Eye candy for fans of Spot the Cat

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I’ve got a blank spot in the queue, so thought this might be a good time to feature Spot again.

Besides this, remember to check out my books (see front page of site). Of course, a few sales always help. 🙂

Spot sleeping

Review of Finna by Nino Cipri

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This science fiction novella was released by Tor.com on 25 February 2020. It has a slightly young adult feel and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Ava and Jules work for LitenVärld, a Swedish big box furniture store, and their romantic relationship is currently on the rocks. While they’re trying to avoid one another, an elderly store customer slips through a portal in the Bachelor Cube showroom into another dimension. Of course, minimum-wage employees Ava and Jules are equipped with a guide box and sent after her. On the other side of the portal, the two find the customer has been eaten by carnivorous furniture, but they locate a reasonable facsimile. What will it take to successfully retrieve her into their own reality?

This is humor, of course, and very creative. Nothing hugely momentous happens, but it’s an entertaining ride. Ava and the non-binary Jules struggle with their relationship and end up somewhat finding themselves on the journey. They manage to make life better for their facsimile of Ursula Nouri and her anxious granddaughter, and also gain the courage to explore new worlds themselves.

On the less positive side, most of the emphasis is on the dry humor and the narrative. Character development and world-building is adequate, but not spectacular, and imagery seemed a little skimpy. I didn’t end up with much of a vision of anything but LitenVärld as a typical big-box furniture store with a maze of different showrooms. Finally, this is something of a cliffhanger, and I’m wondering if we’ll see more adventures from the daring duo.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

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This novel is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Orbit in February 2019 and runs 314 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The Raven is a powerful god who protects the kingdom of Iraden and the city of Vastai. The Raven’s Instrument is a bird who channels the god. The Raven’s Lease is the human who rules in his name and becomes a human sacrifice when the Instrument dies in order to hatch the egg of the next Instrument. Mawat is a military commander on the kingdom’s border, and the Lease’s heir. When he receives a message he is needed quickly, he assumes his father has died and the time for him to assume the Lease has arrived. Mawat leaves immediately for the capital, taking his aide Eolo along. However, when he gets to the city, he finds his father is actually missing, and with help from the Council of Directions and Mother of the Silent, his Uncle Hibal has ascended to the Raven’s bench. All is clearly not well, and Mawat immediately begins a protest in the street. Meanwhile, another god is watching. Is there some way Eolo can sort this out?

The best thing about this novel is the complex world-building: the politics in the city and the legacy of the gods feels rich and well-imagined. It’s written in second person, and the god Strength and Patience of the Hill narrates, speaking to Eolo. The god system appears to be animism: spirits that reside in nature: animals, forests, rocks, etc., who can affect events and steal power from one another. These gods are strong characters in the tale, although they, in many cases, tend to be silent and slow moving. Eolo is a trans character, a woman who cut her hair and signed on for military service, and people take her for an adolescent boy. Eolo has a steady personality, while the other humans here seem to be fairly volatile.

On the less positive side, this moves at a glacial pace and seems to have no theme. The characters are flatish, treated with a bit of wry humor, and the plot is fairly thin—all those pages are mostly filled with reminiscences from Strength and Patience of the Hill. For all of being a rock, it is really chatty and gives us a lengthy rundown of the history of the region, conflicts between the gods, a description of the battle between Vastai and Ard Vusktia (the city on the other side of the strait), and how it came to be captured and put into service in the Raven’s Tower. I’m still wondering how this error in judgement happened, as Strength and Patience clearly spent most of its existence being cautious. Oh, well. I would have also enjoyed an earlier description of Strength and Patience, as I was expecting limestone, but it turned out to be more igneous. And last, because of the second person narrative structure, I expected Strength and Patience and Eolo would end up with some kind of special relationship, but it didn’t happen. That means it’s just an awkward choice for point of view.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney

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This novella is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award. It was published 23 July 2019 by Tor.com and runs 224 pages. Cooney has published two other works in this universe, The Breaker Queen (2014), and The Two Paupers (2015). This review contains spoilers.

Desdemona is the wealthy socialite daughter of H.H. Mannering and heiress to the Candletown Company, previously heavily invested in coal, but now in the process of a change to oil. Her mother is a suffragist and raises money for social causes. Desdemona has been coerced into the latest, a benefit for the Phossy Girls, and has tried to liven it up by challenging her best friend, the trans Chaz, to see who can produce the most striking gown for the evening. Afterward, the two get drunk, and when Desdemona gets home, she hears her father making a deal with the Goblin King to trade the lives of his coal miners for oil resources. The next morning, more than 300 coal miners are killed in a mine accident, but she knows the Goblin King has taken a 10% tithe. Can Desdemona and Chaz rescue the men from the world Beneath?

What stands out most about this novella is 1) the style and 2) the social causes. This is written from Desdemona’s POV and is an entertaining read because of her slightly affected, absurdist view of the whole scene. She and Chaz are so rich that they think nothing of throwing huge sums of money around, but the wealth is built on a dark underbelly. On the other side, the Phossy Girls are horrific. Phossy Jaw is a bone rot disease that workers developed in factories that used white phosphorus to manufacture matches. It causes infection and huge disfigurement as the bones in the jaw disintegrate. At the benefit, Mrs. Mannering dresses the girls up in fine gowns for the contrast. The absurdity continues, as the Goblin King apparently falls for Desdemona at first glimpse, and woos her in the guise of…well, I won’t give that one away, but it’s pretty hilarious, and really humanizes him in a way that no amount of telling would do.

On the less positive side, the absurdity and humor in this take away from what could have been huge drama. The characters come through regardless, but their feelings are obscured. Besides the drama, this could have been a very romantic story for both Chaz and Desdemona, but there’s no revelation about what they want, their dreams and aspirations, and I’d have preferred this to have a little more space. Instead, the story feels padded with description.

Four stars.

Review of “Read after Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This short story is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award. It was published in A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Charlie Jane Anders and issued by One World, February 5, 2019. This review contains major spoilers.

Henry lives in a world that is ending, and the story begins on the day of his father’s death, when Henry was ten years old. The setting is the US, but the republic has fallen to a civil war and those who couldn’t flee to Canada or Mexico now live under a fascist regime. Henry’s father is an assistant in the Library of the Low, a place where books are written to be burned. The Head Librarian is Needle, and she memorizes the universe. The librarians tattoo the stories on their skins and their organs, even using the bodies of the dead to make their books. When the librarians are taken, what will happen to the stories?

This an absurdist piece with a sort of stream-of-consciousness narrative that discusses libraries, how burning books makes them stronger, the stories of various people, magic, and shadowy fascist regimes, mixing all the topics together. Eventually this achieves a certain meaning. The story name-checks a number of people from current government and popular culture to indicate their stories have been told. There are various statements of theme, but not really much use of characterization, world-building or plot. There is an interesting literary device that transposes people into the sum of their knowledge. Needle tells us that only knowledge is immortal, and it’s our task to pass the words properly. People are described as having content, presumably their words and knowledge. Those shouting slogans are rendered speechless. In the end, Henry says you (presumably the reader) were born for this resistance. This all suggests a mild anxiety about current politics.

On the less positive side, like many contemporary stories written in absurdist style, the narrative mostly comes across as nonsense. It’s a fairly long story, and there’s a sort of shotgun, postmodern approach about it, where the author has sprayed out ramblings about burning and words and fascism and resistance and magic that make this hard to integrate into a real story—as if she didn’t know exactly what she was going to write about when she started and then changed her mind several times along the way. The theme and setting are clear enough, but the rest is pretty confusing. Also, I’m sure history and knowledge aren’t passed along accurately. At this point, it’s clearly subject to political reinterpretation.

Two stars.

Review of “Everyone Knows that They’re Dead. Do You?” by Genevieve Valentine

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award. It was published in the anthology The Outcast Hours, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, and released by Solaris on February 19, 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Susan and Stephen are looking to buy a house so they can move out of their small apartment and have more space. They settle on an older house, well-kept, where the realtor says the elderly resident has moved into a retirement home. The house groans in the winter, like the sounds of someone walking and more space doesn’t seem to help the relationship. Eventually Stephen burns the house down, and the demolition uncovers women’s bones, some old and some new. Police officer Greg gives his girlfriend Lucy a ring taken from one of the corpses. She wants to return it, but she has dirt on her hands can’t take the ring off. Abigail drew up the design for the parlor wallpaper herself, and she and Charles carved the stamp and had the paper made up in town. When you look at it a certain way, it looks like nooses. Lucy tells Greg they need a break, and goes to research the history of the house. Then she goes to the fire department for pictures of the house after it burned. Is there any way she can satisfy the ghosts that are haunting her?

This develops slowly, dropping hints along the way about anger management issues, domestic abuse and the possibility of composting bodies. There’s a sudden shift a few pages in where we change character sets, and then another shift later on to another set. It’s written in a creative format, organized like a study guide for a ghost story, providing blocks of questions here and there that point out the literary technique of the author and ask the reader to interpret particular passages. As the story line is a little under-provided with details, this is actually helpful in following what the author means in some places. By the end, the reader has hopefully integrated the different story lines into a coherent whole. Or not.

The “or not” is the less positive element here. From a promising start, this really didn’t deliver for me. It felt really disorganized, without a plot or a clear theme. It doesn’t provide any really deep characterizations or information about the neighborhood and town, only a brief sampling of the thoughts and experiences of three women. The sudden shifts interrupt the flow of the narrative, and the blocks of questions throw you out of the story into a different mode. This is a legitimate format, as teaching units are often made up this way, but still it’s disruptive–it almost feels like the author is pointing out the quality of her own literary technique.

The story is a bit unsettling, which I guess was the intent, and everyone seems to like it, but the format just didn’t grab me. Three stars.

Congrats to the 2020 World Fantasy Award Finalists

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There’s quite a bit of overlap this year between the WFA and the earlier major awards given out. I’ll start posting some reviews of the remainder of the fiction finalists.

Best Novel
Queen of the Conquered, Kacen Callender (Orbit US)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie (Orbit US & UK)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa (Pantheon; Harvill Secker)

Best Novella
“The Butcher’s Table”, Nathan Ballingrud (Wounds)
Desdemona and the Deep, C.S.E. Cooney (Tor.com Publishing)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)
Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Read After Burning”, Maria Dahvana Headley (A People’s Future of the United States)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, Jerome Stueart (F&SF 3-4/19)
“Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You?”, Genevieve Valentine (The Outcast Hours)

Best Anthology
Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Saga)
The Outcast Hours, Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin, eds. (Solaris)
The Mythic Dream, Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe, eds. (Saga)
New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, Nisi Shawl, ed. (Solaris US & UK)
The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (Vintage)

Best Collection
Homesick, Nino Cipri (Dzanc)
Song for the Unraveling of the World, Brian Evenson (Coffee House)
Unforeseen, Molly Gloss (Saga)
A Lush and Seething Hell, John Hornor Jacobs (Harper Voyager US)
Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, Sarah Pinsker (Small Beer)

Best Artist
Tommy Arnold
Galen Dara
Julie Dillon
Wendy Froud
Kathleen Jennings

Special Award – Professional
C.C. Finlay, for F&SF editing
Leslie Klinger, for The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham (Liveright)
Ellen Oh, for We Need Diverse Books
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, for The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (New York University Press)
Sheree Renée Thomas, for contributions to the genre

Special Award – Non-Professional
Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Laura E. Goodin & Esko Suoranta, for Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research
Michael Kelly, for Undertow Publications and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction series
Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe, for The Coode Street Podcast
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny
Terri Windling, for Myth & Moor

Review of Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells

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This novel is volume 5 of the Books of the Raksura. It was originally published in 2017 by Nightshade Books and runs 416 pages. The series remains a popular read and seems to have a dedicated fan base, compendiums, etc. In 2018 it received a Hugo nomination for Best Series. This review contains spoilers.

The Raksura expedition to help the Kish investigate rumors of powerful weapons in an ancient city has been betrayed, and now it’s hard to know if they can trust anyone. Different factions seem to be working for their own agendas and the Raksura have lost control of the ancient weapon. Some of the Raksura are held hostage on the flying boat, and Moon and Stone, scouting for it, find they’re being followed by a Fell kethel. It has been sent by the Fell-born queen Consolation to look after them. This is annoying, but they can’t just kill it. Eventually they find the hostages and stop use of the weapon, but now the Fell are massed to invade the Reaches. Can the Raksura save their ancestral home?

This installment of the story continues directly from the previous book, and picks up where it leaves off. It’s not a page-turner, but there are great character interactions and moments of drama as the captives manage to outsmart their captors, and Moon and Stone are forced into recognizing the Fell kethel is not only endurable but also turning out to be an asset to their search. The Fell-born queen Consolation becomes instrumental in defeating the Fell invasion.

On the less positive side, this moves slowly, feeling padded the same way the last installment did. It’s also has lots of moving parts, so much so that the prime dramatic moment, when Jade has to choose between saving her consort Moon and saving the Reaches just gets lost. We skim over it; Jade assumes Moon is dead (oh, well) and then flies off to deal with other pressing issues. Wells could have played this out more with some soul searching and some anguished grief, at the very least. Also, I’m thinking maybe she got distracted about this time with a little Murderbot story, as this is the last novel in the series, and it’s left Consolation and her court hanging high and dry. There’s another dramatic story line waiting there.

Four stars.

Review of Mightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

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This is a historical fantasy novella, published June 30, 2017, by Subterranean Press and running 136 pages. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains spoilers.

The Emperor has been indisposed for some time, sort of on his death bed, and the Empress rules. The Empire has been plagued by barbarian raids of late, so she summons her nephew and puts him in charge of stopping the raids. Nephew is an Imperial legate, and a possible heir to the throne. The raids seem to have targeted monasteries fairly often, so he takes an expedition out into the hinterlands to investigate the monasteries for possible clues about who the barbarians are and what they want. The monasteries are repositories of history and learning, and are in charge of maintaining libraries and copying books. The Abbots turn out to be mostly old friends/relatives of the ruling family who have been banished from the capital, and everyone seems to have their own agenda. As Nephew unearths corruption and closes in on who might be behind the raids, word comes that the Emperor is dead and that he should stay where he is until the succession question is settled. What should he do?

This is an entertaining read, written in first person and presented as a translation of an ancient text. Nephew (unnamed, but possibly Emperor Ultor III) has a certain wit and a cynical viewpoint that lightens the narrative. As the Emperor’s nephew, he is completely comfortable in wielding wealth and power. He’s not the brightest, the handsomest, or the bravest, but he is likable and is well informed by study about military strategy. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Nephew is also a total realist and completely ruthless. He trusts (almost) no one, and does what he has to do to survive.

It’s hard to come up with any negatives in this. The only niggle I have is that Nephew seems to have a lot of trust in his staff, and no apparent suspicion of his sweetheart’s motives about suddenly agreeing to get married. Presumably he’s sure of these people because of his own personal charisma—plus, I guess you have to trust somebody. It’s a short book, but the length is about right. Once we’ve seen all the candidates for trouble, it moves right into the succession issue and finishes up without dragging its feet.

This goes back three years, but it very much addresses a couple of the recent popular themes in literary SFF. The first is the issue of erasing history. Nephew is totally on the side of preserving books, and in leaning on history for the path forward. “In the end,” he says, “books are all that matter…[they are] the past speaking to the future.” The second popular theme covered here is the assumption of wealth and power. Not only does this story provide a grand tour of the Empire’s corruption, but it also outlines the career path for the successful emperor candidate. Trained at ruthlessness from an early age, Nephew doesn’t waver. If they’re a challenge, they’re dead.

Recommended. Five stars.

Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

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This novel is science fiction/historical fantasy, published by Orbit in April of 2019, and runs 325 pages. It’s apparently successful enough to have triggered a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, upcoming in August 2020. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains major spoilers.

Orhan is a colonel in the corp of engineers, normally employed in building bridges and repairing aqueducts. He’s a former slave and a minority in the country, often at odds with authority, but adept at corruption—the sort of lying and cheating that is necessary to deal with the government supply lines. After a surprise attack in the city of Classis, he gets crosswise with authority figures, so takes his crew into the hinterlands to work on a bridge. When they return to the base at Colophon, Orhan finds the city under siege, the fleet blocked, the army decimated, the emperor non-functional, and himself the ranking officer in the city. Oops. Can he take control, put together a resistance from the panicked residents and design some quick engines for defense? And once he knows who’s behind the attack on the city, can he deal with the issues there?

On the positive side, this is wry and sharply entertaining. It’s written in first person and Orhan has a totally cynical view of government, petty tyrants and red tape. He’s also good at working all the angles; plus a solid engineer when it comes to building bridges and siege tech. He has a daughter that provides an emotional touch. The theme is also a standout. The subtext here is about racism and slavery, but the author has turned this backward from what we see in US society. Orhan is a milkface, brought by slavers into a country of dark-skinned bluebloods. He suffers discrimination and has a slight chip on his shoulder about the whole thing that affects his interactions. Regardless, he chooses to carry on with his responsibilities, trying hard to save his adopted city from a siege brought by what turns out to be another former slave out for revenge. This is subtle, but feels downright subversive to me in today’s political climate. Enough so that I looked up Orbit. It’s owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.

On the less positive side, there are a few minor issues. First, this has a slight mid-novel slump. It is highly entertaining during the set up, but once the defense organization within the city is up and running, there’s little for the residents to do except fight amongst themselves. This is messy and fails to produce any real furtherance of the story. The identity of Orhan’s daughter is revealed fairly late in the novel, which requires reinterpretation of events. And last, the dissonance in the slavery theme comes from Orhan’s parleys with his opponent, the former slave, but the light treatment here undermines the drama built up through the whole book to this point—this is the place where Orhan has to do some serious soul-searching about his race and position in society and for the author to make us wonder whether he’s going to support the society he lives in or tear it down. Still, the understatement is probably necessary because this is such a hot-button topic. In the era of cancel culture, somehow this novel has gone totally under the radar.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

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