Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

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Review of “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

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This novelette is a finalist in the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/fantasy and was published in the anthology Expanding Universe, Vol. 4, edited by Craig Martelle and published by LMBPN Publishing. Virdi has been a finalist twice for a Dragon Award, once in 2016 for the fantasy novel Grave Measures, and again in 2017 for Dangerous Ways. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an established novelist, and this appears to be his first major award nomination. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid called Messenger passes Earth; then another crashes into the moon, followed by an alien landing in Bangalore, India. Arjun Shetty is caught in the destruction and loses his wife and daughter. He is called up to fight and becomes one of the first Shikari called Vishnu, a giant cyborg warrior designed to fight the alien war machines. He brings down one of the machines in the ocean, drags it to shore where scientists are gathered to analyze it, and then suffers a malfunction—for a second he sees only the enemy, starts to fire on it again. Diagnostics can’t find anything wrong. An emergency in Bay 6 needs his attention. Bay 6 houses the Kali-Skikari, which has desynced and run amuck. Vishnu-Skikari destroys her, reports for debriefing and is sent in a transport back to Base. The transport is intercepted by war machines. Can Vishnu-Skikari defeat them?

I can see why these guys made the list of finalists. This is great stuff for a usually dull sub-genre—full of imagery, style and fire, featuring the Shikari cyborgs crashing over the line into violent godhood psychosis. Hm. Or are they? It’s is all pretty much steam-of-consciousness from Vishnu’s viewpoint, which gives us depth in understanding what goes on inside his systems. The other characters are poorly developed, but considering what Vishnu has become, their flatness and insignificance from his viewpoint is sort of understandable (and gets worse as the story goes on).

On the not so positive side, I’m not sure whose war machines attack Vishnu in the final battle. I suspect these are friendly forces, but a few better hints about this would have been helpful. And another little niggle: how many arms does Kali have? Four? Six? Or does she just sprout more as she needs them? Hm.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published in Apex magazine in February of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

A librarian watches as a skinny black child discovers the library. The boy clearly loves escapist fantasies and chooses books like The Runaway Prince. He turns out to be a foster child. The librarian feeds him a compendium of fantasy books, but keeps away the book that he really needs. When he tries to hide in the library overnight, she decided not to notice. When he starts to smell of futility and the death of yearning, she begins to wonder: What should she do?

This is another character-driven story without anything much in the way of plot. The boy comes into the library over a period of time and the witchy librarian watches him. This is an allegory, I expect, of what actual librarians see in rural counties when disadvantaged children come in and discover a different world outside their own circumscribed place. It has an upbeat feel at the end, as we can assume the boy uses the magic book to build a successful life somewhere else.

On the negative side, this feels long and relies on mechanics that are a little too visible. It’s clearly aimed at avid fantasy readers who will love the books the boy reads. It uses pity to make an emotional impact as the poor kid spirals deeper into depression. The story has a couple of digressions about other disadvantaged children that make the social justice topic clear, but I thought this detracted some from this particular boy’s story. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the magic book is that she gives the boy to rescue him. Of course, this is symbolic, but it leaves something of a gap in the narrative. Actually, why aren’t they passing out magic books for everybody?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published in Fireside Magazine in February of 2018. I’m not going to try to summarize–because of the structure that would be hard. This review contains spoilers.

The best thing about this story is that it’s based on an actually bit of history, pointed out in a quote at the head of the story. Contrary to popular belief, George Washington’s false teeth weren’t made of wood. Instead, they apparently were constructed of a metal frame inset with human teeth. Info from Mt. Vernon’s account books suggest Washington bought nine teeth from his slaves that probably went into the dentures. So, Clark took this bit of history and ran with it, imagining the lives of the slaves who contributed the teeth and how their magic might have affected Washington in his private moments. (Well, at least the man paid for the teeth!) The story is thoughtfully written with a clear “own voices” flavor that readers should enjoy.

On the not so positive side, I’m not really sure this is a story. It provides a brief characterization of each person’s life who contributed teeth. Does that make it more of a series of character studies? It’s got no plot at all, but when you put the whole thing together, it does have a great theme.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is sort of SF/fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine in March/April of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

A man who walks with a cane is now an accomplished and successful physicist. After attending his high school reunion, he goes back to revisit the Haunted House of his youth. Inside he finds unfamiliar landscapes of memories and branching possibilities. He works through these, suspecting they represent parallel universes. He hears his parents fighting, labors to eat his mother’s awful cooking. He meets the “friends” of his childhood that bullied him into going into the House in the first place. They’re watching a video of the accident that killed his little brother Avery on that same day. Can he somehow defeat the Haunted House and find peace?

Okay, so this is about a disabled guy going to a high school reunion. It probably wasn’t that good an idea to start with—if he had any real sense, he would just stay away from those people. The Haunted House is a symbol of a bunch of unresolved issues from his childhood, and he’s stuck going back in time to deal with them. It has a nice, upbeat ending where the parallel universe theory apparently wins out. Characterization, imagery, etc. all good.

On the negative side, this is a little convoluted. The mix of memories and the constantly changing landscape in the house affects the readability some, though not enough to obscure the meaning. I was really into the symbolism, and I thought the sudden intrusion of real parallel universes at the end was a little abrupt.

Four stars.

Review of “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker

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This short story is a 2018 Nebula finalist and runs to dark fantasy/horror. It was published in Lightspeed magazine in January of 2018. Full disclosure: Pinsker is on the Board of Directors of SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

A street child is interested in magic. At the narrator’s request, the boy is taught magic sleight-of-hand tricks. Because he shows genuine talent for the work, he is taken in by the Palace for tutoring. He starts to wonder if everything is a trick and asks about real magic, so it is granted to him in the form of a word. He becomes the Court Magician and handles things for the Regent. Real magic has a cost, though. What is the boy willing to pay for his position?

On the good side, this is a pretty creepy story. It’s character-driven, and there’s no real plot, but the narrative unfolds well enough that I stayed interested all the way to the end. This is clearly a system that eats people, so they have to have a constant stream of willing novices to handle the Regent’s dirty work for them. The kind of people who need to be handled suggest dissent in the kingdom; we gather the Regent is not an empathetic ruler. Pinsker seems to always write thoughtful stories, and this one is about the cost of serving someone else and how this can compromise ourselves, making us less than the person we were–especially when there are morality issues involved.

On the not so great side, this is also very much about being a victim. The boy is represented as being needy, hungry for knowledge and swayed by the tutoring and luxury he’s offered. He’s attracted and groomed for victimhood, and becomes complicit in it. He never really makes any effort to change the system, and just sort of fades away at the end. Also, we never learn who the narrator is. Maybe this is supposed to be mysterious, but it leaves a loose end.

Four and a half stars.

Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

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