Is it fantasy or science fiction?

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Interestingly, there are theorists who think there’s not that much difference between fantasy and science fiction. For example, in 1976 Todorov and Berrong classified science fiction as a subset of the fantasy genre. In 1979 Suvin argued that it had become common to call anything science fiction that included themes of “novelty, estrangement and cognitive dissonance,” and that science fiction should be the overarching term. The only real difference between the genres, according to Suvin, is that science fiction has to conform to a logical framework. So, presumably this argument was the reason for developing the term “speculative fiction” to describe a particular type of literature that can actually be hard to sort out.

Then, Menadue (2017) conducted a study that found readers actually have fairly strict definitions of fantasy and science fiction, and that the two bodies of literature are seen as contrasting instead of one being a subset of the other. Presumably this has to do with the logic requirement for science fiction, which means it has to follow more rules for causation and world building than fantasy does. In other words, we have to justify the events in science fiction according to real world physics, for example, while in fantasy we can just call it magic and go on with the story.

So, it turns out that the main way readers sort stories into one genre or the other is whether they include “magic” or “science/technology.” There are a few other differences, too. For example, science fiction is generally seen as more future oriented than fantasy, and may address social change more directly. Science fiction is about the possible futures, after all, and not especially the venue for tradition.

Comments? Does this suit your definition?

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Review of City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s released by Harper Voyager and billed as The Daevabad Trilogy #1. It runs 569 pages. The next novel in the series, The Kingdom of Copper, should be available 22 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nahri is a con woman in 18th century Cairo who poses as a healer and palm reader to cover her real work as a thief. She sets up a zar to sooth a crazed girl, and while singing some old songs, accidently summons Dara, a magical djinn warrior. The girl turns out to be possessed by an ifrit, which attacks Nahri. Dara carries Nahri away from Cairo and takes her to Daevabad, the hidden City of Brass. He introduces her to the djinn King Ghassan as the last of the powerful Nahid family, and the court seems to welcome her. It turns out there are nasty undercurrents in the politics, simmering resentments between the six djinn tribes and the half-breed shafit. Nahri struggles to learn the healing arts they try to teach her, and Ghassan thinks she’s at most a half-breed human, but still plans a political union by marrying Nahri to his oldest son Muntadhir. He sends his youngest, the scholarly subversive Prince Ali, as a tutor to win her over to the plan. When Dara hears of it, he tries to carry Nahri away again, but Ali interferes and they are caught trying to cross the magical lake that guards Daevabad. Dara is killed, Ali possessed and banished, and Muntadhir’s companion Jamshid badly wounded. Ghassan is determined the marriage will go on as planned. Can Nahri turn any of this to her advantage?

So, counter to the depressive trend in the WFA finalists this year, this is a romance and an intrigue. All these people are lying to each other, and political groups are plotting right and left. Daevabad is exotic, the details of the city life, the temples and the palace very well assembled. I didn’t have any problems visualizing the people, the creatures or the scenery–the author has done a lot of research. She’s also done a great job in blending tradition with modern sensibilities. The characters are slightly flat, but the story is more focused on the action and intrigue than on revealing their deepest inner thoughts. The reader is left to deduce a lot of what’s going on from their actions.

In case you can’t tell from the synopsis, this is a cliffhanger, as everybody is at risk at the end, and the political tides are still rising. Nahri mostly lets people push her around in this book, but her political faction didn’t abandon her over the marriage, so she’s now well placed to be a power player in the next novel. Without Dara and Ali, she’ll have to find other protectors.

On the negative side, the magical world here was a little too complex for me to keep up with the way I read the book, which was a piece here and a piece there. Politics in the city was fairly clear by the time I was done, but a lot of other creatures seem to be circling Daevabad, just waiting for some chance to get in. I didn’t get a clear idea of the motives or alignments there. One other note: this seems to be an unfortunate choice of title, as it’s apparently shared with a successful video game. That means a search for the book turns up mostly the game info instead. However, I guess Chakraborty’s fans can tell the difference.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Shades of Magic (series) by V. E. Schwab

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Tor sent me a free ebook, so I went on to read the series. This is a fantasy tale consisting of three novels, A Darker Shade of Magic (2015), A Gathering of Shadows (2016) and a Conjuring of Light (2017). This review may include spoilers.

The City of London exists in four different realities, identified by color. Grey London is an ordinary place with scant magic; Red London is a place where magic is abundant; White London is ruled by tyrants and evil magic, and Black London is dead and sealed off, consumed by dark magic. Each living world has an Antari, a person born with blood magic that allows them to pass between worlds. These are Kell, fostered by the royals in Red London; Lila, a pickpocket with no idea what she really is in Grey London, and Holland, enslaved by the tyrants in White London. Kell is well treated, but feels unmet needs. As a result, he tends to compulsively collect artifacts from the different worlds which he keeps in a private room. He is targeted by a plot and accidentally carries dark magic into Red London. This sets off a struggle to contain the evil, and eventually he and Lila managed to send it, along with Holland, into Black London. They think they’re rid of the threat, but Holland negotiates with the dark magical presence in Black London and carries the evil back into Red. Can the residents of Red London find a way to save their world?

The best thing about this series is the concept and the world building. The series is very character driven, and Schwab expends large amounts of text in setting up the characters, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and in building relationships. This works very well in the first couple of volumes, while we’re becoming familiar with the setup and the characters and their ties to one another. For example, book 1 is mostly about Kell, how he works as a liaison and his relationship with the royals, especially his “brother” Prince Rhys. Book 2 is pretty much about Lila’s discovery of who she is and how she learns to work magic.

Book 3 is about 600 pages, dealing with the dark magic invasion, and here it appears that Schwab runs out of plot. There is a huge mid-story sag, running maybe 200-300 pages, where she fills up space by inventing past experiences for her characters and rehashing events for emotional effect. For characters with such huge responsibilities, various royals, plus Rhys, Kells and Lila, turn out to make very immature and poorly thought-out decisions. They also turn out to be the kind of people who repeatedly torture and abuse chained prisoners. Plus, there seems to be no rule of law here. I was not pleased.

I’ll have to split the rating. Books 1 & 2 get four stars because of the concept, but Book 3 gets a two. I almost quit half-way through it.

Review of the Clocktaur War by T. Kingfisher

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This two book fantasy series by T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) includes The Clockwork Boys (2017) and The Wonder Engine (2018). This set appears to be self-published.Vernon appears as an award finalist fairly often for her shorter works, and generally the stories are good enough that I’ve been meaning to read more of her work, so here we are. This review likely includes spoilers.

The Dowager Queen is getting frantic, as an army of mechanical centaurs called Clockwork Boys is devastating her kingdom. Previous expeditions have been unsuccessful in dealing with the problem, so the queen commissions a squad of criminals to go after the creatures at their source. This includes Slate, a forger, Brenner, an assassin and her former lover, Sir Caliban, a demon-possessed knight, and the Learned Edmund, a scholar of the church. This motley crew (except Edmund) is outfitted with magical, flesh-eating tattoos and set off on a journey to perform the impossible in Anuket City. Can they live through actually riding horses? Can they stop the war? Destroy the Clockwork Boys?

The best thing about this series is the humor. There are plenty of snarky comments in general, especially from Brenner, as romantic interest starts to develop between Slate and Sir Caliban. I actually laughed out loud as Slate and Brenner resort to palliative drugs to alleviate the saddle weariness. The plot is character-driven, reasonably complex and moves along pretty smartly, as the crew deals with threats along the journey and picks up the gnole Grimehug. There’s enough imagery and world-building to make Anuket City, and especially the gray market, come alive. It all works out to a surprisingly reasonable conclusion, considering the apparent impossibility of the task.

On the not so great side, the humor eventually got to be a bit much, along with the suspension of disbelief. The tipping point for me was in book 2, and had to do with the gnoles, a race of creatures apparently employed in the city for menial labor. They’re treated as inferior, but Slate and Grimehug form an instant bond, maybe because she treats em with respect? Whatever, there’s enough here to indicate the gnoles have a complex society and should have an agenda of their own—this is an entirely different story. Meanwhile, I can’t see why this bunch of dustmops would be happy to serve Slate and her team just because they’re asked. Plus, they lighten the plot too much when it should be getting darker and more serious.

The world-building here seems to borrow a lot from Bujold’s Penric series, including the demon possession, the gods and the structure of the church. The artisan works in Anuket don’t quite fit in. Why aren’t they widely marketed? Why don’t we see them elsewhere? And finally, I wasn’t really surprised by the plot-twist involving Brenner—I just don’t know why the other characters didn’t see it.

Niggles notwithstanding, this was fairly enjoyable. Four stars for the humor.

Review of Jade City by Fonda Lee

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This novel is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Awards. It was published by Orbit and runs 512 pages. Apparently this is the first novel of a saga that’s meant to continue.

The island of Kekon is controlled by a cult of Green Bone warriors who use Jade from its mines to enhance their mental and physical prowess. Following the war, the older generation is waning and a young generation of the Kaul family must step up to defend their territory in Janloon, the capital city. However, a new drug has become available that allows anyone to use jade for enhancement. This threatens to turn the power structure of the island upside down, setting the Kauls against the rival mountain Ayt clan who mean to open the jade market to foreign interests. Can Lan, Hilo, Shae and Arden come together to maintain their territory? Defend it against foreign invasion? Protect themselves?

This has the feel of an epic right from the beginning, starting at a slow, leisurely pace and introducing a number of characters. Eventually the main cast emerges. The Green Bones is a semi-secret cult that requires tribute from those it protects, i.e. a crime syndicate like the Yakuza or the Chinese Triads. The main plot emerges gradually as events outline the changes, stresses and dissolution of the old power structure, and heats up as the young Kauls start having to stamp out fires everywhere and eventually risk everything to survive. There’s also a sub-theme as Shae and Anden try to establish independence, torn between loyalty to the family and disapproval of its methods. The sex scenes are fairly sensual without being pornographic, and Lee does an excellent job of presenting the honor system necessary for the family to operate.

Not so good points: The pace is the big detractor here, as the story develops very slowly, and the style and the entertainment value weren’t really enough to make up for it. The characters are a trifle flat, and I didn’t connect with any of them until nearly the end of the book. Still, I’ll have to give Lee credit for the idea and the epic plot line. She’s got a lot of ambition.

This will most likely be enjoyed by people who love the written word, enjoy Asian crime stories and want to cocoon with a really thick book.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes

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This novelette is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF magazine. The title of the story comes from a song by Ewan MacColl.

The narrator describes his childhood years growing up in an Irish neighborhood of Boston. He is bullied by boys from school, and his grandmother gives him a magic charm to protect himself. One of the boys is Eddie Mackey, but after his grandfather intervenes, the two become friends. Later Eddie goes off to the Vietnam War and then goes to acting school. When they meet again, the narrator is a playwright and Eddie is a young actor getting started. They become lovers, but then separate as Eddie goes off to Hollywood. Later they get back together after Eddie wins a Golden Globe for his work in a TV series called Dirty Old Town. Can they make one of Eddie’s dreams come true together?

This story is heavily character driven, without any real plot. The narrator talks about his childhood and the magic his grandparents shared, about struggling as a playwright and meeting Eddie off and on over the years. It’s a rambling reminiscence that comes together suddenly into a meaningful story at the end. It’s also metafiction to an extent, as the narrator includes sections he’s apparently written about similar characters.

Not so good points: The main complaints I’d have about this story is the length of the reminiscence and the liberal inclusion of metafiction, which I thought confused the storyline. Also, the magical workings here aren’t very well defined. Grandmother’s charm clearly works, but the rest of what the narrator considers magic is pretty nebulous. I’m thinking the dreams are symbolic rather than magical.

Four stars.

Review of The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was released by Tor.com Publishing and is described as one of two stand-alone introductions to the fantasy Tensorate Series. The other book referenced is The Red Threads of Fortune.

Akeha is an extra child, an unexpected twin born to the Protector. Along with their twin, they are promised to the Grand Monastery, but as Mokoya develops a gift of prophesy, their mother wants them back, so Akeha comes, too. When their confirmation date arrives, Mokoya decides to become a woman and marry the new high priest of the Monastery, but Akeha decides to become a man. This further alienates him as his mother’s only son. He leaves the palace, and eventually finds himself aligned with the Machinist rebels fighting against the evils of the Protectorate. As events progress, the conflict begins to threaten Mokoya and her child. How can Akeha reconcile the demands of ideology with the family he loves?

There’s a clash here between the Monastery and the Protectorate on the one hand, and between the old order of magic and the new order of technology on the other. As this is only an introduction, there’s not much that happens in the way of development. We follow the children as they grow up together and then weather the rocky coming-of-age when they make the choice at confirmation that separates them. This process is not well explained. Apparently children in this world are born genderless, and their bodies are manipulated at confirmation to correspond to their choice. At least one character we meet did not undergo manipulation, but their sexual functioning isn’t addressed. As the novel ends, it feels like conflict is starting to heat up between the rebels and the Protectorate.

The plotting, prose, characterization and world-building here are adequate for a short novella. Even though the conflicts didn’t develop very far in this book, the tensions seem to be pretty well set up, and presumably the plot will thicken as we move into full length novels. The lack of a fully developed conflict is the biggest drawback to this story, as there’s not a lot at stake so far. People are just choosing up sides, which means there’s not much of a satisfying ending, either.

Three and a half stars.

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