Review of Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard

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This book is fantasy and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Young Adult Novel. It is billed as #3 in the Witchland series, which I gather is fairly popular. It was published by Tor Teen in February of 2019 and runs 459 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Threadwitch Iseult (half the Cahr Awen), bloodwitch Aeduan and the child earthwitch Dirdra/Owl are traveling together, along with Owl’s giant bat Blueberry. They find a lot of dead people, and Aeduan is struck by arrows carrying a curse that saps his magic. They go to the city Tirla, hoping to find a healer. Aeduan visits the monastery and finds his father, the Raider King, now has a price on his head. Iseult encounters Prince Leopold, and Aeduan sends her and Owl with Leopold to the monastery, then goes to find his father, who is seeking the Cahr Awen. Unfortunately, the monastery is under siege from rebel insurgents. Iseult is taken prisoner, but escapes with Leopold and Owl as Aeduan is mortally wounded in the conflict. She rescues him and they escape into magical underground passageways. He stays behind to cover her escape and then finds he’s lost her. Iseult’s sister, truthwitch Safiya (the other half of the Cahr Awen), is a prisoner of Marstok Empress Vaness, who is trying to use her to uncover plots against the crown. She is guarded by Adders and asked to pronounce whether various officials are lying. When they are, they’re immediately slaughtered by the Empress. Habim comes to the court, and Safi thinks he’s come for her so doesn’t reveal his deceit, but he seems to have another plot afoot. Vivia’s brother, the missing Prince Malik, is taken prisoner by Esme. She tortures him and makes him collect threadstones that will allow her to build a better loom to weave lifethreads. He confronts Kullen and sacrifices himself to trap the Fury. Vivia is currently Queen-in-Waiting to the Nubrevnan throne, and she’s trying to develop the underground city so residents can move into it. Her father, the former king, is taking over the reins of government again as he recuperates, taking credit for her efforts and pushing her aside. Her favorite Captain Stacia disappears and Vivia is concerned. She travels to Marstok to meet with Empress Vaness, who gives her a magical scroll they can use to communicate with. When an attack seems to be coming to the city from the underground, Vivia makes an effort to rescue her people. Habim’s plot seems to be assassination of the Empress. A glamour covers a simultaneous naval assault, but Safi manages to rescue Vaness. They escape in a boat and go to the Origin Well where they enter into the underground and find Vivia and Iseult.

There are also some other characters I haven’t mentioned. If this sounds complex, that’s because it is. Part of the problem here is that I’ve dropped into the series pretty far into it, and I’m missing the background on the characters and situations that was developed in previous novels. On the positive side, these are all attractive people, and the world building seems pretty solid. The Witchlands map resembles Europe with the various kingdoms laid out around an inland sea, and the political and magical systems seem well defined. There’s a reasonable amount of text devoted to description, so readers can visualize what the world looks like and how the scenes take place.

On the not so positive side, there’s a reason you don’t see summaries in most of the reviews of this. It’s messy and feels hugely padded, with very little in the way of action lines or plot advancement. There’s no glossary or summary of what’s gone before, so some things just go unexplained. The narrative skips from character to character, and the internal dialog for the characters comes across like ADHD, skipping from childhood events to what they’re doing now to what they’re planning to do next, to what people are doing to them, to all the pain they’re suffering, to what they think might be happening, et cetra. About half way through, all this started to feel unpleasant to read.

Two and a half stars.

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson

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This novella is dark fantasy and a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published in Clarkesworld in August of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Ada is six years old when her parents die and she goes to live with her aunt and uncle. There isn’t any place to sleep in the cottage, so she has to sleep in the chicken coop. She doesn’t have much to eat, but she grows to love the hens, especially Blanche, an old, white hen past laying that Ada protects. The two are in the woods looking for something to eat when a boy runs by and warns them of approaching wastoures, ravenous reptilian creatures that eat every living thing in their path. Blanche tells Ada to climb a tree and the two of them survive, while the village is razed. The two set off, looking for another family to stay with, and follow the sound of church bells to the Unlucky Village, where a man takes them in. They have to flee when the people learn Blanche can talk. The two go on to find the Lucky Village where a family takes them in, but again, they have to flee when a magical, talking hen is pronounced the Devil’s work. Wastoures overtake them on the road, and Blanche directs Ada to climb a fragment of wall. The creatures try to jump up and bring them down, and Blanche finds she has the power to send them away. Can she actually control the wastoures? Does that mean she can also destroy them?

This has the feel of a middle-grades children’s story. Although the narration begins with Ada, Blanche turns out to be the real protagonist. Mostly she just talks to Ada, but when prompted, she will also talk to other people—something not well accepted in the medieval village setting. The theme here seems to be the certainty of death, and how helpless, backward, scared and undependable adults really are. The children we see are abandoned and un-cared for, and at six years old, Ada is already on her own with just a chicken to look after her. Others aren’t so lucky, but Blanche does come through for everyone in the end.

On the not so positive side, the metafiction in this story (where the author comments) seems condescending to the reader. The title sounds like this will be social commentary, but I’m not really seeing that in the text. Plus, I’m having issues with suspension of disbelief. The scenario seems simplistic, where everyone but a chicken is totally clueless, and somehow none of the armed camps of villages are able to track down the source of the wastoure hatches. Where is the government here? Civil defense? Shouldn’t they be able to produce a hero at least as smart as a chicken?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Transmission by Morgan Rice

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This novella is young adult science fiction and is listed as Book 1 of the Invasion Chronicles. It is self-published and runs 187 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Kevin and his mom get the news that he’s been diagnosed with a rare brain disease and only has about six months to live. Symptoms of his disease include fainting spells and hallucinations including visions of alien landscapes and strings of numbers. All the adults tell Kevin he should ignore this and that treatment might help, but his friend Luna thinks the number strings might be important. A quick Google indicates these are the coordinates for the Trappist star system. Should Kevin notify SETI that he’s receiving alien transmissions? What if they don’t believe him?

This book is billed as young adult, but my estimation is that it’s more middle grade level. It’s seems a bit simplistic for young adult, which often includes fairly adult themes these days. This a quick, easy read and the story flows along well, including a slightly humorous take on the adult characters and the various government organizations that blunder through the alien contact. The theme seems to be cooperation. The tone is fairly low key, even when things start to go wrong, and Kevin’s mom is always there to stand between him and anything bad coming his way. Plus, Luna remains his faithful friend.

On the not so positive side, it’s nice but not really believable that Kevin successfully mediates the adult arguments going on between all the different agencies and governments that get involved in this. The build-up is different and refreshing, but the resulting alien invasion scheme was old in 1950 and, of course, nothing at all gets solved in this book, which likely just serves as the intro to Book II of the Invasion Chronicles. There are a couple of plot holes, which may or may not be explained later. And also, the fact that everybody is lurching around like a zombie at the end of this sort of undermines Kevin’s “I told you so” moment.

Three stars.

Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and villain white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Hugo Finalists

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Here they are. I’ll start reviews right away.

Best Novel
The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Best Novella
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (Tor.com publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Best Novelette
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com, 11 July 2018)
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com publishing)
“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)

Best Short Story
“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Best Series
The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older (Tor.com publishing)
The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross (most recently Tor.com publishing/Orbit)
Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
The October Daye Series, by Seanan McGuire (most recently DAW)
The Universe of Xuya, by Aliette de Bodard (most recently Subterranean Press)
Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)

Best Related Work
Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee (Dey Street Books)
The Hobbit Duology (documentary in three parts), written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan (YouTube)
An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton (Tor)
http://www.mexicanxinitiative.com: The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 (Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, John Picacio)
Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon (Tin House Books)

Best Graphic Story
Abbott, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami Kivelä, colours by Jason Wordie, letters by Jim Campbell (BOOM! Studios)
Black Panther: Long Live the King, written by Nnedi Okorafor and Aaron Covington, art by André Lima Araújo, Mario Del Pennino and Tana Ford (Marvel)
Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)
On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden (First Second)
Paper Girls, Volume 4, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher (Image Comics)
Saga, Volume 9, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Annihilation, directed and written for the screen by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (Paramount Pictures / Skydance)
Avengers: Infinity War, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios)
Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler (Marvel Studios)
A Quiet Place, screenplay by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods, directed by John Krasinski (Platinum Dunes / Sunday Night)
Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley (Annapurna Pictures)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
The Expanse: “Abaddon’s Gate,” written by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck and Naren Shankar, directed by Simon Cellan Jones (Penguin in a Parka / Alcon Entertainment)
Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab,” written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs (BBC)
Dirty Computer, written by Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning (Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records / Atlantic Records)
The Good Place: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett (NBC)
The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy,” written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O’Donnell (NBC)
Doctor Who: “Rosa,” written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai (BBC)

Best Editor, Short Form
Neil Clarke
Gardner Dozois
Lee Harris
Julia Rios
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
E. Catherine Tobler

Best Editor, Long Form
Sheila E. Gilbert
Anne Lesley Groell
Beth Meacham
Diana Pho
Gillian Redfearn
Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist
Galen Dara
Jaime Jones
Victo Ngai
John Picacio
Yuko Shimizu
Charles Vess

Best Semiprozine
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, editor-in-chief and publisher Scott H. Andrews
Fireside Magazine, edited by Julia Rios, managing editor Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, copyeditor Chelle Parker, social coordinator Meg Frank, special features editor Tanya DePass, founding editor Brian White, publisher and art director Pablo Defendini
FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, executive editors Troy L. Wiggins and DaVaun Sanders, editors L.D. Lewis, Brandon O’Brien, Kaleb Russell, Danny Lore, and Brent Lambert
Shimmer, publisher Beth Wodzinski, senior editor E. Catherine Tobler
Strange Horizons, edited by Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, Vanessa Rose Phin, Vajra Chandrasekera, Romie Stott, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons Staff
Uncanny Magazine, publishers/editors-in-chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, managing editor Michi Trota, podcast producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue editors-in-chief Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and Dominik Parisien

Best Fanzine
Galactic Journey, founder Gideon Marcus, editor Janice Marcus
Journey Planet, edited by Team Journey Planet
Lady Business, editors Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay & Susan
nerds of a feather, flock together, editors Joe Sherry, Vance Kotrla and The G
Quick Sip Reviews, editor Charles Payseur
Rocket Stack Rank, editors Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

Best Fancast
Be the Serpent, presented by Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske and Jennifer Mace
The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
Fangirl Happy Hour, hosted by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams
Galactic Suburbia, hosted by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch
Our Opinions Are Correct, hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders
The Skiffy and Fanty Show, produced by Jen Zink and Shaun Duke, hosted by the Skiffy and Fanty Crew

Best Fan Writer
Foz Meadows
James Davis Nicoll
Charles Payseur
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry
Alasdair Stuart
Bogi Takács

Best Fan Artist
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Likhain (Mia Sereno)
Spring Schoenhuth

Best Art Book
Under the WSFS Constitution every Worldcon has the right to add one category to the Hugo Awards for that year only. Dublin 2019 has chosen to use this right to create an award for an art book.

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press /Gollancz)
Daydreamer’s Journey: The Art of Julie Dillon, by Julie Dillon (self-published)
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer (Ten Speed Press)
Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, ed. John Fleskes (Flesk Publications)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The Art of the Movie, by Ramin Zahed (Titan Books)
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, ed. Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library)
There are two other Awards administered by Worldcon 76 that are not Hugo Awards:

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book
The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black (Little, Brown / Hot Key Books)
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
The Invasion, by Peadar O’Guilin (David Fickling Books / Scholastic)
Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House / Penguin Teen)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Katherine Arden*
S.A. Chakraborty*
R.F. Kuang
Jeannette Ng*
Vina Jie-Min Prasad*
Rivers Solomon*

Review of The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is alternate history/fantasy, runs 108 pages and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Creeper is an orphan, thirteen years old, and sleeps in an alcove off an alleyway in the free city of New Orleans. Her space is invaded by conspirators that talk about a Confederate plot to kidnap a Haitian scientist from the Free Isles and obtain his terrible storm weapon The Black God’s Drums. Creeper decides to use this knowledge to negotiate a position as crew with Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine of the Midnight Robber airship from the Free Isles. She locates the captain in Madam Diouf’s brothel and climbs in the window to make her offer. The captain is skeptical, but goes along with Creeper to investigate the plot. It turns out to be all too real, and New Orleans in Matti Grà is in danger of being destroyed. With the help of the orishas, can Creeper and Ann-Marie save the city?

This is a great little adventure story with the feel of young adult. The alternate history scenario is that the Union and the Confederacy signed a series of armistices but are now separate nations and are still technically at war. Slavery is legal in the Confederate states, where the slaves are drugged to keep them compliant. The Haitian Revolution was very successful and led to establishment of the Free Isles in the Caribbean, and New Orleans remains neutral ground. Both Creeper and Ann-Marie have Afrikan orisha goddesses who look after them, but Ann-Marie needs some help in accepting hers. The characters are entertaining, and have French creole accents. Creeper takes us on a tour of the alternate city, and seems equally comfortable with the Madam, the local nuns and their wild child Féral.

On the not so positive side, the way these goddesses operate was a little confusing. Generally the orisha’s “ride” a person for a particular length of time, but the book explains that isn’t what’s happening here. It seems to be more of a protection relationship. This is also mostly a surface level story without much depth of ideas or meaning. The author does come out strongly in favor of finishing up your schooling before you try to get a job.

One interesting note appears in the acknowledgements: Clark thanks the New Orleans police for the introduction to their great city in a case of ah-hem, mistaken identity. I guess we’re lucky he didn’t get shot.

Four stars.

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