The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Reviewing the second book in a series is sometimes the most difficult kind of blog post.  The Raven Stratagem, book two in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of War series, is a lot of what one might expect after book one, and yet also plenty more.  The draw is the system of calendrical warfare and control  utilized by the hexarchate in order to maintain the system that has kept its leaders in power for centuries, but what keeps one reading is the intense focus on personal motivation and the overpowering humanity of the characters, even those who veer far outside the scale of normal social behavior and even sanity.

This novel picks up where Ninefox Gambit left off, with Kel Cheris a lifeless husk controlled by the terrifying revenant Shuos Jedao after the hexarchate attempted to take Jedao out following his successful quelling of rebellion at the Fortress of Scattered Needles.  Jedao knows he will always be too dangerous to remain alive, and yet he is determined to follow through with the mission of eliminating all threats to the hexarchate, and not just the original rebellion.  Meanwhile, at Shuos headquarters–at all hexarch headquarters, leaders are scrambling not only to figure out what Jedao is up to, but to maintain their own grasps of power and outmaneuver each other.

The driving motivations for most of the characters profiled in this novel, though we see the action from their points of view, are difficult to parse.  It is a given in the hexarchate that anyone with any bit of power has something to hide, and Lee sketches each character’s life as if it is a straight line leading up to the very moment of challenge or conflict they face in the novel, and yet every person’s life is far from a straight, intelligible progression of cause and effect.  Like the storms of war that plague the hexarchate, every person’s life is bound up with the cause and effect actions of others, and few can see to the roots of the struggle.

Cheris was originally chosen for her task of carrying Jedao because of her ability to think outside the Kel box she chose for herself, Brezan rises to astonishing heights for being a crashhawk–one who can resist Kel formation instinct, essentially military brainwashing–and Khiruev, whose fleet is appropriated by Jedao in Cheris’ body, can only succeed at failure.  Lee has taken all the complicated and frustrating aspects of humanity and painted them across the universe, greed, hatred, love, loyalty all fighting it out among the swarms and formations and exotic weapons and phantom terrain.

It’s a beautiful, fascinating, utterly confusing novel, and I look forward to book three with great anticipation.


The Poison Eater, by Shanna Germain

In an isolated city in the middle of a vast desert, Talia waits, scraping together the vestiges of a normal life, friends, loved ones, knowing every day that it could be her last. When the moon comes, Talia must take the poison, and hope she survives.  But survival, sometimes, is the worst thing a person could experience. Especially when no one else does.

Having escaped the mire of the Blackweave, Talia has come to Enthait seeking a new life, or simply to die in another place, one not so full of memories.  What she didn’t expect was to find life, not simply a place to live, and people about whom she cared more than her own life.  It is a familiar story with a new ring to it, thanks to the steady hand of Germain, who imagines a fantastic city full of half-forgotten lore and amazing techanical creations, created by humans and creatures alike who have made Enthait their home.

Germain’s realization of Enthait is vivid, to the point that the reader can taste the dust in the air and murmurs of a living city like bees buzzing around the hive, and her ability to twist a story round history and half-dreamed memories builds the kind of novel that is tantalizingly missing just the right pieces to pull the reader in until the end.  The Poison Eater is written in third person limited, clinging close to Talia’s thoughts and feelings in a way that compliments the bleak and beautiful aspects of Enthait and Talia’s new life.

Readers who enjoy their fantasy and science fiction together need look no further than the mech-enhanced cast of characters in this alt-world fantasy story.  Like the work of Kameron Hurley, this novel is bleak, full of tough-as-nails women willing to do what they must to survive, yet tells a universal story that many fantasy fans will relate to.  Anyone who likes fantasy that hides far more than it tells will be intrigued by the mythology of Enthait and the mysterious and terrible Vordcha from which Talia is running.

On SF and Genrefication

You read that right.  It doesn’t say genre fiction, it says genrefication.  Kinda like when Hugo Gernsback started publishing fiction that had a large scientific or technology component and called it Scientifiction.  Dumb name, right?  He probably felt terribly witty when he first came up with it, kinda like whoever first said steampunk, or cyberpunk, or maybe like Hero Protagonist crashing through suburban yards, thinking he was going to beat the pizza delivery countdown only to go splashing straight into someone’s in-ground pool.  It happens.

I have, probably to my ultimate emotional detriment, been doing some reading into the “history” of Science Fiction (SF).  I finally know how the Hugo Award got its name (or at least from whom).  I’ve read all about how witty Brian Aldiss is, and all those other white dudes–American and British–who liked to trash other writers, and SF itself for a while, for not conforming to one tradition or another.  I read literary critics who traced various periods of SF and how it conformed to/participated in/influenced one SF period or other.  And what I can say, without knowing the entire history, without having read all of–or indeed, really, any–of the Golden Age SF space operas and genre dialectics disguised as fiction, what has really defined SF is simple: the belief of one or another faction in their right to define or to be emblematic of a genre.

Various sources place Mary Shelley as the beginning of SF, but while many point to how Frankenstein included scientific speculation or aspects of gothic horror which led to explorations of the fantastic and so on and so on, few bother to talk about the fact that Shelley wanted to do something new.  She was constrained by her life and wanted to tell a story that was different.  Of course she drew on the Gothic, the Romantic, and other influences.  She was living at the height of Romanticism.  And the idea that 1960′s space opera was not part of the same Romantic continuum is just blind stupidity, if you ask me.  How would we ever have got to Kvothe’s love affair with himself if not for the incredible self-regard of those writing in the 1970′s, dreaming of all the futures that would contain only themselves?  It’s pretty much War of the Worlds all over again.  The British colonizing themselves.  Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov fellating themselves.  Same thing.

Of course, these men were products of their generations, the worlds in which they lived.  Heinlein is known for having included non-white characters in his stories–even going so far as to put great effort into making them likable and then revealing that they were black or latino–but would he ever have considered making space in his genre for a black or latino writer to create their own stories?  Hugo thought he was doing great things for a genre, and is recognized for that, but plenty of critics assert that Hugo Gernsback ruined whatever chance American SF had for becoming a fully developed literary genre.  That is, had Hugo not created Scientifiction, the SF revolution that has been taking place over the past 5-10 years (and which is, coincidentally, represented by the Hugo Awards crisis of every year from now to Earth-Death) might have happened in the 1920′s. 

And I suppose there are those who will ask, hands to their breasts in expectation of imminent fainting, that if SF’s development in the early 20th century hadn’t happened, if maybe Heinlein et al hadn’t had such time and space to speculate, we might never have waterbeds or cell phones or geostationary satellites or Grok.  Well, it’s true we might not have Grok.  But the rest?  Who’s to say a woman might not have invented those things?  Who’s to say others who did not have the chance to write in a world full of Hugo and Heinlein, might not have created all the worlds we now know, and more, had they been given their own space?

Because this is the crux.  Those who only want to see space opera SF written by and for white guys, only believe that white guys can come up with all those ideas.  That allowing someone else who isn’t a white guy to write their (and our) stories, would be allowing the possibility for sub-par production to sneak in.  People who only want white guy SF already believe everyone else is an alien.  No wonder it was so easy for so many guys to write Africans and minorities as aliens (looking at you Resnick).  However much Heinlein fought for racial equality, if he only ever saw himself as qualified to write minorities, he’s just a gatekeeper, not a visionary.  

SF is a million worlds and billions and billions of words and is infinitely more rich when everyone has a chance to participate.  What really defines SF is not trends and influences and tropes, it is the efforts of a few to draw a line around their playground and keep everyone out.  And this great club to which we all belong in our own ways–as readers, writers, critics, media consumers–is so much weaker for it.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is downright confusing
to read for the first hundred or so pages.  And that’s entirely the point.  In a universe-spanning tale of action and intrigue, Leckie
confronts—and forces the reader to confront—the idea of knowledge, particularly
self-knowledge, and how we can truly know anything, particularly ourselves.

as she refers to herself, is a person trekking across the universe on a
personal quest.  She is also a
ship, the Justice of Toren, in the
imperial fleet, watching everything her crew does.  She is the mind not only of the ship itself, but also of a
thousand bodies who assist her officers in their duties, maintain order, and
above all serve Anaander Mianaai.           

straight over the how of creating
real artificial intelligence and giving it emotion to boot, Leckie takes up the
ethics of the act.  In putting a
ship’s ancillaries—those human bodies who have been refitted to and connected
to the greater mind of the ship—in direct opposition to the ship itself, its
officers, ad the people of annexed worlds, Leckie explores how self-knowledge
is truly created and understood. 
Do we as contemporary humans understand ourselves wholly from a
subjective viewpoint, or only as separate and opposite from those around us, be
they  either sentient or
non-sentient?  She obliquely, and
then directly through one of the characters Breq encounters, asks whether
creating intelligence also creates a soul, and a separate will.

a story in which half the characters are different iterations of the same
person, Leckie does an outstanding job at characterization, imbuing her main
characters with that something that
makes a character unique and alive. 
Other than Breq, who is the point-of-view, Leckie doesn’t attempt to get
into the heads of her characters, letting their actions and interactions tell
their stories.  As in life, what is
assumed, what is said about someone, often tells just as much as the truth.

who enjoy modern space opera and military science fiction will enjoy Leckie’s
vision of a far-future inter-galactic empire, particularly those who enjoy the
vision and knowledge that Alistair Reynolds puts into his novels but want a
little more introspection in terms of character and motivation.  Those who love the exacting
anthropology of Ursula K. Le Guin or Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction will love
the long step into a new future that Leckie takes with her work.  Readers who enjoy explorations of self,
such as those created by Toni Morrison will surely find much to love in the
more cerebral aspects of Leckie’s work.

All Award Winners (SFF) via @WWEnd

Many of these awards are at least partially based on popular vote.  Unfortunately, this site doesn’t have a schedule of awards, but does have a lot of great information about past winners, as well as a neat BookTrackr app thingy that lets you track and rate the books you’ve read (not just award-winners).  Give it a look!

All Award Winners (SFF) via @WWEnd