Review of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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This is a sort-of science fiction novel and a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga in April 2018 and runs about 304 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Has-been glam rocker Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the only musician left of the Absolute Zeros, are approached to perform in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a song contest that’s open to any alien race—with a little catch. Species that come in last at their first contest are pronounced non-sentient “meat” and eradicated from existence. Can Dess and Oort overcome self-doubt and competitor sabotage to rescue humankind from extermination?

This seems to be satirical absurdist humor. It rocks along at a reasonably fast pace with a lead in that gives us the history of the Sentience Wars, with the competition, like the Eurovision Contest, launched as a way to move forward in a more civilized fashion. The satirical part seems to be about racism. Or maybe the music business. Or maybe both? High points: Aliens decide against evaluating Earth’s house cats as a sentient species. Dess’ lost love Mira Wonderful Star asks him to marry her. The immigrant Oort works hard at being normal to escape police interest and eventually rescues humanity with a Christmas carol. Also on the positive side, Valente gets a lot of credit for keeping a narrative like this going for 300 plus pages.

On the not so positive side, this won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. It has minimal plot and most of it is complete nonsense about non-existent, not-especially-believable alien species doing weird things and making weird music. Because of the absurdist quality, I didn’t connect with the characters well. The ending was clearly foreshadowed, so didn’t surprise me.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is published by Solaris, and is third in the Machineries of Empire series, following Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, also awards finalists. It’s published by Solaris and runs 400 pages. There’s an accompanying collection of stories from this universe called Conservation of Shadows, plus a few singletons about on Amazon. This review contains major spoilers.

This book picks up roughly ten years after Raven Stratagem leaves off, though we have flashbacks that fill in some events since then. A new Shuos Jedao wakes, resurrected by the ancient and powerful Hexarch Kujen. Jedao finds himself in an alien, chimera body that reflects the scars and traumas of an older man, but he only remembers being a seventeen-year-old cadet at military school. He finds Kujen wants him to be his general and lead the forces of the hexarch against the upstart Protectorate formed when the rogue general Cheris-Jedeo took over the Kel forces and Hexarch Mikodez staged a coup. Plus, it quickly becomes clear that Kujen is a cruel tyrant, and that the young and inexperienced Jedeo has no free will in the matter. Can he find a way to victory?

On the positive side, this installment is a great setup to continue the investigation of consensual reality and free will that runs through this series. The Kel on board Kujen’s command ship Revenant hate and fear the new Jedeo, both because of what he is now and what his predecessors did in the past, but they have to follow him because of the Kel formation instinct. In turn, Jedeo quickly finds he is a captive, meant only to be Kujen’s tool and that he has no free will, either. Even his aide is forced to submission through psych surgery. Besides this, the mothships are also slaves, an alien lifeform harnessed to serve in the human wars. As usual, the characters are well-developed, and there’s a light strain of humor that runs through the whole thing, despite the horrors and decadence of the empire. Some of the asides are very touching. The pacing and plot run better in this installment than in the last, with plenty of action, suspense and conflict to keep the reader interested. Last, Kujen’s physical attraction and sexual manipulations bring a strain of S&M to this installment of the series that I didn’t pick up in the predecessors.

On the less positive side, I was disappointed by Cheris-Jedeo’s character in this installment. When the young Jedeo woke, I thought, “Oh, goody! It’s going to be a contest between the two Jedeos,” but it didn’t turn out that way. The young Jedeo is brilliant, of course, but Cheris-Jedeo seriously under-performs, is suddenly incompetent as an assassin, fails to communicate where they should and falls into knee-jerk reactions where they ought to know better—although they do finally come through with some helpful insight that wins the final battle. Besides this, I ended up with some questions about events and motivations. These may suggest this is all getting too complex to manage and/or that Lee has forced his characters into particular roles to send social messages. First, it looks like physical mods are widespread in this universe. People make themselves younger and more beautiful and apparently change genders at will. So, why is Brezen still worrying about sex prejudice and wearing something as uncomfortable as breast bindings to look like a man? Second, if the Protectorate is going to ditch the old order and bring a new freedom, why are the Kell still programmed and enslaved to formation instinct? Next, how is it that, in a universe where math is so basic to reality, the young Jedeo makes a simple sign error in his battle calculations? Doesn’t he check his work? With all those servitors around, doesn’t he have a friendly AI to help out? Or is he keeping these in his head because they’re such a dark secret? The issue seems simplistic and contrived (maybe a message to young readers about math?), and I think it would have been better to leave his error undefined. Next, after it’s clear the Revenant has rebelled, why doesn’t Jedeo give the order to abandon ship? I know it’s questionable whether anyone could have gotten off, but it looks really unethical for the brass to clear out like that and leave the crew to die onboard. And why didn’t all the other mothships rebel at the same time? They could have killed all the humans and escaped. Wouldn’t the sudden calendrical spike have affected their crews’ control of them? Last, if Kujen maintains the black cradle, how is it that he only seems to have had one copy of Jedeo’s consciousness? Apparently he let a big part of this get away from him when Cheris claimed Jedeo as her weapon of choice, and now he’s only left with Jedeo’s cadet memories? Of course, it’s possible that he just wants a Jedeo too young to have formed subversive opinions, but statements seem to indicate this is all he has left to work with. Still, maybe he has multiple copies now, as he’s made previous, unsuccessful constructs with other clones. I’m left scratching my head about this one.

Final verdict: Negatives are inconsequential. This is an entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

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This novella is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s published by Tor.com and runs 202 pages. It follows the previous award-winning novellas Binti and Binti: Home and finishes out the Binti trilogy. This review contains spoilers.

This book takes up where Binti: Home leaves off. After finishing her first year at Oomza Uni, Binti has returned home to go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe, and brought the Meduse Okwu as an ambassador of peace to her people. However, instead of completing the pilgrimage, she has a vision and travels into the desert with a boy named Mwinyi, where she is inoculated in the ways of her father’s people the Enyi Zinariya. On the way home, she experiences frightening visions of her home the Root burning. While she was gone into the desert, the Khoush people have used Okwu’s presence as an excuse to attack the Root. Once home, Binti finds her family is gone, along with many of the Khoush, but Okwu has survived. Now the Meduse are massing for an attack on the Khoush forces. Her people the Himba are angry with her for bringing this conflict on them. Can she harmonize the situation? Or will she lose her own life instead?

On the positive side, this continues the progressive themes from Binti: Home about trying to harmonize relations between different races and calling out racial prejudice. Binti takes on responsibility for bringing multiculturalism and different ways to her people, even though she is reviled and distrusted for it. At the end of the book, she is not only half Himba and half Enyi Zinariya, but she has also absorbed Meduse DNA and microbes from the living ship New Fish. Some of the juxtapositions here struck me as quite charming: for example, while Binti weeps in the smoldering ruins of the Root, Mwinyi’s camel Rakumi eats her brother’s vegetable garden.

On the not so positive side, the first part of this novella is messy and hard to follow, as it involves Binti’s nightmare visions of her family dying in the flames of the Root. Once we’re back home, the horrific nightmare continues as conflict plays out between the Khoush and the Meduse on the Himba lands. Questions about the tech carry over from earlier installments of the series. Binti’s use of treeing, or running math equations to generate a “current” remain unexplained, as is the question of whether the desert people’s communications system is some kind of nanotech. This also gets into Disneyesque territory, where instead of using her training, Binti loses it and screams at the elders of her village. It appears they understand that she’s right and will do what she wants, but in this case the council stands her up and leaves her to deal with the war on her own. Then Binti’s visions turn out to be false. She brings conflict to her tribe’s lands, fails to stop the war, barely escapes with her life, and finally retreats to the safety of Oomza Uni to be with her friends. This suggests that trying to bring multiculturalism to entrenched tribes isn’t that rewarding.

As usual, the author’s theme and symbolism are strongly developed, but the writing is a bit messy. This has a more negative feel than previous installments.

Three and a half 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 “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com in September 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

On a day in 1975, LT is ten years old. His mother wakes him to watch meteor showers, but something else happens, too, canisters falling from the sky with seeds that take root and sprout strange, invasive plants. In 1976, his mother has a new boyfriend and brings home a fern man in a pot. LT names it Slo Mo, and it soon gets too big so it has to go live with his dad. In 1978, a thistle cloud overtakes East Tennessee, blotting out the sunlight. Angered by an argument, LT’s dad tries to shove Slo Mo into the fireplace but it survives. In 1981, LT’s mom takes him to see the Dragon Tails, alien plants growing in Arizona. In 1986, drunk with his friends, LT wonders where the space bees are? How do the plants propagate without bees? In 1994, LT and his husband Doran adopt an Indonesian baby daughter they name Christina. Agriculture has failed in Indonesia because of the alien plants, and people are starving. In 2007, LT is reading to Christina and their son Carlos when his dad’s neighbor calls and tells him he needs to check on his dad. The house has been overtaken with vines, and inside Slo Mo is pressing against the roof. His dad has cancer, and LT and Doran make plans to move him into their house. At Thanksgiving in 2028, Christina announces that her research team has found a bacteria is evolving that will consume some of the alien plants. There is a potential for these bacteria to become part of the human gut flora, which would make the alien plants edible for people. In 2062, LT is ninety-seven. Doran is gone, but his family is still around him.

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm, slightly wry and very inclusive. At the risk of dissing East Tennessee, LT’s parents seem fairly typical. Mom has serial boyfriends and dad is God-fearing fundamentalist, but LT and Doran still manage to put together a nice, normal marriage and a great family. The dates in the story make up a Fibonacci series, like the spirals made by the Dragon Tails or a nautilus, and give us glimpses into LT’s life as the alien invasion takes root and grows. At the end of his life, LT is assured that his children will survive.

On the not so positive side, the story structure leaves us as mere observers skipping through the years. We can assume LT’s dad dies of his cancer, but there’s no info on what happens to Doran and Slo Mo. The plants apparently wreak havoc, but we don’t experience any of this, just a brief storm of thistles and vague reports of people starving in Indonesia. LT and Doran seem to have a comfortable life. Nobody really does anything that produces a solution to the problem except the lowly bacteria, mutating away in the background to take advantage of a new opportunity.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine July-August 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, there were three raptor sisters named Allie, Betty and Ceecee. They are happy, but one day a fair but stupid prince totally ignores all the signs in the surrounding lands and rides into their forest, whereupon Ceecee eats the prince’s stallion. He seems unconcerned. Suspecting treachery, the three sisters confer and Ceecee volunteers to accompany the prince to his nest to find out what is going on. At the castle, she is greeted by the prince’s fiancé (who is also a witch), and lodged in the stable. At first there seems to be no treachery, but eventually Ceecee is drugged and trapped by iron shackles to become the prince’s personal plaything. Meanwhile, her two sisters set out to look for her. The princess witch comes to their rescue, casting a glamour to make two raptor sisters look like humans and unlocking the shackles so Ceecee can escape. The sisters take the witch away with them to live in their forest, and all goes well for a while. Then the four of them have occasion to ride through the prince’s lands again and encounter him on the road. The hunt is sweet.

On the positive side, the narrative here reflects the sisters’ point-of-view and unfolds like a fairy tale that a raptor parent is telling her brood. The narrator’s tone is warm and entertaining, and the humans are generally characterized as terrified and inferior; except the princess witch, of course, who is a huntress and one of their own; and the prince, who is exceptionally stupid and obnoxious besides. One interesting detail here seems taken from tiger lore: the farm workers wear masks on the back of their heads to discourage the raptors from attacking. The picture of the witch living in the forest with the raptor sisters also evokes some fairly strong archetypes.

On the not so positive side, this feels long and is easy to predict. Although the raptor sisters are an interesting take on dragons, they still end up lacking depth, and the human characters tend to be totally flat stereotypes. It’s a fairly long story, and most of the words are used in creating effect rather than revealing what this world is like. Of course, the story is quite sexist, too. The ending where they all go back to the prince’s lands seems pasted on, as if Bolander thought the story wasn’t strong enough when the women just went off and did their own thing. Instead, it has to go on to demonstrate how stupid the prince’s assumption of authority over them is. And of course, they eat him up in the end.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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This book is science fiction, released by Tor Books on 16 October 2018. It’s Book #2 of the Interdependency Series and runs 320 pages. The Collapsing Empire, Book #1 of the series, was a finalist for a Hugo Award in 2018. This review contains spoilers.

This book picks up immediately where The Collapsing Empire leaves off. Flow physicist Marce Claremont is offering his father’s research for review, which predicts the collapse of the Flow streams in the very near future. This will mean that transportation and commerce along these pathways will soon also fail. The only habitable planet in the Empire is End, and the various space habitats will soon be isolated. There is already a civil war going on for control of End. Emperox Grayland II is having prophetic visions about the collapse, which is convincing to the public, but not the Church hierarchy or the nobility. Grayland is planning to put Nadashe Nohamapetan on trial for treason for attempted assassination of the emperox, and has assigned Kiva Lagos as caretaker of her estate. Meanwhile, the Wu family is plotting with the Countess Nohamapetan to take over the throne. Claremont’s data attracts a challenge from Flow physicist Hatide Roynold. The two of them put their work together and predict the Flow will reestablish after a period of instability, which has already reopened a path to the lost Dalasysla habitat. The Emporox sends an expedition there to check for survivors, and Claremont is surprised to find evidence the Flow was manipulated in the past to isolate the Empire. Meanwhile more streams are failing. Can Grayland II keep control of the Empire? How can she plan for the future?

Like The Collapsing Empire, this is a quick, entertaining read. Scalzi’s strong point is in the plotting and the politics, where he plays the different factions against one another in a cat and mouse game for power and influence. The dialog tends to the snappy and cynical, and the nobility comes off as self-absorbed and somewhat hedonistic. The power players are mostly women and Emperox Grayland II shows considerable growth in this installment, moving from an inexperienced girl to a woman controlling the reins of power.

On the not so great side, this is all brash, surface-level entertainment, which means there’s no depth in the characters. The snappy dialog really is great in producing interesting players, but then Scalzi treats them as expendable—don’t get attached to any of them. Kiva Lagos seems almost a caricature, and her sexual exploits seem slyly contrived as a hook for some readers. Also on the negative side, Scalzi hasn’t done much in the way of projection into the future. We meet a couple of advanced AIs, but most of the population is still using “computers” and “tablets” the same way we do now. Surely a space-going population like this would have better technology.

A fun read, but not much depth. Three and a half stars.

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