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 Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

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This horror novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Broken Eye on September 3, 2019, and runs 118 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Caleb is the biracial son of the Lewis town sheriff, and his grandparents’ house is just through the woods from the Royce property. There are rumors that Archie Royce coerces women into some kind of weird religious cult. The house burns one night, and Caleb goes with his dad to try to help out. It seems too late to save anyone but a girl named Cere. While they’re waiting to find her a foster family, Caleb’s dad takes her in. She becomes like a sister to Caleb, and he learns that her evil father taught her magic and expected her to end the world. A woman is murdered, and it starts to look like Cere might not be the only survivor of the fire. Years later when Caleb becomes town sheriff himself, the murders start up again. Is there any way he and Cere can stop Archie’s plan?

On the positive side, this includes some good imagery and manages to capture a faint flavor of the South. It’s based on a legendary figure called Catfish John, a sort of gator bigfoot of the swamp, and the creature makes several appearances, both in dreams and in real life. There’s also a faint flavor of cults, and how charismatic men can twist reality for their followers. On the diversity side, it features a biracial, gay sheriff, someone you wouldn’t exactly expect in a small Southern town.

On the less positive side, this has a disjointed feel, and fails to produce much in the way of plot, theme or meaning. It’s clear early on that Cere is a powerful witch, but we don’t see much of the battle she carries on against her father and brothers. Instead, we get confused dreams from Caleb, unsolved murders and cases of rot that are never explained. There’s no description of the town or any feel for town life, only a few ugly bullies that plague Caleb when he’s a kid. Nobody seems to have any plan to deal with the Royces’ evil cult except to call on Catfish John.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Uncanny Magazine 7-8/19. This review contains spoilers.

Zanna is a writer who is renting a remote cabin to work on her next mystery novel. Her assistant Shar helps her set up, and then leaves her to it and gets a motel room in a nearby town. The next morning, the fuses blow when Zanna tries to use the coffee maker and the microwave at the same time, and now her laptop won’t charge. She sets out walking, looking for the cabin owner to ask for repairs, and finds him dead. He has apparently fallen and hit his head on a rock. She calls 911 and the police, and incidentally Shar, turn up to see what’s going on. While the police work, Zanna’s mystery writer’s brain goes over the clues and determines that something isn’t quite right. There are animal tracks, and Zanna concludes that some animal was there that attacked or frightened the dead man. Plus, things Shar is saying don’t quite add up. Zanna’s first novel was dark fantasy about a creature that lived inside a human host and laid eggs in other people that would hatch out others of its kind. Would that story have anything to do with this case?

This is an easy, absorbing read. The mystery unfolds gradually as Zanna notices all the little details that are wrong, and finally challenges Shar, at which point she finds out the truth (again). The story is about friendship and devotion. Shar is apparently Zanna’s best friend and looks after her, stepping up to help because of Zanna’s memory lapses and looking after her while she writes her novels. Shar is keeping Zanna out of total lockdown in a hospital, and this ends with a warm feeling that Shar is going to continue to take care of things, and Zanna makes a note to appreciate her more.

On the less positive side, there are some serious logical glitches here. Where did this creature come from, and where are the rest of its kind? Surely Zanna isn’t the first and only successful infection. Plus, who appointed Shar god to make decisions like this? Her solution isn’t the responsible thing to do, and the end result is putting the public at risk. What if she slips up, fails to clean out the creature’s eggs properly? and how many people have mishaps like the owner of the cabin? Wouldn’t it be better to let Zanna go to the hospital and try to get an expert to trap the creature as it comes and goes? Shar says it’s pretty much indestructible, but unless it’s supernatural, that doesn’t make sense, either.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Carpe Glitter” by Cat Rambo

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Meerkat in October 2019 and runs 62 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Grandmother Gloria’s motto was always carpe glitter (seize the glitter). She was a glamourous Vegas performer at the Sparkle, but a hoarder in her old age. After she dies, her granddaughter Persephone starts to clean out the house and finds a magical Nazi artifact from World War II, an automaton named Heinrich that seems to be currently disassembled but still alive. Her mother makes a desperate attempt to get control of it, and Persephone also finds that mysterious men in black have an interest. The automaton could be dangerous. What should Persephone do about it?

On the positive side, this is an interesting little mystery that emerges slowly out of Persephone’s efforts to clear away the mess left by her grandmother. (Hoarders out there, are you listening?) She works through piles of family history and moldering sequins, trying to sort out anything of worth, and eventually happens on the still-working parts of the evil automaton. Along the way, we start to get a feel for how Persephone relates to her grandmother and her mother, and reconnect with Eterno, who might be Persephone’s grandfather.

On the not so positive side, Heinrich doesn’t seem to be evil enough for all the fuss and the climax isn’t climactic enough—there’s not enough at stake. Heinrich turns out to be relatively easy to deactivate, so why didn’t somebody do that a long time ago instead of dissembling the parts as an attempt to disable it? If the parts can move around, why haven’t they crawled to one another and put themselves together? Also, some of the events that shape this feel like afterthoughts, not really significant enough to drive the story. Why didn’t Gloria have some bigger investment in the automaton? She could have been a spy during the war, for example. Or it could have been her lover. And if Eterno is Persaphone’s grandfather, why hasn’t he been a guiding presence in her life before now?

Three stars.

Review of “And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Strange Horizons on 9/9/19. This review contains spoilers.

Matriarch Apa is an artisan in Midnapore who makes magical dolls out of jute fiber, and sometimes lets her grandson Nilesh help in small ways. She is visited by Captain Frederick Bolton, of the Calcutta Presidency Battalion, who brings a demand from Sir John Arthur Herbert, Governor of Bengal, who wants to buy one of Apa’s dolls for his beautiful English wife. She refuses—they are not for sale—and comments about the governor’s poor treatment of his subjects. Conditions worsen in Midnapore, and people begin to starve as the British take food stores to supply their army. Nilesh dies and Apa is on the point of death when she is revived by Bolton’s men. Again, he demands that she make a doll for the governor’s wife. Should she agree this time?

On the positive side, this is clearly an #OwnVoices work, and Ramdas is using rural Bengal as a setting. As background, we’re seeing what I expect is the Bengali famine of 1943, generally thought to have been caused by the British during World War II (following another in 1770 caused by the East India Company), and one woman’s revenge—always a feel-good result. This is historically enlightening and brings to life the evils of Imperialism. Under the surface, it’s also revealing of the desperation of the British government under Churchill, heavily under pressure from the Axis Powers in WWII, who robbed India to support the war effort.

On the less positive side, the setting and characters aren’t that well developed in the story, and the characters, especially, seem one-dimensional stereotypes without any complexity. Although Nilesh fills an important role as the emotional heart of the story, he has no real presence here. I never formed more than a vague picture of him, and felt nothing much when he died. Instead of having this take place off-stage like an afterthought, Ramdas could easily have made his death an important centerpiece of the story.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published in Nightmare in May of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

When a British expedition arrives at Ratnabar Island in 1891, they find a primitive society of mostly women and children. The offer of a welcoming meal turns into a cultural offense, triggering a massacre by the British. Three girl-children are saved, and two become wards of the crown, are given Christian names and enrolled in the Churchill Academy, where they plan a foul feast. Women are generally burdened by food-related chores, but the Ratnabar women, in indulging their transgressive appetites, turn the tables on their oppressors. It’s time to stop making ourselves small…

The structure of this story is an annotated bibliography, in other words, short paragraph summaries of various references, including applicable quotes. This kind of bibliography is generally produced for use in papers that require extensive supporting documentation, like theses and dissertations. Taken together, these annotations form a fairly aggressive manifesto, calling on women and girls to turn the tables on their oppressors and eat the world. It’s a creative story structure, and the excerpts come together to produce theme and meaning for the work. However, at this point, this isn’t either a creative or original theme.

Four stars for the creativity.

Review of “How the Trick Is Done” by A.C. Wise

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This short story is a 2019 Nebula finalist. It was published in Uncanny Magazine on 7-8/19. This review may contain spoilers.

The Magician had an act involved a young assistant named Meg (who was in love with him) and a rabbit named Gus. When Gus bit the Magician, he fired Meg and she jumped off the Hoover Dam. Gus got out of his cage and got flattened in traffic, and the Magician met a girl named Angie in the diner who resurrected the rabbit for him. Now he has a show in Vegas where he does a trick called Bullet-Catch-Death-Cheat. His new assistant shoots him, and he dies and then reappears alive at the back of the theater. It’s really Angie, the Resurrectionist, who accomplishes the trick. Meg’s ghost comes back to talk to Angie, who is always exhausted these days from pulling off the nightly resurrection. Does the Magician really deserve all these second chances at life?

On the positive side, this builds up a picture of a man from his actions and his relationships with the people around him. The Magician seems to be focused on his own success, the money he makes from his act and the applause and adulation of the audience. He fails to appreciate the people who support him, including Meg, Gus, Angie and his stage manager Rory. The rabbit bite is a nice touch that sums up the Magician—Gus is way smarter than the humans. At this, the author adds a bit of social commentary that only humans expect a second chance at life. There’s more commentary on death here, but the theme seems more complex, about how unfeeling, ambitious men trample on the people who love them, and how these people take their revenge.

On the not so positive side, this is heavily biased, as the Magician isn’t really developed as a character, and remains only a cut-out stereotype. We don’t get his point of view, and he’s pretty much summed up by that rabbit bite and the way he lets Gus die (eventually) of neglect. Instead of just quitting, of course, all these people stay on and endure the abuse because they love the Magician so much. Why? Angie eventually disposes of him and takes over his place, getting revenge for everybody. It’s getting to be a tiring social message, but at least in this case, Angie does get a glimpse of her own fall.

Three and a half stars.

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