Review of “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies on 21 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Eefa is a cripple and a healer and she has been a good husband, but now she wants to leave. She is married to the great warrior-woman Talaan the Lion and lives in the city of Xot, where the Emperor, Her Greatness the Mother of Vultures and Wolves, Ukhel’s Beloved, the Conqueror-King, has proclaimed the god Ukhel’s Era of Death. Talaan is pregnant with her fifth child, and now the Emperor wants her to fight in a war of conquest. Talaan has promised that this child will be unmarked by a promise scar and will not go off to war like her other children. Reluctantly, she agrees to the Emperor’s demands and rides to meet the foe. Her favorite son Tuvo, a sweet and sensitive page, is killed in the fighting. Talaan swears again her new daughter will not be scarred, but Eefa returns from praying at the temple to find the deed has been done. Talaan catches her packing to leave again. Will Eefa manage to escape the city this time?

On the positive side, this story features vivid imagery, strong characterization and impressive world-building. Although Eefa remains somewhat shadowy, Talaan comes across larger than life. This is a high fantasy tale where Talaan wrestles with her success as a warrior versus her love for her family. The Emperor, hooked on conquest, makes more and more demands of her hero, until the costs start to outweigh the benefits for The Lion and her First Husband. The fact that these women seem to be Amazons adds an interesting angle, and it’s impressive that Talaan agrees to go off to war while carrying a child. And then ready to take on the Emperor right after childbirth? Pretty tough.

On the less positive side, the usage of gender terms in this society is interesting, but the switch ends up being awkward. As the prime example, it’s not immediately obvious why Eefa is considered a husband and not a wife. Because she’s a cripple and engaged in a non-military profession? And Tuvo is a war-wife, while most husbands father children and, presumably, keep house? Okay, got it. But this did assemble fairly slowly throughout the narrative, meaning it set stumbling blocks that affected the flow of the story.

Four stars.

Review of “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

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This fantasy/alternate reality short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 23 October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nyma is ten years old and the chosen child. Her country is at war and Otto Han has just been elected president. The military has the seres missiles that will most certainly stop the war, but will also cause terrible destruction to the cities of the enemy. Nyma has the access codes for the missiles buried next to her heart, and the president has a ceremonial dagger that can be used to retrieve them. Nyma’s tutor Tej tells her to establish a relationship with Han, so she reads him poetry, and after a book of her poems is published, she becomes recognized nationally as a poet. However, their country is losing the war and pressure is mounting to use the missiles. Will Han sacrifice her to get the codes?

This is a highly creative mashup of atom bombs and access codes with human sacrifice. The Order, creators of the system, have put a human face on the codes, a child that the president has to kill with his own hands and that the people in the country know and love. Han has to complete this step before he can bring the missiles to bear on the enemy, a task that might otherwise be easy, callous and unfeeling. Stress builds, while we wonder if Han has the stomach to do it. As I was reading, I had visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people had no warning of the firestorm coming down on them.

On the less positive side, this is a little too pat. The characters carry out their roles and we get the message, but there’s really very little conflict other than the inevitability of the decision Han will have to make. Everybody remains obedient to the system, even though I expect military interests could come up with several ways to get around the issue of killing a child. We get to know Nyma through her poetry, but she remains mostly a cipher. The world and the situation also remain vague, and I ended up with very little in the way of solid images or details. Shouldn’t Nyma have had a security detail?

Three stars.

Review of The End of the Day by Claire North

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I really liked Claire North’s WFA winner, so am looking at more of her books. This novel is fantasy. It was published in 2017 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 403 pages.

Charlie is humble and unassuming. He’s just taken a job as the Harbinger of Death, who mysteriously goes before, as a warning, a courtesy—we don’t know which. He often takes small gifts to particular people, chosen to have special meaning just for them. A few assignments are heartwarming. He meets an old woman, the last speaker of her language, helps a father and daughter who have lost their housing. Sometimes his experiences are more jolting and dangerous. He visits Lagos and finds that not only is Death rampaging through the world, but also the other figures of the Apocalypse—Famine, War and Pestilence. Meanwhile profit reigns and the Doomsday Clock ticks toward midnight. Can Charlie keep his sanity and his relationship with Emmi intact?

I really liked North’s last couple of novels. The thriller plot line kept things moving through a lot of bad stuff, and an upbeat ending made it all worthwhile. I can’t say that about this book. It moves slowly, has no structure and gets bogged down in depressing scenes of torture and death.

This is well-written; the characters and settings are well-developed. The book had something important to say—humanity is self-destructive, we’re all just a step away from oblivion, we need to be more thoughtful. However, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It presented warnings but no solutions, and not much in the way of hope.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera

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As part of my effort to review more diverse works, here’s a short novel by Mexican writer Yuri Herrera and published by And Other Stories. It’s translated by Lisa Dillman, and it’s a quick read at about 112 pages.

The Artist’s songs find favor with the King, who offers the Artist a position within his court. There he meets the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Witch and the Girl. A beautiful woman catches his eye, the Commoner, who turns out to be daughter of the Witch. The Artist sees the benevolence of the King, but as time goes on, he realizes that all is not well within the kingdom and that there might be a Traitor within the court. Frightened by threats and a sudden vision of the King as only a sad, defeated man, the Artist and the Commoner attempt to flee. Can they avoid the coming war?

I’m thinking this is an example of surreal fiction, as it includes images here and there that are strange and unexplained. I’m sure a lot of the beauty of the language is lost in translation, but the story still flows well. Through the Artist’s eyes, we see the transience of wealth and power, and investigate patronage and integrity.

Although this is billed as a “fairy tale,” I thought the truth of the situation was a little too obvious for this, and that it read more like metaphor instead. Because of this transparency, it may be more literary than SFF. Still, it was an interesting read.

Three stars.

Review of Heathens by Jonah Bergan

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I’m actually gone on vacation again, and there’s going to be a delay while I work through Cixin Liu’s Death’s End at 600 pages. To fill in, here’s a review of one of those underrepresented voices that would be hard to find in offerings from the big publishers.

Things in the US have come apart. The Free Republic of Texas holds most of the Central US, and the Kingdom of God holds most of the North and East, except for a strip right along the coast where UN Peacekeepers hold ground they call the “colonies.” Only the Deep South of Florida, Georgia and Alabama is still called the United States. Holden lives in a disputed, ruined city, and like many young LGB people has a talent developing. His is telekinesis, but others have different talents which make them targets for people who consider the powers demonic. When Holden’s lover is killed by hostiles, he leaves home and is taken in by Sol as part of his family. Sol is for trying to reestablish peace, but he is opposed by Clarissa who wants to fight against the enemy. Motivated by anger and hate, Holden grows more militant. He moves to Clarissa’s camp, where he finds other young people like himself who want to fight back. Eventually Holden has to make a decision about what’s right.

This is a young adult novel in the popular dystopia sub-genre. It’s written in first and second person, as Holden narrates events for us and also speaks to the enemy as “you.” The political divisions presented by the book echo the slash and burn tactics of current politics, where the extremes of right and left attack the voices in the center. It’s well-written, with Holden’s narrative providing both the flow of his thoughts and feelings and a clear picture of both the city and what goes on within it.

On the negative side, a lot of people die here. It’s a dark vision that isn’t likely to encourage hope in younger generations. Also, I can’t see where any but LGB teens are developing the talents, though some straight kids do get ground up and/or join the fight. This means the book is tightly aimed at a particular audience when broadening the cast of characters would increase the audience size.

I like the message. Four stars.

Review of “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

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This short story is a Hugo finalist published by Tor.com in March 2016.

Enith and Gaant have been at war. Although they have reached a peace agreement, there are war casualties on both sides. Calla is a military nurse from Enith and receives a message from the Gaant Major Lan that she met during the war. “I would like to see you, and bring the game if you can,” he says. The Gaant are telepathic and the Enith are not, but Calla bravely sets off with her chess set. She and Lan have a complex past, as each has been the other’s prisoner. She finds him in a hospital and the two set up a game, begin to play. Soon others of the doctors and nurses are offering suggestions.

Pros: This is a fairly straightforward story that reviews the experiences the two had together during the war and emphasizes their losses and their kindness to one another. Finding something in common (the game) clearly brings them closer, and their relationship affects the surrounding individuals, as well. I gather this is about overcoming differences and appreciating the kindness of others.

Cons: The story suffers from limited world building and scope, and I ended up with little idea of the greater politics (what caused the war?), the cultures or what the world looks like. Without the telepathy, this wouldn’t be speculative fiction. The characters are not clearly drawn, and I came away without much of an idea about how anyone or anything looks. It relies on emotion to carry it, but (jaded me) didn’t feel a whole lot. It’s a noble message, but not outstanding in execution.

Three stars.

Review of “A Flat Affect” by Eric Flint

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This is a Sad Puppy recommendation for Best Short Story in the Hugo nominations. It’s published on the Baen website.

King Bertrand is bored, so he plans a grand festival where his favorite poet Garrick will perform. His chancellor Hubert Reece is dismayed by the costs, but knows the results of telling truth to power. Garrick arrives and performs in the new stadium built for the event. His forte is war epics, and he is loudly applauded by the troops. No ladies are seen to swoon. The king is satisfied for a while, but soon he wants to commission a new work, of the imagination this time, where foes from the future attack and have to be repelled. Garrick accepts the commission with the stipulation he will outline the epic and have a lesser bard do the work of actual composition and performance. Newcomer Fulchard is chosen for the execution, with conflicted results.

Although the Sad Puppies have announced they’re not into literary fiction, they do seem to be deep into philosophy this year. There’s a philosophical thread that runs through this story, along with allusions to the past and future. I’m not sure if the title is a grammatical error or not. The story was listed as “The Flat Effect,” but when I got the website, it definitely says “Affect” which would change the meaning. I’m thinking this is about the traditional vs. literary SF conflict in the SFF community, but there’s nothing I can pin down to verify this. Still, I’m sure it’s message fiction. I’m going to give it a few extra points for the subtlety.

Four stars.

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