The Tuesday List: Time for a Change

This list is about regime change in sff.  Not rebels running around torching things, or dreaming of a better day, but fiction that actually deals with what happens when the ruling order forcibly changes.  It was a hard list to compile, because most people want aspirational stories, not hard truths, even authors, it seems.

  1. Crossroads (trilogy), by Kate Elliott

Elliott is one of the best world builders in fantasy, and Crossroads does  not disappoint.  These novels deal with not only the clash of worlds, but what it means when a foreign army marches into another nation and forcibly changes the way things are done, with only the brutal efficiency that can be managed by religious zeal and desperate fear.  And also there are giant eagles.

2. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

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In this case, the humans start out on top, until some computers achieve ascendancy and decide the humans are too dangerous to keep around.  This is the story of the survivors of the original blow out, and how they adapt to a world where every machine is a potential murderer.

3. Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2), by Ann Leckie

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In the fallout of Breq’s mission to kill Anaander Mianaai for her role in the destruction of Breq’s ship Justice of Toren, Breq must travel to a distant system where possible rebellion brews.  A sort of peace may now exist, but ripples of Mianaai’s duplicity are sparking all sorts of problems across Radch space and Breq must find the problems and quell them–in her own, not necessarily imperial, ways–before the empire falls apart.

4. The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

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Selene is doing her best to hold House Silverspires together after the mysterious disappearance of Morningstar, the most powerful of all the angels who fell from Heaven, but despite her best efforts, things are falling apart.  A series of mysterious deaths and magical failures make Silverspires ripe for plucking by the likes of House Hawthorn or even houses not controlled by Fallen.  This is the aftermath of regime change in one house, but the loss of Morningstar may mean the loss of ascendancy for all Fallen in Paris if the mystery is not solved.

5. Cloudbound(Bone Universe #2), by Fran Wilde

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In this second of a trilogy, Kirit and Nat must contend with the consequences of their actions from Updraft, in which they revealed how the Spire and its Singers have been hiding the truth of the city from its inhabitants.  Although these secrets may have provided some safety and kept order–important for a populace who lives in the sky and for whom any large-scale disruption to trade could prove disastrous–it may also have led to the imminent collapse of the city structure and understanding of the city’s history.  Kirit and Nat are not welcomed as heroes, but looked upon with suspicion, forced out of the society they’d hoped to save, existing on the edges of the city and down in the damp cloudbound layers from which citizens usually never returned.

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The Tuesday List: Tiny Steps

Today is the day!  We leave for our trip to Glasgow and Inverness, a trip we’ve been planning for over a year.  So in honor of our big trip, I’m making a list of stories featuring tiny steps with big effects.  This could be transformations, or parallels steps, or anything that seems small but has big consequences.  So here goes!

1. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

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This little novella published by Tor is a Lovecraftian retelling, in which the main character must figure out how to follow a young student at her school from their own world–with monsters of all sorts and a fixed number of star– into the real world of cars and cell phones and baristas.  And all she has to do is step through the right doorway.

2. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

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The true space age is upon us, but before we can blast off for Mars, we have to do the test run.  In a seventeen month long experiment Helen and her two crew partners will simulate every possible aspect of leaving the surface of the earth, making the journey, landing, staying for a few weeks, and then leaving to come back to earth.  In this fascinating thought experiment, Howrey creates real conditions for what three people who barely know each other would go through on the longest space journey humans have taken so far.  And all without leaving the dust of Idaho.

3. Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

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This novella isn’t about stepping through a doorway, or simulating a long journey, but about stepping into another being.  John Persons is a tentacled alien god-being who has assumed the body of an actual human, and is a private eye in seedy London, tasked with taking down the sinister step-father of a latchkey kid with a little too much savvy for a boy his age.  Chaos, of course, ensues.

4. The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig

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Nix is a scholar, a historian, a sailor… and a time traveler.  All she needs is a map, and she can go anywhere in the time it was created.  Swept up by her father’s quest to get back to her mother, when Nix was just a baby, she steps from one world into another, sometimes even into fantasies, with a change of wind and sail.

5. Kabu Kabu, by Nnedi Okorafor

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This book of short stories has the best prologue I’ve ever encountered for a collection.  A young woman, running late for the airport, takes the most unexpected cab to the airport, but instead of dropping her off at the terminal, it takes her directly to her destination–her family’s home in Nigeria where she’s expected for a wedding.  And then the reader is treated to a series of short stroies that represent some of the best of Okorafor’s writing, even among her novels.  These stories have presence, the characters stick with you, and they are both speculative and nostalgic in a way only someone who has really been there can manage.

The Tuesday List: Winter of our Discontent

Winter is here! Sort of.  Mostly.  Snow has hit the ground and stuck in the Northeast U.S., so I’m calling it.  Here, then, are a few books that are set in winter, or remind me of winter in some way.

And don’t worry, there’s no GRRMartin in sight.

  1. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

Though the Six Duchies get seasons just like (I suppose) mid-to-northern Europe does, it always seems to be winter when Fitz is running around, killing raiders and whatnot, so this series always makes me think of winter.  It’s a good read, too, for people who like pseudo-medieval-Europe and epic fantasy.

2. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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This novel begins on a snowy night at the beginning of winter in Toronto, when one man gasps his last on stage during a production of King Lear, and then civilization slowly collapses.  I remember well the vivid imagery of a young man pushing a shopping cart full of groceries through the slushy streets, hoping against hope to make it to his disabled brother’s high-rise apartment and somehow wait out the apocalypse.

3.  All the Windwracked Stars (Edda of Burdens book 1), by Elizabeth Bear

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This is the series I think of when I think of Norse mythology adaptations.  Ragnarok, snow and ice wrapped all around, and the Valkyries fighting for the light and their world.  Only one Valkyrie survives, along with a two-headed deer, the valraven, steed of the Valkyrie.  Millenia later, the fight takes new form in a world changed to almost unrecognizabilityfor Muire, the last Valkyrie.  But have others survived?  Where are the Gods of the north?  And what is she to do now?

4. Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

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This  novel doesn’t take place during winter (as far as I can remember), or maybe it’s bright spring when the sun is shining but there’s still a coldness to the air.  Or maybe it’s the bleakness of the characters, the chilling fact that Kelpie can see ghosts and can’t help it, can’t get away from them, even as they beg her to avenge their deaths.  Or it might be the feeling of chill dampness that comes from Kelpie’s brief and mournful memories of growing up in Frog Hollow, before she found work and places to stay away from the horrible gully.  Despite the chills this novels brings, or perhaps because of them, it’s a stellar read and a great story of two girls sticking together to fight the gangs that have turned their neighborhood into a war zone.

5. Cold Magic (Spiritwalker trilogy book 1), by Kate Elliott

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Like many quality fantasy novels, Cold Magic begins in the winter with Cat, bound to marry a cold mage, one who can not only harness the power of ice, but who strips the heat from rooms kills fires with his very presence.  He is coldly arrogant, Cat hates him on sight, but must stay with him to protect her family.  What seems like the start of a cliched romance turns into anything but.

2017 Faves: Fantasy Novels

Alright, I’m going to do a “best of” kind of post, though nearly everything I read could be included on a best of, as I tend to be pretty picky about what I read.  So I’ll break it down into a few categories, instead of just one big amalgam of reading.

Today it’s fantasy novels.  Here are some of my faves from 2017.  Remember, if you’re looking for awards recs, these are books I read in 2017, but I’ll include pub dates for stuff that’s from earlier.

  1. The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig (Feb 2016)

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2. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Aug 2015)

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3. The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang (Sept 2017)

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4. The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (Jan 2017)

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5. Horizon, by Fran Wilde (Sept 2017)

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An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard

Recently, I listened to the podcast version of Kat Howard’s story “The Green Knight’s Wife,” based on the early English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Reading An Unkindness of Magicians made put me in mind of that story.  I’m not sure what it means for a novel to be self-referential, but I think, through her short fiction, Howard has matured as a writer in a significant way since her debut novel Roses and Rot.

An Unkindness of Magicians  is the story of greed, betrayal, and the price of the impossible.  Played out through a magic-controlled contest called The Turning, it encompasses the events before and during a series of duels between magical Houses, the winner of which contest will reign as head of the Unseen World of magic based in contemporary New York City.  The Houses–Merlin, Dee, Prospero–evoke all those fantasy stories on which we as readers have grown up, but magic, in this world, is not the whimsical force of good or mischief one finds in Harry Potter, or even the esoteric alchemy of Dee and Flamel and Shakespeare’s most famous sorcerer.  Magic, in this world, cuts like a knife, and only those most willing to cut will survive.

Miranda Prospero has only recently begun putting her house in order since the death of her husband at the last turning; Laurent Beauchamps hopes to do well enough in the Turning to establish his own house; Ian Merlin switches sides for reasons only he knows.  Into the fray steps a woman of unknown power, an unknown herself to the Unseen World, and yet she is obviously very familiar with it.  Petty grievances will be exorcised, powerful magics unleashed, and beneath it all, trouble brews.  Magicians may hide themselves from the non-magical, but someone is watching, someone knows too much.  The question is, who will crack first.

Though  the novel takes place over a relatively short span of time, the narrative jumps around a lot, through multiple points of view, stopping only for important events.  There is no filler in this novel, which makes the plot feel even more razor sharp, colder, and unfeeling.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of feeling, only that they are left to the reader to find, rather than strung along metaphors of sentiment.  Howard’s prose is sparse but, like her short fiction, precise; it evokes exactly the image it means to and is, in that way, satisfying to read.  One knows, while reading this novel, that they are in the presence of an artist.

The denouement, though, leaves this reader somewhat bewildered.  This is a novel of pain, of what selfishness and self-regard reap, and yet at the end of it all one wonders if there should not, in the end, be at least some healing.  That the fate of the Unseen World is left in the hands of one who has suffered most at its beck is fitting, and yet does that person not deserve some amount of happiness?  I suppose it is in the hands of each reader to decide.

Birthday Books!

So my in-laws gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card for my birthday.  Not bad.  I prefer to buy indie, but I’m not going to complain about free books.  So here’s what I bought.

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien


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Between Two Thorns (Split Worlds 1), by Emma Newman

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City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

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The Tuesday List: Not So Medieval

Hurrah, it’s Tuesday again.  This week I’ve got some great SFF that’s alternative world without being based on the usual pseudo-medieval template that so many stories seem to rely on.  Take a look, and let me know what non-medieval fantasy you enjoy!

  1. The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

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The same could be said of The Fifth Season, the first in the Broken Earth series, as well, however The Obelisk Gate is where the world building really picks up, for me.  This series is a breath of fresh air, when it comes to imagining civilizations, using a form of proto-communism in which, when Season law is declared, every citizen of a community has a specific role, determined by their particular physical and intellectual traits, that is meant to help the community survive the deadly season caused by earthquakes and other tectonic miseries, which are so common on this unsteady continent called the Stillness.  Also the writing is, as always, amazing, and everyone needs to read this series.

2. The Bone Universe (series), by Fran Wilde

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Imagine a city in the sky, consisting of bone towers rising ever above the clouds, and people who move between the towers on wings made of silk.  Then imagine an ancient lore, passed down for generations in song, because the weight of books is dangerous and ephemeral.  Again, this is a story in which community is incredibly important, and is so interesting because of the conflicts that arise when tradition and change collide.

3. The Black Tides of Heaven (novella), by J.Y.  Yang

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Part of a duology, this novella imagines a world that, first of all, is reminiscent more of ancient Chinese or Southeast Asian civilizations and, second of all, is full of a magic called the Slack, which is used to perform many of the technological feats we take for granted today, but differently.  Also, it’s a world in which gender is both fluid and self-determined; people in the Tensorate choose their gender, when they want to, and then have it confirmed by society, rather than the other way around.  The characters and their motivations are compelling, a familiar story of children rebelling against a tyrant parent, but explored in new ways.

4. Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Though not explicitly stated, Binti comes from a tribal, semi-desert civilization which is reminiscent of some western African settings.  Of course, this is a future earth, and so it’s just as easy to imagine a post singularity future in which people of African descent are the dominant civilizations as it is people of North American or European descent.  That said, Binti comes from a world of space-farers, people who regularly travel across the galaxy and further for trade, education, and leisure.  Binti is leaving her homeland to go to Oomza University, an entire planet set up for education.  She deals with tribal beliefs that have to do with belonging and leaving, as well as the prejudices of outsiders, and then the added conflict of an alien species attempting to hijack her space ship.  It’s a great beginning to a novella trilogy and entirely refreshing in its world building and point of view.

5. Eternal Sky (trilogy), by Elizabeth Bear

I talk about Elizabeth Bear a fair amount; she’s one of my favorite writers.  This trilogy is both well-written and encompasses a world that, while having many of the same features as more familiar pseudo-medieval settings, is instead based on a Eurasian steppe/Middle East empire civilization.  It holds a particularly close place in my reading heart because it reminds me so much of the year I lived in Astana, Kazakhstan, surrounded by artwork that could practically have sprung from imagery in these novels.  It’s about a young man whose uncle attempts to wrest his birthright from him, and a princess-turned-wizard, who come together in unlikely circumstances to save the world.  Also there are horse, and a species of Cheetah people, and giant eagles.  Every novel needs giant eagles.

Maybe I’ll do a Tuesday List of giant eagle books next.

Happy reading!