SFF Books of 2017 I’m Excited to Read

Bear with me, these may not all be from this year, but I’m still excited for them!  I’m really bad with deadlines/pub dates.

  1. The Ship Beyond Time, by Heidi Heilig

The characters of The Girl From Everywhere really stuck with me, and I loved the way she plotted this time travel fantasy (I’m kind of a sucker for time travel), so I will definitely be checking out this sequel.  Plus the cover art!

2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.

32758901

This novel has gotten awesome reviews from SFF fans I trust.  Plus it’s got robots, in space, with snark.  What’s not to love?

3. Provenance, by Ann Leckie.

25353286

I finally acquired Ancillary Sword, which I mean to read soonish, and I loved Ancillary Justice for more reasons I can express in this teeny space, so anything she writes is on my auto-TBR list.

4. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly.

29939270

This novel makes me think fantasy noir roaring twenties.  It came out early in the year, but crops up on my Twitter feed from time to time, and every time I’m reminded I need to read this novel!

5. The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear

33517549

Bear is one of my favorite authors, in any genre, and this novel is set in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, only taking place in a different kingdom.  Her superior skill with narrative and character make Bear both versatile and readable, as she’s published in multiple sub-genres, both in short and long fiction formats.

 

So that’s just a taste of what I’m looking forward to reading from this year.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty  more to add to this list before the year’s out!

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.

Short Fiction I’ve Loved Jan-Jun 2017

Note, most of the stories on this list were not from 2017; most of them are circa- 2015.  I’m making an effort to expand my short fiction reading, so hopefully I’ll be able to make this a monthly post, rather than semi-annually.

“Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” by Amelia Beamer, as read by the author on Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 2

“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar as read by the author on Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 4

“Translatio Corporis” by Kat Howard, as read by Amal El-Mohtar on Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 3A

“Planet Lion” by Catherynne M. Valente, as read by Heath Miller on Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 4A or in the anthology The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

“In Libres” by Elizabeth Bear, as read by C.S.E. Cooney on Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 4B

“Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands” by Seanan McGuire, as read by Amal El-Mohtar on Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 10A

“Rat Catcher’s Yellows”  by Charlie Jane Anders in the anthology The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

Filling in the Gaps

Like everyone who reads genre fiction, I have particular subgenres and themes that I really enjoy and read more deeply than others.  For me, it’s steampunk, space opera, epic fantasy, and fantasy rooted in fairy tales or folklore in some way.  Which is not to say I’m an expert in these areas, but it does mean I’m more familiar with the tropes and more likely to invest myself in the stories being told.

Within the last year I read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, and while I had a difficult time getting through it because I had issues with the narrative style and lack of whole women characters, I was able to put myself more into the story than, say, with a paranormal fantasy because I knew what to expect going in, I knew where many of the heavy narrative beats were going to appear, and I was receptive to the concept of a larger-than-life hero or set of heroes who somehow make a large difference in their world against huge odds.

On the other side of the coin, I tried a new writer whom I was interested in for multiple reasons, who wrote paranormal space opera.  Basically, it was a werewolf story, that happened to take place on space ships.  I am not interested in paranormal fantasy.  Vampires, werewolves, any of that just really doesn’t do anything for me.  So while I was reading this space opera, I kept thinking, for someone who loves paranormal, this would probably be a great story, because it had all of the clan relations, shifter angst, and and suspension of disbelief that I imagine is generally present in these types of stories, despite the fact that I felt the narration and plot jumps didn’t really hold up to close inspection.  Because I didn’t have the familiarity with this subgenre, I had a really hard time moving beyond what I saw as holes.

It is one of the beauties of sff as a genre that it is so multifaceted that all people can find their niche, or set of niches, within it, in which to let their imagination run free, in which to sate their appetite for story, and in which to really live and breath.  It’s like going back home, where even if things aren’t perfect, we feel so comfortable that we can fill in the gaps with nostalgia and positive thinking to make it the best place on earth.  This is also why it’s difficult to really be objective about fiction, or art of any kind.  We all have our strengths, and they don’t always overlap.

 

It Takes Two: Magical Women with Manners

This installment of It Takes Two deals with two novels that fall into the fantasy of manners subgenre in a very unique way.  Both Shades of Milk and Honey (SoMaH), by Mary Robinette Kowal, and The Beautiful Ones (BO), forthcoming from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, feature women main characters who practice particular forms of transformative magic within their worlds.  They also feature main characters who align with the “ugly duckling” or “cinderella” trope which is popular in fantasy stories that include romantic relationships as a main plot driver.

Let’s start with the setting.  Though BO is set in an alternate world, it resembles 18th to 19th-century Europe, particularly France, in important ways, including the implied technological timeline, patriarchal values, style of dress, and emphasis on the fashionable “tonne.”  Correspondingly, SoMaH is set in an alternate England, and closely models the 18th-century world of Jane Austen’s novels.  Even though these novels are not set in the same world, they feel as though with a quick train ride, Jane could be in Loisail to visit Nina, and they could talk about art and bugs and societies that don’t value the magical abilities of women in the same way they do with men.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps most satisfying similarity between the two novels: women using magical abilities as an important plot element.  Not only are both of the main characters magically talented–Jane uses glamour, while Nina is telekinetic–but we have love interests for each main character who are also magic users and whose abilities give them much more social and economic currency than is available to the women.  Jane is lucky enough that modest use of glamour brings her a certain amount of attraction, because glamour falls under the “category of skills and talents that all gentlewomen should have,” however Jane has a markedly higher skill level with glamour and so it becomes a liability at times.  Nina’s telekinetic ability has made her a social pariah since she was a child, and a large motivator for the plot comes in her family’s sending her to the big city of Loisail for the Grand Season in an attempt to marry her off to someone who has never heard of the Witch of Oldhouse, her family’s country estate in Montipourret.  People see her ability, and willingness to use it, as a marker of her childishness, untrustworthiness, and lack of ladylike manners.

To add insult to injury, Jane’s love interest is a man who travels as an artist, using his ability with glamour to successfully support himself and gain fame, while Nina’s love interest, Hector Auvray, is a world-famous performer with his telekinetic ability, who has made enough money in ten years of performing to set himself up comfortably for the rest of his life.  It is not surprising that people with the same talent would be drawn to each other, as friends and lovers, because in straight-laced societies it is nice to have someone who understands the restrictions under which one lives, however what does it mean that magical women end up with men whose practical societal advantages are compounded by their ability to freely and productively use their magical ability, where the women are not?

It is largely a convention of romantic plot building that makes this kind of resolution possible.  Something built into the story makes them an unlikely pair from a conventional standpoint–Jane is a “spinster” at 28 years old, while Nina is an unmannered country girl who is more interested in collecting bugs than collecting suitors and fancy dresses–which calls for a “happy” conclusion involving the social outcasts finding common ground and respect in a society based on having the right connections and conforming to superficial norms.  In both stories, the magical abilities of the characters has the potential to disrupt the mannerly societies in which these characters are mired, and it is almost as if the young women’s choosing to acquiesce to the love plot and form traditional romantic relationships is necessary for the ability of the story to end, in essence for the magic to let go of the characters and allow for the more palatable, more acceptable focus of marriage.  To contrast, Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor doesn’t need the happy resolution of a traditional love plot to find its end.  Instead, it is the main character’s ability to make sense of the rigid society into which he has been thrust, and come to terms with its demands upon himself that wraps up the novel.

Perhaps it’s a function of the strict economies upon which these stories are based, with social capital being so closely tied to personal wealth due to its requirement for appearances, and the potential for magic to circumvent this structure in some way, or maybe it’s something else that drives the resolution.  Either way, both these stories have a unique chemistry that is highly satisfying on a number of levels.

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.