Review of The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

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I’m done with a couple of the novels before the short story, after all. Went on a brief tour with a singing group over the week end and read on the bus. Jemisin’s novel was published by Orbit. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

After Nassun’s father Jija kills her brother Uche, he takes her south ahead of the smoke and ash of the Rift, eventually ending up at the Antarctic comm where the Guardian Schaffa welcomes them. Essun, meanwhile, is still at the Castrima comm, where she and the stone eater Hoa have found a group of people accepting of orogenes. The dying Alabaster, who tore the Rift in the continent, is also at Castrima, and he tells Essun she needs to learn to connect the obelisks in order to correct the moon’s orbit and stop the Seasons that have nearly caused human extinction. Paradoxically, Schaffa tells Nassun the same thing. While Essun is still struggling with controlling her powers, Castrima is threatened by another comm. Can she defeat the invaders and save the world?

I wasn’t looking forward to reading this one, as I actively disliked last year’s The Fifth Season. Maybe I was just ready for the scenario this year, but this one suited me a lot better. Pros: The story is complex but narrated fairly consistently this time (second person for Essun and third for Nassun), which makes it quite a bit more readable. It still moves at a glacial pace, but the action rises continually to a nice climax at the end. With the plan to rescue the moon, we have some hope of making things better, but the risks here are such that I’m not expecting any of these people will survive. Maybe Nassun.

Cons: Introducing magic into the mix sort of muddies the waters. I thought orogeny was a natural, inborn talent to manipulate the earth and that this was science fiction, but now these people look like witches instead and I’m uncertain about the rules of their magic. Also, I’ve lost that little pique of wonder about the obelisks, but it’s balanced a bit by some scary things going on related to free will. I still don’t much like the characters, but this novel looks quite a bit more award worthy than Jemisin’s entry last year.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a Nebula finalist published by Tor.com. It ended up with 13 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Miss Eleanor runs a home for wayward children that’s actually an effort to rescue those who have found doorways to other realities and then been forced back to the real world. Nancy has returned from the Halls of the Dead where she existed on pomegranate juice and learned stillness. At the home she meets the active Sumi, her roommate, but prefers the company of Kade, the wardrobe master; Christopher, who has a bone flute, and twins Jack and Jill, all of whom have been to dark places. Soon after Nancy arrives, Sumi is found dead, then another of the girls and one of the instructors. Can the children find who’s killing people before authorities close down the school?

This is a young adult type murder mystery with the added interest of the children pining for lost worlds. These are all children who are being ostracized because of their experiences, but they separate into cliques in the school, too, based on what kind of world they went to. This is presumably a metaphor for worldview and personality differences.

Pros: The story needed to be full novel length, I think; I would have kept reading. The murders are an interesting plot twist, and there was a really unexpected one at the end. Good character development and imagery. Lightly addresses gender and sexuality issues. Cons: Contains a couple of graphic descriptions of really horrific activity from the lost worlds and alludes to necrophilia. Is this suitable for young adults?

Four stars.

Review of Borderline by Mishell Baker

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This novel is urban fantasy, a Nebula finalist published by Saga. It ended up with 17 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Millicent Roper is a suicide survivor and double amputee suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and living in a mental health institute in Los Angeles. She is approached by Caryl, who offers her an interview for a job with the Arcadia Project and then mysteriously disappears. Intrigued by the offer, Millie checks out of the hospital and moves into one of the project’s residences. This is an old Victorian house peopled by other individuals with mental health issues, and a certain amount of friction ensues. It turns out the Arcadia Project monitors gateways to Arcadia used by the fey to enter the human realm, and something has gone wrong. As Caryl is preoccupied with indications, Millie moves into the gap, taking over an investigation into a missing fey. She contacts people in the film industry and eventually learns what plot is afoot. The group mounts an expedition to remedy the situation in the face of highly dangerous fey.

On the pro side, this is a solid supernatural mystery story with Millie playing the part of investigator. The characters are well-drawn, and it’s very readable and strongly plotted, leaning to adventure rather than sentiment. It’s written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style, and Millie is both cynical and snarky. This tone works well at the beginning of the novel, but less well as things get more serious and people start to die. Also, I didn’t quite believe that someone as down and out as Millie was at the beginning of the story would suddenly rise to the occasion of dealing with an investigation and wrap up of this scope. I’m under the impression that BPD is a serious disorder, and that a few months of therapy won’t make sufferers functional. Also on the pro side, I absolutely was not able to predict who would make it out of this adventure alive.

Three stars.

Review of “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe” by Kij Johnson

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This fantasy story is a Nebula finalist in the novella category. It was published by Tor.com, and ended up with 10 recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at Ulthar Women’s College. She is awakened in the middle of the night by a student who reports that Claire Jurat, a third year mathematics student, has run away with a dreamer. In her youth, Boe was a far-traveler, and she volunteers to go after Jurat to save them all from the gods’ wrath. She makes up a pack, receives funds from the college bursar and sets out. She just misses catching up with the couple, as they have already passed through the gate into the real world. Boe then sets off on a quest for a way to pass through. Assisted by a gug, finds a passage through the land of the ghouls that opens into a real world cemetery. The gug transforms to a Buick, and Boe finds she has knowledge of the world. An artifact she picked up on her travels turns out to be a cell phone. Can she find Jurat and convince her to save the dreamworld?

This is another novella that could have been a really short short story. It’s also an book full of well-written prose for people who just like reading. Not much happens—we travel along with Boe, and for a while, a little cat, meet people and see layered realities. It’s a very creative concept and we get a really good feel for what the dream world is like as it is revealed through the narrative. It has an emotionally satisfying ending, but I’m not sure it holds water. How can you change a world that’s generated by dreams in the real world? Minor social commentary.

Four stars for the quality of the prose.

Review of “A Taste of Honey” by Kai Ashante Wilson

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This Nebula finalist is a novella published by Tor.com. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Aqib is a royal cousin in the kingdom of Olorum who is talented with animals and works in the city menagerie. His family has recently lost status, and his father expects Aqib to marry well to increase the family fortunes. The boy is young and starting to attract the attention of marriage brokers, but he also attracts Lucrio, a Dalucan soldier stationed in the city for a peacekeeping mission. The two become lovers. Aqib later charms the highborn Femysade and the two wed. The marriage is harmonious and the couple produces a daughter, but Aqib keeps a long term relationship going with Lucrio, even though his brother tries to interfere. Femysade is talented in women’s work, a savant in math and science. She is tapped by the gods to go to their distant city and work, which leaves Aqib to raise their daughter alone. When his tour of duty ends, Lucrio has to go back to Daluz. He begs Aqib to go with him. Should he go or stay?

Well, this is different. I read somewhere that it’s supposed to be epic fantasy, but it’s actually science fiction and a love story. It’s described as a follow up to Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which presumably explains more about the universe where Aqib lives. It does have characteristics of fantasy, but it’s written in a science fictional framework–it’s just that to the non-technical people of the city, science is the work of the gods and therefore something distant, arcane and magical.

Pros: You have to hand it to Wilson for writing a straight-out love story, which is sort of out of fashion in SFF. Also, you have to give him credit for turning a few social conventions on their heads, making science and math women’s work, for example; for putting the beautiful Aqib on the marriage market, and also for avoiding the subject of race. The figures on the cover are black, presumably because Wilson is an African American writer, but actually he doesn’t give many clues to the racial identity of his characters. The writing also has a good flow which makes it easy, comfortable reading. Cons: The characters aren’t well developed and I didn’t engage with them very deeply. The narrative skips around in time and into alternate realities, so the story has very little in the way of plot or structure.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Liar” by John P. Murphy

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This Nebula finalist is a fantasy novella published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Greg lives in a small Massachusetts town and considers himself a liar. This means that he can lie to things like broken rakes and convince them they aren’t broken. Pastor Julie can’t get him on the phone, so she comes to the house to ask him to step in as caretaker of the local cemetery. He agrees, but goes to talk to Joe, the last caretaker, whose back has gone out. Joe tells him there’s an accidental death of a young person every November 5. Concerned, Greg checks the records and finds this is true. He ties this to the crash of a World War II plane and a possible ghost. Can he and Pastor Julie deal with it?

I saw this described somewhere as a fantasy written by Garrison Keeler. That pretty much outlines the style. It’s very laid back and written in mystery format as Greg investigates and tracks down the threat to local youths while striving to bake the perfect apple pie. Mysteries normally have about three major plot twists, and this builds up nicely with a major twist about mid way, but it’s missing the expected one at the end, so ends up fairly anticlimactic. Murphy achieves great characterization of the narrator—I was involved and getting really concerned about Greg. The other characters are well-drawn, too, and the author injects an element of sadness about Greg’s brother, who turns out to have been one of the victim.

Four stars.

Review of “The Orangery” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

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This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It ended up with 9 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

The Guardian lives within the Orangery, which she keeps and protects. She has lived there since her youth and sometimes yearns for more worldly experience. The Orangery is invaded by the randy Apollo, who is looking for the naiad Daphne in her guise as a laurel tree. The Guardian tries to protect Daphne and leads Apollo to another tree instead, which he transforms with a vial of magical syrup, revealing the naiad Dryope. Concerned about Daphne’s welfare, the Guardian goes to check on her, but Apollo follows and tries to cut down the laurel. The Guardian uses her last vial of syrup to turn him to a tree. She then leaves the Orangery in the care of Dryope and goes out to experience the world. Eventually, she feels the desire to return. Can she do it?

Hm. I think this is an absurdist/surrealist piece. The narrative jumps back and forth between the Guardian and Dryope, although at first this isn’t especially clear. Good flow, but the narrative is more about the background of the characters than plot. I’m not sure I like what it says. Apollo is a complex god, but here he’s used as a negative symbol of manhood. The Guardian seems something of a split personality, as the concept I had of her at the beginning doesn’t match the belligerent nature she exhibits later on. She must be a very powerful being to push Apollo around the way she does. Also, what kind of dumb idea was that to throw Dryope under the bus?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Long Fall Up” by William Ledbetter

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This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It ended up with 8 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Humanity has built a Bernal type space habitat with a population of about 27K people. Fertility and therefore expansion into space is controlled by a large corporation based on research that indicates embryos don’t develop properly in zero gravity. Veronica challenges this restriction by getting pregnant and heading outbound in a spacecraft. The corporation sends an agent to bring her back, and he eventually starts to see this as a rescue mission. However, he finds the AI in his craft is programmed to eliminate both Veronica and the developing fetus. He works to outsmart it, but now Veronica has gone into labor. Will he be in time for his rescue?

I actually read this one when it was published and I can’t find my copy of the magazine right now to refresh my experience with it. However, here’s what I recall. Pros: This is hard SF, which I’m glad to see on the ballot. It’s strongly plotted and, as far as I could tell, well researched and accurate as far as space travel and AIs go. It leans fairly heavily to technical details, mounting tension and emotional impact, so tends to neglect characterizations, imagery, etc. Because of this, it didn’t have the emotional impact it would have had if we’d known Veronica better.

Cons: This is still another story about abusing and/or murdering children. I’m up to six in the count so far in this year’s reviews.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde

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This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by Tor.com. It ended up with 14 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Lin is a Jewel, one of the ruling class, and Sima is her lapidary, an adviser, servant and jeweler. The ruling class uses the power of gems to work magic, and Sima’s father has betrayed the king. The two girls wake tied and gagged in a pit in the throne room, and an invading army is fighting the king’s defenders. The king falls and the King’s Lapidary breaks his diamond, commits suicide. The girls try to escape but are captured by the invading army, led by female warrior Nal. She expects Lin to marry her young son Remir and demands the Star Cabochon which hasn’t yet been found. When the girls refuse to accede to her demands, she threatens to torture them to death. What can they do?

This story is about keeping vows, loyalty and self-sacrifice. It felt pretty intense right from the beginning, as it starts off with the battle already in progress and continues at about the same level of tension. There’s a prologue that indicates this an event from history, and that the castle now lies in ruins. This kind of commentary is also interspersed throughout the story, which I expect is used as a device to reduce exposition. It also provides a little relief from the stressful plot. Characterization, imagery, symbolism, etc., are all subordinate to the emotional component, so none of the characters are really well-rounded.

This is meant to have a strong emotional impact, but I must be getting jaded. Without a strong attachment to the characters, I found it didn’t affect me all that much. This might have worked better if the ending had been presented as a plot twist. As it’s written, we see the girl’s plans unfolding, so the ending isn’t really a surprise. Good writing, decent plot.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” by Jason Sanford

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This novelette is a science fiction Nebula finalist published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List. Spoilers below.

Frere-Jones Roeder is an anchor who has to stay in one place because her blood grains dictate it. Day-fellows may pass through her land, but may not stay. This morning Roeder is greeted by a grain fairy wearing her dead partner Haoquin’s face, which annoys her—the grains killed him because of his political views. She sees a caravan off, but the family returns later in the day with an emergency—the couple’s daughter Alexnya is seizing. It turns out she has been infected with anchor grains. Roeder tries to dose her with medicine to kill the infection but it persists, and eventually she realizes that the grains mean for the girl to replace her. The fairies report this to the other anchors, and Roeder has to fight off an attack. She makes an agreement with Alexnya to erase the memories of all anchors except those of Haoquin. As his memories flood into her, she dies, giving up her position to Alexnya.

This has enough futuristic elements that I’m sure it’s SF, but it’s hard to sort into any kind of sense. What are the grains? Nanotech? Alien infection? How do they control the civilized world? How do they make fairies to serve as spies and enforcers? How do they morph the anchors into what sounds like reptiles? Beats me. As a result, I couldn’t suspend disbelief on this one. It just doesn’t jell into a reasonable universe. Besides this world-building issue, the sentimentality seems forced and the prose is pretty clunky.

Two and a half stars.

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