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.

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Review of Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s historical urban fantasy and was published by Tor.com Publishing.

The venue is San Francisco. Helen Young, an elderly woman who knows her end is near, takes a cab to one of her properties and removes a carefully preserved pastel from its hiding place in the basement. This is a hitherto unknown drawing from the pulp artist Haskel, and Young sells it to a dealer. We cut to 1940s San Francisco, where Young and the bisexual Loretta Haskel are friends. They go out to a queer club and Haskel discovers Emily, who sings under the stage name Spike. Emily ends up needing a place to stay for the night and Haskel offers her apartment. The two of them hit it off and start a tender romance, but then Haskel’s long-lost husband reappears, drunk, abusive and demanding money. Can Haskel and Emily find a way to be together? We return to the dealer at the end to find out the answer.

This is a sweet love story. Haskel and Emily end up sacrificing a lot to have the lives they want, mainly because of the discriminatory laws of the time period. These sound really strange today. For example, some of their lesbian friends were arrested for not wearing the required three items of women’s attire. The characters are well-rounded and the pre-WWII setting well developed. We end up with a compelling picture of the women’s lives and how they deal with living on the fringe.

On the negative side, this is a fairly mundane read, more historical than fantasy. The conflict is also fairly ordinary, where the two women end up threatened by the laws and the difficulties inherent in dealing with abusive ex-spouses. The magic seems forced and extraneous, even though it needs to be integral in order for the story to really work. The ending was also very easy to predict. Although I appreciated the characters, I didn’t really connect.

Three and a half stars.

What does “important” mean for lit awards?

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, Tom Leclair indicates he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.” This is an interesting philosophy, as it says nothing about the quality of the writing or the writer’s skill in putting the novel together. Additionally, Leclair suggests that popularity, or even likability, should not be important for choosing a winner.

This, of course, is a philosophy for judging great literature. Examples from the 20th century might include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies and The Color Purple. These are all profound works, and everyone pretty much agrees on their landmark status. The question is, should this kind of philosophy apply to judging genre works, too?

Genre works like romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy are splinters from mainstream literature that originally formed to tell entertaining stories—as popular fiction, in other words, without any ambition to become fine literature. Of course, some genre fiction was bound to become landmark works. The Lord of the Rings, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 come to mind.

Novels like this don’t come along every year, but you never know when one will break through into landmark status in a mainstream literary sense. So, do the SFWA professionals look for these “important” works for the Nebula Award?

Leclair goes on in his article to suggest we’re really better off not knowing what goes on behind the scenes of a literary prize. We’re assuming the SFWA members take their responsibility for the Nebula seriously, read all the works on the ballot (or at least critical reviews), and avoid voting on things like name recognition, friendship or reputation of the publisher.

What about this year’s winners make them important for the SFF genre?

Review of The Legend of Tarzan

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Warrior
The Legend of Tarzan is based on characters first created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the novel Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1912. This film is directed by David Yates and the screenplay was written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. It’s distributed by Warner Bros.

The story is set in the colonial period of the late 1800s. The Congo has been divided between the UK and Belgium, and the Belgian government has gone into heavy debt to build infrastructure. King Leopold II sends an envoy named Léon Rom to find the diamonds of Opar in order to finance further expansion, including an army to enforce Belgian rule. Rom’s crew is massacred, but Chief Mbonga (of Opar?) offers to trade the diamonds for Tarzan. In England, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke is invited by King Leopold to inspect the development in the Congo, but he declines. George Washington Williams, an American envoy, convinces Clayton to go on the mission, as he suspects the Belgians are dealing in slaves. Clayton’s wife Jane née Porter also insists on going along. In Africa they reconnect with a local tribe that knew Clayton as Tarzan. During the night, the village is attacked by Rom, who kills the chief and kidnaps Jane, but Williams manages to rescue Tarzan. The two of them uncover the diamond plot, as well as the slavery operation, while working to rescue Jane. They continue pursuit to the coast, where they have a final confrontation with Rom and the Belgian army.

As a long-time Burroughs fan, I’m hard to satisfy, but mostly I’ll give interpretations of Tarzan a chance. This one is pretty decent. They did a reasonable job of representing Tarzan, who wears only a thin veneer of civilization along with his expensive clothes. The theme of this film is anti-colonialism, of course, and it features a couple of the Congolese tribesmen in visible supporting roles. Williams is an African American and brings the American concerns about slavery to the picture. On the negative side, they didn’t give Jane a whole lot to do and they’ve played fast and loose with some of the details. They’ve rewritten the bit where Tarzan met Jane, and muddled their way through the Opar issue. Opar really is a fabled lost city, and in Burroughs’ stories it’s located in the Congo and inhabited by a tribe of degenerate beast men led by a high priestess—here they’ve made the men of Opar seem like just another group of local tribesmen and I don’t see the priestess anywhere. Also, Opar had nothing to do with the death of Tarzan’s ape mother Kala. Okay, I know, I know. You shouldn’t ever try to make the details of a book and a movie match up. I’m just feeling a little OCD about it.

Three and a half stars.

More thoughts on the 2015 Nebula winners

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FeatherPenClipArtNow that the gender discussion is over, let’s have a look at the winning stories. For my taste, this year’s crop of winners was an improvement over the recent trends. Nothing really eye-rollingly sentimental won this year.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” runs a little that way, but actually it’s more of a nostalgia piece about people who are lagging behind social and technological change and really don’t want to cope with it. That’s reasonable social commentary, but I read a lot of other stories this year that I liked better. I’m not really surprised by Uprooted. I personally think it has structural flaws, but it’s hard-hitting, includes (sort-of) romance, and got a lot of early buzz as being outstanding. Hard science fiction lost out again this year. Of the four winners, Binti is the only science fiction piece, and it’s about cultural appropriation—a trending issue in the recent culture wars. “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is also a hard-hitting, unsentimental piece (at least until the end), running to dark fantasy/horror rather than the heart-strings direction the other short story contenders took.

I was disappointed that “The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer didn’t even make the list of finalists. It’s not hard SF, but this was the thought-piece of the year, projecting a reproduction issue into the future and then investigating how it would play out. I’m glad to see it’s on the list of finalists for the Sturgeon Award.

What does this have to do with the Hugo Awards?

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One of the complaints the Sad/Rabid Puppies have advanced is that the Hugo Awards have been serving only high-profile, progressive or literary authors and leaving out others, including the writers of old fashioned romantic spec fiction. Examples of pioneer writers in this romantic sub-genre include Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard. You know what I mean—the story generally involves heroic deeds and often has fantasy elements. These days the tradition includes mil-fic and space opera. With the advance of women into spec fiction, romance (the amorous kind) has become a strong contender, too. Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs both fall into this romantic tradition.

Because the Hugo is a highly promotional award and produces stars, competition has gotten fiercer for placement on the ballot. In looking at the system for getting there, the Locus list, for example, will not review self-published works. Because it is highly predictive of the Hugo nominees, this can be a big disservice to self-published authors and pretty much ensures none of them will end up on the ballot, regardless of the quality of their work. That means that not only have they been forced out of traditional publishing, but they lose that possibility of promotion. Natalie Luhrs, in a recent analysis of the Locus list, also noted concerns about the diversity of the results and the nature of repeat appearances. The Puppies, if you recall, have charged that the publishing houses have undue influence on the awards process, and went on to demonstrate how easy it was to game the awards.

It remains to be seen if the advent of a new “fan” award will make any difference in this arena. The Dragon Awards is off and running, and the approach looks like it might reduce some of the drawbacks of the Hugo system. They’re soliciting a broad base of fan nominations, and they’re open to all comers. They’re bound to run into trouble of some kind, but the effort looks pretty interesting regardless.

Analysis of Locus Reading List

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The Locus Reading List has already appeared here. It’s clearly one of those lists that is influential on the SFF awards nominations, and also on who wins. Chaos Horizon notes that works which appear on this list have a 92.3% likelihood of receiving a Nebula Award. Now there’s an analysis of the race/gender breakdown of the 2011-2015 Locus Reading Lists available from Natalie Luhrs.

Luhrs presents a short description of her methodology, about how she obtained the data and determined who’s who on the list. Then she presents the gender breakdown in the different categories. Overall, over 50% of the works that appear are by men, followed by 35-40% by women, then mixed gender works and other. However, she notes that women do dominate in the young adult and fantasy first-novel categories. She also notes a strong dominance of male editors in the anthology category. Numbers on gender seem to have remained about the same over the five years when data was collected.

Next Luhrs looks at figures on the racial/ethnic breakdown of the authors/editors. There was a promising increase in the number of people of color (POC) appearing on the list in this five-year period, ranging from 6.37% in 2011 to 15.61% in 2015. Of course, all categories of works during the five years were dominated by white authors as opposed to POC.

Last, Luhrs looks at the tendency of names to reoccur on the list once they first appear. She notes that the same names often appear year after year and in multiple categories. Specifically, there were 676 authors/editors on the list, and of these 255 had multiple entries. This amounted to about 70% of the works on the list. Men were much more likely to repeatedly appear than women or other gender categories, and whites were much more likely to repeatedly appear than POC. Luhrs comments that she finds these statistics troubling, especially the dominance of men in the anthology categories and the way particular individuals dominate the list with repeated appearances.

These are interesting figures to compare against Susan B. Connolly’s gender analysis of pro SF&F markets. I’ve previously featured Connolly’s analysis. She looked at the submission and publication rates for several pro magazines/anthologies and found strong differences in the number of men versus women published by each. She also found that there were notable differences in the submission rates between women, men and POC. This does something to explain the breakdown of the Locus list, but it doesn’t explain why more women and POC don’t submit their work to the kinds of markets that would get the on the list.

Why don’t they?

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