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 “And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Strange Horizons on 9/9/19. This review contains spoilers.

Matriarch Apa is an artisan in Midnapore who makes magical dolls out of jute fiber, and sometimes lets her grandson Nilesh help in small ways. She is visited by Captain Frederick Bolton, of the Calcutta Presidency Battalion, who brings a demand from Sir John Arthur Herbert, Governor of Bengal, who wants to buy one of Apa’s dolls for his beautiful English wife. She refuses—they are not for sale—and comments about the governor’s poor treatment of his subjects. Conditions worsen in Midnapore, and people begin to starve as the British take food stores to supply their army. Nilesh dies and Apa is on the point of death when she is revived by Bolton’s men. Again, he demands that she make a doll for the governor’s wife. Should she agree this time?

On the positive side, this is clearly an #OwnVoices work, and Ramdas is using rural Bengal as a setting. As background, we’re seeing what I expect is the Bengali famine of 1943, generally thought to have been caused by the British during World War II (following another in 1770 caused by the East India Company), and one woman’s revenge—always a feel-good result. This is historically enlightening and brings to life the evils of Imperialism. Under the surface, it’s also revealing of the desperation of the British government under Churchill, heavily under pressure from the Axis Powers in WWII, who robbed India to support the war effort.

On the less positive side, the setting and characters aren’t that well developed in the story, and the characters, especially, seem one-dimensional stereotypes without any complexity. Although Nilesh fills an important role as the emotional heart of the story, he has no real presence here. I never formed more than a vague picture of him, and felt nothing much when he died. Instead of having this take place off-stage like an afterthought, Ramdas could easily have made his death an important centerpiece of the story.

Three and a half stars.

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.

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