Earthrise, by M.C.A. Hogarth

In my quest to support indie sff authors, I discovered M.C.A Hogarth on Amazon and after reading a little about her work, decided to get the first in her “Her Instruments” series, called Earthrise.  Named for the ship that Reese purchased with her share of the family’s compound on Mars, the novel traces the adventures of Reese and her doughty crew as they attempt to save one of a species of long-lived and reclusive humanoids from vengeful and violent slavers.  What starts out as your run-of-the mill maguffin plots turns into quite something else, as Reese’s mental and physical health, combined with the interference of a mysterious benefactor, send the Earthrise off in directions Reese could never have anticipated.

The Earthrise itself is crewed by a feathery and fluffy cast of characters from all over known space, most of whom are genetically created species from when humans first began colonizing worlds other than Earth itself.  Though Reese at times displays discomfort with the overly affectionate ways of felinoid siblings Irine and Sascha, or the mysterious habits of Bryer, the phoenix, she is still loyal to her crew, and they to her.  This is a story of found family and what people will endure for each other.  Reese’s crew also numbers a Gleaseahn, a sort of gryphoid centaur, and a sentient fuzz ball who communicates telepathically–a Fliztbe–whom Reese calls Allacazam.

Earthrise starts out as your typical mcguffin plot, but it’s well-paced with some extra side plots and character development thrown in, making it not only entirely readable, but even bingeable.  Reese’s quest to make it as more than just another homemaker on Mars is compelling, and the tidbits thrown in about the matriarchal societies built through artificial insemination almost demand another series just for themselves.  The timelines are somewhat confusing, though, which distracts from the main conflict that develops after Reese accomplishes the original, seemingly innocuous, mcguffin plot and finds she and her crew are embroiled in something much deeper than a simple rescue mission.

Although there is no open romance in Earthrise, it is signposted as a romance series.  Probably, though the teambuilding story that pulls all the characters in Reese’s crew together is interesting and compelling enough to satisfy a reader for whom romance is not the biggest pull.

Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Being the first of the Finishing School series, Etiquette & Espionage is an irreverent take on the concept of the finishing school of the 19th century at which, it was believed, a young woman could learn everything she needed to know about getting a husband and then being a proper lady and wife.  And then Carriger adds werewolves, vampires, steampunk, and assassination.

Told from the point of view of Sophronia Angelina Teminick, the tale begins with an unfortunate climb up a dumbwaiter, a characteristic antic of the young protagonist, who is a trial to her parents, a menace to the mechanics who serve in the household, and an annoyance to her siblings.  In a last-ditch effort to make her acceptable in society, Sophoronia’s mother begs Madame Geraldine to accept her into Madame Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality and, miraculously, Madame Geraldine accepts.  And it’s all downhill–or rather, up in the air–from there.

Other than the characters being younger than I expected–most about 14–I wouldn’t have classified this novel as anything other than fantasy–fantasy of manners, steampunk, etc–but after finishing it I found out that it was classified as YA.  Carriger’s worldbuilding, which relies on aspects of the ridiculous to establish a world both vastly different than our own, and yet hardly different at all, interrogates particular tropes in fiction as well as the ways in which patriarchal society affected women in the Victorian period and beyond, in a way that is anything other than immature.  I was particularly struck by the ways in which Carriger used fashionable dress itself as a weapon, and how feminine attire has devolved, even as it has become more superficially ‘useful’ to making women generally defenseless, not-dangerous, because there is nowhere to hide anything that might be used as a weapon.

On the whole I found Etiquette & Espionage to be a fine example of what Renay, over at Ladybusiness, describes as the main point of steampunk, which is to break up the cultural norms that rule society and allow for subversion of the assumptions upon which the real-world model is built.  It makes excellent use of the fantasy of manners subgenre, showing the reverse side of what politeness and proper behavior is all about.

The only complaint I might make is the novel’s treatment of gender from within.  It is all well and good to depict a society in which appearance is everything, but there were times when Sophronia as narrator expressed harmful stereotypes about gender presentation and body size, without those descriptions later being fully exposed as such.  Sophronia is later seen getting to know those people who had earlier described as deviating from the desired norm, but those characters do not always get full agency, or Sophronia is not always forced to reckon with how her assumptions about them might have been harmful.  Had Sophronia been shown to be a more fallible, less reliable narrator, her descriptions of people might be more easily subverted in a way that aligns with the otherwise feminist nature of the novel.

 

Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow

Black Feathers lives more in the horror end of the spectrum than sff, however some of the stories are by well-known sff writers, including Seanan McGuire and Pat Cadigan, so when I saw it at my public library I decided to give it a shot.  The stories are loosely connected by the presence of birds, as would be expected, but also by a sense of of impending horror, like a murder of crows lit on a harvested field on an overcast day.  Some stories, like Alison Littlewood’s “The Orphan Bird” dip more deeply into true horror, while Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” is more dark comedy that relies on cultural consciousness of mythology and popular media.

All the stories in this anthology, though, were well-written, however the standouts were definitely Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids,” Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace,” and Cadigan’s aforementioned story.  “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is the second McGuire-authored piece of short fiction I’ve consumed this year, and both have been some of the most densely-plotted stories I’ve encountered.  McGuire’s characters reveal so much about themselves with so little active description on her part that it is almost as if the reader is directly absorbing the story rather than having to physically read it.  The protagonist, as it were, of this story is a teenage girl who I interpreted as being on the autism spectrum, who has developed coping mechanisms for when she has to deal with people who are unable to empathize with her way of experiencing the world, but who is also acutely aware of how the world could be, and of the constant  cultural requirement that she be a willing participant in making those people feel more comfortable around her.  And of her finally reaching a breaking point.

The presence of crows in this story could easily have been replaced by some other countable entity, and yet the corvids that get counted, every day, that get bound into a rhyme, are the perfect metaphor for Brenda’s life, being regarded as something other than human by her semi-abusive stepfather, as unfeeling and cold by her teachers and peers, but as something worthwhile and magical, as all individual humans are, by her grandmother and mother.  Ultimately this is a story about order and chaos, and McGuire’s prose binds the two together so artfully, so subtly, that the ending, though in many ways it could have been guessed at, is a complete surprise.  McGuire has a way of developing character and plot together, through each other, that makes her short fiction, as I said earlier, particularly dense, but in a satisfying way.

If you read no other story from this anthology, be sure to read Pat Cadigan’s.  Her short fiction reminds me a lot of Connie Willis’–an ironic self-awareness and a sharp eye for coincidence–yet with a piercing sense of just how complicated life can be.  “A Little Bird Told Me” is a story about dying, told by someone who, just for now, can’t die.  With echoes of Dante’s Inferno and a clear stream of world-weary prose laced elegantly with the pure heart of a science fiction writer’s simultaneous love and suspicion of technology, this story is a tantalizing glimpse into a world too much like our own, if we were living in a tv series of our own lives.  The themes are reminiscent of that long-ago and short-lived series Dead Like Me, inscrutable bureaucracy and all.

A great anthology for those who love their fantasy stretching towards horror, and vice versa, Black Feathers is for anyone looking for a side of wonderful with their weird.

Starfang: Rise of the Clan, by Joyce Chng

As space opera goes, Starfang: Rise of the Clan felt like a prologue to something much bigger.  It had all the elements of a compelling space adventure: a mystery, aliens, warring families, future technology, just waiting to be fleshed out into a winding tale of intrigue and interesting characters.  It still might turn out that way, with future installments of the series that Chng has yet to write, but it was wrapped up too quickly to really sink one’s teeth into.

Francesca Ming Yue is captain of the Starfang, one of the warships her clan uses to enforce its supremacy in their area of space and to carry out its various wars against other clans.  Francesca is a werewolf, one of homo sapiens lupus, a species whose origins is shrouded in mystery, and yet not shy about taking what it wants in a universe that has left Earth behind, and yet not forgotten it.  Starfang: Rise of the Clan is also a refreshing twist on the typical werewolf plot one sees in the Anglo publishing world, in that not only is it a tale of werewolves in space, but the origins of these clans are Asian, their customs and foods drawing from Chinese and Southeast Asian culture.

Francesca’s characterization, as the narrator and center of the story, hints at a complex backstory and complicated motivations behind her dutiful assumption of duty when ordered to a sector of space known for black market drugs and shady dealings, but the reader sees so little of her and what people think about her, aside from what she tells, that it’s difficult to get a read on what really makes her tick.  As tantalizing as her story might be for readers of the urban fantasy genre who may come in more invested than the average fantasy reader, without a deeper look into her character, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief and buy into the plot.

So, in the end, Starfang: Rise of the Clan is packed with fascinating tidbits and hints at more to come, but a little flat in its current iteration.

Hammers On Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

A hardboiled detective.  A resourceful boy in dire straits.  A killer spreading like sickness through the poor side of London.  Forget good prevailing over evil.  Sometimes, the best you can hope for is the lesser of two monsters.

John Persons should know better than to take things at face value, and it’s not just because he’s a private investigator.  But when the snot nosed kid shows up at his office demanding–not requesting–help to protect his younger brother, Persons finds he can’t say no, and just as quickly finds himself caught up in a plot much larger than one body-snatching monster on the lose in the slums.

Like all good short fiction, this novella makes double use of language in a squishy kaleidoscope of color, motion, smells, sounds, and gut feelings.  It draws a beautiful metaphor for the idea of justice and protection of innocents, asking, through the existence of a man-shaped monster determined to solve crimes and vanquish demons, what we really give up when we relegate protecting the populace to a detached–and often dangerous–policing force, when community outsources its role to an arm of capitalism instead of taking responsibility for its own members.

It’s also just a really well-developed twisty horror noir on its own.

Khaw narrates through the voice of Persons himself, whose own personality is reflected and refracted through the mind of the man he’s inhabiting.  Creating a noir inflection without resorting solely to tropes and repetition is no small feat, and Khaw’s prose is delightfully anchored in the horrors Persons has seen and perpetrated in his long life.  This is the kind of writing one could spend a lifetime mastering, and is a pleasure to get one’s tentacles on.

The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The most interesting thing about the fantasy of manners sub-genre is how the world delineates those who belong, and those who don’t, and this is often the center of conflict for the love-interest couple.  Now, of course, not all fantasy of manners stories have a major love interest, but there is an important relationship that is the focus of the story, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sub-genre itself.  In The Beautiful Ones, the haves–in the country of Levrene, and particularly the fashionable city of Loisail–are the Beautiful Ones themselves, those with money and social standing, who decide what is fashionable, what is proper, and what is interesting.

Social customs and societal expectations in this novel are drawn from many European analogs in the 17th through 19th centuries and have at their center both the restrictions of patriarchy and the lure of curiosity that often crop up in Victorian literature.  Hector Auvray, the love interest, is a performer, one who uses his talent with telekinesis to improve his social standing.  He is able to do this in part because he is a man, and his efforts fall under the guise of ambition and vigorous effort prized in the culture of Loisail.

The Beautiful Ones finds its way out from under its own reliance on well-known fantasy romance tropes in its vigorous interrogation of the patriarchal leanings of its society and, in turn, our own.  The growth of its characters, particularly Nina and Valerie, is satisfying, and though much of the plot could be intuited from the set up, the way in which Moreno-Garcia follows through with her characters and doesn’t allow them to sink under their own weight is what makes this novel not just readable, but highly enjoyable, from beginning to end.

The juxtaposition of two main characters who share the same telekinetic talent, but belong to different genders, creates a lens through which to understand just how much the artificiality of society pushes people in one direction or the other for purely arbitrary reasons.  While Nina may be born with admittance to the class of the Beautiful Ones because of her family’s money and position it is, in the end, her willingness to condition herself to the behaviors expected of a woman of that class that arbitrates her belonging to that group.  While Hector is able to use its standard sets of behaviors as a guidebook to entry, where getting a certain number of rules correct gives him a way in, Nina can much more quickly be tossed out for breaking even one rule.  The human desire to belong, as well as to be free, motivates The Beautiful Ones on a deep level, leaving the reader with a lot to think about at the end.

This novel explores the depths of emotion and motivation to which people can sink, while holding onto a foundational joy and love of life that comes across as genuine, rather than sentimental.  Moreno-Garcia’s writing is colorful and evocative of a world in which appearance and display are paramount.  There are some lovely scenes in which old or abandoned places not only contrast beautifully with this magpie culture she’s created, but also create a tension between antiquity and modernity that, rather than being resolved by the end, linger on the palate for a long while after finishing this novel.

 

 

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with the withering of membrane and tissue, the slow escape of oxygen and heat into the endless abyss of space, the world ship’s last lurching revolution around an artificial star. The worlds may be dying, but they were long ago bereft of civilization. The Stars Are Legion is space opera for the dark night of the soul, when all hope is gone and only humanity remains.

Apart from being an extremely visceral and suspenseful alt-universe science fiction story, The Stars Are Legion is a novel that dares to ask the question, will humans ever be anything but parasites on the worlds they inhabit? Unlike Golden Age space opera that assumes a natural order to the universe, Hurley has created one in which understanding the artificiality of everything is paramount to—not success or survival, these things are never guaranteed in a Hurley novel—but paramount to being a less shitty version of humanity than the average. Zan, an amnesiac warrior who awakens with nothing but a memory of love and death, must go against everything she’s been told she stands for, plunging into the heart of an alien world with only the surety that dying later is better than dying now.

Hurley’s prose is not poetic or flowing, but full of sharp lines and jagged edges that draw blood as easily as they evoke an image. She doesn’t shy away from the horror of human and biological physicality, highlighting the ways in which we usually abject suffering and violence. Birth, injury, death, rebirth, nothing is without pain, without blood, or without fear. It is only in the small moments, when Zan is forced to live within the worlds she has discovered, that something as small as friendship or hope can be kindled.

The Stars Are Legion is not a hopeful novel; it is not a redemption story or a problem in any way solved. It is, simply, a human story. It tells the lives of those for whom happiness is a momentary cessation, or even weakening, of suffering, rather than a neutral state. It is a necessary story though, and deeply satisfying for the universality of experience it represents.