Review of “Summer Frost” by Blake Crouch

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, also edited by Blake Crouch. (Let’s hear it for self-actualization!) Crouch is best known as the author of the Wayward Pines Trilogy. The story runs 75 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Maxine is a non-playing character in a video game from WorldPlay. She’s meant to die in every play, but something goes wrong with the code, and she starts to behave erratically, exploring her environment and fighting back against the killers. Game-developer Riley pulls Max’s code out of the game and starts to develop her as a separate AI. After a while, Riley becomes obsessed with the process of creation, neglecting real world relationships and eventually falling in love with Max. She makes plans to embody the AI in a human-like chassis and to give her appropriate values, but what if Max has ambitions of her own?

This is based on a 2010 thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk. Proposed by user Roko on the Less Wrong community blog, this scenario uses decision theory to show that powerful AI could be expected to turn on humans that imagined the creation but did nothing to bring the AI into existence. It’s called a “basilisk” because just hearing the argument puts you at risk of identification and torture from the hypothetical AI.

On the positive side, this is very character driven. Riley and Max seem very real, and side players like Brian, owner of the company, and Meredith, Riley’s wife, put in strong appearances. Riley spent most of the story ungendered, but Brian calls her “bitch” about three-quarters of the way through, revealing that she is female. The setting here is a little nebulous, as part of this takes place virtual reality and the rest in some apparent near future that is poorly defined and is possibly another layer of virtual reality. The game Max comes from is set in a place that looks like Brian’s coastal estate, and the story has a circular structure, as it both begins and ends at the estate. There’s a sudden twist near the end that should be predictable if you’ve been following the foreshadowing—we just don’t have the details until the end. And of course, I love the basilisk idea. Am I in trouble now for reading this book?

On the less positive side, leaving Riley ungendered until near the end felt like the author was playing games with the reader. I spent a bunch of imagination visualizing her as a nerdy little guy with a beard and big glasses, so I had to rework the whole thing when I got to the “bitch” comment. My personal opinion is that descriptions like this should happen early in the story so I don’t get annoyed, or else just not happen at all so I can go on visualizing the nerdy little guy. There were minor inconsistencies: Riley uses a device called a Ranedrop that sounds like the successor to a phone, but then mentions she has an “old-school phone.”

Four stars.

Review of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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I think this novella is meant to be science fiction. According to the authors, Gladstone wrote Red and El-Mohtar wrote Blue. It was published by Saga in 2019, and runs 209 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Red and Blue are transhuman operatives in a time war, augmented with technology and able to change shape at will. Red works for the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia, and Blue works for the Garden, a consciousness embedded in all organic matter. The two scheme against each other and eventually begin to admire the other’s work. They start to leave messages for one another and eventually fall in love. However, there’s a risk in this, and eventually they become suspect. Can they engineer a scheme where they can be together?

On the positive side, this has evocative scenes and makes good use of poetic metaphor. There’s a symbolism in the opposition: technology versus nature. The time war seems to make use of butterfly-effect actions and weapons that echo down through the time threads and may or may not change the course of history, depending on whether the other side can analyze the effects and counter quickly enough. This was a pretty quick read, as the lack of significant events allowed for skimming. The solution to the problem is fairly clever.

On the not so positive side, this has very little in the way of either plot or world building. It’s an art piece: a series of nebulous, fantastical scenes unmoored in either time or space, interspersed with poetic letters that do little to clarify the situation. This means the characterizations are also poor. The whole thing is so vague that we can’t get a grip on either the two main protagonists or the flow of side characters that have no names and only a transient presence. Plus, I don’t see any reason for these operatives to fall in love. There’s very little content here, and the book comes off as mostly nonsense.

Two stars

Review of Gallows Black by Sam Sykes

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This is a standalone epic fantasy novella from Sykes’ Grave of Empires universe. It’s published by Orbit and is supposed to be 140 pages, but a lot of this turned out to be taken up by advertising, so I’d guess it’s more like 100 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The Freehold city of Last Word in the Scar is about to become the latest flash point in a war between the Imperial forces and the Revolution. Sal the Cacophony is there to attend an execution where Zanze, one of the people on her revenge list, is scheduled to have his head cut off. Sal waits for Zanze’s turn and a clear shot, meanwhile loading her magical gun Cacophony. She is interrupted by an Imperial Mage, who continues to chat while the next victim, the infamous and powerful freemaker Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, is escorted onto the scaffold. All attention is on the woman, and Sal sees Zanze is about to slip away. She starts to head him off, but the mage grabs her, exposing her scars, her tattoos—and the magical gun. He raises the alarm and she shoots him. Chaos ensues. After a brief battle with Imperial Judge Olithria, Sal gets away with Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, who confides that her real name is Liette. Can Sal fulfil her quest to find and kill Zanze? What should she do about Liette?

This is grimdark, heavily atmospheric and action-oriented. It launches with a spray of blood from the execution and moves right on to the destructive effects of Cacophony, a magical, blood-thirsty, black and brass pistol with dragon eyes and a gaping, blood-thirsty maw. Besides that, Liette is working on necromancy. All the heavy-weights in this story are women except for Zanze, presumably the villain, that we only glimpse from a distance. Despite the heavy action orientation, the characters are well developed and interesting, while alluding to a backstory that I expect we might find in other books. This novella ought to suit fans of the grimdark sub-genre well.

On the not so positive side, this basically consists of a lot of explosions connected by brief conversations that reveal the political factions and how they hate each other. In the brief lulls, Sal and Liette manage to build a quick relationship and have sex. The plot is simple, but adequate for something this length. Still, I got exhausted well before the end. I’d rather have learned more about the world and about the people who live there. The magical system is also unexplained, and everyone just seems to have amazing powers that they pit against each other while the common people flee. The end result is that it didn’t hook me, regardless of the early promise.

Three and a half stars.

Review of A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

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This novella is alternate fantasy, is published by Tor.com and runs 46 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Clark, he won the 2019 Best Short Story Nebula Award for “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” published in Fireside magazine. The same story is currently a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. This review contains spoilers.

This story takes place in an alternate Cairo in 1912. Fatma el-Sha’arawi is employed by the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and works as a Special Investigator of disturbances between the mortal and otherworldly planes. She and her co-worker Inspector Aasim Sharif are called to work on a case where a djinn apparently committed suicide with an exsanguination spell, leaving odd glyphs and an angel feather behind. Following up on these clues, Fatma quickly encounters a plot that involves ghouls, assassins and angels, and seeks to replace this Creation with another one. Can Fatma save the world as she knows it? And what does she need to do about that saucy infidel Siti?

This is a nice little adventure story with a slightly bawdy, tongue-in-cheek humor. Although the style and humor detract some from character development, Fatma has some eccentricities that round her out as a real person. There’s a touch of steampunk here, as the city seems to run on clockwork technology. There was some excellent imagery in the description, and I’m also impressed by Clark’s facility with Muslim culture and mythology, even if this isn’t quite reality.

On the not so positive side, we might have saved the bawdy for a little later in the story instead of starting off with it. The dead naked djinn was something of a speedbump we had to get over in order to enjoy the rest of the narrative—which was completely unnecessary. The story was entertaining and stood very well without that.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

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This novella is science fiction, published by Tor.com, and runs 119 pages. Kaftan won the 2013 Nebula for Best Novella with “The Weight of the Sunrise,” published in the February 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. This review contains major spoilers.

Bianca del Rios is incarcerated in the dark cave prison of Colel-Cab. The only other prisoner is Chela, a woman Bee has to rely on because she has no memory of the past. Chela says they are powerful telepaths who destroyed a starship, committing mass murder. But then Biana feels the thoughts of another telepath who tells a different story. Chela warns her away, injures her when she insists on trying to escape. The other telepath is Jasmine, Bianca’s wife, who has been searching for her for ten years after Bee was T-locked. Jasmine rescues her and tries to help her heal and regain her memory as they hide out from the authorities. They plan a trip to the beach where Bianca first woke telepathic ability in Jasmine, but there are threats to their safety. Can Bianca regain her memory? Take control of her powers?

This is described as a psychic thriller, and it’s a quick read with a cool, stream-of-consciousness flow. There’s not really any plot, only experience: of the cave, sex with Chela, impressions of a hospital room, the pain of injury, water on the beach. The imagery and description carry the story along and the narrative eventually creates meaning and emotion. This seems to be a story about how talented people get shut down and crippled by people around them. Chela seems to be an alter ego of Bianca who begs her to hide out, while Jasmine, awakened to possibilities, tries to help her heal.

On the not so positive side, the meaning here is all you get, and that’s pretty murky. I notice descriptions of the novella in various places only include the prison and don’t really try to outline events—that’s for a reason. If you like plot-based stories, this isn’t for you. Still, I expect some readers will identify with the pain and darkness, and enjoy the lesbian relationships.

Vylar gets a lot of credit for creating meaning and emotion in this, but not for clarity or significance. I ended up thinking there wasn’t much here.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog in November 2018. (Maybe a bit of competition for Tor.com?) Zen Cho is Malaysian and lives in England. She is also the author of the short story collection Spirits Abroad and the novel Sorcerer to the Crown. This review contains major spoilers.

Byam is an imugi. That means he’s an ugly, earthbound worm with the potential to be a glorious dragon if he could only become elevated enough. He spends his first thousand years in a cave, studying the Way and trying to improve himself. Finally he feels ready and begins his ascent to Heaven. However, he’s been distracted by an empty belly just recently and dined on some livestock, so the farmers curse at him, which drags him back down to earth. Byam comes up with a strategy for his second attempt at ascension. Hoping to win the acclaim of humans, he creates a beautiful dragon of cloud and light in the sky. However, the sailors below fail to recognize it as a dragon, and when he’s identified as only a worm, Byam falls to earth again. On the third attempt he’s interrupted by a female hiker taking a selfie, who catches him on her phone’s camera. Angered, he disguises himself as a human female and goes to her office, where he finds she is Dr. Leslie Han, an astrophysicist. He is charmed by her research, and they strike up an acquaintance that soon becomes a serious relationship on human terms. Byam manages to learn about human ways, and supports Leslie when she fails to get tenure, encouraging her to go to work for industry instead. Finally, she confesses she knows what he really is. The end of Leslie’s life comes too soon. Can Byam fulfill her final request?

Aww. This is a really sweet story about how the way others see us either pulls us down or elevates us to reach wonderful accomplishments. It’s full of love and humor and includes a hissy cat. What else can I say?

The only complaint I can come up with is that the lead-in to the relationship with Leslie seems long. I can see the reason for this, though—it’s to clearly establish how the anger and contempt of others pulls Byam down to earth at the moments he’s ready to become something exalted. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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.

Review of Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s historical urban fantasy and was published by Tor.com Publishing.

The venue is San Francisco. Helen Young, an elderly woman who knows her end is near, takes a cab to one of her properties and removes a carefully preserved pastel from its hiding place in the basement. This is a hitherto unknown drawing from the pulp artist Haskel, and Young sells it to a dealer. We cut to 1940s San Francisco, where Young and the bisexual Loretta Haskel are friends. They go out to a queer club and Haskel discovers Emily, who sings under the stage name Spike. Emily ends up needing a place to stay for the night and Haskel offers her apartment. The two of them hit it off and start a tender romance, but then Haskel’s long-lost husband reappears, drunk, abusive and demanding money. Can Haskel and Emily find a way to be together? We return to the dealer at the end to find out the answer.

This is a sweet love story. Haskel and Emily end up sacrificing a lot to have the lives they want, mainly because of the discriminatory laws of the time period. These sound really strange today. For example, some of their lesbian friends were arrested for not wearing the required three items of women’s attire. The characters are well-rounded and the pre-WWII setting well developed. We end up with a compelling picture of the women’s lives and how they deal with living on the fringe.

On the negative side, this is a fairly mundane read, more historical than fantasy. The conflict is also fairly ordinary, where the two women end up threatened by the laws and the difficulties inherent in dealing with abusive ex-spouses. The magic seems forced and extraneous, even though it needs to be integral in order for the story to really work. The ending was also very easy to predict. Although I appreciated the characters, I didn’t really connect.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

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This is the debut novel for Rivera. It runs about 500 pages and was published by Tor in October 2017. Rivera is Puerto Rican and currently lives in New York City.

Qorin tribeswoman and warrior Shefali Arsalayaa writes a letter to her friend and previous lover O-Shizuka, Empress of Hokkaro. In this letter, Shefali details their childhood together beginning at age three, and follows Shizuka’s growing conviction that the two of them are divine, favored by the gods and destined for great deeds. Shizuka becomes an accomplished swordswoman while Shefali favors a bow. The two of them slay a tiger at a young age and then move on to tackle the demons that are sucking life out of the kingdom. This is a difficult and dangerous task, and they both suffer for it. They become lovers, but are separated when Shefali is exiled by Shizuka’s uncle, then Emperor of Hokkaro. Can the two of them find one another again?

Tor’s announcement bills this as Mongolian inspired, and Shefali might be, but Shizuka and her culture come across as heavily Japanese. This generated knee-jerk complaints on Tor’s website about a “white” woman appropriating Asian culture, which degenerated into something of a mess when others pointed out that Rivera isn’t white and others questioned whether non-whites can appropriate culture. Certainly Rivera hasn’t written the book about her own cultural heritage.

Good points: The Tor editor described this as “stunning,” and the prose is very well done. The imagery, especially Shefali’s descriptions of her lover, is sometimes striking. Characterization of the two main protagonists is also well-done, as the two of them have depth and substance. There’s a suggestion of power plays in the court, but the intrigues aren’t the main story.

Not so good points: I like women’s adventure, but the literary device of the letter made this primarily about the love story. It also removed all immediacy from the action and events. Who writes a 500 page letter detailing whole lives and mooning about the attributes of their lover? The result was that I got bored about 1/3 of the way through and had a hard time finishing. Despite the imagery, the world isn’t well defined, and I had a hard time integrating the steppes and the kingdom. Characters other than Shefali and Shizuka tend to be flat and don’t always ring true. There’s a huge gap of years here, and no indication of how Shizuka displaced her uncle to become Empress. Did he die childless? Did she off him in some way? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Three stars.

Review of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

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This is an urban fantasy novel published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books. It falls into the young adult category. A second in the series is available called Shadowhouse Fall, published in 2017. Older is a multi-award winner.

Sierra Maria Santiago is out of school for the summer and expecting to use the time to paint a mural on the stark concrete tower that overshadows her Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn. There she meets Robbie, who is of Haitian ancestry and also very talented in art. The two strike up a romance, and Robbie tells Sierra about a secret society of shadowshapers. This is a kind of traditional sorcery that Sierra’s family has been hiding from her, but during this summer a new power has risen to stamp out the shadowshapers. Can Sierra, Robbie and their friends take up the mantle of power and fight back?

Good points: This book hits on several teen issues including racism, body image and self-esteem problems, offering an inclusive message that everyone is okay and valued for who they are. It reaches out to black and Hispanic teens often overlooked in young adult literature, providing powerful characters that they can identify with. It supports the view that teens need to stand up against the traditional discrimination against persons with darker skin. There are also lesbian characters, included like everyone else.

Not so good points: I thought there were fairly serious logical failings in this book, and I wouldn’t have finished it if I weren’t reading to review it. With very little evidence, Sierra assumes who is behind the mayhem going on the neighborhood. Once she knows about the secret shadowshaper tradition, she blabs to all her friends on the train where random strangers can overhear the conversation. Without any kind of caution, she leads her friends in a war against demons, armed only with shovels and broomsticks. This plot just doesn’t hold water. Also, I don’t think it sets a good example for how budding sorcerers ought to conduct themselves.

We get glimpses of the neighborhood and quite a bit of street language, but not much of Puerto Rican or Haitian culture, or what it’s like to live in Brooklyn. The characters are fairly flat, and there’s also not much in the way of depth. I’d like to have seen the book investigate Sierra’s relationship with her mother, for example, or why her mother is so unsupportive.

I’ll give it a little for the teen issues.

Three stars.

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