Review of Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 27 July 2019 by Del Rey and runs 367 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the 1920s in Mexico, but the Jazz Age hasn’t come to the small town of Uukumil, where Casiopea Tun and her mother, as poor relations, work as near-servants in her wealthy grandfather’s house. Casiopea is especially annoyed by her cousin Martin, who constantly demands she run errands for him and polish his boots. He gets her in trouble with their grandfather, and Casiopea is left at home while the family goes to a nearby spa. Casiopea goes to her grandfather’s room to mend his shirts and notices he has left the key he normally wears on a chain around his neck. She uses it to open his old chest, expecting to find treasure, but instead she finds a pile of old bones. She gets a shard of one stuck in her hand, and suddenly Hun-Kamé, the Mayan God of Death, assembles from the bones. He explains that she is now his captive, and that she must help him regain the throne in Xibalba, the Underworld, stolen by his brother Vukub-Kamé. He buys her a new, modern wardrobe and they set off on an adventure that passes through Mérida, Veracruz, Mexico City, El Paso, and ends in Baja California. The two are linked by the bone shard, and as they travel, Casiopea is slowly dying, while Hun-Kamé absorbs her life-force and becomes constantly more human. When the contest comes with Vukub-Kamé, Casiopea finds he has recruited Martin to help him. Can she successfully outwit her cousin and place Hun-Kamé back on the throne? Or should she look after herself, instead?

This is basically a dream-come-true romance with the feel of young adult, as Casiopea transforms from a Cinderella figure in a small town to a grand adventurer traveling with a handsome prince. Along the way, they meet various supernatural entities who call Casiopea “Stone Maiden” (another figure from Mayan tradition, associated with an archaeological site at Xunantunich, Mexico). The subtle and gradually shifting relationship between the two main characters stands out as the best feature of the narrative. This has a strong Latin flavor, a slight tongue-in-cheek quality, and regardless of the romantic content, avoids a trite ending.

On the less positive side, Martin is pretty much the stereotype of an evil stepsister, and other characters are hardly present. Most of the text is about Casiopea’s journey, and somehow there never seems to be a real threat of failure. Hun-Kamé fills the shoes of a handsome prince fairly blandly, and I’d have preferred a little more darkness from the God of Death.

Four stars.

Review of Infinite Lives: Short Tales of Longevity, edited by Juliana Rew

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This anthology is #26 in the series, issued in October of 2019, a collection of speculative fiction short stories related in some way to long life or immortality. It’s edited by Juliana Rew and is offered as both an e-book and a paperback. There are 28 stories that range across genres, and the book includes some short humor pieces at the end. This review may contain spoilers.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is now pretty well-established as a source for solid, well-written stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. I’d love to mention all the stories but I don’t have the space here. The selections include “Tunnels” by Brian Trent about a long-lived man looking for the woman of his dreams; “A Billion Bodies More” by Sloan Leong where a woman dies a million deaths; “At the Precipice of Eternity” by Ingrid Garcia about an alien nano-swarm that communicates with a Madrid-based scientist; “Abe in Yosemite” by Robert Walton where Abe Lincoln and John Muir have a conversation about that event at the theater; “Cold Iron” by Wulf Moon about a Spaniard and an Indio woman trying to lay the Conquistador Pizzaro to a final rest; and “Find Her” by Konstantine Paradias, where an angel and a demon fight one another through eternity. The short humor pieces provide a laugh at the end, including letters to an Airbnb host and a listing of “best-selling” items from (ghost story writer) M.R. James’ collectibles catalog.

These offerings follow that standard, including everything from hard SF to out-and-out mythology. The cast of writers is diverse and international. Authors include: Brian Trent, Sloane Leong, Matt Thompson, J. B. Toner, Larry C. Kay, David F. Schultz, D. A. Campisi, Russell Dorn, Samson Stormcrow Hayes, Ingrid Garcia, Maureen Bowden, Brandon Butler, Caias Ward, Leah Miller, Megan Branning, Robert Walton, K. G. Anderson, Louis Evans, John Paul Davies, David Cleden, Tom Pappalardo, Philip John Schweitzer, Martin M. Clark, Wulf Moon, Mack Moyer, Konstantine Paradias, E. E. King, and Sarah Totton.

Four stars.

Review of by “Not Pounded by Romance Wranglers of America: The Endless Cosmic Void” by Chuck Tingle

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Since the meltdown of the Romance Writers of America over racism charges is trending, I should probably take this opportunity to make another comment on author bullying. No surprise; I’ve been beaten to the punch by the ever-ready Chuck Tingle, so I’ll preface my remarks with a review of his story. His newest release is now available on Amazon, adding to a fairly extensive bibliography. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Chuck Tingle, he normally writes witty porn and crashed into prominence with a Hugo nomination in 2016 for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a novel about an over-sexed dinosaur and an exotic dancer. Tingle seemed to be thrilled by his Hugo nomination and responded with Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination. Lately he seems to be leaning to satire and has produced several non-sexual adventures. As part of the promotion for this e-book release, Tingle put up a website for Romance Wranglers of America.

Gorblin Crimble has been writing romance novels with some success, but he’s starting to feel burned out. For support in getting through his next novel, he joins a local writers’ group. The first meeting goes well, and Gorblin makes friends with Amber, who suggests he should also apply to the larger romance writers’ organization Romance Wranglers of America. Their headquarters is only a short distance away, and Amber drives Gorblin there in her car. On the way, the two of them bond and start to wonder if they might be characters in a Chuck Tingle story. On arriving at the headquarters, they see a humanoid dinosaur stumbling away from the building, covered with a yukky tar-like substance. The building itself looks to have been infected with a black, cancerous growth that sticks out of huge cracks in the façade. It breathes softly like a horrific, living thing; pools of black ooze drip onto the sidewalk, and the whole place stinks like burning. They are greeted by a man named Demon, who explains the black ooze is a “remodel” project. Can Gorblin and Amber escape before they become infected?

Okay, so Tingle makes his points with a sledgehammer. This doesn’t have a lot of depth, characterization or world-building, but its strong points are timing and social commentary. Gorblin and Amber are both nice people, as are the other writers in the small group. They write about love and relationships. They’re very welcoming, and some are even fans of Gorblin’s work. However, on a greater scale, the Wranglers are tarred black and oozing cancerous sludge. They’re administered by a demon, and it smells like the place is burning down.

Three and a half stars.

“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Nightmare Magazine in July of 2019. This review contains major spoilers.

Dr. Emmanuel Eggard, a brilliant scientist with personal hygiene problems, has been working on a matter transmission device, but while testing it, he accidently opens a portal into another plane. A demonic creature emerges from below his lung, splattering Eggard on the walls and fatally injuring Robyn Howlett, the clerical employee he has been pressuring for sex. The demonic creature waits to hear what Howlett has to say before making a decision on whether to offer her a deal for salvation.

This is written from the demon’s point of view and the annotations reveal its interpretation of Robyn’s words. She is understandably in desperate straits, but her situation, her personality and her character are revealed in the annotations. This isn’t very long, but it is fairly riveting, as the demon gives us plenty of information about itself, its reality and how limited humans really are in the grand scheme of things. The people who need to get a comeuppance then get it.

On the more negative side, this is definitely limited by its length. I think the idea could have easily been extended to novella length. This would give us some more extensive world-building and greater character development for everybody—something that’s just sketched in at this point. Castro has done just the minimum and depended on the comeuppance to carry the story.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Fall Shall Further the Flight In Me” by Rachael K. Jones

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This short story was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was originally published in Clockwork Phoenix 5. The title (and maybe the idea) is taken from a George Herbert poem titled “Easter Wings.”

Ananda is an earthbound holy woman, attempting to rise through repentance and self-denial so she can carry prayers upward to the heavens. She eats only seed cakes and works in her thorny garden. In this way, she expects to eventually become thin enough, and light enough, to step into the air like her grandmother. One day one of the winged sky people falls into the garden, bringing a message. Ananda rescues the creature Sano and tends her wounds. Sano kisses her, and Ananda locks her in the hut. It takes a week to purge the defilement. It took Ananda’s grandmother 40 years to rise, and her mother failed in flight, but Ananda is already so light that she puts rocks in her pockets to keep herself grounded. Her mother discovers this, and then Sano in the hut. Can Ananda and Sano escape?

Good points: The best thing about this story is the creative idea. It seems to be surreal fiction about the clash of conflicting worldviews, as the sky people think earth is heaven and the earthbound think the sky is heaven. Neither can answer the prayers of the other. The imagery is excellent. I can’t find any overt political message here (as has been popular lately), but maybe this is a vote for harmony.

Not so good points: The surrealism thing makes this pretty nebulous. There’s not much plot–it’s mostly philosophy–and the little glimpse I got through the imagery seems to be about the extent of the world-building and characterization. Ananda’s grandmother has risen skyward, and somehow this has invoked an impending war? Hm. I ended up with a lot of questions.

I’ll give it extra points for the creativity. Four stars.

Review of The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This novella is volume 6 of the Penric and Desdemona tales, following Mira’s Last Dance. It was published by Spectrum Literary Agency in October 2017 and runs about 139 pages.

Temple sorcerer and demon host Penric and his friend the widowed Nikys have successfully escaped to the duchy of Orbas, but Penric has put off returning to his work as a temple scholar, hoping Nikys will accept a proposal of marriage. She stalls, concerned about the chaos demon that Penric always carries around with him. However, she accidentally intercepts a letter to her brother saying her mother has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in Cedonia. She comes to Penric for help. Can the two of them rescue mom? Will Nikys ever accept Penric’s proposal of marriage?

Like all the other novellas in this continuing story, this is a quick, entertaining read. The novella is nothing really profound, but Bujold is an accomplished writer and her characters are well-developed, absorbing and entertaining. The world is pretty well built by now, and I don’t have any problems visualizing the houses, towns or shrines. I thought Mira’s Last Dance was a little weird, but maybe it was all to put Nikys off. She’s having to make up her mind here if she can buy the package deal.

Recommended. Three and a half stars.

Review of Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This isn’t part of my project to review under-represented minorities—it’s one just for fun. This novella is another in the continuing series of Penric and his resident demon Desdemona. It was released in 2017, which makes it eligible for next year’s awards. It runs about 90 pages and looks to be released independently. It picks up where Penric’s Mission leaves off.

Penric, Arisaydia and Nikys are limping across Cedonia toward the border and safety in the Duchy of Orbas. Penric was injured in his recent battle with the sorcerer Kyrato; General Arisaydia is recuperating from blindness and his widowed sister Nikys is just plain tired. When they get to the town of Sosie, the temple is occupied by a funeral, so Penric can’t get money by robbing the collection boxes as he normally does. They find refuge in a brothel instead, as Penric contracts to rid the premises of pests. He heals the madam, as well, and borrows her expertise to disguise himself as a woman for the rest of the trip to the border. Unfortunately he catches the eye of one of the house’s clientele. Will they make it to the safety of Orbas? Will Penric and Nikys hook up?

Bujold is an accomplished writer, so her characterization, imagery, plot, etc. are all neatly in place. These novellas have been on the awards ballots fairly regularly, and I suspect the reason is that Penric is a boy and his demon is a girl. This leaves the option to investigate questions of gender identity and how this is received by others. I hadn’t noticed it so much in the other novellas, but here Penric assumes the identity of the courtesan Mira, navigating the minefields of cross-dressing and indeterminate sexuality while attempting to pursue the elusive Nikys. It’s a light, quick read, just the thing to brighten up a rainy night.

On the negative side, I wish these novellas were a little touch darker. They’re light on conflict, as there’s never much in the way of a real threat. Penric seems light-minded, as well, and never dark—just confusing to the people he meets. I hope there’s some supporting reason for this escapade in the upcoming tales.

Three and a half stars.

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