Comparing Polk’s Witchmark to Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

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I’ve just finished reading the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula. Interestingly, some of the authors have used the same plotline to write their books, but expressed completely different worldviews. I thought it would be helpful to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books. Here’s the second comparison of works from the Nebula ballot.

C.L. Polk and last year’s winner N.K. Jemisin have used basically the same plotline: Highly talented witches are enslaved and their power used to preserve and fuel the societies where others live in relative comfort and safety. Renegade witches manage to break the system and install a new order.

Jemisin’s three-part tale should be fairly familiar, as it’s a multi-award winner. A land called the Stillness is seismically active. Stills are ordinary people and orogenes are witch talents able to control the seismic activity. Orogenes are hated and feared, and Guardians capture the children and enslave them to work for the kingdom. Besides this, nodes in an earthquake suppression system contain children who have been mutilated and lobotomized. These slaves protect the land, but live in constant agony. The orogene Essun kills her firstborn son to keep him from this kind of slavery. Angered by the system, her lover Alabaster breaks the land, and refugees stream south away from the epicenter. Essun follows the flow, searching for her daughter Nassun. She finds Alabaster dying in the settlement of Castrima, and he asks her to complete the task of destroying the world, to recapture the moon and establish a new order. Essun finds her daughter and they struggle for control of the Obelisk Gate. Nassun wins, but convinced by her mother’s sacrifice, she goes on to capture the moon and reestablish seismic order in the world.

In Polk’s book, witches who are not storm-singers are enslaved as secondaries to supply power to the storm-singers that maintain the climate of Aeland. Witches who are not bonded this way are kept in prisons/asylums and used to process souls into the aether grid used for lights and power in Aeland. Miles Hensley (a.k.a. Miles Singer) is a member of a powerful family and a witch who has faked his own death to avoid slavery and establish a career as a military doctor. He is located by his sister Grace and forcibly bonded to her as a secondary. However, he has a friend and lover in Tristan Hunter, a fay Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from Aeland. When Grace fails in her bid to take over the elite counsel of storm-singers, she travels to a witch’s asylum with Miles and Tristan, where they find the truth about the power grid in Aeland and combine forces to destroy it.

What do the writers mean to accomplish? The plot is basically LeGuin’s “Return to Omelas” plot about righting the wrongs of slavery used to support a society, so we have to assume this is the message. What do the writers mean to accomplish with their rendition of it? Jemisin’s work is an ugly tale about hate and anger. Her characters kill and torture their own children and they abhor and abuse each other, totally debased by the system. The powerful orogenes are slowly turning to stone. Those who are already reborn as stone-eaters could probably help with the plan to rescue the world, but they stand by and do pretty much nothing. No one is heroic here, and the angry abused child Nassun really means to destroy the world with the Obelisk Gate until her mother interferes. On the other hand, Polk presents warm, likable characters who are aware of the tip of the iceberg of witch slavery and how this supports the common good. They discuss methods of improving the system, but being young, they aren’t totally aware of what’s going on. When the time comes for them to take over from the previous generation, they discover the truth about how their society consumes souls. They act immediately to end the system, putting their lives on the line to force social change. I’d have to evaluate Jemisin’s work as an angry warning about a dying society, and Polk’s as encouragement to act immediately on the injustice we see.

Which is more fun to read? Again, that depends on your reading taste. Jemisin’s work is hard to read. She disguises her characters and it takes some digestion of the whole trilogy to understand the story. It is not fun to read, and the readability problems mean that her message is probably lost to many readers. On the other hand, Polk’s work is warm and character-oriented. The message may suffer from too much subtlety; that it’s complicated by a separate subplot, and the fact that it only comes into full focus at the end of the book. However, this one is definitely more entertaining to read.

Which provides the better role models for potential saviors of the world? I could do without all the hate and anger in Jemisin’s work—that provides for very poor role models—but is that necessary to call attention to inequalities in our society? Is Polk’s work too warm and sweet to capture the necessary attention?

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Review of The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is alternate history/fantasy, runs 108 pages and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Creeper is an orphan, thirteen years old, and sleeps in an alcove off an alleyway in the free city of New Orleans. Her space is invaded by conspirators that talk about a Confederate plot to kidnap a Haitian scientist from the Free Isles and obtain his terrible storm weapon The Black God’s Drums. Creeper decides to use this knowledge to negotiate a position as crew with Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine of the Midnight Robber airship from the Free Isles. She locates the captain in Madam Diouf’s brothel and climbs in the window to make her offer. The captain is skeptical, but goes along with Creeper to investigate the plot. It turns out to be all too real, and New Orleans in Matti Grà is in danger of being destroyed. With the help of the orishas, can Creeper and Ann-Marie save the city?

This is a great little adventure story with the feel of young adult. The alternate history scenario is that the Union and the Confederacy signed a series of armistices but are now separate nations and are still technically at war. Slavery is legal in the Confederate states, where the slaves are drugged to keep them compliant. The Haitian Revolution was very successful and led to establishment of the Free Isles in the Caribbean, and New Orleans remains neutral ground. Both Creeper and Ann-Marie have Afrikan orisha goddesses who look after them, but Ann-Marie needs some help in accepting hers. The characters are entertaining, and have French creole accents. Creeper takes us on a tour of the alternate city, and seems equally comfortable with the Madam, the local nuns and their wild child Féral.

On the not so positive side, the way these goddesses operate was a little confusing. Generally the orisha’s “ride” a person for a particular length of time, but the book explains that isn’t what’s happening here. It seems to be more of a protection relationship. This is also mostly a surface level story without much depth of ideas or meaning. The author does come out strongly in favor of finishing up your schooling before you try to get a job.

One interesting note appears in the acknowledgements: Clark thanks the New Orleans police for the introduction to their great city in a case of ah-hem, mistaken identity. I guess we’re lucky he didn’t get shot.

Four stars.

Review of Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/space opera and Book 1 of the series The Navy of Humanity: Wasp Squadron. It runs 154 pages, and was published by Semper Fi. This review contains spoilers.

Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay flies a tiny Hummingbird craft and is employed as an exploration pilot by the corporation Hamdani Brothers (HB), which scouts for habitable Alpha worlds and sets wormhole gates. When Floribeth enters the SG-4021 system, she immediately thinks she’s going to get a bonus to send back to her family, but before she can do a detailed assessment of the apparent Alpha world, she is attacked by an unknown spacecraft. There was no gate in this system when she arrived, so that has to be an alien craft. Floribeth fries her AI so she can pilot the craft herself and manages to escape through some fairly reckless flying, then destroys the gate she set behind her. Her managers at HB are not amused. They refuse to believe her story and fine her a huge amount for the lost gate and damage to her Hummingbird’s AI. However, Floribeth is approached by members of the ruling class who are interested in her experience and offer her an opportunity to qualify as a Wasp flyer in the Royal Navy. Can she make the grade?

There was a moment when Floribeth was detained by the HB company that I thought this was going to be a thriller, but Brazee opts for the experiential instead. This has the same warm, positive, you-can-do-it values as other of Brazee’s work I’ve reviewed, and you get to ride along with Floribeth as she outruns the aliens, then proves herself in training and in space battles as a recruit for the Royal Navy–even though she’s unusually tiny and sort of old to be changing careers like that. She has to overcome prejudice from her superiors and fellow flyers because her hasty advancement makes her look like a political appointment. This shakes her confidence a little, but in response she only resolves to work harder. I notice there are a couple more novellas already on Amazon from this series, so I expect there is a certain amount of bad politics in the future that will connect the space battles and keep things going.

On the not so positive side, we get almost nothing about the aliens in this installment and nothing about a possible political opposition that could strengthen the plot. Floribeth has two encounters with the apparent aliens in space, but there’s no description of their craft and their weapons seem to be very similar to the Royal Navy’s. We have no idea what they want, and these still might be renegades of some kind—I’m not totally convinced.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It seems to be absurdist alternate history/horror and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Regan is a Radium Girl. This means she works in a factory where women paint radium onto watch dials to make them visible in the dark. The women use tiny brushes and moisten and point them with their lips. This means Regan has developed terminal cancer from the radiation and her mouth and throat are rotting out. Because the women are dying, management buys up surplus elephants and puts them to work in the factory instead. Regan and an elephant named Topsy communicate in sign language and become friends. Regan is laid off from the factory and sent home to die. Topsy kills one of the staff that abuses her and is sentenced to death by electrocution. Can the two of them get their revenge?

This is a mashup of actual historical events. The Radium Girls and Topsy are both events that look like horror stories to us now. There is also a thread of elephant folklore running through the work and a sequence about a scientist named Kat who wants to use elephants as sentinels to guard nuclear waste sites. This is a very angry piece, as Bolander attacks capitalist owners for the ways they exploit and abuse their workers and pass on public costs like radiation and nuclear waste to the rest of us. (Remember, business regulation by the government is for a reason.) You can also throw animal cruelty in there, too. Bolander has put some imagination into world-building as far as elephant sentience and culture goes, creating a collective voice for the folklore. The different threads are written in different dialects, helping us to keep track. The plot device intended for exacting revenge is also interesting, another example from real past science.

On the not so positive side, this has some issues. The first is readability. The four narrative threads (Kat, Regan, Topsy, folklore) are hard to follow and leave the reader jumping around in time and space—Regan and Topsy are obviously working together, but the folklore traces an apparent history, and Kat seems to live well into their future. Next, there is very little description of the factory, and I’m left wondering how they got the elephants in there to work. Do they sit at long metal tables like the girls, or did the owners build stalls and bring in hay? And last, the ending is a total washout—the story just stops. There are some clues to what happened at the beginning, and about 2/5 of the way through we get an explosion. So, I did a little research on what might be expected to happen here. As Regan walks Topsy to her execution, she passes along a sample of radium in a glass vial that the elephant hides in her mouth. When the electrocution occurs, we’re assuming that expanding gasses within the vial will cause it to explode. I saw a couple of descriptions of this as a nuclear bomb, but that’s bad science. We’re not going to get megatons of explosive power out of a little radium sample—maybe a little pop. Assuming the explosion is enough to shatter an elephant’s jaw, this is likely to be a dirty bomb, dangerous to the poor city sanitation grunts that have to clean up the mess and the innocent kids that use the park every day. It’s more public costs, Brooke. Let’s not advocate for terrorism.

Three and a half stars for the message (minus the revenge part).

Review of “And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is sort of SF/fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine in March/April of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

A man who walks with a cane is now an accomplished and successful physicist. After attending his high school reunion, he goes back to revisit the Haunted House of his youth. Inside he finds unfamiliar landscapes of memories and branching possibilities. He works through these, suspecting they represent parallel universes. He hears his parents fighting, labors to eat his mother’s awful cooking. He meets the “friends” of his childhood that bullied him into going into the House in the first place. They’re watching a video of the accident that killed his little brother Avery on that same day. Can he somehow defeat the Haunted House and find peace?

Okay, so this is about a disabled guy going to a high school reunion. It probably wasn’t that good an idea to start with—if he had any real sense, he would just stay away from those people. The Haunted House is a symbol of a bunch of unresolved issues from his childhood, and he’s stuck going back in time to deal with them. It has a nice, upbeat ending where the parallel universe theory apparently wins out. Characterization, imagery, etc. all good.

On the negative side, this is a little convoluted. The mix of memories and the constantly changing landscape in the house affects the readability some, though not enough to obscure the meaning. I was really into the symbolism, and I thought the sudden intrusion of real parallel universes at the end was a little abrupt.

Four stars.

Review of “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker

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This short story is a 2018 Nebula finalist and runs to dark fantasy/horror. It was published in Lightspeed magazine in January of 2018. Full disclosure: Pinsker is on the Board of Directors of SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

A street child is interested in magic. At the narrator’s request, the boy is taught magic sleight-of-hand tricks. Because he shows genuine talent for the work, he is taken in by the Palace for tutoring. He starts to wonder if everything is a trick and asks about real magic, so it is granted to him in the form of a word. He becomes the Court Magician and handles things for the Regent. Real magic has a cost, though. What is the boy willing to pay for his position?

On the good side, this is a pretty creepy story. It’s character-driven, and there’s no real plot, but the narrative unfolds well enough that I stayed interested all the way to the end. This is clearly a system that eats people, so they have to have a constant stream of willing novices to handle the Regent’s dirty work for them. The kind of people who need to be handled suggest dissent in the kingdom; we gather the Regent is not an empathetic ruler. Pinsker seems to always write thoughtful stories, and this one is about the cost of serving someone else and how this can compromise ourselves, making us less than the person we were–especially when there are morality issues involved.

On the not so great side, this is also very much about being a victim. The boy is represented as being needy, hungry for knowledge and swayed by the tutoring and luxury he’s offered. He’s attracted and groomed for victimhood, and becomes complicit in it. He never really makes any effort to change the system, and just sort of fades away at the end. Also, we never learn who the narrator is. Maybe this is supposed to be mysterious, but it leaves a loose end.

Four and a half stars.

Congratulations to the 2018 Nebula Finalists!

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It’s that time again, and the SFWA has come through with a really varied list. I’ll start some reviews with the next blog.

Novel
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Novella
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean)
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)

Novelette
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
“An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan (An Agent of Utopia)
“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed 1/18)
“The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen (Future Science Fiction Digest 12/18)
“Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (Expanding Universe, Volume 4)

Short Story
“Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
“Going Dark” by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
“And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3-4/18)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)

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