Wrap-up of the Forward Series Reviews

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This series is an interesting idea, and you have to give Blake Couch credit for self-actualization, as he’s apparently pitched the idea to Amazon, worked as its editor, and at the same time created an opportunity to feature his own work in the series. The writers are all prominent in one way or the other, and I expect they’ve written these stories by invitation.

Here’s the authors diversity count, as far as I can tell: 4 men, 2 women, 1 African American, 1 LGBTQ. That means it serves as an apparent vehicle for white men (who may need it, after all, in the current climate). This also comes across as something of a vanity project. For one thing, it features the editor’s story, and the whole series looks to provide a publicity appearance for other writers who are already prominent or up and coming so their prominence can rub off on one another. Jemisin and Towles came through with thoughtful pieces, and Weir wrote something entertaining for hard SF geeks, but I didn’t quite understand the point of the others, which seemed low on substance—maybe just a guaranteed sale that didn’t require much thought. On the bright side, this series advances science fiction as a genre, and novelettes as an art form. It also allows at least one hard SF writer (Weir) an opportunity for promotion of his work–always a good thing.

Novelettes seem to be underserved as an art form. I expect it’s an awkward length for some reason, too long to fit in to a magazine or anthology and too short to make a profit as a solo publication. Whatever, I predict Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin” will feature in next year’s awards cycle.

This provides light, quick reads for anyone looking to broaden their reading horizons and sample new authors.

Review of Uncompromising Honor by David Weber

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This novel won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. It was published by Baen in October 2018 and is listed as the Honor Harrington Series Book #19. It runs 784 pages.

In the aftermath of the Yawata Strike, Manticore is rebuilding. Several star systems have referendums scheduled to vote on succeeding from the Solarian League and joining Manticore’s Grand Alliance. The oligarchy that runs the Solarian League, the Mandarins, considers this treason and launches Operation Buccaneer to damage the infrastructure of any star system evaluating succession. Expecting trouble in the founding-member Hypatia system, Alliance RMN rear admiral Jan Kotouč takes five ships to the system, where he defeats a large Solarian fleet commanded by Admiral Hadju Gyôzô, who has planned a Buccaneer attack without allowing for civilian evacuation. This is an Eridani Edict violation. The Solarian ships also fire on disabled Alliance ships, which is a violation of the Deneb Accords. After the Solarians attack Cachalot, they blame the large number of civilian deaths there on the Alliance navy. It is becoming clear that there is a third party playing the League against the Alliance, but attempts to capture their agents only result in their immediate deaths. The Alliance thinks this is a Mesan Alignment. They finally manage to capture a live agent, who bonds with a treecat. Meanwhile, the Mandarins are refusing to believe any third party is involved, and attack the Beowulf system. At the time, Beowulf is hosting an Alliance conference, meaning that a large number of government and naval officials are in attendance, including Hamish Alexander-Harrington, First Lord of Admiralty and Honor Harrington’s husband. The Solarians do little damage, but like the Cachalot engagement, bombs that go off after the fleet withdraws kill millions of civilians. Thinking her husband is dead, Honor goes after the Solarians. Is there any way she can stop the war?

I left a lot out of this summary. As I dropped into the series at episode #19 without any prior knowledge, it took me a while to sort it out. Weber didn’t help a lot, as he didn’t include any kind of summary or cast of characters to bring the reader up to speed. For anyone who’s totally desperate, Baen has a downloadable teacher’s guide on their website (mind-numbing, but informative) that does include a cast of characters and helps the uninformed sort out the League from the Alliance from the Alignment.

This has a lot of amazing positives, and I was duly impressed. Weber has an excellent command of plot, action, and world building and at least decent ability for characterization. Beyond that, he’s really good at setting up dramatic situations. There are at least three situations here that could develop into their own novel (and maybe will at a later date). This includes Kotouč and his second in command, both survivors of the engagement at Hypatia; Damien Harahap, the captured Alignment agent; and various treecats who are learning to shoot pulsars with their little hands. Another of Weber’s strong points is the details of the naval battles, including weapons systems, defense systems, military strategy and how all this would operate in the distance and physics of space. I’m wondering how he keeps track of it all, from characters to missile designations to battle strategy. He must have spreadsheets everywhere.

On the not so positive side, I wasn’t happy with the action line. The story is way too long and moves way too slowly. The action sequences are bracketed by endless discussion from a long line of different characters who try to figure out what the other side is up to and what they should do about it. This makes the novel an intrigue, rather than an adventure story, and bogs it down without advancing the plot much at all. Weber goes to all the work to develop interesting characters and situations (Kotouč, Harahap, armed treecats), and then totally drops them. Honor actually makes very few appearances until the end, apparently unconcerned about the issues until it becomes personal. There are also some inconsistencies; for example, if the Alliance uses regeneration to fix injuries, why does Honor still have artificial parts? I also ended up with unanswered questions about how the technology works, including fusion reactors and gravity compensation that will deal with 32K gees. Okay, this does have some wow factor, but really? And last, I’m wondering how the peace restrictions Honor demands of the Solarian League are going to work out. Won’t this leave the League defenseless against aspiring aggressors?

I’m thinking this novel didn’t quite know what it meant to accomplish. Weber adds a note at the end that he intends to retire Honor Harrignton, but continue to write in this universe. Maybe this was a springboard for other developments?

Four stars.

“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Lightspeed, October 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Despite warnings, the narrator is fourteen when she makes her first deal with the indigo snake. The cost is to find the snake’s true name. The second deal is a few days later when the narrator trades her hair twice yearly in perpetuity for an A in chemistry. Years pass before she makes another deal, and then the costs begin to add up for success, for love, for escape from gambling debts. Will a support group help?

The basis for this story seems to be Eve’s transaction with the serpent in Eden, which provides an extra level of meaning and a certain universality. There’s also something about addiction in there. The snake can’t say no, and can only name a price. Unfortunately, it can also make deals with other people, which leads to complication when things start to get tight. The story has a pretty good hook and a rising action line as the costs start to pile up, then resolves when the narrator decides to seek help for her deal addiction.

On the less positive side, nothing quite catches fire here. The snake is pretty wholesome, and not Satanic at all. A darker, more sinister serpent would have raised the suspense level quite a bit, especially if it started to play one supplicant against another. Instead, we’re only left wondering how the narrator will mess up the next time, and whether or not she can find a solution that solves her problems without losing her left arm in the process. Since the author references the Biblical story of Eve, I was expecting this snake thing would be an affliction that affects only women, but it turns out that men suffer from it, too. That seems a little counter to subtext, but then maybe Eve passed the problem along to her kids. Also, a solution involving turtles here was kind of non-politically correct gross out. I know they’re reptiles, but still…

Three and a half stars.

Review of Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by NobleFusion Press, and is the fourth novella-length installment in the adventures of the hypnotist Conroy and his loyal buffalo dog Reggie. This review may contain spoilers.

Conroy and Reggie travel to a casino hotel on Triton with Conroy’s old friend, the gambler LeftJohn Mocker. Conroy is interested in an auction of Stonefish liqueur and Mocker is expecting to investigate allegations of cheating as an agent for the Probability Guild. The suspected cheater turns out to be Angela Colson, a young girl whose life Conroy saved a few years back, who has won $10 million from the casino. The auction turns out to be not exactly what it seems, which Conroy suspects. Can he unravel the mysteries, handle the auction and get Angela some legitimate work?

Good points: This work is strongly plotted and leans to potty humor. The characters are adequately rounded, and I’d probably be able to visualize a buffalo dog (aka buffalito) a little better if I’d read previous installments of the series. There’s a certain psychological element, as Conroy puts together clues to reveal the behind-the-scenes antics and tries to influence events.

Not so good points: This falls on the science fictions side, but there’s not really much in the way of SF here. All these events could have happened on Earth instead of Triton with just some minor adjustments in the story. Angela’s powers seem fairly magical, and the good guys were easy to separate from the bad guys right at the beginning. Because the work is so obviously plot-driven, I was expecting a definite twist ending, but it didn’t happen. All we got was Conroy’s revelation of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and what he meant to do about them.

Three stars.

Review of “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Apex Magazine in January 2016.

Grandma Harken lives on the edge of the desert and tends her garden. As her tomatoes ripen, they begin to disappear, so Harken waits up at night with her shotgun. The thief turns out to be shapeshifter mocking bird woman that is enslaved by an unnamed enchanter. Harken lets her go in the morning, but follows her a distance into the desert. When the bird disappears, Harken sees train rails, so she realizes she needs to consult with the train gods. Her friend Anna’s grandson is a priest that hooks her up, and armed with knowledge of where to look, Harken sets off again into the desert. She meets a coyote, negotiates folded reality, frees a Gila dragon and finally locates the decaying house of the misplaced god. Does she have the strength to free his captives?

This seems to be standard Vernon fare, as all I’ve read from her includes similar themes of magical realism and the mystic properties of everyday people and things. This particular story references last years’ Nebula finalist, “The Jackalope Wives” and uses the same setting and some of the same characters.

Pros: The story features a strong elderly woman as a protagonist, which we certainly need more of. It has a folksy, authentic Western feel to it, and the characters are suitably magical. It includes good world-building with the folding realities. This is very readable, and the characters and images well-drawn.

Cons: I can’t believe the description of the cat. Any feline that lives on the edge of the desert like that is going to be just as ornery and magical as everything else. There’s not much development of the captives’ characters, and I ended up not knowing where they’re from or what might happen to them after they’re freed—especially the Gila dragon. Are we going to meet that creature wandering around on our next trip to the desert? Hm.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

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This is a novella, published by Tor.com and sold through Macmillan. It runs about 160 pages, and it currently has 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Charles Thomas Tester is an African American who lives New York City in the 1920s. He’s comfortable in the multiracial, immigrant background of the city and makes his living, not quite as a con man, but through brokering magical dealings. He’s young, and his father warns him about the dangers of what he’s doing, but Tester thinks he can handle it. While pretending to be a jazz musician, he’s hired by rich eccentric Robert Suydam to play for a party. The man turns out to be pursuing an occult power. When Tester’s father is killed by police, Charles Thomas turns to the dark side, following Suydam into a scheme to overthrow civilization as we know it.

This novella is a retelling of Lovecraft’s “Horror at Red Hook.” The story is generally considered to be strongly racist, as it expresses Lovecraft’s revulsion of the mixed immigrant population he found when he moved to New York City. Tester gives us the African American perspective from the 1920s as he hides out under various personas, pretending to be subservient and to know his place, while actually being very successful at what he does. His father’s murder by the police injects a contemporary note, and Tester reacts with rage. At this point, the narrative shifts to the perspective of Detective Malone, who investigates the events at Suydam’s mansion. I thought this weakened the narrative, as I was very invested in Tester as a character at this point, and I didn’t connect with Malone at all. How this all worked out for him was afterthought.

So, the story is one thing, but the message is another. This is about racism, about how African Americans were treated in the 1920s and how they’re treated today. And, of course, it also suggests how some individuals with the weight and talent might be tempted to invoke Cthulhu to get their revenge.

Good imagery, strong characters, brings the 1920s to life. Four stars.

Reviewing David Levithan’s Every Day

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FeatherPenClipArtI read a book last week that I just have to mention here. It’s Every Day by David Levithan. It’s young adult, but I already mentioned that I love reading young adult novels.

In this story, a protagonist who calls him/herself “A” wakes up every day in the body of a different person. This makes him/her completely unattached to gender, race, body type, sexuality or any other characteristic we take for granted as part of our identity. A is used to moving from person to person without developing any long-term ties, but at the beginning of the book s/he falls in love with someone else’s girlfriend (Rhiannon) and decides to make the effort. Through various shifts, the two of them manage to put together a relationship, but it’s hard going. A makes a mistake that leaves stories of demonic possession flying, and then s/he has a brush with someone really scary. The ending is sweet, but it leaves so many issues hanging that this REALLY, REALLY needs a sequel.

Levithan has also released a set of outtakes from A’s life called Six Earlier Days and has Another Day, a “companion novel” written from Rhiannon’s point of view, coming out in August 2015. Hopefully this is just to help him think through a real sequel to the original novel, which needs to be a thriller. The scary, tenuous, unprotected nature of A’s existence just screams about threats.

It’s clear what Levithan meant to do with Every Day. Our consciousness is often shaped by the body we wear, whether black, white, male, female, gay, straight, big, small. It’s also shaped by family life and how others treat us. What if we could be completely free of all that? A also passes through the lives of people suffering from drug/alcohol addiction, child abuse, cutting and severe depression. What can we do to help these people? And finally, what are the ramifications of power over others? Is A’s moral code important?

Levithan has been criticized for skimming over the social issues in favor of the love story, and the fact that A admits to awkwardness and helplessness in the bodies of some of the people s/he inhabits. I agree that some of the issues might have been explored further, but A’s existence means we only get a single day’s snapshot. Should s/he try to get more involved? Is a policy of non-interference the best way to go?

The important thing is how we manage to identify with a person this strange, and how we understand his/her need for real love.

Five stars. Highly recommended.

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