Review of Down among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and a second book in the authors Wayward Children series, a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Beneath the Sugar Sky was also published this year. This runs 190 pages and was published by Tor.com.

Jack and Jill are twin girls born to indifferent parents that only want children for their prestige value. The two of them are forced into obedience and limited roles, Jack a princess and Jill an athlete, but they sometimes yearn to be something else. One day they open their grandmother’s old trunk in the attic and find steps inside that run down through darkness into another world. Taking the stairs, they emerge onto a moor with a red moon and find there’s a castle, its vampire master and a village protected by a palisade. The other power in this place is Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist who lives in a windmill out on the moor. The girls are given a choice of which to serve and how to live. How will they choose? Is there any way they can get home?

Good points: This book falls into the young adult category because of the age of the protagonists, who grow from 12 to 17 during their time in the alternate world. It’s presented as a fairy tale about Jack and Jill, with chapter headings that refer back to the nursery rhyme. McGuire uses a narrator to tell the story, who addresses the reader directly and makes comments on how the tale relates to real life choices as it unfolds. There’s an artful contrast between the vampire master, obsessed with death, and Dr. Bleak, obsessed with life. This is inclusive, touching on the different roles women can choose, including STEM. Jack’s lover Alexis allows the author to comment on the question of weight and body image. The rest of the world is adequately sketched in for the scope of the story. Although it starts out with a magical feel, this descends into a faintly horrific vibe as the story moves forward.

Not so good points: This moves very slowly and nothing much happens. It’s another one of those expansions that could have been written as a short story with about as much impact—although in that case it would have likely reached a much more limited audience than the novella. It’s clear this is written as instructional material for 12-year old girls. However, I thought the choices were too black and white–the development doesn’t account for the insidiousness of evil. Although I notice other reviewers have called this magical, I didn’t think it was uplifting or empowering. I was left with something of a depressed feel. You have to enjoy McGuire’s writing style to get the most out of it.

Four stars.

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Review of Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s appears to be science fantasy and was published by Tor.com. It’s also the sequel to the Nebula and Hugo Award winning Binti.

Binti is finishing her first year at Oomza University where she has had problems adjusting to her new situation and the changes the Meduse made to her DNA during the eventful voyage from home. She suffers from flashbacks, mood swings and anger management issues that she doesn’t understand. She decides to return home for a break, during which she can go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe. The Meduse Okwu plans to accompany her to Earth as an ambassador to her people. At home, her family holds a feast to welcome her, but then family members express their anger at her decision to leave home for university, considering it a betrayal. Instead of completing the pilgrimage, Binti has a vision and meets her grandmother, a member of the Desert People, whom she learns to accept as a civilized people.

This installment of the story continues to investigate the challenges of leaving family to forge a new personal path in life, where Binti leaves behind the safety and tradition of her Himba kin group to attend a multicultural university. Her interactions with her family outline the difficulties of trying to maintain traditions after she is tainted by change. Also, this book exposes the racism that her lighter-skinned tribe practices against the darker desert people, and shows the desert people to be an advanced culture, after all. This parallels the opinion the Khoush people have of the Himba, and worse, the Meduse. It suggests they are likewise worthy.

Not so good points: The first quarter of the novella is basically a rehash of the previous book, as Binti experiences flashbacks, and the story only picks up with new material when she arrives home. There’s not much in the way of plotting or world-building either one here, and I’m left without much vision of what the university is like, what it teaches or why Binti has to cross the galaxy to get to it. (Is this just a symbol of cultural distance?) The astrolabes Binti and her father manufacture look to be a sort of tablet; her use of mental math equations to generate a “current” is unexplained, and the desert people’s communications system looks like nanotech. This suggests advanced civilization and a far-future scenario, but I’ve got no idea. I’m left wondering if African tribespeople are all that have survived some cataclysm on Earth. If so, what happened to everybody else?

The result is pretty confusing, but I’ll have to give the author some credit for different themes and calling out racism in people of color.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld, September 2017. This review may contain spoilers.

Multi Bot 9 is wakened from storage to remove a “biological infestation” on the ship. It sets to work pursuing the vermin, which is highly destructive, something like a rat and something like a bug. Bot 9 is obsolete, and notices its job is 944 in the maintenance queue. This suggests the ship needs a lot of work. There are lots of newer bots working on the maintenance and Bot 9 makes their acquaintance, as well as chatting with the ship’s AI. Soon it realizes that the ship is a junker, has a minimal human crew and is on a final suicide mission to save humanity from an alien invasion. Can Bot 9 fix that problem, too?

Bot 9 is endearing because of its totally positive attitude, regardless of how nasty the vermin. Its abilities might be limited compared to later models and Captain Baraye calls the model “unstable,” but its primitive manufacture also allows for reconfiguration and improvisation. When you transfer this theme to the real world, the story demonstrates the kind of gung-ho spirit and creativity that solves even the toughest problems. The narrative switches back and forth between the desperate humans trying to carry out their mission on a crippled ship and the bots trying to fix it well enough to carry out the planned suicide. The bot interactions add humor, and of course the humans are totally flabbergasted when 9’s activities are revealed. The plotting and execution here are both creative and entertaining.

On the not so great side, this has the fairly standard failing of making the bots and the ship’s AI too human in their interactions. That means it fails on suspension of disbelief. The ship’s AI, especially, comes across as an indulgent parent figure that makes good-hearted threats to the bots and lies to the human crew. At the end of the story, we get the impression that 9 plans to ignore its orders like a willful child. Besides that, I didn’t think there was enough of a rising action line to support the story’s length. Nine’s pursuit of the ratbug gets routine fairly quickly and seeing the incident from its perspective insulates the reader from the drama of the human’s situation.

Four stars.

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Review of “Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Tor.com. This is a stand-alone story that falls into Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. Novels in this universe include Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, both from Solaris, and Revenant Gun, coming soon.

The young Shuos Jedao is promised a promotion to moth commander if he can successfully carry out a special ops mission to rescue a crew captured by the Gwa-an and held at Du Station. Incidentally, Jedao went to space academy with the crew leader, Shuos Meng. Jedeo joins a merchant group which provides a cover, but apparent pirates turn out to be Gwa-an military. He allows himself to be arrested in order to infiltrate the station. Can he rescue Meng and the crew? And what should he do about that lusty fellow Techet?

This is more humorous than serious, starting with the shipment of goose fat from his mom that Jedeo takes for a bomb at the beginning, and ending with a final joke about the use Techet finds for the goose fat. The plotting is decent if not dramatic, including a twist ending. Lee drops the reader right into the universe without any explanation, so this becomes an experience in creative world-building. Since I’ve read a couple of Lee’s novels set in the universe at this point, it’s no longer new to me, but fresh readers are likely to be entertained by the complexity of the culture and the gender roles. The running joke about the goose fat and other lubricants is also amusing.

Not so good points: The complexity and lack of explanation will be hurdles for some readers. Also, I understand this is supposed to be humorous, but the particulars of the execution really stretched my suspension of disbelief—it’s just not convincing and actually comes off a bit slap-stick. Plus, the story didn’t generate much in the way of drama or investigation of the human condition, either one.

Presumably it’s just for fun.

Three stars.

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Congrats to the Nebula winners!

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Best Novel: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Best Novella: All Systems Red by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
Best Novelette: “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson (Tor.com 1/4/17)
Best Short Story: “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)

That means I’ll be moving on to reviewing the Hugo finalists in the fiction categories. As in recent years, I’m expecting that the Hugo choices are more politically charged.

As usual, I don’t have a whole lot left to review. In the short story category, 4 out of 6 are the same for the two lists of award finalists; in the novelette category, 3 of 6 are the same and in the novella category, 4 of 6 are the same. I’ve got the most work to do in the novel category, where only 2 of the 6 are repeats. There is also a similarity in the names from previous years, with recent winners N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee, Seanan McGuire, Ursula Vernon and Nnedi Okorafor putting in repeat appearances.

For anyone interested in how many fiction works have won both the Nebula and Hugo Award, I see there’s a list at Wikipedia.

Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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This is volume 2 of The Murderbot Diaries, begun in 2017 with the entertaining and award winning All Systems Red. It’s a novella published by Tor/MacMillian and runs 160 pages. This review may contain spoilers.

Murderbot has successfully escaped a quiet existence at PreservationAux and set out to find what its dark half-memories of a massacre are about. The transport it hitched a ride on arrives in port, and Murderbot transfers to another outbound transport, headed for the Ganaka mining pit where it thinks the massacre took place. This time, however, it has hit on a highly intelligent research vessel hired out for transport by its university. The two of them get off to a rough start, but ART (Asshole Research Transport) eventually comes around to the point of helping with Murderbot’s mission. Murderbot hires out as a security consultant to a group of young humans trying to get their research files back from a local company that confiscated them. This is intended for emigration purposes, but Murderbot gets involved in their problem. Meanwhile, news that it’s a rogue SecUnit has emerged. Can it keep the kids alive and find out about its past before the authorities catch up with it?

Good points: The interactions with ART are pretty much a necessity to deal with the realities here. ART challenges Murderbot’s stubborn, poorly thought out assumptions about how it can masquerade as a human and get to Ganaka Pit to find out what happened there. ART is a great character with some pretty transparent failings itself, and the two of them turn out to be a good team. Murderbot contracts for work itself and shows the same empathy and responsibility on the job that it showed for the last set of clients, which is the heart-warming part.

On the not so good side: It looks like the four installments of this will make up a full-length novel, but each installment is priced like a full-length novel. This installment feels short and incompletely developed (i.e. not worth the price), but hopefully the further installments will integrate it into the story better. I’m of the opinion that events and characters shouldn’t be introduced unless they’re going to contribute to the overall plot. In this case, it appears that Murderbot has rescued the kids and their files and neutralized all threats against them. However, this company had better be part of the Ganaka Pit problem, or else it’s just leading the reader on. As the novella ends, there’s no indication of this connection.

Three stars.

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