Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 1/23/19. This review contains spoilers.

Binu is an ordinary man who years ago left his mundane life and joined the traveling Majestic Oriental Circus in India. He has worked his way to the position of trapeze master and also appears as Aladdin in the highly popular illusion act based on the old Persian story. One detail that makes this act really different is that the jinni character Shehzad Marid is real, has his own scruffy lamp, and has chosen Binu as his master. The circus is set to perform at the palace of the Thripuram raja for the wedding of his daughter, and in the evening, a procession of Devadasis, holy temple courtesans, brings prayer offerings to the gods. Later in the night, one of the temple girls comes to Binu at the circus and asks him to help her escape. Against his better judgement, he agrees, but his boss Johuree tells him that any consequences are on his own head. When a terrible storm overtakes the circus, Binu goes out to confront the vengeful kuldevi who has brought the storm. “No man or woman is property!” he tells the goddess, but angry about the loss of her slave, she asks for the jinni in return for their lives. Can Binu let him go?

This is a fairly straightforward story with high diversity. It has a strong #OwnVoices feel, and is based the idea that the old jinns and kuldavi have adapted and are still out there, regardless of modernization in India. Binu is sexually attracted to his jinn, giving it an LGBTQ angle. The story also presents the ugly issue of temple slavery, an institution apparently still alive and well in the 21st century.

On the less positive side, there’s not much depth in the characterizations and not much in the way of description or background on the setting—I don’t get much flavor of circus life. The narrative makes a single reference to another story where these same characters apparently appear, but still, not much background. The story would have been more entertaining with a twist or so, maybe if Binu and Shehzad Marid had tried to outsmart the kuldavi instead of just giving in to her demands.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Nebula Finalists!

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The SFWA has released the finalist for the 2019 Nebula. I’ll start reading for reviews PDQ.

Novel

Marque of Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor)

Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey; Jo Fletcher)

Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Novella

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)

This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, Vylar Kaftan (Tor.com Publishing)

The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

Catfish Lullaby, A.C. Wise (Broken Eye)

Novelette

“A Strange Uncertain Light”, G.V. Anderson (F&SF 7-8/19)

“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)

“His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light”, Mimi Mondal (Tor.com 1/23/19)

“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)

Carpe Glitter, Cat Rambo (Meerkat)

“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

Short Story

“Give the Family My Love”, A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)

“The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power”, Karen Osborne (Uncanny 3-4/19)

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)

“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

“How the Trick Is Done”, A.C. Wise (Uncanny 7-8/19)

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez (Disney Hyperion)

Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)

Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney Hyperion)

Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Henry Lien (Holt)

Cog, Greg van Eekhout (Harper)

Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing

Outer Wilds, Kelsey Beachum (Mobius Digital)

The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)

The Magician’s Workshop, Kate Heartfield (Choice of Games)

Disco Elysium, Robert Kurvitz (ZA/UM)

Fate Accessibility Toolkit, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (Evil Hat Productions)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Avengers: Endgame, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Marvel Studios)

Captain Marvel, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Marvel Studios)

Good Omens: “Hard Times”, Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)

The Mandalorian: “The Child”, Jon Favreau (Disney+)

Russian Doll: “The Way Out”, Allison Silverman and Leslye Headland (Netflix)

Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, Jeff Jensen & Damon Lindelof (HBO)

Review of Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This novella is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s novelette Precious Little Things. It was released by Tor.com in November 2019, and runs 192 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Coppelia lives in the Fountains Parish barrio of the city of Loretz, where she works as a puppeteer, con-artist and thief. She tries hard to stay clear of the Broadcaps police, who have been after her since she escaped from the orphanage. Coppelia has some unusual friends that help her in her work, tiny manikins originally created by the mage Arcantel. They don’t entirely trust her, but they have established a good working relationship and she helps them by using her small magical ability to carve bodies that they can animate to make more of their kind. Coppelia is getting along fairly well with this state of affairs, but then she captures the attention of the local crime lord, who sends her with a crew to rob the Mages’ palace. The plan goes wrong fairly quickly, and they encounter the powerful, life-sized, manikin Archmagister in the palace. Can Coppelis engineer some way escape with her life?

This is a quick, easy read, fairly upbeat and entertaining. The characterizations here are attractive and the manikins very strange and magical. Tchaikovsky sketches in a believable world with its hierarchies of power, and gives us the view from the bottom where Coppelia struggles along in the shadow of the crime lords and city mages, where wealth buys magic and magic buys wealth. The story is fairly whimsical, but it’s not all sugar and spice. People do get killed as the stakes get more desperate. There’s a slightly ironic touch in the dealings of the nobles.

On the not so positive side, this comes across like a children’s tale, while, as an adult, I would have preferred darker and more serious themes. Conflict is actually low, and Coppelia never has to make any really difficult choices. She is supposed to be struggling along through this world, driven by others with more power, but somehow the situation never feels really desperate. People seem to pick her up as a protégé, offering advantages, and with all the support she has, I never felt she was truly at risk. The power structure is sketched in, but this is just observations, and we don’t get into the fine points of how power can be employed for both good and evil purposes.

Three and a half stars.

Wrap up of the 2018 World Fantasy Reviews

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That’s all the World Fantasy reviews, so now I’ll attempt an analysis of the list. When you look through these, a few interesting patterns emerge.

First, the diversity breakdown. Apologies if I miss anybody here:
BEST NOVEL: 1 man, 4 women, 1 Asian, 1 African American and 1 Native/African American. 1 LGBTQ
BEST NOVELLA: 1 non-binary, 1 man, 3 women, 1 African American, 1 Asian, 2 LGBTQ
SHORT FICTION: 1 man, 4 women, 3 Jewish, 1 Hispanic, 2 LGBTQ.
The totals add up to: 3/15 men (20%), 11/15 women (73%), 1/15 non-binary (7%), 2/15 Asian (13%), 1/15 Native American (7%), 1/15 Hispanic (7%), 3/15 Jewish (20%), 2/15 African American (13%), 5/15 LGBTQ (33%). Roanhorse complicates this calculation, but I’ve listed her as only Native America.

This year’s ballot continues the apparently universal trend toward mostly female writers, with only one token male nominated in each category. The system for nomination has done well in featuring at least one non-binary, Hispanic and Native American writer. Asian writers are, as usual, over-represented considering their 5% US population demographic, as are Jewish writers with a 1.5% US population demographic. The overrepresentation of Jewish writers this year follows the same pattern I found in the Nebula and Hugo Awards. The LGBTQ component here is also overrepresented, as the self-identifying gay and lesbian US population demographic for 2018 was 4.5%. Hispanic writers, as usual, remain hugely underrepresented with a US population demographic of 18%.

After reviewing the Nebula and Hugo Award finalists, I only had to read three short stories, one novella and two novels to finish out the set. There are a couple of possible implications to this. First, it suggests the Nebula and Hugo Awards might be trending to fantasy, and second, it indicates a convergence in the US fiction awards to particular works in any given year. The three awards work differently: the Nebula is awarded by the professional membership of the SFWA; the Hugo is awarded by members of WorldCon: and the World Fantasy Award is partially juried. Members of the current WFA convention and the previous two vote two nominations onto the final ballot, and the other three are named by a panel of judges. For the 2018 awards, the judges are Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas Kilworth, and Tod McCoy.

Of course, there is the argument that particular works are elected by all three awards because they really are the best, or the more circular argument that these become the best because they’re elected. However, this kind of convergence in the major US awards remains troubling. It suggests a lack of diversity in either the marketplace or in the US awards systems. If more Native Americans were published, for example, all three awards might not elect the same writer, or if more African Americans were published, all three awards might not elect the same work.

Plus, there are also other possible explanations for convergence, such as a preference for certain content within the awards system. Of the three major US awards, the World Fantasy Award has the reputation for being the most literary, which suggests a definite preference in that direction. There is also evidence that the WFA system rewards creativity and artistic effect over standard story structures. Some of these works had little or nothing in the way of plot, and some might have qualified for a creative essay category instead. Others had serious suspension of disbelief issues. I notice there are some differences of opinion on quality out there in the readership audience. In checking out the authors, I encountered a few blogs that actually challenged the suitability of some works based on their content or execution. I personally think the Locus List has a big effect on convergence in the US awards, but interestingly, 4/15 writers (27%) of shorter works beat the odds and made it to the WFA ballot with entries that did not appear this year’s Locus List (although three of the four did appear for other works).

There was a reasonable diversity of publishers. Print magazines are clearly a failing paradigm where the awards are concerned—all the shorter finalists came from online magazines. As usual, Tor.com stood out, mostly because of the novella category, with 4/15 entries or 27%.

Review of Time Was by Ian McDonald

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This is a time travel novella released by Tor.com in April of 2018. Print length is 144 pages. McDonald is an award-winning author, having won the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This review contains spoilers.

Emmett Leigh is a sometimes poet and book dealer who specializes in the World War II era. At a bookstore closing, he finds a copy of a poetry book titled Time Was by E.L. Anonymous. Inside is a letter from Tom to his lover Ben. Emmett posts to Facebook, asking for any information on the principals, and is answered by Thorn Hildreth, who recognizes the names. She lives in Lincolnshire, inherited an archive of WWII memorabilia from her grandfather, and also has a photograph. Emmett’s friend, an Imperial War Museum archivist with a photographic memory, locates other photographs for him, but oddly, these are from different time periods. Emmett and Thorn are forced to the conclusion these two men may be immortals, but further research shows they may be time travelers instead, who use the poetry book as a way to leave messages for each other in different eras. Can Emmett unravel the mystery?

The narrative switches between Emmett’s research and the lovers’ encounters. The story comes together gradually as Emmett investigates, and we learn about the wartime research project that created the time stresses, still playing out, that left Ben and Tom lost in time. We also learn about Emmett’s personal associations as he researches. He strikes up a brief relationship with Thorn, which soon fails, and finds out interesting things about Tom’s mentor, the author of the little book of poetry. The big standout in this novella is the imagery, as the text is accompanied by magical, haunting, atmospheric descriptions of the surroundings, including visuals, sounds and scents.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much in the way of plot here. Emmett’s research unfolds, first revealing the mystery and then following it through. There’s not really much of a hook or action line, either, and I wasn’t really surprised by the revelations at the end. However, this is a great little love story, and definitely worth reading because of the lyrical quality of the prose. I was also glad to see some equal time for a gay male love story here, as SFF output seems to be trending lately to lesbian relationships.

Four stars.

Review of The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky is an Arthur C. Clarke award-winner. This novella was published by Tor.com on July 17, 2018. It is science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Handry lives in a primitive village called Aro with his sister Melory. When he is 13, one of the village men transgresses, and the Lawgiver brews a potion that will exile him from the community. The Lawgiver is old and his ghost is unreliable, so he fails to watch the brew closely enough, and Handry stumbles over the pot and gets some of the potion on himself. The villagers try to clean him off, but he is permanently damaged. He lives a half-existence, unable to digest the village food and somehow separate. Even the local insects avoid him. When the old village Doctor dies, the ghost takes Melory as the new Doctor, and then exiles Handry as unrepairable. Wandering, starving and scared, he finds a band of fellow exiles led by the prophet Sharskin, who leads him to a place called the House of the Ancestors. Sharskin talks to a presence in the House, and he thinks the Severed aren’t really damaged, but instead are released from the tyranny of the ghosts. When Melory comes looking for Handry, Sharskin captures and tortures her, trying to get information from her ghost. Now Handry has to make choices about his future. What will he choose?

This is light reading that starts off like fantasy, but as it develops, we get clues like technical language coming from the ghosts and the House that suggest it’s really science fiction about a society that’s forgotten its origins. This is character driven and Handry’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming. The world-building here is also pretty creative, and the development gradually reveals how the tech behind it all works. The author manages to describe what’s really a fairly horrific life disaster for Handry and Melory and still keep the narration pretty positive.

On the negative side, what Handry and Melory end up with is just knowledge of other possibilities, and no real answers about how he’s going to survive as one of the Severed. This is more about the reveal than about what they can do with the information. Although the novella has a hopeful ending, they haven’t really solved anything. I’m also suspicious about Melory following Handry into the wild–I don’t see how her ghost would allow her to leave the village. And what’s she been eating all this time?

Three and a half stars.

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