Review of “The Thing about Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine, November-December 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Leah is working on her dissertation in folklore, and her mom helps her by critiquing and editing the manuscript. Although Leah experienced a ghost herself when she was five, she is now more interested in how people attach meaning and purpose to their ghost stories. Leah’s mom is diagnosed with dementia. She urges Leah to go on and publish the manuscript as a book, but she doesn’t live to see its publication. After successfully getting her doctorate, Leah takes a job in academia and continues with research for another book, interviewing people about ghost’s they have seen and experienced. A couple of these interviewees tell Leah her mom is sitting right there next to her. Is there’s something unresolved in her mother’s death?

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm and slightly humorous. The characters are very engaging, and you’re pretty well hooked by the third paragraph when mom puts in an appearance. This is a poignant glimpse of what it’s like to lose a family member to dementia, as mom goes from being reliable to an unreliable editor and confidant, and finally Leah starts giving her fake documents to edit and then throws them away at the end of the day. She labors to finish her doctorate, trying to balance the demands of school with neurologist appointments, and then carries on with a career after her mother dies. The situation unfolds gradually, as we find her mother is trying to communicate from beyond the grave, and then ends gently as the situation is finally resolved.

On the not so positive side, I thought the tone was offensive and disrespectful to sufferers of dementia. This condition isn’t anything at all humorous. It’s a huge tragedy, both to the victims who feel their mental capacity and independence slipping away, and to family members who have to support them and deal with often challenging mental symptoms. Phrases like, “…figured that if she wrapped herself around my ankle early, it would be that much harder for me to shake her loose later on,” and “Mom really started to lose her marbles,” show us Leah’s exasperation, but completely ignore the pain and fear that her mother must be experiencing as her mental faculties start to fail. It’s no wonder she comes back to haunt her daughter. Kritzer soft-pedals Leah’s burden, too. It’s not going to be as simple as just taking Mom to adult day-care while you continue on with your studies–this condition is a nightmare for caregivers.

Dementia seems to run a close second to endangered children as a device to create emotion in a story, but if we’re going to do that, let’s have a hard, clear look at it, please.

Four stars.

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Congratulations to the 2018 Nebula Finalists!

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It’s that time again, and the SFWA has come through with a really varied list. I’ll start some reviews with the next blog.

Novel
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Novella
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean)
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)

Novelette
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
“An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan (An Agent of Utopia)
“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed 1/18)
“The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen (Future Science Fiction Digest 12/18)
“Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (Expanding Universe, Volume 4)

Short Story
“Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
“Going Dark” by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
“And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3-4/18)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)

Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine.

Allpa dying grandmother gives him a magic sword that contains three warrior spirits: Sun, Moon and Dust. When Allpa draws the sword the three of them appear and try to carry out their mission of turning him into a heroic warrior. Allpa is a potato farmer and there is no current threat to the kingdom, so Allpa isn’t really interested in this, but he goes along just to make them happy. How can he deal with the three of them and tend to his crop at the same time?

This isn’t quite Vernon’s standard fare, but it does contain something of the same philosophy, which is the value of everyday people and everyday ways of making a living. In this case, she has turned the usual heroic fantasy story on its head, where the lowly farmer rejects the opportunity to become a heroic warrior, bored with the difficult training and worrying about his potato crop. There’s also something of an investigation of the opportunity cost involved, as Moon comments on what he’s given up to become a warrior and the two of them form a bond.

On the not so good side, there are some reality check issues here. First, I’m wondering why Allpa isn’t taking care of his own grandmother. It’s a very recent innovation that the elderly are farmed out to caregivers, and the traditional family puts anybody to work who can help with the chores. In a farming community, it takes a lot of labor to bring in the crop, so I’m expecting Allpa’s grandmother would have dropped dead in the potato field instead of dying in bed. How was she wealthy enough to pay a caregiver anyway? Next, Allpa rushes home from her funeral to water his wilted plants at mid-day. This is not advisable—at mid-day water evaporates instead of sinking in. Also, potatoes are a tuber crop, so they won’t normally wilt unless they’re diseased. If his crops need irrigation, then Allpa ought to do better than carry water in a bucket. In other words, he doesn’t know squat about farming.

What the story had to say was interesting, but the reality check issues detracted from the substance of the story. It came off a bit thin.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s alternate reality and was published by Uncanny Magazine. I expect the title refers to the classic mystery novel And Then There Were None by English writer Agatha Christie.

Sarah Pinsker gets an invitation to the Sarah Pinsker convention, where Sarahs from various alternate realities are offered a portal to attend. After discussing this with her partner, Sarah accepts. The convention turns out to be more mind-bending than narcissistic, held on an autonomous offshore island and featuring an interesting array of women who vary because of key decisions Sarah has made in her life. This particular Sarah finds herself lodged in an isolated wing with a great view of the dumpsters and a neighbor who is a drug-addicted disc jockey. The organizer of the conference quickly turns up dead, and our Sarah (who is an insurance investigator) is asked to play detective. Can she find the clues? Figure out motive and opportunity? Name the killer? Okay, so then what?

This is an awesome idea for a story. Just thinking about the situation is mind-bending. All those Sarahs together in one place look like a rainbow assortment of possibilities, but they still drink up the supply of her favorite beer in the hotel bar. When Sarah is investigating, looking for motive and opportunity, she’s trying to psych out herself. It’s a cool little detective story with a great twist, and the motive to the crime turns out to be a bit heart-wrenching, too, as we find out what’s really important to the infinite Sarah.

I don’t have much in the way of complaints about this one. It’s got a laid-back feel, great characters, a well-developed setting and enough imagery that I can make mental pictures of the various Sarahs and what they’re up to. If anything, I might complain about it being a bit too short and too mundane. This kind of great idea could have supported a full length novel and an expansive, earth-shaking plot.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of “Small Changes over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award, and was published by Uncanny Magazine. This review contains spoilers.

Finley is drunk and gets bitten by a vampire. He wakes up the next morning in Andreas’ apartment and the vampire tells him he’s dying. Finley is angry that he’s been bitten without his consent, but his only options now are dying and illegally changing to a vampire. The only question is, how will changing affect his trans body?

So, readers will need to know this is fairly explicit vampire erotica. I guess adding the trans element is what it takes to make this subgenre attractive to pro SFF magazines and respected awards—or maybe Vox Day has somehow managed to infiltrate the SFWA. 🙂

Good points: The trans element does add an element of interest, plus there are parallels to rape, and between transgender transitioning and rebirth as a vampire. We get clues in the narrative about how hard it is to live as trans, even with modern medical assistance. However, Finley can now get his revenge–he encounters a gay suitor, and bites the guy when he rejects Findley’s obviously trans body.

Not so good points: The high erotica content is a little much for a mainstream magazine. (Does Uncanny have controls to keep little kids from reading this?) Andreas is completely irresponsible, and is apparently indulging a fetish for illegal biting. If this were a thoughtful story, I’d expect more world-building and more discussion of the consent and morality issues it presents. Finley is a fairly well-developed character, but Andreas seems two-dimensional. There are plot elements, but no real Earth-shattering conflicts—just Finley trying to deal with ongoing hungers and changes.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2018 Hugo Finalists!

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Here’s what I got for the diversity count: Short stories – 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian, 1 mixed race African/Native American. Novelettes – 5 women, 1 trans, 3 Asian. Novellas – 5 women, 1 trans, 1 Asian, 1 African American, 1 bipolar. Novels – 4 women, 2 men, 1 Asian, 1 African American.

Three short stories, 2 novelettes and 1 novella (6 of 24) are from Uncanny; 1 short story, 1 novelette, 5 novellas and 1 novel (8 of 24) are from Tor and Orbit published 4 of the 6 novels. The pro print magazines scored poorly, as Asimov’s squeaked in with one entry, but F&SF and Analog were totally shut out this year.

As usual, there’s quite a bit of overlap between these finalists and those of the Nebula Award, including 4 of 6 short stories, 3 of 6 novelettes, 4 of 6 novellas and 2 of 6 novels. Like the Nebulas, there is also repetition of names, as Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee appear in more than one category. There’s also overlap with last years’ Hugo finalist list: N.K. Jemisin, Yoon Ha Lee, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and Ursula Vernon were all finalists in 2017. Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorifor were finalists in 2016.

Best Novel

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (Tor)
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Provenance, by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty (Orbit)
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)

Best Novella

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One), by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, Mar-Apr 2017)
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water“, by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, Jul-Aug 2017)
“Extracurricular Activities“, by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
“The Secret Life of Bots“, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, Sep 2017)
“A Series of Steaks“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, Jan 2017)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time“, by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)
“Wind Will Rove“, by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, Sep-Oct 2017)

Best Short Story

“Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
“Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
“The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
“Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)

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