Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine.

Allpa dying grandmother gives him a magic sword that contains three warrior spirits: Sun, Moon and Dust. When Allpa draws the sword the three of them appear and try to carry out their mission of turning him into a heroic warrior. Allpa is a potato farmer and there is no current threat to the kingdom, so Allpa isn’t really interested in this, but he goes along just to make them happy. How can he deal with the three of them and tend to his crop at the same time?

This isn’t quite Vernon’s standard fare, but it does contain something of the same philosophy, which is the value of everyday people and everyday ways of making a living. In this case, she has turned the usual heroic fantasy story on its head, where the lowly farmer rejects the opportunity to become a heroic warrior, bored with the difficult training and worrying about his potato crop. There’s also something of an investigation of the opportunity cost involved, as Moon comments on what he’s given up to become a warrior and the two of them form a bond.

On the not so good side, there are some reality check issues here. First, I’m wondering why Allpa isn’t taking care of his own grandmother. It’s a very recent innovation that the elderly are farmed out to caregivers, and the traditional family puts anybody to work who can help with the chores. In a farming community, it takes a lot of labor to bring in the crop, so I’m expecting Allpa’s grandmother would have dropped dead in the potato field instead of dying in bed. How was she wealthy enough to pay a caregiver anyway? Next, Allpa rushes home from her funeral to water his wilted plants at mid-day. This is not advisable—at mid-day water evaporates instead of sinking in. Also, potatoes are a tuber crop, so they won’t normally wilt unless they’re diseased. If his crops need irrigation, then Allpa ought to do better than carry water in a bucket. In other words, he doesn’t know squat about farming.

What the story had to say was interesting, but the reality check issues detracted from the substance of the story. It came off a bit thin.

Three and a half stars.

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Wrap Up of the 2017 Nebula Reviews

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First, I have to admire how the SFWA manages to produce this much of what I think is real diversity in the finalists. I’ve been assured that the list is not produced by committee, but it does seem that some kind of grassroots movement must be working to make sure the organization is well represented and that no one much can complain about being left out. The list includes humor, military SF, urban fantasy, high fantasy, Asian fantasy, Native American fantasy, alternate reality, historical fantasy, satire, horror and absurdist fiction. This kind of representation is a big step, considering the political strife about inclusion that’s recently afflicted the SFF community. There was also a lot of diversity in the list of authors. The list of publishers/magazines includes both print and online sources.

Regardless of this bounty of diversity, themes did tend to repeat. For example, a high proportion of the works featured trans or non-binary characters and/or non-standard forms of marriage. In a couple of cases, this seemed peripheral and extraneous, as if an editor had recommended the additions. Several works addressed sentience in robots or similar constructs.

As is usual in the last few years, ordinary white men were frozen out of most categories. Several of the finalists (especially the men) had credentials as publishers or editors, which suggests they may have attracted nominations because of these connections. I’m also wondering why Amberlough was accepted for the list of finalists. Like last year’s World Fantasy finalist Roadsouls, this just didn’t seem to meet the requirements for SFF.

Also, the way names and publishers repeat among the finalists is troubling. For example, Sarah Pinsker and Vina Jie-Min Prasad appeared in more than one category, and some of the names repeated from last year. Four of 7 of the Best Novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best Novella category come from Tor.com, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories. This outlines an inbred, elitist system. The SFWA recently broadened their membership qualification requirements, but the award finalists still look to come from a very small number of favored publishers. Surely there are other authors and publishers out there putting out deserving works.

It can be argued these publishers are the market leaders and so are attracting the “best” works, but this also speaks of how the list of potential candidates is put together. Small publishers and little known authors are often shut out by the “right” reviewers, so their releases have little chance of attracting notice. Somehow the SFF community needs to create a system to promote excellence in small presses and lesser known publishers who are doing good work in the shadows. Since major publishers have dropped the midlist, an award for self-published works might be helpful, too.

Review of Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Knopf.

Teddy Telemachus is a con artist. Always has been. Always will be. He’s getting kind of old now, so it’s time he took care of some things. He approaches the wife of a local crime boss in the grocery story, and as usual, his charm pays off. With her on his side, he’s got leverage to deal. Besides this, Teddy is a widower and the head of a family of dysfunctional psychics. He, himself, is a card reader. His daughter Irene can’t keep a husband or a job because she can tell when people are lying. His telekinetic son Frankie is in debt to the mob. His youngest Buddy is a clairvoyant that is terrified of somehow changing the future. His grandson finds that masturbation causes astral projection. And then, there are the twins. Can this family ever find happiness and success, or is the future going to end for all of them on September 4?

Looking at this from Buddy’s point-of-view, it’s a steaming, tangled pile of past, present and future. For most of the novel, he’s working hard, trying to make preparations for Zap day, when the future ends in his consciousness. Luckily we have information from other points-of-view, too, which help us make sense of what’s going on. Because of Buddy’s aptitude and Teddy’s con artist leanings, this is tightly plotted in many ways. Because of the wild card character of the family gifts, we also get a lot of human failings. Besides this, government agents are lurking about, hoping to replace Teddy’s dead wife Maureen as their greatest weapon. Plus, the mob.

This is a smooth, delightful read with absorbing characters and slightly over-the-top humor. It has a tendency to carry the reader along to the satisfyingly tied up ending, so it’s hard to be aware of not so good points. I did wonder a couple of times about Teddy’s ploys, especially in his and Frankie’s contacts with the mob. Zap day turned out to be sort of manic, and Buddy’s trans girl/boyfriend looked a bit artificial, like an editor’s insert to make the book more attractive as award material.

Regardless of these little issues, I’m going five stars on this one. Highly recommended.

Review of The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s SF/fantasy and was published by Orbit. It’s third and last in The Broken Earth series.

After the fall of Castrima, Essun and the survivors set out, looking for a safe place. Nassun and Schaffa leave Found Moon in Antarctica, taking the orogene children with them. Out of reach of the village, they abandon the children and continue north. The Stone Eater Hoa takes Essun through the Earth to Antarctica, where she sees Jiju’s remains and finds that Nassun has gone. Nassun and Schaffa arrive at a deadciv city where Nassun powers up a vehicle which takes her and Schaffa to Corepoint on the other side of the world. On the way, Nassun contacts the consciousness of the Evil Earth and Schaffa is mortally wounded. Hoa takes Essun to Corepoint where she struggles with the angry Nassun for control of the Obelisk Gate. Will the Earth be destroyed, or can Essun recapture the Moon into its orbit?

As I said about books I and II of this series, the best things about it are the creative ideas and the complex world building. This continues during this book, as we learn more about the deadly Seasons, the deadciv, the lost Moon, the Stone Eaters and the orogenes’ function in suppressing the Seasons and making the Earth livable. The characters are well drawn here, and I’m finally liking them a little better. Essun and Schaffa have both mellowed so they’re less cruel and angry. You also have to give Jemisin credit for avoiding cliché endings. This was different.

Not so good points: These also continue from books I & II, with the worst problem still being readability. There are a lot of pages here and not much in the way of events, plus shifting first, second and third person narration. We’re also up to a huge cast of characters—I notice there are character guides sprung up on the internet to help you keep track of who’s who, as it’s hard to remember given the gap between release dates on the books. There are also some logical issues that developed in this installment. If Stone Eaters can carry people through the Earth, then why have they made the key players walk around through all the dangers of the Season? Also, if Hoa is the narrator for the second person sections here, why does he refer to himself in third person? And why is everything about magic in this book, when there was no mention of it in the first book? And a loose end: what happened to Essun’s baby?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Jade City by Fonda Lee

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This novel is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Awards. It was published by Orbit and runs 512 pages. Apparently this is the first novel of a saga that’s meant to continue.

The island of Kekon is controlled by a cult of Green Bone warriors who use Jade from its mines to enhance their mental and physical prowess. Following the war, the older generation is waning and a young generation of the Kaul family must step up to defend their territory in Janloon, the capital city. However, a new drug has become available that allows anyone to use jade for enhancement. This threatens to turn the power structure of the island upside down, setting the Kauls against the rival mountain Ayt clan who mean to open the jade market to foreign interests. Can Lan, Hilo, Shae and Arden come together to maintain their territory? Defend it against foreign invasion? Protect themselves?

This has the feel of an epic right from the beginning, starting at a slow, leisurely pace and introducing a number of characters. Eventually the main cast emerges. The Green Bones is a semi-secret cult that requires tribute from those it protects, i.e. a crime syndicate like the Yakuza or the Chinese Triads. The main plot emerges gradually as events outline the changes, stresses and dissolution of the old power structure, and heats up as the young Kauls start having to stamp out fires everywhere and eventually risk everything to survive. There’s also a sub-theme as Shae and Anden try to establish independence, torn between loyalty to the family and disapproval of its methods. The sex scenes are fairly sensual without being pornographic, and Lee does an excellent job of presenting the honor system necessary for the family to operate.

Not so good points: The pace is the big detractor here, as the story develops very slowly, and the style and the entertainment value weren’t really enough to make up for it. The characters are a trifle flat, and I didn’t connect with any of them until nearly the end of the book. Still, I’ll have to give Lee credit for the idea and the epic plot line. She’s got a lot of ambition.

This will most likely be enjoyed by people who love the written word, enjoy Asian crime stories and want to cocoon with a really thick book.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes

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This novelette is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF magazine. The title of the story comes from a song by Ewan MacColl.

The narrator describes his childhood years growing up in an Irish neighborhood of Boston. He is bullied by boys from school, and his grandmother gives him a magic charm to protect himself. One of the boys is Eddie Mackey, but after his grandfather intervenes, the two become friends. Later Eddie goes off to the Vietnam War and then goes to acting school. When they meet again, the narrator is a playwright and Eddie is a young actor getting started. They become lovers, but then separate as Eddie goes off to Hollywood. Later they get back together after Eddie wins a Golden Globe for his work in a TV series called Dirty Old Town. Can they make one of Eddie’s dreams come true together?

This story is heavily character driven, without any real plot. The narrator talks about his childhood and the magic his grandparents shared, about struggling as a playwright and meeting Eddie off and on over the years. It’s a rambling reminiscence that comes together suddenly into a meaningful story at the end. It’s also metafiction to an extent, as the narrator includes sections he’s apparently written about similar characters.

Not so good points: The main complaints I’d have about this story is the length of the reminiscence and the liberal inclusion of metafiction, which I thought confused the storyline. Also, the magical workings here aren’t very well defined. Grandmother’s charm clearly works, but the rest of what the narrator considers magic is pretty nebulous. I’m thinking the dreams are symbolic rather than magical.

Four stars.

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