Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 1/23/19. This review contains spoilers.

Binu is an ordinary man who years ago left his mundane life and joined the traveling Majestic Oriental Circus in India. He has worked his way to the position of trapeze master and also appears as Aladdin in the highly popular illusion act based on the old Persian story. One detail that makes this act really different is that the jinni character Shehzad Marid is real, has his own scruffy lamp, and has chosen Binu as his master. The circus is set to perform at the palace of the Thripuram raja for the wedding of his daughter, and in the evening, a procession of Devadasis, holy temple courtesans, brings prayer offerings to the gods. Later in the night, one of the temple girls comes to Binu at the circus and asks him to help her escape. Against his better judgement, he agrees, but his boss Johuree tells him that any consequences are on his own head. When a terrible storm overtakes the circus, Binu goes out to confront the vengeful kuldevi who has brought the storm. “No man or woman is property!” he tells the goddess, but angry about the loss of her slave, she asks for the jinni in return for their lives. Can Binu let him go?

This is a fairly straightforward story with high diversity. It has a strong #OwnVoices feel, and is based the idea that the old jinns and kuldavi have adapted and are still out there, regardless of modernization in India. Binu is sexually attracted to his jinn, giving it an LGBTQ angle. The story also presents the ugly issue of temple slavery, an institution apparently still alive and well in the 21st century.

On the less positive side, there’s not much depth in the characterizations and not much in the way of description or background on the setting—I don’t get much flavor of circus life. The narrative makes a single reference to another story where these same characters apparently appear, but still, not much background. The story would have been more entertaining with a twist or so, maybe if Binu and Shehzad Marid had tried to outsmart the kuldavi instead of just giving in to her demands.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Lightspeed 4/19. This review contains spoilers.

Saki looks out the viewport at the New Mars colony site, trying to pretend that everything is fine and MJ is waiting for her there. The two of them had been planning to pursue a dream of research on an alien civilization, but the New Mars colony has collapsed, and MJ died with it. The ship’s captain is now requesting an accelerated timeline on Saki’s research into the collapse. The Chronicle is a stratified record of the universe, but visiting it muddies the record so later archronologists have less to data to work with. In the departmental meeting, Saki argues for visiting the xenoarcheology warehouse within the Chronicle rather than the medical center, expecting that an alien plague would more likely have begun there. Saki wins the argument, and she and graduate student Hyun-sik transport to the warehouse site and release drones for a preliminary investigation. Analysis of the collected data provides little information, but probes to the surface identify nanites in the soil. Saki reviews MJ’s messages, searching for a clue. His final video letter includes a shot of future Chronicle settings. Can she meet him there and find out what caused the plague? Is there a way for them to be together again?

This is billed as a love story, and it’s constructed that way, where Saki remains full of sadness for having lost her lifelove partner and father of her son Kenzou (who is dating Hyun-sik). Kenzou suggests she look around for another companion, but she’s not ready yet. The opportunity to see and talk with MJ one last time is the basis for the story. On the positive side, this affirms Kenzou and Hyun-sik’s relationship, and the investigation reveals clues to the mystery a little at a time.

On the less positive side, there are a lot of holes in this. The world-building and characterization could have used more work. The story has a SF setting, but there’s hardly any detail on the colony, how the space travel works, or who sent the ship to investigate. I would expect corporate or government sponsors with an interest in the colony, but the group on the ship seems to be an academic team funded through a research grant. The Chronicle is an alien artifact, and there’s no info on how it works or how they’ve figured out how to access it with human technology. There’s no info on where New Mars is, where the alien artifacts have come from, or where MJ got the information he tries to leave for Saki. Plus, there’s just not much drama here. I wasn’t hooked by the love story.

Three stars.

Wrap Up of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award Reviews

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013, in a move to integrate the review and discussion site for direct promotion of its literary offerings. Goodreads analyzes the data from what they say includes hundreds of millions of books rated, reviewed, and added to their Want to Read Shelves in a given year to determine which books make the cut for the Opening Round. This is followed by Semifinal Round and a Final Round where site users are invited to vote for the winners. In 2019 there were 300 initial nominees with an average rating of 4 stars. Because the site is so powerful, it’s clearly important for authors to pay attention to how their books are received and reviewed there. That makes this pretty much a popularity award, though I expect it will be affected by factors like levels of promotion and influencers within the various Goodreads groups.

So, this went better than I expected. I don’t always like bestseller novels because I do like solid world building, strong characters and literary elements like theme and meaning. Although Crouch’s book was a little weak, I did like the novels the women authors wrote. One of the big advantages in reading for this award was that there seemed to be a minimum of political messages in the books. There were messages and themes, of course, but in general they were more social commentary than political screeds. These included the dangers of technology (Crouch) and the effects of power, abuse and bullying (Black). Bardugo’s book is a little harder to summarize, but also seems to be about abusing others for the purposes of achieving power.

These books seem to have won the awards pretty much on their entertainment value and for how they speak to the reader, rather than for their “diversity” or other characteristics. All three winners involve mainly white characters, except for Bardugo’s black Centurion, and all the authors are also white. Bardugo appears to be Jewish, and Crouch writes about gay characters fairly often, but hasn’t come out as gay that I can find with a quick search. Of the three, only Black seems to have been recognized by the SFF community; she won the Andre Norton Award in 2005 for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faery.

Since this went well, I’ll do it again next year. Stay tuned for the 2019 Nebula reviews.

Not Latina enough: Is the requirement for #OwnVoices changing?

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Referring to my last blog: That is such a troubling statement about Latina heritage on File 770 that I think it needs another look. For anyone interested, here’s the full quote: “Macmillan f’ing up by publishing American Dirt, a novel rife with negative Mexican crime and drug stereotypes (which was written by a white American woman who says she has “Latina” heritage because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), but not publishing books by actual Latinos.”

You’d think Cummins would be the new face of multiculturism: she’s of Irish and Latin American decent, was born in Spain and lives and works in the US. However, this particular File 770 poster says the publisher f’ed up because they published her, but not actual Latinos, indicating that Cummins has, instead, lost her claim on Latin heritage. One might consider this contradiction a mental glitch, but seeing that the perception is widely shared, I have to assume it really is an expression of the current climate surrounding #OwnVoices writing—the “current climate” does seem to be something the File 770 regulars are on top of. Apparently Cummins, at 1/4 Puerto Rican, isn’t considered Latina enough to have written this book, or even to qualify for minority status in Macmillan’s stable of writers.

So, there are a few conclusions that I can draw from this situation. First, Cummins, secure in her belief she is Latina, and her publisher Macmillan, apparently never thought about being challenged on this book. Next, you’re not a Latina, African American, Native American, disabled, LGBTQ, or anything-else writer, unless you’re out; plus, coming out after you’ve been Twitter mobbed won’t help your case with the mob. And last, the requirements for #OwnVoices writing may have actually tightened so that 1) descendants of first generation ethnic minorities may no longer count, especially if they don’t retain ethnic names 2) an ethnic minority can only write within the narrow limits of their own background and/or 3) an ethnic minority can’t be successful enough to get a seven-figure advance.

These possibilities have repercussions, of course. Should minority writers now consider whether they’re “brown enough” to write something ethnic? Specifically, can only Mexican Latinas now write about Mexico? Cummins isn’t the only minority to fall into this trap recently. About the same time as this controversy, Isabel Fall withdrew her publication at Clarkesworld because of similar criticism. Certainly Fall never questioned her own credentials to write the story, but should her trans status have been publicized in advance to head off criticism? Does the response to both Fall’s story and Cummins’ novel suggest that authors need to publish any minority status they might qualify for on their books/websites/blogs?

This has been a growing trend, of course, but is it now required? Or is that obligation actually an invasion of privacy? Should writers be required to put their ethnic heritage, their gender identity, their age or their medical status out there for a discussion about whether they’re qualified to write their particular story? Should publishers request proof of minority status before going to press so they can post it and head off criticism? And last, is this minority status automatically cancelled when a writer becomes financially successful?

Since Cummins is judged not-Latina-enough to write about a Mexican Latina character, maybe we should now have another look at who’s publishing as an #OwnVoices minority. For example, should we question Native American writer Stephen Graham Jones, who grew up in Texas and has a white name? Or Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims African and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo heritage but writes about Navajo characters? Should we maybe question the light-skinned Nisi Shawl about her qualifications to represent the black experience?

And last, that question about financial success is still hanging there. Cummins has obviously hit the mainstream taste with this novel. It is sitting pretty securely atop the New York Times Bestseller List. So, why doesn’t the Latinx writing community support her?

Are activists bullying editors and small publishers now?

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For anyone who’s really tired of hearing about the RWA dealings, I promise this is the last blog about it. In the last post, I mentioned there are a number of issues that stand out in the recent controversy. I’ve discussed one, but here’s another.

There has been a movement on Twitter for some time now to bully writers based on allegations of racism. This happens especially in the Young Adult genre, an apparent attempt to make examples of vulnerable minority writers, in particular, to publicize issues of racism and cultural appropriation. One particularly egregious example includes Jenny Trout attacking black writer Fionna Man for a fantasy novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. More recent incidents include attacks on Laurie Forest for The Black Witch, a book that addresses racism; on Amélie Wen Zhao for Blood Heir, a book about an enslaved population, and on Kosoko Jackson, a gay black author for A Place for Wolves, about a gay black protagonist in the Kosovo war. However, the incidents that sparked the RWA meltdown are a little different; in this case, Courtney Milan and her Twitter army attacked two editors and a publisher.

As in the author bullying attacks, the Twitter activists picked an editor and a publisher they thought were vulnerable. Sue Grimshaw is a freelance editor and in 2019 was working at Jack’s House and at Glenfinnan Publishing as an acquisitions editor. Sharp-eyed activists on Twitter noted that Grimshaw had “liked” several tweets that expressed conservative views. Grimshaw had also worked as a book buyer for Borders when the company policy was to shelve African American romances separately, and some romance fans reported encounters at conferences where she seemed uncomfortable with questions about diversity. Based on this, Milan and other activists began to suspect that Grimshaw might hold conservative views. Although this was only a suspicion, they still went after Grimshaw as an anti-diversity editor. Jack’s House fired her based on the Twitter campaign, and the Twitter activists then put pressure on Suzan Tisdale at Glenfinnan to do the same. Tisdale refused, and Grimshaw’s co-editor Kathryn Davis also stepped up to defend her. Milan then went after Tisdale and Davis. The two of them approached the RWA separately with complaints, which management encouraged them to make official.

So, an important point that emerges from this is that Milan and her team of activists attempted to destroy an editor’s ability to find work in the profession based on a mere suspicion that she might hold conservative views. They moved from a few “likes” on Trump quotes to a campaign that labeled Grimshaw a racist gatekeeper who was reducing diversity. When Davis and Tisdale tried to defend her, they became racists, too, which damaged their reputations as an editor and publisher, respectively.

I may be wrong, but I’m thinking this attack on editors/publishers is a new direction for diversity activists. Of course, Vox Day attacked Irene Gallo and Tor after Gallo called him a neo-Nazi racist, sexist and homophobe on Twitter, but in that case, Gallo attacked him first. Making an example of an editor and publisher on suspicion, without any real evidence of anti-diversity, looks to me like something completely and dangerously different. And Milan was an official in management of the RWA at the time? It’s no wonder Tisdale filed a complaint. Grimshaw, apparently, did not. But she did delete her Twitter account.

So, what should we think about this? Should all small publishers and free-lance editors now be concerned that the Twitter activists might go after them? Should they all try to fatten up their reputations as diversity friendly? And what recourse might wronged editors/publishers have when they lose business over alleged transgressions? A civil suit? Should professional organizations get ahead of this with a fund to help with libel litigation?

And last, let’s hear it for Sue Grimshaw’s ghosting ability.

So what’s going on with the Romance Writers of America?

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In case anyone has missed the complete disaster Tingle is writing about, it came to a head in late December, 2019. Here’s a quick summary: After some back and forth about Sue Grimshaw, an acquisitions editor at Suzan Tisdale’s Glenfinnan Publishing with alleged conservative views, Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance writer, past board member of RWA, ethics committee chair and diversity activist, made racism charges on Twitter about Grimshaw, Tisdale, Glenfinnan Publishing, and Tisdale’s employee Kathryn Lynne Davis. In particular, Milan called Davis’ book Somewhere Lies the Moon (originally published in 1999) a “f–king racist mess.”

Tisdale and Davis approached RWA management and were encouraged to file ethics complaints against Milan. Apparently a new ethics committee was convened to consider the charges, and the organization then suspended Milan and banned her from holding future leadership positions. The problem was that many took this as shady dealings to get rid of a minority author who functioned as a diversity gadfly. There were mass resignations from the board and the previous ethics committee. The past president resigned, and the new president was forced out.

The RWA documents on the case were posted to Twitter, which meant the whole thing played out in the most public way. Quickly backing up, the RWA revoked the suspension, reinstated Milan, cancelled the RITA awards, and announced they were hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.”

The notable thing about this is how quickly it went out of control. Milan posted, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” Davis insisted the comments were “cyberbullying” and complained that they cost her a publishing contract. Grimshaw lost an editing job because of the Twitter campaign. Tisdale insisted that Davis’ book was historically accurate, and only needed minor editing to update it and meet the current standard for politically correct. Tisdale and Davis both called Milan’s comments “unprofessional conduct,” but later expressed surprise at the RWA’s actions, saying all they really wanted was an apology. By January 10, Milan was calling the affair a white supremacist backlash.

I’ve just published a couple of blogs addressing activist behavior that’s apparently calculated to create a backlash and provide a larger platform. Milan might have had this in mind, or this might be a case of mean girl bullying, or it might be a case of young writers going after the old guard. Whatever, once made, I think the claims about racism deserve real consideration. So what are the important points here? First, was Milan justified in attacking Grimshaw as a gatekeeper with alleged conservative views and Tisdale for employing her? Next, was Milan justified in complaining about an old historical novel that portrays 19th century Chinese women as submissive? Next, is this a historical behavior that really needs to be erased to create a more equitable society now? And because Milan claims this is so, is she justified in making profane charges of racism in a public forum without regard for the effects on other professionals’ careers?

On the other hand, was the ethics complaint justified? Were Tisdale and Davis right that Milan’s behavior was unprofessional? Did she target Grimshaw, Tisdale and Glenfinnan Publishing unjustly for issues they had no control over? And last, was the RWA’s over-the-top response justified in any way?

The end result is that Tisdale and Davis are backpedaling in interviews, trying to blame the RWA for encouraging them to file complaints about a minority writer who called them racists, while Milan is reinstated. Meanwhile, the RWA seems to be in ruins, oozing black, cancerous slime, if you can believe Chuck Tingle.

This is a fairly major breakdown, similar to what has recently affected the traditional form of the SFWA, except more so. According to Jemisin, “The only way to enact change in such a system is to destabilize it — unfreeze it.” Presumably, Milan has now destabilized the RWA organization. Can it be rebuilt along more diverse lines?

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