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.

Review of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and was published by Hodder & Stoughton/Harper Voyager. The story falls into Chambers’ Wayfarer series, following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It runs around 358 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After trashing Earth, a group of humans left several centuries ago for interstellar space in an Exodus Fleet of generation ships. They eventually encountered other species and settled planets in the Galactic Commons free market, but some humans still stayed resident in the Fleet, allotted an orbit around a small star. This narrative (including an archive history written by the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan) follows the personal stories of a group of characters on the ship Asteria: Kip, a boy from the Fleet who wants something more; Sawyer, a young man from a planet who wants the security of his family’s roots on the Fleet; Eyas, the ship’s caretaker and composter of human remains; Isabel, the archivist; and Tessa, a young mother and salvage supervisor. Humans are integrating into the Galactic Commons, and these people are all faced with change in the culture that has maintained them for generations aboard the Fleet.

This is what is called a slow burner, as there’s no action line, very little conflict and not even much in the way of events in the first three-quarters of the book. The Fleet community seems to be a Utopian communist co-op, where everyone is guaranteed a home, air, an education and enough to eat, while expected to spend time in working for the common good. Money is not used aboard the ships, and trade is handled through a barter system. This is that safe space everyone is looking for, and the community is warm and welcoming. Asteria does seem to be experiencing a certain amount of stagnation, which is a real issue for societies that fail to balance capitalism and socialism well enough, and everyone has to deal with the austerity. Of course, now they’re now threatened by innovation and the Commons free market, and the question is rising about they can or really need to maintain the insular security of the Fleet any longer. I couldn’t identify anything much of a theme; maybe just the continuance of the human race? Purpose? There are statements, however: 1) All sapients are respected and valued; 2) death is a positive opportunity to recycle people into resources for others; 3) everybody needs to find their purpose; 4) there are givers and takers in the universe; and 5) it’s easy to accidentally destroy a species.

On the not so positive side: This is hard to get into, mainly because of the lack of action and conflict in most of the book; plus, I wasn’t immediately engaged by the characters. The story does offer comments on the human condition, and it gets emotional suddenly in the last quarter. However, I’m suspicious about the Utopian quality of the Fleet culture. The book doesn’t say what they do about mental illness, irresponsible layabouts and criminals in this society, or why there isn’t a huge crush of planetary immigrants seeking welfare—the kind of problems that plague real socialist economies on Earth. Also, I’m wondering how the same people who destroyed Earth would come together to create this utopia within the Fleet, with everybody suddenly cooperating and doing their part and not trashing the ship’s environment.

Four stars.

Review of Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Tor.com. This is the third novella in the Wayward Children series. It is preceded by Every Heart a Doorway (2016) and Down among the Sticks and Bones (2017). A fourth novella in the series, In an Absent Dream, was released in January of 2019. Every Heart a Doorway won both the 2016 Nebula Award and the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novella. This review contains spoilers.

As usual for this series, this story begins in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This is a boarding school for children who fell into other worlds where they thought they had found their niche, but then were spit back out and have psychological problems as a result. A survivor of a similar mis-adventure, Ms. West promises their parents she can help. She surrounds the children with love and acceptance while they wait to see if their doorway will open for them again. A girl named Rini falls into the turtle pond. This is a surprise, as Rini was born in an alternate world. She is looking for her mother Sumi who died when a murderous girl killed several students at the school in the recent past. Rini is horrified to find that Sumi is dead, as this means her own existence is in danger, and pleads for help in resurrecting her mother. Ms. West’s second in command Kade and students Cora, Nadya and Christopher all volunteer to help. They manage to raise Sumi’s skeleton and her ghost, but can they make her really live?

On the positive side, this mostly takes place in the land of Confection, so it’s full of sugar and spice and is fairly light-hearted in comparison to earlier installments from this series. Rini succeeds in her efforts to change reality, and Cora comes to terms with her fatness. Nadya finds her niche world, and we visit Nancy, who has also found hers. There was a bright moment early in the story where this had the potential to be a thriller. Also on the positive side, this is very inclusive, and it continues the best feature of the series, which is to reassure misfit children that they might really be able to find a place somewhere in the universe. The characters are mostly well developed, as the land of Confection.

On the not so positive side, this still flirts with the death obsession so heavily featured in earlier installments. Christopher still pines for his Skeleton Girl, and Nancy is now firmly established as an attendant to the Lord of the Dead. Rini is disappearing a bit at a time as her reality dissolves, but there seems to have been quite a lag. Why didn’t she go all at once when Sumi died? Also, the part of this story that takes place in the illogical land of Confection is total nonsense. I know this is the point of the whole thing, but surely the evil Queen of Cakes isn’t that easy to defeat and her guards aren’t that easy to turn? And if the Baker is so powerful, why hasn’t she done something to deal with the Queen?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

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This book is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s published by Saga and runs 465 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The narrator has recently lost his wife to illness and is dying himself. He finds a sick crow and nurses it back to health. They become friends and it tells him its history. The crow Dar Oakley calls the realm of the crows Ka, and that of humans Ymr. He also knows a realm of Other. Dar Oakley receives his name from a human girl he calls Fox Cap. The two of them go into Other to find Nothing, and Dar Oakley finds it but hides it for himself. Fox Cap cries and afterward dies, but then Dar Oakley finds he is immortal, always reborn. Humans have battles that provide carrion, and crows find they can encourage them to kill each other. Following a Saint, Dar Oakley is caught by a storm and blown to a New World, where the people are killed by a mass sickness brought from the Old World. There is a great War where the dead in blue and gray provide a huge feast, and crows become numerous because of the growing bounty. Dar Oakley becomes friends with poet Anna Kuhn, and later her son becomes a great crow hunter. Dar Oakley encourages the crow flock to attack him, and they are eventually successful against him. The narrator wants Dar Oakley to lead him and his housekeeper to the Other place of the dead. Will this plan be successful?

So, this book is about death. Crowley is a well-known stylist, and he gets points for creating meaning in the narrative. Still, I found this really hard reading. Because Dar Oakley is a bird, he is light-minded and in general all his observations are surface level. That means we get a lot about flocks and mating and chicks, and the meaning takes shape from the carrion events and from what the humans say.

It’s clear that Crowley did a lot of research on the topic of crows and their status as death birds. The lore in this narrative is sort of scary, and I think humans are lucky that crows aren’t any bigger than they are. On the other hand, the events that feed the crows don’t say anything much good about humans, either.

This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

Four stars.

Review of The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award, and the title piece for Book 4 of the TTA Novellas series, published in 2017. The British press TTA also publishes Interzone and Black Static. The book is dark fantasy and also contains the short story “Going Back to the World.” The novella is about 111 pages and the short story runs about 40. This review contains spoilers.

Krisztina Ligetti is a cult artist, a singer/songwriter living in Budapest who produced one hit album years ago and then had nothing else to follow up with. After her lover Alice dies, Krisztina begins hearing elusive music that turns out to be the songs of mortality from people around her. She collects songs for a new album one-by-one that become complete as people die. She reconnects with her father, a 60s pop star who has been diagnosed with cancer, and hears his song. The story darkens as Krisztina finds she’s being followed by a man in a porcelain mask. Tracing the song of a ballerina, she encounters the writer Rebeka, a serial killer with a similar gift who has no compunction about killing people to complete their stories. Rebeka wants her story. Can Krisztina find a way to survive?

This narrative has something of a sick feel, as it’s about winter and death and the extreme depths that people plumb to feed their creativity. The title refers to the method Krisztina uses to produce her songs, detailing the grief and pain that go into each one. It lingers over relationships, failures and bitter coffee. The imagery seems foremost, as it’s all about bright futures declining into eventual decay and death. There’s nothing left at the end but the songs.

On the not so great side, the narrative jumps around a bit and seems fixated on Alice’s death, while her character remains undeveloped and peripheral to the main story. The whole thing is about depressed people who need some joy in their lives. I’m also left wondering how Rebeka gets away with her murders. Although Krisztina sees her commit a murder and the man in the mask knows who she is, nobody reports this to the police. But then, I guess it’s not about the reality.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The End of the Day by Claire North

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I really liked Claire North’s WFA winner, so am looking at more of her books. This novel is fantasy. It was published in 2017 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 403 pages.

Charlie is humble and unassuming. He’s just taken a job as the Harbinger of Death, who mysteriously goes before, as a warning, a courtesy—we don’t know which. He often takes small gifts to particular people, chosen to have special meaning just for them. A few assignments are heartwarming. He meets an old woman, the last speaker of her language, helps a father and daughter who have lost their housing. Sometimes his experiences are more jolting and dangerous. He visits Lagos and finds that not only is Death rampaging through the world, but also the other figures of the Apocalypse—Famine, War and Pestilence. Meanwhile profit reigns and the Doomsday Clock ticks toward midnight. Can Charlie keep his sanity and his relationship with Emmi intact?

I really liked North’s last couple of novels. The thriller plot line kept things moving through a lot of bad stuff, and an upbeat ending made it all worthwhile. I can’t say that about this book. It moves slowly, has no structure and gets bogged down in depressing scenes of torture and death.

This is well-written; the characters and settings are well-developed. The book had something important to say—humanity is self-destructive, we’re all just a step away from oblivion, we need to be more thoughtful. However, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It presented warnings but no solutions, and not much in the way of hope.

Three and a half stars.

In Memoriam: Mattie K.

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Mattie

We had a death in the family yesterday. Please spare a thought to help lift her over the Rainbow Bridge and into heaven. RIP sweet Mattie.

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