Review of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is apparently Martine’s debut novel, and is listed as #1 in this series, suggesting we’ll see more on the same topic. It was published by Tor on 26 March 2019 and runs 472 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the multi-system Teixcalaani Empire. She has been dispatched in haste, and her imago implant holding the memories of her predecessor is hastily installed and out of date. When she arrives, she finds political unrest related to the Emperor’s impending death and a planned expansion war that will annex Lsel Station. Besides that, the previous ambassador Yskander Aghvan has apparently been assassinated, and Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass seem to be next on the list. With the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, Mahit threads her way through the politics, where it becomes clear Yskander made inappropriate deals with the Emperor Six Direction, plus political heavyweights in the succession fight, Minister Nineteen Adze, opposition leader Thirty Larkspur and General One Lightning. Mahit’s imago fails, apparently because of sabotage from back home, and she receives frightening messages that Lsel Station pilots have encountered alien spacecraft—apparently the leading edge of some other inimical space empire. Is there a way Mahit can sort through the mess, straighten out her imago and save Lsel Station from annexation?

This is an impressive space opera intrigue, strongly plotted, with highly complex world building and attractive, well-developed characters. There’s a solid political structure and workable economics underlying the empire versus the independent mining stations, and notable cultural differences between the practical Lsel Station and the Empire, which seems highly literate and given to layered, nuanced communications framed in poetic verse. There are shocks and speed bumps, of course, but Mahit manages to sort out the issues, and at the end of the book is headed back to Lsel Station, apparently to report to the Council and confront Councilors Darj Tarats and Aknel Amnardbat about the sabotaged imago. This signals where the next book might lead.

On the less positive side, I had an issue with the imago timeline. The implant Mahit is given on the Station is fifteen years out of date, but after it fails, she experiences flashes of memory that seem more recent. I thought maybe the implant had picked up some of the dead Yskander’s memories when Mahit viewed his preserved body, but given later events, this doesn’t seem likely. So, either I’ve misunderstood the timeline or else this is just unexplained. Next, I’m a bit surprised that Mahit has only a single liaison for staff—considering her position and the political unrest, it seems she ought to have a security force, at least. And last, Mahit develops a sexual interest in Three Seagrass, her liaison and junior staff member. In the age of #MeToo, this is romantic, but also definitely transgressive, and the narrative skims over it. Mahit doesn’t even seem to repent for overstepping her bounds.

This will likely seem slow and boring to action-adventure space opera fans, but it’s highly recommended for the poetic at heart.

Five stars.

Review of The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes

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This sort of science fictional novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Saga on November 5, 2019, and runs 175 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The wajinru are the descendants of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard to drown during the slaving years. Their young were taken in and nurtured by whales, and these children evolved into water-breathing apex predators with scales, fish tails, intersex genitalia, massive jaws and sharp teeth. They live serene lives without the distractions of history. This burden is currently carried solely by the Historian. The time of Remembering is at hand, and the wajinru assemble and build an artificial womb for the ceremony. Yetu, the current Historian, invokes the trance and starts the Remembering, but she is weak and the memories are painful. She abandons the ceremony without finishing and flees, leaving the wajinru in limbo. Yetu ends up injured and exhausted in a tidal pool, where she is discovered by land dwellers. It has been many years since the wajinru destroyed the civilization on land with massive storms. Yetu is cautious, but establishes a close relationship with Oori, one of the land dwellers. Is there some way she can bring the land and the sea back together?

First, the credits: This novella was inspired by the Hugo Award-nominated song “The Deep” by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future.” Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are members of the rap ensemble.

The novella is another of the currently popular imaginative, absurdist narratives that have very little in the way of plot, characterization, or world building, but do coalesce into eventual meaning. In this case, the interesting point is that these undersea people have no memory for history, nor do they seem to want it. It’s painful after all. So they have arranged for one person to carry the burden, and only have a brief Remembering ceremony now and then, after which they’re rid of the memories again. Part of the question here is whether Yetu should permanently give them back their racial memories. I’ve found this issue of erasing history to rewrite the future in a couple of other recent cases from Millennial writers, suggesting it’s an emerging question of the current Zeitgeist.

On the not so positive side, there’s a lot of bad science here. How is it that mammals have evolved to breathe water and developed fish scales and fish tails? And how do babies born into the ocean live on whale milk? Plus, these people are carefree because they don’t remember anything. How will that translate to nuclear bombs, for example? Or the Holocaust? Sure, these things can cause depression and anxiety, but is it really safe to erase them?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 10 July 2019. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the eighteenth century, and poet Christopher Smart thinks God has commissioned him to write The Divine Poem. As a result, he’s been committed to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. He works away at his poem, writing it in blood on the walls when he’s short of pen and paper. Meanwhile, the poet’s cat Jeoffry and his friends protect the inmates, fighting off the imps and demons that plague the halls. When he devil himself comes around, demanding an evil poem from Christopher that’s due from an old bargain, it seems Jeoffry will have to stave off the apocalypse, too. Is he up to the task? Or is he over matched this time?

This story seems to be a tribute to real poet Christopher Smart (11 April 1722 – 21 May 1771), best known for religious works and for serving stints in both an asylum and a debtors’ prison. We know he had a cat named Jeoffry, because the cat appears in his poem Jubilate Agno. This story is written from Jeoffry’s point of view, and is highly entertaining. I have to give special mention to the style and imagery, and also the devil’s wig gets a special shout out.

On the less positive side, this was way too short. I’d love to follow more of Jeoffry’s adventures in the defense of his poet. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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 “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published in Nightmare in May of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

When a British expedition arrives at Ratnabar Island in 1891, they find a primitive society of mostly women and children. The offer of a welcoming meal turns into a cultural offense, triggering a massacre by the British. Three girl-children are saved, and two become wards of the crown, are given Christian names and enrolled in the Churchill Academy, where they plan a foul feast. Women are generally burdened by food-related chores, but the Ratnabar women, in indulging their transgressive appetites, turn the tables on their oppressors. It’s time to stop making ourselves small…

The structure of this story is an annotated bibliography, in other words, short paragraph summaries of various references, including applicable quotes. This kind of bibliography is generally produced for use in papers that require extensive supporting documentation, like theses and dissertations. Taken together, these annotations form a fairly aggressive manifesto, calling on women and girls to turn the tables on their oppressors and eat the world. It’s a creative story structure, and the excerpts come together to produce theme and meaning for the work. However, at this point, this isn’t either a creative or original theme.

Four stars for the creativity.

Review of “A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde

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This fantasy short story is a finalist in the 2019 Nebula awards. It was published in Uncanny Magazine on 1/2/19. This review contains spoilers.

The town has weathermen who turn the storms away and protect the people who live there. However, these weathermen are lost, transforming and becoming elements of weather themselves. Sila and her sisters Lillit and Varyl have talents that may lead them to become weathermen, and their mother tries to hold onto them. However, Lillit follows her destiny, dissolving to mist, and takes up residence on the Cliffwatch. Can they get Lillit back? When the crisis comes, can Varyl and Sila resist the call?

This is another one of the absurdist narratives that seems to be very popular lately, with a lot of decorative imagery and hardly any plot at all. Included at intervals is a catalog of storms with evocative names like So Many Questions, A Grieving and A Loss That’s Probably Your Fault, suggesting that all the storms here aren’t weather related. This isn’t much to support such a long story, and because of the style, it’s difficult to make much sense of it. The theme seems to be about leaving home to pursue your own path, the storms of upheaval in response and how people grieve when you’re gone.

Four stars for the artistic effect.

Review of Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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I gather this novel is the most popular fantasy novel of 2019, as it won the Goodreads Choice Award with 53,430 votes. Bardugo has been a highly successful young adult writer, and this is her debut in adult fiction, also listed as Alex Stern, Book I. The novel was published by Flatiron Books in October, 2019, and runs 450 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Alex Stern has always been able to see ghosts, and not only that, they can touch and manhandle her—she’s had no defenses against them. After she becomes the only survivor of an ugly massacre, she is approached by Yale University and awarded a full ride scholarship if she will become an agent of Lethe House, which monitors the eight other secret societies on campus. She accepts and becomes “Dante” the freshman acolyte of the Ninth House. When her senior guide “Virgil” Daniel Arlington (a.k.a. Darlington) is suddenly eaten by a magical portal, she takes on full responsibility for investigating various events where women are murdered and abused. Can she solve the mystery? And more, can she find Darlington and bring him safely back home?

This gets off to a slow start, but by the end of the first chapter, it’s clear the narrative is about the occult (trigger warning!) and that this is a ghost story. A couple of more chapters in, and it turns pretty gripping, as people start to die, and then Darlington gets snapped up by the hellmouth. Oops.

Bardugo graduated from Yale, so I expect the world building here is pretty accurate. It’s strongly plotted, and the characterization stands out as first rate, as the author gradually reveals details about the people, places and events. Alex is tough and determined to make it at Yale. She takes her job seriously and follows up on the clues like a bulldog, all the while fighting off anxious ghosts and occult attacks from the various interested parties in the investigation. I don’t normally enjoy occult works, but this is actually sort of “occult lite.” Horrific details are minimal, and the novel ends positively, as Alex sorts out what’s been going on and makes sure everybody get their just due. At the end, Darlington is still stuck in hell, but I expect she’ll figure some way to get him out, or at least make the attempt, in the next book.

On the not so positive side, the methods of prognostication here are pretty icky, and some of the perps stupidly out of control. Maybe this is how frat boys expect to carry on their business, but it seems a little simplistic and stereotypical. Also, I’m not sure Alex is quite believable for a 20-year-old from the background Bardugo describes. She comes across as a much older and self-assured woman.

Interestingly, this got mixed reviews from Bardugo’s fans, as I saw several negative comments on Amazon. That could mean it’s quite a bit different from her young adult novels, but since this is the first of her work I’ve read, I wouldn’t know. The novel is apparently shaping up to be a bestseller, and I had to wait through 18 readers to get it from the library. Hence the delay in the Goodreads Choice reviews.

Five stars.

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