Review of “Away with the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine September-October, 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Suss hurts when she lives in human form. She is much more comfortable as a wolf, but she worries that she causes problems for her friend Yana and the other village folk. When she wakes as a girl this time, Yana tells her she has destroyed three chickens, two gardens, the apothecary, and possibly the widow Nan Gideon’s goat. Suss and Yana make the rounds to apologize and offer amends for the damage, but the goat is a problem. It’s clearly been killed by a canine, but Suss doesn’t remember doing the deed. Is she spending so much time as a wolf that she’s losing touch with her human self? Or is something else going on?

Contrary to the traditional, horrific werewolf story, this narrative leaves a warm feel because of how Suss is accepted, loved and supported by her friends in the village. It’s written in first person, giving us a good feel for the characters through description and interaction, but not that much of an image for the village. Suss had Yana follow up on the mystery of the dead goat, providing practical advice to Nan for defraying the cost by selling the meat and cleaning up the pen. Because the goat shakes Suss’ confidence in herself, she considers giving up her life as a wolf, but Yana offers her an alternative that works out well, where she can live at the edge of the wilderness and become the village’s protector instead.

On the less positive side, there’s not much plot here, and the question of what actually killed the goat isn’t hard to figure out. The story is fairly straight forward and depends heavily on the emotional content for its impact. Suss’ pain is represented as physical in the story, but symbolically this suggests that she’s actually retreating from the problems of functioning as a human being. It’s good she finally finds her niche.

Three stars.

Review of “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Uncanny Magazine 7-8/19. This review contains spoilers.

Zanna is a writer who is renting a remote cabin to work on her next mystery novel. Her assistant Shar helps her set up, and then leaves her to it and gets a motel room in a nearby town. The next morning, the fuses blow when Zanna tries to use the coffee maker and the microwave at the same time, and now her laptop won’t charge. She sets out walking, looking for the cabin owner to ask for repairs, and finds him dead. He has apparently fallen and hit his head on a rock. She calls 911 and the police, and incidentally Shar, turn up to see what’s going on. While the police work, Zanna’s mystery writer’s brain goes over the clues and determines that something isn’t quite right. There are animal tracks, and Zanna concludes that some animal was there that attacked or frightened the dead man. Plus, things Shar is saying don’t quite add up. Zanna’s first novel was dark fantasy about a creature that lived inside a human host and laid eggs in other people that would hatch out others of its kind. Would that story have anything to do with this case?

This is an easy, absorbing read. The mystery unfolds gradually as Zanna notices all the little details that are wrong, and finally challenges Shar, at which point she finds out the truth (again). The story is about friendship and devotion. Shar is apparently Zanna’s best friend and looks after her, stepping up to help because of Zanna’s memory lapses and looking after her while she writes her novels. Shar is keeping Zanna out of total lockdown in a hospital, and this ends with a warm feeling that Shar is going to continue to take care of things, and Zanna makes a note to appreciate her more.

On the less positive side, there are some serious logical glitches here. Where did this creature come from, and where are the rest of its kind? Surely Zanna isn’t the first and only successful infection. Plus, who appointed Shar god to make decisions like this? Her solution isn’t the responsible thing to do, and the end result is putting the public at risk. What if she slips up, fails to clean out the creature’s eggs properly? and how many people have mishaps like the owner of the cabin? Wouldn’t it be better to let Zanna go to the hospital and try to get an expert to trap the creature as it comes and goes? Shar says it’s pretty much indestructible, but unless it’s supernatural, that doesn’t make sense, either.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne

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This science fiction short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine in March of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

The dead captain explodes at his funeral, and steerage is suspected of planting a bomb. Mey is a sin-eater on a generation ship voyaging on a search for the world Paradise. Through nanobots in her blood, she absorbs the consciousnesses of dead captains who relive their sins and try to manipulate her for their own agendas. By containing these sins, she keeps them locked away from the other inhabitants of the ship so that the voyage continues smoothly. Mey knows the captains can’t be trusted, but she is unable to communicate this—she is blocked from saying it. After the ceremony to install nanobot virtues in the new captain, Mey locates the steerage sacristy, now used as a storage room, which conceals a pile of bones and a photograph that shows the world Paradise. The ship has already been there and come away without planting a colony. The new Captain Bethen will know this. How can Mey prevail on her to give up power and admit the captains’ sins?

This is another of the artistic, difficult to follow stories that are increasingly popular. A sin-eater is a person who spiritually takes on the sins of a dead person through eating a ceremonial meal. In this case, the ceremonial meal is blood loaded with nanobots. There is something of a plot here, as well as meaning, that takes gradual shape as you work through it. It becomes clear that things are not as they should be on the ship, and values like education have fallen along the wayside. This is a dramatic scenario, where the system of nanobots frees the captain to make unhindered decisions, while the sin-eater passes judgement on the appropriateness and quality of these choices as they relate to the inhabitants of the ship. The system has gone badly wrong somewhere along the line, and Mey needs to fix it.

This is fairly free of political messages, and the system of sins and virtues is interesting and creative, but the style causes a serious readability issue. I came away with a good grasp of what it’s about, but not much in the way of details. I’d like to have a more extensive discussion of the relationship between power and sin, for example. This story would be more entertaining and meaningful with a little more structure and a little less artistic flair. Of course, it might not have been nominated that way.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde

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This fantasy short story is a finalist in the 2019 Nebula awards. It was published in Uncanny Magazine on 1/2/19. This review contains spoilers.

The town has weathermen who turn the storms away and protect the people who live there. However, these weathermen are lost, transforming and becoming elements of weather themselves. Sila and her sisters Lillit and Varyl have talents that may lead them to become weathermen, and their mother tries to hold onto them. However, Lillit follows her destiny, dissolving to mist, and takes up residence on the Cliffwatch. Can they get Lillit back? When the crisis comes, can Varyl and Sila resist the call?

This is another one of the absurdist narratives that seems to be very popular lately, with a lot of decorative imagery and hardly any plot at all. Included at intervals is a catalog of storms with evocative names like So Many Questions, A Grieving and A Loss That’s Probably Your Fault, suggesting that all the storms here aren’t weather related. This isn’t much to support such a long story, and because of the style, it’s difficult to make much sense of it. The theme seems to be about leaving home to pursue your own path, the storms of upheaval in response and how people grieve when you’re gone.

Four stars for the artistic effect.

Review of “How the Trick Is Done” by A.C. Wise

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This short story is a 2019 Nebula finalist. It was published in Uncanny Magazine on 7-8/19. This review may contain spoilers.

The Magician had an act involved a young assistant named Meg (who was in love with him) and a rabbit named Gus. When Gus bit the Magician, he fired Meg and she jumped off the Hoover Dam. Gus got out of his cage and got flattened in traffic, and the Magician met a girl named Angie in the diner who resurrected the rabbit for him. Now he has a show in Vegas where he does a trick called Bullet-Catch-Death-Cheat. His new assistant shoots him, and he dies and then reappears alive at the back of the theater. It’s really Angie, the Resurrectionist, who accomplishes the trick. Meg’s ghost comes back to talk to Angie, who is always exhausted these days from pulling off the nightly resurrection. Does the Magician really deserve all these second chances at life?

On the positive side, this builds up a picture of a man from his actions and his relationships with the people around him. The Magician seems to be focused on his own success, the money he makes from his act and the applause and adulation of the audience. He fails to appreciate the people who support him, including Meg, Gus, Angie and his stage manager Rory. The rabbit bite is a nice touch that sums up the Magician—Gus is way smarter than the humans. At this, the author adds a bit of social commentary that only humans expect a second chance at life. There’s more commentary on death here, but the theme seems more complex, about how unfeeling, ambitious men trample on the people who love them, and how these people take their revenge.

On the not so positive side, this is heavily biased, as the Magician isn’t really developed as a character, and remains only a cut-out stereotype. We don’t get his point of view, and he’s pretty much summed up by that rabbit bite and the way he lets Gus die (eventually) of neglect. Instead of just quitting, of course, all these people stay on and endure the abuse because they love the Magician so much. Why? Angie eventually disposes of him and takes over his place, getting revenge for everybody. It’s getting to be a tiring social message, but at least in this case, Angie does get a glimpse of her own fall.

Three and a half stars.

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.

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.

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