Review of Down among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and a second book in the authors Wayward Children series, a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Beneath the Sugar Sky was also published this year. This runs 190 pages and was published by Tor.com.

Jack and Jill are twin girls born to indifferent parents that only want children for their prestige value. The two of them are forced into obedience and limited roles, Jack a princess and Jill an athlete, but they sometimes yearn to be something else. One day they open their grandmother’s old trunk in the attic and find steps inside that run down through darkness into another world. Taking the stairs, they emerge onto a moor with a red moon and find there’s a castle, its vampire master and a village protected by a palisade. The other power in this place is Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist who lives in a windmill out on the moor. The girls are given a choice of which to serve and how to live. How will they choose? Is there any way they can get home?

Good points: This book falls into the young adult category because of the age of the protagonists, who grow from 12 to 17 during their time in the alternate world. It’s presented as a fairy tale about Jack and Jill, with chapter headings that refer back to the nursery rhyme. McGuire uses a narrator to tell the story, who addresses the reader directly and makes comments on how the tale relates to real life choices as it unfolds. There’s an artful contrast between the vampire master, obsessed with death, and Dr. Bleak, obsessed with life. This is inclusive, touching on the different roles women can choose, including STEM. Jack’s lover Alexis allows the author to comment on the question of weight and body image. The rest of the world is adequately sketched in for the scope of the story. Although it starts out with a magical feel, this descends into a faintly horrific vibe as the story moves forward.

Not so good points: This moves very slowly and nothing much happens. It’s another one of those expansions that could have been written as a short story with about as much impact—although in that case it would have likely reached a much more limited audience than the novella. It’s clear this is written as instructional material for 12-year old girls. However, I thought the choices were too black and white–the development doesn’t account for the insidiousness of evil. Although I notice other reviewers have called this magical, I didn’t think it was uplifting or empowering. I was left with something of a depressed feel. You have to enjoy McGuire’s writing style to get the most out of it.

Four stars.

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Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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This is volume 2 of The Murderbot Diaries, begun in 2017 with the entertaining and award winning All Systems Red. It’s a novella published by Tor/MacMillian and runs 160 pages. This review may contain spoilers.

Murderbot has successfully escaped a quiet existence at PreservationAux and set out to find what its dark half-memories of a massacre are about. The transport it hitched a ride on arrives in port, and Murderbot transfers to another outbound transport, headed for the Ganaka mining pit where it thinks the massacre took place. This time, however, it has hit on a highly intelligent research vessel hired out for transport by its university. The two of them get off to a rough start, but ART (Asshole Research Transport) eventually comes around to the point of helping with Murderbot’s mission. Murderbot hires out as a security consultant to a group of young humans trying to get their research files back from a local company that confiscated them. This is intended for emigration purposes, but Murderbot gets involved in their problem. Meanwhile, news that it’s a rogue SecUnit has emerged. Can it keep the kids alive and find out about its past before the authorities catch up with it?

Good points: The interactions with ART are pretty much a necessity to deal with the realities here. ART challenges Murderbot’s stubborn, poorly thought out assumptions about how it can masquerade as a human and get to Ganaka Pit to find out what happened there. ART is a great character with some pretty transparent failings itself, and the two of them turn out to be a good team. Murderbot contracts for work itself and shows the same empathy and responsibility on the job that it showed for the last set of clients, which is the heart-warming part.

On the not so good side: It looks like the four installments of this will make up a full-length novel, but each installment is priced like a full-length novel. This installment feels short and incompletely developed (i.e. not worth the price), but hopefully the further installments will integrate it into the story better. I’m of the opinion that events and characters shouldn’t be introduced unless they’re going to contribute to the overall plot. In this case, it appears that Murderbot has rescued the kids and their files and neutralized all threats against them. However, this company had better be part of the Ganaka Pit problem, or else it’s just leading the reader on. As the novella ends, there’s no indication of this connection.

Three stars.

Review of All Systems Red, Martha Wells

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This novella is a finalist for both the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com Publishing, and is also winner of the 2018 Alex Award. Three more installments in the Murderbot Diaries are scheduled for publication later in 2018.

Murderbot is bored. Most of the contracts it works on as a SecUnit are dull and boring. Because it has hacked its own governor module, it is able to access media while on the job, which is what it’s hoping to do today. However, this doesn’t work out because a giant, carnivorous worm suddenly erupts out of the crater where the team is taking samples and snaps up Dr. Bharadwaj. This requires a response, and has the unwanted effect of exposing Murderbot’s skills in a crisis to this particular group of the company’s clients. As problems continue on the contract, the team also discovers the hacked governor module. This is a serious problem that would normally result in a SecUnit being recycled. Can Murderbot solve the mystery of who’s trying to kill its human clients? Can it escape being stripped for parts?

This is extremely well set up. Murderbot is an AI security unit with cloned human parts, emotional capabilities and gun ports built in. There’s some dark episode in its past that the company techs have tried to wipe from memory that leads it to call itself Murderbot. (Presumably we’ll hear more of this.) The story is strongly plotted and the characters are extremely well drawn, from Murderbot itself to the touchy-feely team of clients that wants to help it get in touch with its human side. The worm is a great hook, and the ending is appropriately satisfying. It’s written in an engaging first person, which gives us Murderbot’s intimate, personal viewpoint on events. The SecUnits units are genderless, and (refreshingly) everybody goes right ahead and calls it an “it.”

Besides these strong points as a story, the novella investigates the issue of AI/human relations and AI ownership as a form of slavery. Murderbot is dangerous because it has established autonomy through hacking its own governor module—meaning humans are no longer able to control its behavior through punitive means. All the unit needs is a little shove to turn its attention from escapist media to actually dealing with humans on their own terms. And besides that, it’s got built-in weapons.

On the not so positive side: Even though the story is very engaging, some of this feels derivative. The worm reminds me pretty strongly of Dune, and the question of AI slavery is already pretty well investigated. Murderbot also sounds like the standard military killer robot unit, fairly indestructible, only updated with the “what if” of self-determination. Also, once discovered as a rogue unit, I thought its responses were a little too human.

Regardless of these little issues, this is pretty much everything I look for in SFF stories. I’m going to go five stars on it. Highly recommended.

Thoughts on the 2017 World Fantasy Awards

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I’ve pretty much finished all the reviews of the World Fantasy Awards fiction nominees. I’m not going to look at the collections, so it’s time for a wrap up of what I thought.

What really jumps out is the considerable overlap this list has with other major SFF awards, especially the Hugos. In order to complete reviews of the whole World Fantasy list, I had to read 2 novels out of 5 nominees, 1 long fiction out of 5 and 3 short stories out of 5. All the others I had already reviewed as part of either the Nebula or the Hugo Awards. This makes my reviewing job easier, but again, it points out the inbred nature of the SFF awards and the lack of diversity in sources the works are drawn from.

Speaking of diversity, this list is notable for leaning heavily to black and white nominees and totally shutting out both Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. Counting up the ethnicity, it looks like there were three black authors out of fifteen or 20% of the nominees, which well beats the approximately 12% African American population demographic in the US. The list gets extra diversity points for having one nominee of Arab descent, but Arabs are currently designated white in the US.

There are a couple of folks who are LGBTQ and advertize disability diagnoses. Again, the absence of Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native Americans could have to do with the lack of diversity in sources the fantasy audience draws from. Gender breakdown was 4 women to one man in the novel category, 2 women to 3 men in the long fiction category and 5 women to 0 men in the short fiction category. This adds up to 10 women to 5 men, following the current trend to strongly favor women writers in the awards nominations. There was also fair diversity of publishers except in the long-fiction category, where Tor.com published 4 out of 5 of the nominees.

I’ve already reviewed each of the works for quality, content and logical coherence. All of these were well written, with a few real standouts. I don’t have any complaints about the winners. They were first class in all categories. I did note some strong political messages in some of the works. This is a troubling issue. Doesn’t it affect readability when the author’s political views are so obviously promoted that they take over the story?

Again, many congratulations to the World Fantasy Winners!

Review of “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson

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This novella was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published for the first time in the author’s collection Whispered Echoes.

David’s friend Amy disappears from her property at Vassey Point during a violent storm. David helps her father close up her home in the old lighthouse, but six months later, he’s drawn to return. He meets Amy’s sister Karen wandering on the property, and the two of them strike up an acquaintance. They begin reading through Amy’s journals, finding creepy things. Can they solve the mystery of what happened to her?

Good points: This is a psychological horror, a ghost story that takes shape as the supernatural closes down slowly but surely on the two protagonists. It’s very smooth and offhand, so I gather Olson is very practiced at this. It includes a lot of information from David (as the narrator) that gives us local color and background on Amy, Karen and the history of the point that’s led to its haunting. Also, I can see the film in my head. This is very cinematic.

Not so good points: The narrator’s casual, matter-of-fact tone keeps the events here from becoming really scary. It’s very white bread and traditional. The techniques for generating horror are fairly standard—enclosed spaces, violent storms, ghostly presences, etc. I appreciate Olson’s technique and subtlety, but this just shivered my nerves a little. It didn’t really scare me.

Four stars.

Review of The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This novella is volume 6 of the Penric and Desdemona tales, following Mira’s Last Dance. It was published by Spectrum Literary Agency in October 2017 and runs about 139 pages.

Temple sorcerer and demon host Penric and his friend the widowed Nikys have successfully escaped to the duchy of Orbas, but Penric has put off returning to his work as a temple scholar, hoping Nikys will accept a proposal of marriage. She stalls, concerned about the chaos demon that Penric always carries around with him. However, she accidentally intercepts a letter to her brother saying her mother has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in Cedonia. She comes to Penric for help. Can the two of them rescue mom? Will Nikys ever accept Penric’s proposal of marriage?

Like all the other novellas in this continuing story, this is a quick, entertaining read. The novella is nothing really profound, but Bujold is an accomplished writer and her characters are well-developed, absorbing and entertaining. The world is pretty well built by now, and I don’t have any problems visualizing the houses, towns or shrines. I thought Mira’s Last Dance was a little weird, but maybe it was all to put Nikys off. She’s having to make up her mind here if she can buy the package deal.

Recommended. Three and a half stars.

Review of Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This isn’t part of my project to review under-represented minorities—it’s one just for fun. This novella is another in the continuing series of Penric and his resident demon Desdemona. It was released in 2017, which makes it eligible for next year’s awards. It runs about 90 pages and looks to be released independently. It picks up where Penric’s Mission leaves off.

Penric, Arisaydia and Nikys are limping across Cedonia toward the border and safety in the Duchy of Orbas. Penric was injured in his recent battle with the sorcerer Kyrato; General Arisaydia is recuperating from blindness and his widowed sister Nikys is just plain tired. When they get to the town of Sosie, the temple is occupied by a funeral, so Penric can’t get money by robbing the collection boxes as he normally does. They find refuge in a brothel instead, as Penric contracts to rid the premises of pests. He heals the madam, as well, and borrows her expertise to disguise himself as a woman for the rest of the trip to the border. Unfortunately he catches the eye of one of the house’s clientele. Will they make it to the safety of Orbas? Will Penric and Nikys hook up?

Bujold is an accomplished writer, so her characterization, imagery, plot, etc. are all neatly in place. These novellas have been on the awards ballots fairly regularly, and I suspect the reason is that Penric is a boy and his demon is a girl. This leaves the option to investigate questions of gender identity and how this is received by others. I hadn’t noticed it so much in the other novellas, but here Penric assumes the identity of the courtesan Mira, navigating the minefields of cross-dressing and indeterminate sexuality while attempting to pursue the elusive Nikys. It’s a light, quick read, just the thing to brighten up a rainy night.

On the negative side, I wish these novellas were a little touch darker. They’re light on conflict, as there’s never much in the way of a real threat. Penric seems light-minded, as well, and never dark—just confusing to the people he meets. I hope there’s some supporting reason for this escapade in the upcoming tales.

Three and a half stars.

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