Review of The Butcher’s Table by Nathan Ballingrud

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This novella is occult/dark fantasy/horror and a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Saga Press in the author’s collection Wounds in April 2019. Although he doesn’t seem to have a huge output in novels, Ballingrud does seem to be well established and has one work made into a major motion picture. This review contains spoilers, and probably needs a trigger warning. The novella certainly does.

Martin Dunwood, a member of the Satanist Candlelight Society, has fallen in love with Alice Cobb, daughter of the Priest of the cannibalistic Buried Church. The two of them plan to use the next Feast to get married on the shores of Hell and then enter the realm of the great Satan, where they envision spending their married life in conjugal bliss. The young Dunwood poisons other members of the Candlelight Society to make sure he is chosen to attend the Feast and hires a thug called Fat Gully as a bodyguard. The two arrive safely in Tortuga, where they ship out for Hell with the black pirate Captain Beverly Toussaint and his first mate Hu Chaoxiang on the ship Butcher’s Table. They rendezvous with another ship to pick up Alice, her father, and the intended Feast, then successfully enter the waters that will take them to Hell. They are followed by carrion angels and the Black Law, attempting to prevent their passage. Can they carry out their plan successfully, or will unkind fate thwart their efforts?

The elements that really stand out in this novella are the imagery and the characterizations. Ballingrud has a real flair for description and he’s dreamed up a lot to work with here, from the seamy town of Cordova in Tortuga, to the sea passage under the stars, to the shores of Hell and back again. He includes some fantastical beasts and angels, plus various descriptions of horrific cut and slash. It’s all fairly matter-of-fact, which does lessen the cringe factor some, and I detect a slight humor underneath—this really is a bit over the top. As for the characterizations, there are a bunch of awful people here, but they have human dreams and aspirations and they all seem to yearn for love. Toussaint is especially touching in his search for his lost lover Captain Tegel, who ferries the damned. There’s a double meaning to the title, of course, The Butcher’s Table is the ship, but also the Feast. The plot moves right along; the visit to Hell goes about the way you’d expect, and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion.

It’s hard to come up with less-positives here, except for the subject matter (Ewww). Occult just isn’t my cup of tea. This is interesting and entertaining, but definitely read at your own risk.

Five stars.

Review of Mightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

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This is a historical fantasy novella, published June 30, 2017, by Subterranean Press and running 136 pages. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains spoilers.

The Emperor has been indisposed for some time, sort of on his death bed, and the Empress rules. The Empire has been plagued by barbarian raids of late, so she summons her nephew and puts him in charge of stopping the raids. Nephew is an Imperial legate, and a possible heir to the throne. The raids seem to have targeted monasteries fairly often, so he takes an expedition out into the hinterlands to investigate the monasteries for possible clues about who the barbarians are and what they want. The monasteries are repositories of history and learning, and are in charge of maintaining libraries and copying books. The Abbots turn out to be mostly old friends/relatives of the ruling family who have been banished from the capital, and everyone seems to have their own agenda. As Nephew unearths corruption and closes in on who might be behind the raids, word comes that the Emperor is dead and that he should stay where he is until the succession question is settled. What should he do?

This is an entertaining read, written in first person and presented as a translation of an ancient text. Nephew (unnamed, but possibly Emperor Ultor III) has a certain wit and a cynical viewpoint that lightens the narrative. As the Emperor’s nephew, he is completely comfortable in wielding wealth and power. He’s not the brightest, the handsomest, or the bravest, but he is likable and is well informed by study about military strategy. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Nephew is also a total realist and completely ruthless. He trusts (almost) no one, and does what he has to do to survive.

It’s hard to come up with any negatives in this. The only niggle I have is that Nephew seems to have a lot of trust in his staff, and no apparent suspicion of his sweetheart’s motives about suddenly agreeing to get married. Presumably he’s sure of these people because of his own personal charisma—plus, I guess you have to trust somebody. It’s a short book, but the length is about right. Once we’ve seen all the candidates for trouble, it moves right into the succession issue and finishes up without dragging its feet.

This goes back three years, but it very much addresses a couple of the recent popular themes in literary SFF. The first is the issue of erasing history. Nephew is totally on the side of preserving books, and in leaning on history for the path forward. “In the end,” he says, “books are all that matter…[they are] the past speaking to the future.” The second popular theme covered here is the assumption of wealth and power. Not only does this story provide a grand tour of the Empire’s corruption, but it also outlines the career path for the successful emperor candidate. Trained at ruthlessness from an early age, Nephew doesn’t waver. If they’re a challenge, they’re dead.

Recommended. Five stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Nebula Winners!

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The Nebula Conference was virtual this year, but here are the fiction awards announced on May 30:

Best Novel : A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Best Novella: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)

Best Novelette: Carpe Glitter by Cat Rambo (Meerkat)

Best Short Story: “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)

Additional awards:

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Riverland by Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing: The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Good Omens: “Hard Times” by Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)

Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award: Lois McMaster Bujold

Review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor/Titan on 12 February 2019 and runs 348 pages. This review contains spoilers.

January is a tidally locked planet, in a synchronous rotational orbit around its sun. That means it’s divided into dark and light, a permanently frozen darkness on one side and deadly, scalding sunshine on the other. Human colonists have built two main settlements in the twilight zone in between. Xiosphant is authoritarian and highly regimented, a system that curtails individual freedoms but provides for all. Argelo is a free-wheeling party city, ruled by competing aristocratic families, and if you’re not well-connected, you starve. Sophie is a working-class student with a scholarship to the prestigious Gymnasium in the city of Xiosphant, sleepmates with her upper-class friend Bianca. Mouth is possibly the last survivor of the nomad group Citizens, who normally works as a smuggler between the two cities, and sleepmates with co-worker Alyssa. Bianca is a student subversive, working toward the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Xiosphant. When she casually steals food chits, Sophie steps in to take the fall for her and is exiled from the city. She is rescued by the Gelet, mysterious native creatures that are often hunted for meat. She sneaks back into the city and hides out, finding a job in a coffee house. Bianca, thinking her dead, moves further into subversive activities, and her group starts planning a revolution. Conditions outside the cities are worsening, and after a tough run, Mouth and Alyssa are in Xiosphant. Hearing about a Citizens artifact stored in the palace, Mouth joins the revolution to get in, but escapes as the rebellion goes bad. Her group flees and takes Bianca and Sophie with them to Argelo. Bianca establishes herself quickly in Argelo, aligning with the head of a powerful family. Still intent on overthrowing the government of Xiosphant, she plans an invasion. Meanwhile, Sophie’s contacts with the Gelet show that Mouth’s adored Citizens accidently undermined the Gelet’s climate controls that make the Twilight Zone livable, and that both cities are likely doomed as a result. If Bianca can take over the Xiosphanti government, will anything change?

So, this needs a trigger warning for anyone who suffers from depression. It’s a pretty dark work, and it was a hard slog for me to get through it. The sun never shines, and the climate is going from bad to worse. Poor Sophie starts off naive and does her best. She tries to love Bianca, and to mediate between humans and Gelet, all without much success. The theme is clearly stated: the failure of grand ideas. The students start off thinking they will change things for the better, but all their efforts are wasted. Bianca leaves a trail of death and destruction behind her, and when she takes over the government, she becomes just what they’ve hated all these years. There’s also an interesting symbolism set up with the dark and light, and the population living in the gray area in between. The City in the Middle of the Night is the Gelet city, mostly underground, where Sophie is transformed to something half Gelet and half human.

On the less positive side, this has readability issues because of the depressive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a little messy. The theme is supported very clearly through both action and pronouncements, but there are also a lot of other things going on that are less clear. One issue is Mouth’s devotion to the Citizens, who all died and left her, and how this turns to ash when she finds out more about them. Another is the presence of the Gelet, who have to represent another way of doing things, but this remains unclear. Another issue is the folk living outside the cities, the smugglers and salvage operators, and the horrific creatures that kill them off in the wastelands. And last, Sophie is transforming to an alien. Maybe this is actually about midlife crisis?

Anders is a little older than I thought, actually Gen X instead of Millennial, and if we’re going to pick out important works as part of the awards process, then this is it, a warning to all those idealistic young kids who think they can change the world and not become corrupted themselves. There’s also a message here about the results of party city versus working hard.

Five stars.

Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two 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 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

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Finalists!

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The World Fantasy Convention where the award is presented takes place October 31 – November 3, 2019 in Los Angeles, CA. Two finalists in each category are chosen by previous convention attendees and the other three are added by judges. The panel of judges for 2019 is international, including: Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas and Tod McCoy. This year there’s a noticeable overlap between the fiction categories here and the Nebula and Hugo finalists I’ve already reviewed. I’ll start up some reviews of the rest in the fiction categories right away. I don’t know if I’ll get to the anthologies and collections.

NOVEL
In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey (John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)
Witchmark by C. L. Polk (Tor.com)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press)

NOVELLA
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)
The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Aug. 2018)
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION
“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine, July 2019)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed, October 2018)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny Magazine, March-April 2018)

ANTHOLOGY
Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler (Ate Bit Bear)
The Book of Magic, edited by Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books US/HarperVoyager UK)
Best New Horror #28, edited by Stephen Jones (Drugstore Indian Press UK)
Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (Saga Press)
Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo (Tor.com)

COLLECTION
The Tangled Lands, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (Saga Press/Head of Zeus UK)
Still So Strange, by Amanda Downum (ChiZine Publications)
An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories, by Andy Duncan (Small Beer Press)
How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Phantom Limbs, by Margo Lanagan (PS Publishing)

ARTIST
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
Jeffrey Alan Love
Shaun Tan
Charles Vess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL
C. C. Finlay, for F&SF editing
Irene Gallo, for Art Direction at Tor Books and Tor.com
Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)
Catherine McIlwaine for Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition (The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford)
Julian Yap, Molly Barton, Jeff Li, and James Stuart for Serial Box

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL
Mike Allen, for Mythic Delirium
Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny Magazine
E. Catherine Tobler, for Shimmer Magazine
Terri Windling, for Myth & Moor

Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.

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