way of plot here. Emmett’s research unfolds, first revealing the mystery and then following it through. There’s not really much of a hook or action line, either, and I wasn’t really surprised by the revelations at the end. However, this is a great little love story, and definitely worth reading because of the lyrical quality of the prose. I was also glad to see some equal time for a gay male love story here, as SFF output seems to be trending lately to lesbian relationships.

Four stars.

Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.

Spot Sleeps on Davidson

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Spot is now a media star. She’s made a second appearance on File 770, entitled Cats Sleep on SFF: Avram Davidson. Check it out here.

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Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

Happy Holiday!

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