Over at Apex Magazine, I did a quick round-up of some short stories and novelettes I really enjoyed in 2014. Yes, it’s a while ago now, but I never managed to make my 2014 recommendation posts for short stories and novelettes, so it’s nice to be able to get to recommend some excellent material now.
You can read my post with links to stories by Octavia Butler, Aliette deBodard, Chris East, Maria Dahvana Headley, N. K. Jemisin, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, Derek Kunsken, Will McIntosh Sarah Pinsker, Cat Rambo, Veronica Schanoes, Emily Skaftun, Genevieve Valentine, and Isabel Yap. Of the sixteen stories, ten are available online.
My usual proviso–I didn’t read nearly as many stories as I’d have liked to, can’t recommend everything I enjoy, and even the stories I’ve recommended here get short shrift from these brief reviews. Still, again, I hope you enjoy them!
Interviewed on Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
I was privileged to be in this week’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy in which host David Barr Kirtley interviewd me, Matt Kressel, and Jack Dann about Jewish science fiction and fantasy. Listen to the podcast here.
(Among many other things), Matt talks about Jewish mythology, and how Jewish symbols have become cultural staples–such as Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan salute. Jack Dann talks about how the attitudes toward Jewishness in science fiction have changed in the past century. I talked about my experience editing The People of the Book: The Decade’s Best Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Relatedly, I’m looking forward to Matt Kressel’s new book, KING OF SHARDS. Quoting its description, “Across the ineffable expanse of the Great Deep float billions of shattered universes: the Shards. Populated with vengeful demons and tormented humans, the Shards need Earth to survive just as plants need water. Earth itself is kept alive by 36 righteous people, 36 hidden saints known as the Lamed Vav. Kill but a few of the Lamed Vav and the Earth will shatter, and all the Shards that rely upon it will die in a horrible cataclysm.” I love Matthew’s facility with bizarre world-building, and I’m excited to see what he does with it in novel form.
On my social media, I’m posting links to things I’ve written, things other people have written, and artists to support. On Mondays, I’m gathering the links from the previous week into a blog post. (Within the next couple weeks, I’m hoping to replace my Wednesday poems with writing advice, and add Patreon links on Thursdays.)
Some horror for October.
A Story of Mine
“When Shadow Meets Light,” Fantasy Magazine
This isn’t really a horror story, but it is about a ghost. When I was little, Princess Diana was a figure who loomed large. I had paper doll books of her fashions, knew what her wedding dress looked like. Reading her biographies was interesting; most seem to take a particular slant on her. I ended up siding with the more sympathetic, she seems to have been very young and naive when she got entangled in the royal mess.
A Poem of Mine
“Thirteen,” Apex Magazine
This is also the last poem of mine that I’ll be linking to here, unless I start reprinting stuff online or publishing something new. I’m planning to replace these entries with writing advice columns.
A Cool Patreon
If you don’t know what Patreon is, it’s a website that helps fans connect with artists they want to support. Some (like my friend Barry’s) work on a per creation basis (he gets paid per cartoon); others are monthly.
Carmen Maria Machado is one of my favorite new writers, and probably one of my favorite writers period. I hadn’t planned this deliberately, but she’s actually a very talented horror writer, so yay for continuing the October theme. Whether or not you end up supporting her Patreon, check out her stories; it’s worth it.
(ETA: Whoops! Actually posting my links to this next week. But her patreon is still awesome.)
An Awesome Story
This is one of the scariest stories I’ve read. When I gave it to my students a few years ago, they agreed. It’s chilling, with excellent character work, and Daniel Abraham’s consummate craft. Trigger warning for violence against children.
Hello, internet world.
On my social media, I’m posting links to things I’ve written, things other people have written, and artists to support. I wanted to gather those links in one place, so each Monday I will put up a post with the previous week’s links and recommendations.
I might start working through my backlog weeks later, but for now, moving ahead…
A Story of Mine
“Eros, Philia, Agape,” published on Tor.com, my first short listed piece for the Locus Award, World Fantasy Award, Hugo Award and Sturgeon Award.
It was partially inspired by something Octavia Butler said to our class when I was at Clarion West: That the echoes of slavery continue to affect the ways Americans express love.
A Poem of Mine
“Dear Melody,” which originally appeared in Sybil’s Garage and is now online at The Examining Room, is what happened when I first learned about chimerism. Science is so weird and cool. (Scroll down to read it.)
An Awesome Story
I don’t usually love stories about books and librarians. They can feel too easily like pandering to an audience that loves to read. However, the whimsy and beauty of this piece, and Ellen’s consummate ability as a writer, made me melt.
I was privileged to buy this story as a reprint for PodCastle, and to narrate it. (Audio link above.)
Two lovely pieces of news.
First off, PodCastle magazine has released a flash fiction extravaganza! The extravaganza includes flash fiction pieces by former editors and assistant editors, including myself, Ann Leckie, Anna Schwind, Dave Thompson and LaShawn Wanack.
When Rachael K. Jones contacted me about this a while ago, I sent over “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” The story has been podcast before — here at Apex Magazine (Lynne Thomas), and here at Escape Pod (Christina Lebonville). This version is read by excellent narrator and author, Tina Connolly. I love having multiple versions and interpretations of things, which is probably part of my love of retellings.
“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” begins around 50:00. Check out my story and the others. Several are even originals!
Second, I participated in the most recent SF Signal MIND MELD which asked the question, “For each one of us, there is a book, or a series, that hooked us on genre fiction. Maybe it was the first SF book you read, maybe you had to read a couple before you hit the one that hooked you. Tell me what book got you to become a fan of SFF, and why?”
Here’s an excerpt from my answer, but check them all out at the link.
My parents were huge science fiction and fantasy fans before I was born. They have a large bookshelf that they built themselves into their bedroom wall with heights perfect to accommodate their accumulating paperbacks. The top shelf which spans all the way to the ceiling has vertical piles of old Asimov’s magazines dating back to the 70s…
I can remember two other huge draws that changed my interaction with media. One was Fairy Tale Theatre by Shelley Duval which introduced me to the concept of fairy tales built with character and humor, shaped by whimsical and intelligent hands. Another was Star Trek which I came on when I was eleven and which sent me into many day dreams about departing on space ships.
I suppose, if I were being reductionist, I could even point everything all the way back to Sondheim’s Into the Woods which I’ve known as long as I can remember. It’s a musical that’s also a fantasy about reweaving cultural narratives to discover deeper emotional truths–and that’s a good summary of one of the things that inspires me most as a reader and writer.
Interested in writing retellings? Cat Rambo and I are teaching a class together: retellings and re-taleings.
Authors constantly draw on the stories that have preceded them, particularly folklore, mythology, and fables. What are the best methods for approaching such material and what are the possible pitfall? How does one achieve originality when working with such familiar stories? Lecture, in-class exercise, and discussion will build your proficiency when working with such stories.
Cat Rambo has been a friend of mine since 2005 when she and I, along with many other fabulous people, went to Clarion West together. She’s a Nebula nominated author with an established short story career whose first novel just came out. She’s also the current president of SFWA.
The class is at 9:30 am pacific time on November 8, taught online. It’s $99, 10% of for former students.
(Check out Cat’s other classes, too!)
One of my discoveries there was C. Dale Brittain's The Royal Wizard of Yurt series which begins with A Bad Spell in Yurt (link to Amazon), It's a really light-hearted, charming epic fantasy series, in which the characters are by and large kind to each other and the author is kind to them. It would be many years before I learned about the concept of generosity to one's characters, and more years before I intuitively understood why it felt precious to me, but these books are an example of it.
One thing I also liked about the series and its medieval world was its strong, political religious presence. As a child, I'm not sure I knew exactly what to make of it. Having been raised by atheist parents (though I did attend Bible study at about the age I was reading these books), I had a vague understanding of Catholicism. I think I felt intrigued because it was a different way of handling medieval settings, and also a little uncomfortable because coming from a Jewish-atheist family with a side of a-couple-generations-back Mormonism, I was well aware of the problems of mixing religion and government. I remember being a little worried about that in the setting of the world, despite the light tone.
Once I'd been to Europe though in my early twenties, I started to understand how much the history of medieval Europe was deeply influenced by Christianity, particularly Catholicism. It seems almost inconceivable to me now that one could write a medieval-inflected world that's supposed to have a realistic edge -- whether or not it's light-hearted and funny -- without incorporating that. Many books do, but Brittain takes a gentle approach; while the church is not perfect, by and large the priests who show up are well-meaning and acting in (literal) good faith. This is back to the generosity toward characters thing.
So anyway, I was flipping through my SFWA directory and I happened to see C. Dale Brittain's name. At which point I squeaked. The author kindly agreed to answer some interview questions for me.
I hadn't realized how far the Yurt series had come in my absence. There are 3 or 4 new books now that I haven't yet read, including this new one, THE STARFLIGHT RAVEN (Amazon link), which tells the story of the generation who lives in Yurt's castle after the characters in the original series.
( Interview below the cutCollapse )
To that end, I've read (or at least read part of) about 75-80 books. The process for acquiring these was less difficult than it can be for me in other categories because the books came to my mailbox. So many books. Droves and droves of books. For a while, we've had books sprawling across many of our surfaces. Thank you to all the authors and publishers who trusted us with their work.
I did add books to my reading that didn't come straight to my door. I gathered these via recommendations, although that wasn't a big part of my process this year. I also tried to follow books by authors who I've previously enjoyed, which is why I bought A. S. King's novel, for instance (although her publisher did also generously send us the book a while later). Finally, I was really surprised to see the Locus Recommendation list for young adult sf/f as there were a number of pieces I didn't have my hands on. I don't know why there was such a disparity in what we were seeing and what the Locus reviewers were seeing. The Locus list alerted me to Emmi Intarata's MEMORY OF WATER, for instance.
Being on the jury, I was able to participate in a collaborative process of figuring out what to read. For instance, if a book got negative reactions from another of other jurors, I generally didn't pick it up.
I have a couple of books on my kindle that I didn't get to because I ran out of the time I'd allotted for this. There's also a small pile of hard copy books. I was also frustrated by the fact that, because I had to go through so many books, I ended up abandoning several books 1/3-1/2 of the way through which I would have liked to finish. If I'm reading at full speed (and not doing ANYTHING else) I can do about two and a half full young adult/middle grade books per day. In the end, I just didn't have enough time. I could have only read Norton books and ignored the other categories, but this late in the game, my doing more Norton reading doesn't really help--there's not enough time for me to recommend books to the other jurors and reasonably expect them to be able to read them.
Since I read so many books, I also find that I have a LOT to say about them. I don't think I can adequately do so in a recommendation post. Firstly, because I don't have the time to write out reviews of everything I recommend or enjoyed. Secondly, because it would take up way too much space, and be confusing. So, for some of the books, I'm going to resort to short sentences. I can always go back and do fuller reviews in separate posts, I tell myself (although I will probably get distracted by other things because I tend to).
I'm trying not to just default-link to Amazon, so there will be a lot of links to people's websites and other places where you can find multiple retail options. But I'll probably also include some Amazon links.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A. S. King (young adult) - I'm a big fan of A. S. King and her direct, forceful writing. She's kind of like Chuck Pahlaniuk for kids, but with a Dorothy Allison vehemence and emotionality. That makes her work sound darker than it is--to be fair, sometimes it's quite dark, but generally her young adult protagonists begin to find their way as they grow up. This story is about a girl and her friend who decide to drink the powdered corpse of a mummified bat, and find that it endows them with visions about other people and their pasts, presents, and futures. The main character pieces together her own future life by watching visions stimulated by other people. It's not clear if the future she sees is fixed (I sort of imagine it's not). The characters and clarity of this book are excellent, as is characteristic of King's work. It's a very strong novel, beginning to end.
Greenglass House, Kate Milford (middle grade) - I'm also a big fan of Kate Milford, though her writing morphs more from book to book than King's does. This middle grade is a charming, fun tale about an adopted boy who lives with his parents at an isolated, east coast inn frequented by smugglers. Several mysterious guests arrive just before a major snowfall that traps everyone together. The main character and his accomplice, a young girl, scramble to find the heart of the mystery before the smugglers do. It's extremely well-executed with the whimsy supported by a strong framework of character detail and emotional development. It's a compulsive read, weaving the mystery skillfully and demanding attention. It also does some really cool things about considering the main character's interracial adoption, and his sense of isolation and curiosity about his family, and how those things make him feel intensely guilty. There's a sense of real love and well-being between him and his adoptive parents, and it's lovely to see how that can be drawn in the story while still leaving room for the main character to feel unresolved about his identity. The novel is beautifully shaped as a whole.
Ambassador, William Alexander (middle grade) - This novel is a departure for Will Alexander, a contemporary and fanciful science fiction novel about a young American boy with Mexican parents who is chosen by a strange alien creature to become the ambassador for the earth. The science fiction bits are just a lot of free-wheeling, engaging fun. As the ambassador, the main character is immediately thrown into a situation where he has to investigate and resolve an interstellar conflict while trying to avoid the attention of a nearby genocidal alien race. Simultaneously, his real life is thrown into chaos when his father is pulled over at a stop sign and discovered to be an illegal immigrant. The story has really smart threads about immigration and cooperation. I particularly liked that the main character's super power is that he's extremely perceptive about people, and kind and empathetic as he tries to make sure the people around him are safe and happy. It's wonderful to see someone writing a well-developed young boy with those traits because they're pretty awesome and boys can have them, too. (It reminds me of the debate I've had online about Dr. Who, wherein the arguer says that Dr. Who is a rare beast because he's a male character who solves things with intelligence and diplomacy while actively avoiding violence.) The ending of the novel was weird; I think I know what Will Alexander was doing, and I suspect it'll all be resolved in a satisfactory way in the sequel, but I felt the last couple paragraphs were a misstep when presented without follow-up.
Girl on a Wire, Gwenda Bond (young adult) - Two rival circus families with a complicated Past end up traveling together; the main character, Julieta, who does a high wire act, falls for a son of the rival family, Remy, also known as Romeo. The thing that worked for me least here was the Romeo and Julieta naming convention; the parallels to Romeo and Juliet are clear enough in the set-up, but the story goes its own way plotwise (which was good), and I wasn't persuaded that it was a good idea to tie it so closely to Shakespeare. It does prepare the reader for the death of one of the teenage characters, though, and I wondered whether that was the point. This is a fairly straightforward young adult romance with magical underpinnings, but I thought it was particularly well-executed, with memorable events and a memorable character. The romance employed several tropes that usually bug me a lot, but that only irked me slightly in places here, perhaps because while the main characters are star-crossed in their fates to love despite their families, they never go into much of a will-we-or-won't-we oh-but-you're-my-enemy tailspin, and instead all in love and move on from there. I also really liked the secondary characters, Julieta's cousin and nana, and Remy's sister. The circus imagery really distinguishes it, especially the main character's passion for the high wire, and her love of past high wire peformer, Bird Millman, who did walks between skyscrapers while holding a parasol.
Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (young adult) - People I've spoken to have really polarized reactions to this book which I find interesting as I thought it was straight-up good. It's traditional science fiction with a lot at stake and an interesting slant on character. It seems to me that some of the divide over the book had to do with whether or not people resonated with the voice. I did. I thought this novel moved in the same space as Alaya Dawn Johnson's SUMMER PRINCE, in terms of putting real, well-done YA in unusual science fiction settings. In this story, the main character is born as part of a fundamentalist cult that lives in space. The cult appears to be based on fundamentalist Mormon cults, involving non-consensual plural marriage of minors, and abandonment of young boys. (This could describe other cultural situations as well, but the material trappings of the cult seemed to indicate a fundamentalist LDS inspiration.) I should emphasize here that I don't think the word Mormon is ever used, and even if it were, the novel would not be a reflection on mainstream Mormon practice. Inhumane fundamentalist cults don't represent whole religions, and it is a pet peeve of mine when people conflate the two out of ignorance. The novel is depicting a problematic cult. Anyway, when her father announces that she's going to be married, the main character thinks she's going to be the first wife of the son of the visiting ship captain; the son thinks so as well. They meet tenderly and in private to discuss how pleased they are, but are discovered, and it's revealed that she was actually meant to marry the ship's captain himself. She's declared dead for having sullied herself and exiled to Earth where she learns to navigate the strange-to-her cultures. She also tries to help other people who have been ill-served by the cult, including boys who have been exiled from their families in order to sustain the polygynous system. While the structure is a bit lumpy in parts, I thought this was a well-done and unusual novel and I recommend it strongly.
Otherbound, Corinne Duyvis (young adult) - This was the right novel for me at the right moment; I descended upon it and devoured it from first to last page, totally compelled by the storyline. There are two main characters (who don't romance each other!). One is a boy who lives in our world but suffers from visions wherein he is fully immersed in a painful and jarring fantasy world, a situation that no one in our world knows how to explain, and so they call a variety of epilepsy which he goes along with so as not to be considered psychotic. (For people who have a sensitivity to the trope, that does mean that the novel falls into the "magical disability" category; I felt it navigated the issue well enough, but others may disagree.) The other is the girl whose mind he drops into when he has those "seizures" -- an enslaved magic-wielder who has been violently dealt with by her owners, who have cut out her tongue, regularly beat her, and do things like burn her hands (she has healing powers so they can cause her extreme pain without risking her life). She is bound to protect a captive princess who tries to mitigate the excesses of her treatment but has very little power to do so. They're on the run from a curse. I found the girl's storyline completely, viscerally engaging, and I thought there was sharp character development, and really well done rendering of trauma, especially given that it was leavened by opportunities for action and escape. I gave my copy of this book to my niece (who was a couple months shy of eleven); my brother looked up reviews which were very upset about how violent it is. I was worried, but my brother shrugged, and said if she didn't want to read it, she'd stop (that's how I was raised, too, but I don't assume all parents give their kids free range). Instead, she started it on Christmas day and read it with such constant attention that we often had to break her out of it to get her to participate in family activities. As soon as there was a lull, she was back in the book.
The Glass Sentence, S. E. Grove (middle grade) -- I fell in love with the beginning of this strange and beautiful novel about a girl who lives in a world where time has cracked, causing different parts of the world to tumble into different eras, past and future. She's from nineteenth century Boston and crosses into strange territories looking for her uncle, a kidnapped explorer. The novel has this beautiful imagery about maps, and the types of maps, and how they function. I was utterly enchanted by the voice and world building, and some of the story was quite haunting. When I started, I expected the story to be about the main character's journey with her uncle; when he was removed from the picture and replaced with a romantic interest, I was less enchanted. The adventure part of the book got bogged down, I thought, and was less interesting than a quieter story against this stunning background might have been. But that's quite possibly my idiosyncratic reaction; I often want more subdued stories and get bored by world-saving. Despite that, it's quite a good book, and definitely notable for its odd loveliness.
Egg and Spoon, Gregory Maguire (middle grade) -- In this sweeping epic, Maguire takes on Russian mythologies, particularly that of Baba Yaga, in a Tzarist setting of both poverty and grandeur. He takes two pre-adolescent protagonists -- one, a starving member of the proletariat, the other an aristocrat -- and forces them together in what looks initially like it will be a Prince and the Pauper mix-up but eventually becomes more sophisticated. As always with Maguire, the descriptions are very beautiful (especially of manmade objects), and there's a sort of breathtaking grace in the sweep of his world-building. Another reader wondered if this cribbed too much from the Russian epics; I can't really speak to that because I haven't read most of them. Baba Yaga is a time traveler, constantly throwing out anachronisms, which is often something that bugs me, but for some reason, worked for me here. I also liked that the aristocratic girl's aunt had foibles but also generosity, as did her governess and butler. The novel works smoothly up to the halfway point; after that, I thought it got bogged down with itself and some of its detail and started to move slowly. But it's really gorgeous and striking and I expect I'll remember it for a long time. I also expect it would reward rereading.
Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (young adult) - An adopted piano prodigy feels stifled in her regimented life with her perfectionistic mother. She meets a homeless teenage runaway with psychic powers and they decide to run away from the city together. The story of their travels is interwoven with the story of their meeting and pasts, as well as mysterious encounters with a figure who is heavily implied to be the devil. The speculative thread of this (the devil figure) is never particularly developed or resolved, which didn't bother me as much as it did other readers I talked to, but did actually seem like a drawback. I wanted something more from the ending than what it gave me, and further development of the devil figure seems like the easiest way for it to have achieved that, although there are other methods, too. (Looking at the amazon page for the book, it looks like this may be part of a longer sequence of novels, which might be why it's not particularly resolved.) The character development, language, and detail are sharply and astonishingly developed. There's a lot of non-moralistic depiction of heavy drug use in the book which makes it unusual for YA, but also makes it feel very honest. As a gift-giver, I'd probably skew toward giving the book to people near the top of the young adult age range--probably sixteen or over--but younger teens may well be fine with it. I'd just want that to be something they negotiate for themselves/with their parents. I certainly read pretty honest and dark stuff as a teen.
Witch’s Boy, Kelly Barnhill (young adult) - Trademark Kelly Barnhill whimsy with omnipotent, distinct storyteller voice. A witch's son and the daughter of a bandit use the last of the world's magic to stop a war. Also trademark: Barnhill is surprisingly good at creating folk tale imagery and threads that have the same feel as the folk tale lexicon, but are in fact her own, new creations. Not as unique as IRON-HEARTED VIOLET, but perhaps better structured.
Death Sworn, Leah Cypess (young adult) - I find Cypess easy and engaging to read, as in this story of a sorceress sent to teach magic to a cloister of assassins. Liked the magic system, liked the main character, liked the read. Felt the ending flattened out a little, and it didn't seem as distinct from other YA as some of her work has been. Good, enjoyable read.
Chasing Power, Sarah Beth Durst (young adult) - Durst is always an enjoyable read for me, and is here, too. A girl with the power to move very small objects with her mind finds her life upset when a boy reveals that he's discovered her secret and blackmails her into embarking on a risky endeavor to rescue his kidnapped mother. Really liked the main character lots and got really attached to her. Also liked the clear love for archaeology in the text. Didn't feel as unique to me as Durst's work can be, and felt that it got bogged down in the last third.
Memory of Water, Emmi Itaranta (young adult) - Debut science fiction novel. World after environmental crises have caused global warming, severe droughts, and loss of many advanced technologies. A young girl who inherits her father's role as a tea master guards her family's secret, a hidden spring, which has to be concealed from a military obsessed with controlling all access to water. Absolutely exquisitely written, with many beautiful contemplative passages, and gorgeously evocative sensory details. Loved the development of the secondary characters, especially the main character's best friend. This was another one that got bogged down for me toward the last third with what felt like a lot of repetition of the same kind of emotional moments. Also, it was coy with giving information, which is a minor peeve. Let me reemphasize its beauty, though.
Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (young adult) - I generally adore Alaya Dawn Johnson's work, but for some reason this one never really grabbed me, narratively. I felt like there was a tension between the personal plot, which was about the main character's assertion of her sense of identity against her parents, and the action plot, which was about secret agents and plagues and drugs and terrorism. The two intertwine structurally, but somehow seemed to resist each other in my reading. I liked the personal plot more. The writing is really sharp, the characters are well done, and the scenes between the main character and her paramour Coffee are often intriguing and unexpected.
Evil Librarian, Michelle Knudsen (young adult) - This wasn't particularly unique, but it was surprisingly fun. Like a really good and satisfying episode of Buffy. (Not like it was copying Buffy, just it had that sense of "let's go and have fun, and be teens going through emotional stuff, and face ridiculous supernatural threats"). High school student faces down demon librarian. Plus Sondheim!
Mortal Heart, Robin LaFevers (young adult) - The third book in the HIS FAIR ASSASSINS trilogy which is about a convent of nuns who are the daughters of the God of Death and who train as assassins to act as his hands in the world. In this final book, the main character, suspicious of the abbess's motives, runs away from the convent, risking the anger of her god and his hell-riders. What really impresses me is that it's so unusual for a third book: it's as good or better than the earlier books, and I think it would even stand alone. That's some talent, right there.
Black Dog, Rachel Neumeier (young adult) - Three children, one of whom is a werewolf, flee north after their parents are murdered to find the pack that their father had abandoned and beg to be taken in. As they try to adapt to the new pack's hierarchy, they also have to fight off hostile their parents' murderers who have followed them northward and are trying to kill their new pack, too. This story dealt with a lot of themes I like and that are common to Octavia Butler's work, including characters struggling to negotiate biological imperatives that force them into hierarchical social orders. Because of that, I kept sort of reading a shadow Octavia Butler book as I was reading this one, and wishing that the characters had been drawn with just a touch more of Butler's sharpness and ambiguity. This probably didn't serve the book well. On the one hand, it meant I was really into it; on the other, I was preoccupied with considering other ways it could have been written. I felt it suffered a bit from bluntness, but was still quite striking.
Drift, M. K. Hutchins (young adult) - Some of the most unique worldbuilding I've seen in young adult novels. May be particularly interesting to those with an interest in anthropology.
The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, E. K. Johnston (young adult) - Does not include a romance!
Lockstep, Karl Schroeder (middle grade) - Got my hands on it late & had to abandon mid-book for time reasons once I realized it wasn't a top spot contender for me. Will go back to it when I can. Old-fashioned gosh-wow adventure with lots of hard SF cookies.
The Cure for Dreaming, Cat Winters (young adult) - Interesting take on women's suffrage movement.
Novellas are the one reading category which I didn't have to significantly abridge. I admit that's because I never read too many of them. This year, I looked at eighteen, although if I had another day or two, I'd expand that to at least twenty. I gathered these novellas by:
1) Requesting recommendations directly from other writers, and looking at their posts recommending stories. This year, I did a lot of reading from lists by Ken Liu and Aliette de Bodard.
2) Reading the year's run of Asimov's, which is a regular novella publisher.
3) Picking up the most commonly recommended novellas on the SFWA message boards. Also, I went through the (relatively short) list of novellas which had been placed in the forums, and downloaded several.
4) Asking individual authors to send me things they were particularly proud of.
I tried to put priority on looking at the newer, less established authors that my process turned up, though I also picked up very highly rated works by authors like Nancy Kress. (It's why I put low priority on Scalzi's novella, though, which I didn't get to... sorry, John.) I also admit to having given priority to novellas I could easily get my hands on, with the exception of the Valentine novella, which I had to go buy. (The horrors! It was completely worth it.)
"A Necessary Being" by Octavia Butler (in her collection, Unexpected Stories)
I didn't think I'd ever get to read another new piece of writing by Octavia Butler and I am astonishingly grateful for being able to do so.
This novella deals with many of Octavia Butler's accustomed themes. She often wrote about communities formed and maintained by biological necessity. This appears here, also, as the aliens*, who are vaguely reminiscent of insects, have biologically determined castes, including rare individuals born to be rulers. Ruler-class infants are born so rarely that cities vie to make sure they have one; if none are born in a generation, they'll kidnap and mutilate one in order to force it to stay.
Another of Butler's common themes--in her more optimistic stories, particularly--is finding ways to navigate biological necessity in order to create better, more peaceful outcomes. Rather than simply breaking the rules, characters have to find a way to get what they want within them. In the SF tradition, iconoclastic rule-breaking is probably more common, but in real life, people are almost always constrained by biology and culture. I value Butler's attempts to ask: if we have limits, how can we negotiate them anyway? Since I invariably read these as, on a distant level, parables about the biological tendencies toward hierarchy, conflict and xenophobia that appear in human societies, I find her writing very delicate and hopeful. Despite a realistic, bleak view of the terrible things those qualities can force, Butler often writes her way out of the biological traps she poses, imagining strange, often ambiguous, ways through.
This is one of the more unabashedly optomistic stories. I'm not going to say it's one of her best -- it lacks the fast, emotional gut punch of "Bloodchild," for instance -- but it's still strong. The science fictional elements are interesting; the narrative is intriguing; and her ever-insightful eye is present here, and a wonder to see again.
"Hath No Fury" by Kat Howard (Subterranean Online)
In this urban fantasy version of New York, wherein magical and mythical creatures coexist in a surreal way with mundane ones, Medea and her furies continue their work from the Greek tragedies. The main character is a woman who was murdered by her abusive boyfriend, and now -- as a fury -- avenges other women murdered by their intimate partners. (I appreciate that Howard explicitly includes trans women.) When omens indicate that something is very wrong, she works with Medea, the fates, Odin, and others to chase down the monster at the heart of the labyrinth.
I have a low tolerance for urban fantasy settings wherein mundane things exist alongside mythical ones, which I have no particular excuse for. It's just a thing I don't usually like, perhaps because it often seems glib or cute. Kat Howard's mythical New York City works for me--I think I like that the story takes the presence of the mythical figures as accepted fact, and moves from there. It doesn't try to reconcile the two views of the city, or make the process make logical sense (a lot of urban fantasy loses me when it tries to make logical sense out of something inherently illogical). It's surreal; that's it; the reader is now invited to move on with the story.
Some of Kat Howard's descriptions of the city and its surreality are lovely, for instance, when the main character describes a section of the city which is perpetually stuck in Tuesday mornings. I also found a number of stand out lines like this one: "The hidden meaning of vengeance is too late" which I feel perfectly encapsulates both the temptation of vengeance and the howling, despairing uselessness of it. This is particularly resonant for me in the context of uncovering some terrible things that were done to a loved one. I furiously want to attack it, avenge it somehow, while knowing it would be fruitless; it wouldn't change things for my loved one or protect them. The time when I could have interfered to stop the damage is decades past.
I also thought she did a really good job of describing the dynamics of abuse. In particular, I liked the main character's attempts to reconcile herself as the strong, avenging fury she is in the present with the person who had been thoroughly isolated and wrecked by her boyfriend.Then I saw myself. My self as I had been, before I became a Fury, before I gave myself a new name. Hollow-eyed and hunched, and walking like I was waiting for a blow to fall.
Near the end of things, I thought, but I couldn’t be sure—I hadn’t recognized how bad things were when I had been living them. I tell myself now that if I had, I would have asked for help, but that’s probably a lie. I see that girl now, and I am embarrassed to have been her, shamed, that I let someone else turn me into that shadow of a thing. We’re supposed to be strong, and it feels like failure to realize you’re not.
"Yesterday's Kin" by Nancy Kress (published solo by Tachyon)
In this novella, a scientist who has recently discovered a new subgroup of mitochondrial DNA, is summoned by the government to participate in meetings with the aliens who have established an embassy in New York. The aliens, it turns out, are humans, transplanted 150,000 years ago to a new world. They are also members of that mitochondrial subgroup and want to identify their relatives, who turn out to include the scientist's adopted son.
The aliens also reveal that earth is in the path of a catastrophic event, wherein a cloud of "spores" (like those theorized by panspermia) will infect humans with a fatal disease. Many human scientists go to live in the embassy where they can collaborate with the aliens to research a vaccine. The main character's adopted son also goes to live there, where he can learn more about the alien's culture, and decide whether or not to join them.
This was a fairly typical Kress novella for me (that's not a bad thing)--if you like them, you'll probably like this. If not, I have no idea (since it depends on why you dislike them). It's grounded in classic science fictional speculation, merging a number of ideas and theories to generate a plot. However, the characters and details are sharply grounded enough that the stories don't feel dry; there's emotional resonance, too. There are also a lot of genuinely surprising plot turns, and those that I can anticipate are well-executed. I also appreciate the ways that she creates difficult, upsetting situations, but always leaves a note of benevolence. Characters--and species--are often good faith actors, even if they don't always seem to be, and even if bad outcomes result from their good intentions. As some writers say, she demonstrates generosity to her characters.
As in many Kress stories, there are a few moments that make me eyeroll a tad--mostly, amid her interesting science fictional speculations, she often includes one or two that I consider ungrounded enough to break the illusion that the story is hard science fiction. I don't have a problem with stories that aren't hard science fiction, but when all the signals in the story are saying "this is!" then I get a little frustrated with things being included that are seriously unlikely because they end up being wrapped up in this veneer of truthiness. In this novella, my eyeroll moment was that one of the characters was somehow sensitive enough to people's physiology to be able to pick up other people's mitochondrial groupings; he immediately, viscerally feels a loving connection with those who share his mitochondrial DNA. This is eyerolly for me because it's extremely improbable, and it also plays into some weirdness about the inherent importance of "real" families that I expect would aggravate some of my friends who have strong, nonbiological family ties. (I don't mind the portrayal of a difficult adoption in this at all, but the implication that it would have automatically been better if the people were more closely related irks me somewhat.) I have some friends who are very sensitive to this theme; they might not enjoy the novella. But I did, a couple eye rolls aside.
I'm not doing much of a thematic analysis here, but it's a strong work, and very successful at being the kind of story it sets out to be (not an easy task). I enjoy its complex plot and all the intellectual bells and whistles that keep my science fictional brain happy.
"The Mothers of Voorhisville" by Mary Rickert (Tor.com)
I have often had trouble immersing in Rickert's work, although I admit that I was usually trying in high school so my reading taste was suspect. I acknowledge this as entirely my issue, given the number of people with really good taste who adore her writing. But that's why it was especially nice to sit down to this story and find it absorbing.
It tells the story of a number of women -- the mothers of Voorhisville -- who were all seduced and impregnated by the same man. They all gave birth to pretty baby boys with metal wings. They tried to hide this, fearing societal reactions, aided by the fact that the babies could retract their wings. Once they got old enough to start flying, though, the women were no longer able to hide the secret. They form a frightening, creepy collective to try to protect the increasingly sinister babies.
The story is told in a sort of consensus format, with the idea being that one of the women is transcribing events, flipping points of view frequently. There are periodic interjections from the group as a whole, speaking in second person. Occasionally, someone else writes a section. There are a large number of characters to keep track of, and I sometimes failed, but several of the stories are interesting and distinctive. (I expect that which ones resonate with which people will differ.)
Rickert does a masterful job of weaving in disturbing details so that the reader is overwhelmed by an increasing sense of doom. This is where I confess I'm a bad horror reader; in the moment when I'm reading it, I am very engaged by all that disturbing stuff. But once I'm done, when I think back on the story, I remember that oh-so-successfully evoked sense of anxiety, and that makes me not want to think about the story. It's like I get the emotional impact of disliking it, even though what I disliked wasn't the story, but the emotion which it was supposed to (and did) evoke. I have that problem a little bit with the Valentine below, too. Rickert was just too successful. ;)
I think I would have preferred the story to be pruned by one or two threads, as it would have helped my tracking, and I think the story got weighted down by so much detail at points-- the number of characters meant that the pacing of less interesting parts of the story (to me, at least) still had to be quite slow. But that was a minor feeling, and mostly (again, for me) concerned the middle. The beginning was intriguing and pulled me in, even while it spun a mood of trepidation; the ending was fast and visceral and horrifying.
I'm not sure I would read this again (because: disturbed), but it was an interesting read, and is definitely an extremely well-crafted piece that I admire for its skill.
"Dream Houses" by Genevieve Valentine (list of where to buy on her website)
The main character is a trucker whose impatience with staying still has eventually driven her to becoming auxiliary crew on a cargo ship that transports goods to an outlying colony. When the crew's hibernation pods are sabotaged, only the main character survives, leaving her both awake (because she cannot return to the sabotaged pod) and alone. She calculates the time she'll have to stay awake during the trip -- six years -- and prepares for a grueling journey of isolation and deprivation, alone with the ship's AI, Capella, who appears to have been sabotaged itself so that it can't (or won't) tell her what the cargo is that apparently inspired someone to murder the crew.
The novella weaves the present timeline of the main character's journey with revelations about her past. There's a theme about choral music as well, which made me wonder if Valentine might be writing in response to Leckie's ANCILLARY JUSTICE, although it could also be a coincidence. I found some of the relationships in the flashbacks hard to sort at first in a way that didn't feel like it necessarily served the story, and I also question the placement of the first one -- which is about choral music -- as I found myself unpleasantly disoriented for a bit in terms of big questions of setting and timeframes which I didn't want to be thinking about. So personally, I had to push a little bit before I got into the story, but that may well be an idiosyncratic reaction.
This is a deeply disturbing novella with lots of visceral, painful moments. There's a lot to like here, including Valentine's impeccable skill with craft and language, but I think the thing I most appreciated was the main character. She had a very strong, distinct presence, which was informed by her traumatic past without being overwhelmed by it. I also loved the touches of surreality where the main character started to get confused--for instance, when she begins to believe that one of the dead crew members is alive -- they are presented with utter frankness. The main character believes this impossible thing; she also understands the limitations of reality (like, that the crewmember can't respond to her); she can't reconcile these things and doesn't even try, they're just part of her life. It felt like a refreshing and realistic way of talking about breaks with reality.
I keep going back and forth on which of these novellas is my favorite, but this one may be it. It's very distinctive and worth chasing down even though it's harder to access than many of the others on this list.
"The Regular" by Ken Liu (list of where to buy the anthology Upgraded on Clarkesworld's website) - There seem to be at least one or two science fiction mysteries every year in my novella reading. This year, there were two--Liu's and Murphy's--and I've listed them both. Science fiction mysteries are a harder sell for me than many other forms, as I think the two genres can mix in a glib fashion that I find predictable, and/or the science fiction conventions can actively get in the way of the murder mystery conventions. I prefer a mystery in which I can track the clues and, on reread, see how the author has cleverly left a trail that would have lead me to the correct conclusion. In science fiction, the turning point is often on clues that the reader would have no way of deciphering, because they depend on advanced technology (or, worse, unpredictable fantasy rules); this can work if the writer does enough foreshadowing, but sometimes they don't.
Liu manages the combination deftly here, producing a good story that is very satisfying in both genres. There's an emotional arc of character development here, too, which distinguishes the story. It's much more action-oriented than most Liu and an engaging, fast-paced read. For some reason, it seemed like it would adapt very well into a graphic novel.
My favorites of Ken Liu's work are distinctly him -- they're stories which just couldn't have been written by anyone else. For me, this wasn't one of those stories; it's not unique. But it's a deftly done, satisfying science fiction mystery, and I definitely recommend it for people who like those and want a good, entertaining read.
"Claudius Rex" by John Murphy (list of where to buy on his website) - This is a good complement for the Liu. The Ken Liu mystery is more emotionally resonant; the Murphy mystery is more funny and just plain *fun.* It's a really energetic and compulsive read with a hellaciously obnoxious AI whose voice I really liked. There were a couple places where I felt like it got bogged down in details and back-and-forth, particularly in the ending sequences, but it was just really fun to read. And when it got a bit dry for me, or there was a trope that felt a little too baldly inserted, all I had to do was wait a bit--there were always more treats coming.
"The Things We Do For Love" by K. J. Parker (Subterranean Online) - A few of the Parker stories I've read have been about diffident, talented-but-rebellious young men. This one is, too--a Duke's son, turned thief, meets a witch who loves him with disturbing obsessiveness and won't let him age, leave or die. The thief is therefore sentenced to a sort of monotonous, unending ordeal of carrying off heists that he doesn't want to do, and that they don't need to do, because the witch thinks that's the way to make him happy. I liked this; the voice is engaging; it had lots of interesting moments. I felt that the ending dragged (my guess is that's because he had two timelines going at once, and one ended a lot earlier than the other), and I found myself less willing to suspend my disbelief about the witch character as the story went on; once she was given a(n interesting) history, I had trouble believing in her vapid, unchanging obsession with the thief. But definitely fun, and strongly in Parker's ouvre (assuming what I've read is representative).
"Boar and Apples" by Ursula Vernon (in her collection Toad Words) - This is a pretty straightforward Snow White retelling, leavened with humor and practicality. There are substantial changes to the ways the characters interact, and the dwarfs have transformed into delightful, magical boars. This isn't a deep thematic intervention like many of the more serious fairy tale retellings, so people shouldn't go in with that in mind; it's not trying to be Valente's "Six Gun Snow White." It's quite successful at its aims: it's a charming, fun read, enriched by Vernon's witty dialogue and turns of phrase.
*It's possible there's some backstory that makes these genetically modified humans or something, since someone told me this novella connects to one of Butler's novel-length works. But, at least in the story, they seem like aliens.
Unfortunately, I don't have the time to do it in the next couple months. :( But I hope it is a project I can get to sometime.
I don't know everyone's politics, so I wouldn't know who to include. Are you a conservative or right-wing author who would like me to look at your work? Please let me know. Or do you have someone to recommend?
Of course, since it would be a recc list I'm assembling, it would reflect my taste. But I think it would be fun, interesting, and worthwhile to have a list of works by conservative or right-wing authors that do suit the taste of this particular bleeding-heart liberal.
I would like to do this in a spirit of celebration of our common love of science fiction and fantasy. We have our differences, and they can be major. But, I hope, there's lots to appreciate from each other, too.