Zero Sum Game, by S. L. Huang

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Math is nearly everything to Cas. It’s her solace when her mind is too loud, her means of making a living (albeit somewhat unconventionally), her identity, her core. The closer she can come to articulating axioms for individual people, the more comfortable she is dealing with them.

Which is good, because comfortable is in pretty short supply in this book otherwise.

Cas’s life is violently efficient retrieval services. She associates with people who have even more violence in their worlds–most notably Rio, a psychopath kept on the rails with a strong moral code external to his sense of self. But the situation she falls into at the beginning of Zero Sum Game is an even more dangerous one than she’s used to–not just in its violence but in its dangers to her own brain.

This is a fast-paced thriller with some clever twists and an uneasy resolution and a few math jokes along the way.

Please consider using our link to buy Zero Sum Game from Amazon.

Books read, early October

Wow, this was a notable fortnight for bouncing off books. I discarded fifteen books unfinished, so…yikes. Here’s what I did read.

K Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger’s Daughter and The Phoenix Empress. (The latter discussed elsewhere.) This is a big fat fantasy series of leisurely structure. If you’ve been missing the kind of fantasy where we get to see the protags grow up and learn to be the people they’re going to need to be, this is definitely that kind. The Tiger’s Daughter is a coming of age story for a couple of women (couple in both senses), one of whom is Empress and the other of whom is…extraordinary in other ways. That would be a major spoiler.

James Baldwin, The Amen Corner. A play about righteousness and families and who can learn and who can’t. Did not take long to read, much longer to think about.

Kelly Barnhill, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories. Not only is this fantasy collection a lot of fun, there are some stories in it that speak my language down to the potlucks. It is very, very Minnesotan in spots, in ways that can be delightful whether you’re a native, a transplant, or an outside observer.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds. Fiyah Issue 8. Kindle. Martha Darr’s “Octopus” was the real standout of this issue for me, staying with me for days after I finished reading it.

N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate. This is the second volume in a justly multiply awarded fantasy series. The craft of it is just staggeringly good, and the ideas keep poking at me. It is, however, extremely grim, so if you hear “geology fantasy” and think “yaaaaay!”…that’s accurate, it’s just not complete. I’m very much looking forward to the concluding volume…but not right away.

T. Kingfisher, Clockwork Boys. A novella that is very clearly the beginning of a series, full of the kind of interesting creatures you would expect of Kingfisher (who is, in another life, Ursula Vernon). Like many such novellas, the pacing is a little weird, but the entire thing is charming enough to forgive it.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning. This book is structured like a thriller–short chapters, short sentences, fast pace–but has a lot more depth of worldbuilding and characterization than your average thriller. I often want more well-done fantasy set in the future, and this is that–with a future that’s more than superficial shine. Definitely looking forward to the next.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trotta, eds., Uncanny Issue 24. Kindle. I am in this. I don’t review things I’m in. But it’s there if you’re interested.

Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. This was more contemporary than I was hoping for. It was still informative in spots, and enraging/satisfying, but if you read a lot of women on Twitter, you may well already know this stuff–you may well have been there for it. It goes beyond Twitter and the #MeToo movement, but not as far beyond as I anticipated. Also it was emotionally grueling.

Martha Wells, Exit Strategy. The fourth and last Murderbot novella–there will be more Murderbot, but in novel form! This was a satisfying conclusion to this portion of the arc, lots of fun, return of characters whose return was implied by the structure of the series, hooray. Delightful, recommended–but don’t read this one first, read all of them. Read all of them! Yay all of them!

The Phoenix Empress, by K Arsenault Rivera

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the second volume in its series, and you really should not start here. It’s structurally interesting in that it’s like the opposite of a romance novel: the central couple has already gotten together, and the question is can they stay that way, what will happen within their established relationship.

It’s the kind of setting and scope where “what will happen within their relationship” includes possibilities like one of them becoming a rampaging undead monster, or mismanaging an empire into ruin, or…there’s a lot of scope, is what I’m saying here. Continents and lifetimes, not just of the main characters but of thousands upon thousands of bystanders.

The setting is Asian inspired, with different regions not quite standing in for the Mongol steppes, China, Japan, and other real-world analogues. The feeling of vastness that I get from reading nonfiction about China through time is not there. This is a much more contained space to play in. On the other hand, the central couple I’m talking about in this plot is a lesbian couple, so some kinds of space are more expansive than would be traditional–and this is the kind of relationship story where people are actually living with the realities of their decisions, not a coming out story or a “first flush of love and that’s it” story. This is the story of the complexities of an ongoing relationship. Complete with zombie-equivalents and apparent gods and family dynamics. If you don’t like big fat fantasies at all, you probably won’t like this one, but if you’ve been waiting for sprawling epics that happen to center two women–plus a large cast of supporting characters who are not all or even mostly men–you’ve come to the right place.

Please consider using our link to buy The Phoenix Empress from Amazon. Or start at the beginning with The Tiger’s Daughter.

This Will Not Happen to You (and Others)

New story! This Will Not Happen to You is out in Uncanny‘s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue. I’m very happy to be ripping the fabric of spacetime with these fine people.

So happy, in fact, that I also have an interview and an essay, Malfunctioning Space Stations, in the same issue. The latter is a reprint from the Kickstarter for this issue, so it may be familiar to some of you. Still, I’m glad to see it out there again.

Books read, late September

Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood. This is an urban fantasy with very strong metafictional roots, fairy tales and meta-fairy tales, and also it’s a YA with the emotional life of its teenage protagonist done well and suited to her circumstances. I stumbled on this one without hearing anything about it, and I’m glad I did.

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks at Last. It feels to me like Birdsall has spent this entire series trying to tell the sort of children’s family narrative that was common for kids’ books a couple generations ago, but without the sexism. This is what happens when you write a late-series book where The Oldest Sisters Are Now Getting Married! but you’re trying to undermine some cultural tropes about that. It isn’t entirely successful on that front, but it’s a fascinating thing to watch through that lens. And there are sweet entertaining family moments as in the rest of the series. And lots of dogs.

Ruthanna Emrys, Deep Roots. I read this in beta and liked it then; it has only gotten better. It continues Ruthanna’s series that is treating Lovecraft as an unreliable narrator about things like the racial worth of various persons, and taking on those narratives from an entirely different worldview. Still filled with very alien aliens, things rugose and squamous, but…differently so, and better. Yay.

Patricia Fara, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War. This was fascinating and infuriating in about the proportions you’d expect, but the crucial bit is that it was the subject matter, not the author, infuriating me. Lots of work here about what kind of science is valued and valorized, what kind of contributions to history matter.

John M. Ford, Heat of Fusion and Other Stories. Reread. Some of these stories just hit so hard, no matter how many times I read them. I fall in love with “Chromatic Aberration” and “Erase/Record/Play” over and over and over again. I also see the places where Mike was leaving us messages we would need after he was gone, and that’s…hard and wonderful.

Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. This was wonderful. Hilarious in parts, harrowing in parts–I remember now why I read tree books when I need to relax and not just nature books, because good heavens have humans killed a lot of beavers over the years, and often for terrible reasons. But there is a lot to be hopeful about in this book, and also there are funny stories, and I’m so glad I read it. (Beavers and their contributions to watershed health: wow, wow, wow.)

Kate Heartfield, Alice Payne Arrives. This is a time travel book with some quirks (do not expect historical accuracy to be a focus–things are diverging a lot), but it definitely doesn’t assume that people are the same through all sorts of historical changes and that the same people are always fated to be important. Which I appreciated. It’s also the school of Tor.com novella that is telling the beginning of a story rather than a complete story, so–more story for those who are interested, not a complete arc for sticklers for that.

Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. A fairly early (1980s) volume about the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, among books on that subject matter; I know this subject matter has been covered since, and parts of this book are…very much of their time. However, the author is sympathetic…as long as you’re not one of the people she feels doesn’t deserve sympathy, specifically the men who were jackasses to the women in this book…and compulsively readable. If you already want to kick John Ruskin in the shins, buckle in.

V. E. Schwab, Vengeful. Discussed elsewhere.

Dana Simpson, Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm and Unicorn of Many Hats. I caught up on this series and giggled my way through it. I don’t actually like the long plot arc stuff as well as the shorter plot arc stuff for this comic strip, but that’s okay, even the longer plot arc in Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm was still fun and had good moments. It was a time for Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, that’s what I have to say about that.

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water. This was less science fictional than Life on Mars but equally compelling poetry, definitely will be worth keeping up on her new work.

Vengeful, by V.E. Schwab

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I think the proper genre category for this book (and the other in its series, Vicious) is super-anti-hero story. The superpowers regularly at play in this plot do not in any way render their bearers heroic; quite the opposite. Here we see humanity in all its vicious, vengeful, self-centered “glory.” There is some loyalty, but mostly there is raw ambition, fear, attempts at control.

The superpowers of this universe come from the events surrounding a person’s death–provided that it doesn’t stick. These near-deaths provide a range of powers not quite the same as the standard narratives–some bulletproof heroes, certainly, but the limitation of having to relate powers to death is an interesting one, and well suited for the dark kind of story Schwab is telling.

Every element of this book feels like it would adjust so well to film, and people love superhero stories and also revenge stories, so I hope they do film it. It’s full of beautiful dresses and dark places, elegant dinners and grueling fight scenes and terrifying pseudo-medical experiments. It is very, very noir, so if you want a book with kindness and hope, this is not that book. But if you want to dig your teeth into the throat of vengeance, well, Schwab’s got that elegantly covered.

Please consider using our link to buy Vengeful from Amazon.

Watch me scintillate!

In ten days I leave for Montreal, for the new convention Scintillation. Here’s where you can find me there if you’re a member! (Memberships have been sold out for the year, but I’m almost certainly going next year too.)

Friday 20:00 Time Travel and Teens
Why do these things go together so well?
Jo Walton (M), Kari Maaren, Marissa Lingen, Suzanna Hersey

Saturday 10:00 Good and Evil
Ada Palmer has offered the thought experiment of a universe where the morally worst act ever was that somebody bought a flavour of ice cream they knew their friend didn’t like. Conversely, the Vikings ask the theodicy question backwards: why is there good? Let’s consider the space of good and evil and what interesting things we can do with them.
Yves Meynard (M), Ada Palmer, Maria Farrell, Jo Walton, Marissa Lingen

Saturday 11:00 Reading from selected works. With Tim Boerger.

Saturday 14:00 Why you should be reading John M. Ford
World Fantasy award winning author of The Dragon Waiting, Growing Up Weightless, and many other stories and poems and gaming material.
Marissa Lingen (M), Emmet O’Brien, Andrew Plotkin, Lila Garrott, Sarah Emrys

Sunday 17:00 Imagining the Future
How can we write science fiction when it’s so difficult to imagine the future?
Yves Meynard, Dennis Clark, Ada Palmer, Maria Farrell, Marissa Lingen (M), Jim Cambias


Books read, early September

Jens Andersen, Astrid Lindgren: The Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking. I found this, the first English-language biography of Lindgren, really interesting, and I can’t wait until someone writes a good one of her in English. Andersen is enthusiastic but disorganized. This book could have used at least one more editorial pass for coherence and clarity. I understand not wanting to do everything in a biography in strict chronological order, but the way Andersen hopped around…well. This still gives context to Pippi, and to those of Lindgren’s works that were formative to me (The Brothers Lionheart and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter), and it’s not so bad that it’s not worth having if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Sue Burke, Semiosis. A mosaic novel about settling an alien planet with really alien life on it, learning to communicate with other species with very different priorities and assumptions than oneself. Learning to communicate with other generations of one’s own species with same. There are places where I feel things are glossed over (there is in particular a rape that is not handled very fully), but I am a sucker for alien SF so here we are.

Deborah R. Coen, Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale. This is substantially about the Habsburg Empire, how the idea of climate and its variability really got going there and how they handled it without some of the concepts that we now consider foundational. Definitely a different angle on early climate science, and a welcome one.

John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless and The Final Reflection. Rereads. I am on my second Mike Ford panel of the year at Scintillation just under three weeks from now, so this is my not-at-all-burdensome research reading for that. I remain amazed at how I find more in each of Mike’s books every time I read them. The balance of perspectives in Growing Up Weightless in particular astonishes me. Both highly recommended.

Tryntje Helfferich, The Iron Princess: Amalia Elisabeth and the Thirty Years War. A study of the princess/landgravine of Hesse-Cassel, neglected in 20th/21st century histories of the Thirty Years War, through a combination of sexism and people having grave difficulties tracking the German principalities of this period. (I am also a people.) She was stubborn and focused and manipulative in the best way for her job, and this was a really interesting read…but if you don’t already know a few things about the Thirty Years War, I think you’ll be a bit lost, so maybe start somewhere else.

Liu Cixin, Ball Lightning. Discussed elsewhere.

Premee Mohamed, The Apple-Tree Throne. Kindle. A postwar ghost story with strong friendships in its core. WWI inspiration is my wheelhouse (think Witchmark, but not the same kind of speculative element), and this made me very happy with its emotional grasp of that period.

Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. There are a lot of places where I think Morton is wrong or oversimplifying about specific details, often in a Western Europe-centric direction. However, this is still doing some fascinating things with concepts larger than we can wrap our heads around, that we have to deal with anyway, and it’s worth the quibbles.

Christopher Rowe, Telling the Map. This is a weird and beautiful connection, giving exactly the sense of dislocation people tout for speculative fiction but rarely deliver. The last two stories in particular were amazing, but frankly I recommend the whole thing.

Vivian Shaw, Dreadful Company. What a kind book. You can see in the details of how the characters treat the monstrous and the mistaken how much kindness is the core of this entire series. That’s rare enough in any sub-genre, but in an urban fantasy laden with the creatures of horror lore, it’s astonishing.

Dana Simpson, Razzle Dazzle Unicorn and Unicorn Crossing. I fell behind on the Phoebe & Her Unicorn series and am now catching up. When I read the first one, I saw the comparisons to Calvin & Hobbes and could see all the places P&HU is not doing the same things. Now I mostly see how much it makes me giggle, how delightful it is to read about this quirky little girl, her parents, her friends, especially her best friend Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, the unicorn. I’m definitely going to get the next two collections from the library right away.

Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars. This poetry collection was intense in directions right next to my wheelhouse, but still very much worth my time to think long thinky thoughts about. Especially “Solstice.” I’m going to return to “Solstice” several times, I think.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: The Moon Is Up. This is the second Lumberjanes MG novel, and it is just as exuberantly friendly and zany as the comic. This one feels a bit more…rote?…than the series at its best, but I still got some good laughs out of it and find it wholesome and fun.

Carrie Vaughn, The Wild Dead. This is the sequel to Bannerless, and I really love what it’s doing with worldbuilding and characterization and post-apocalyptic fiction that has actually taken the post- part to heart and understands humanity’s ability to make do, to move on, to figure things out. This series is so very much my jam.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Carolyn Nowak, et al, Lumberjanes: On a Roll. This is the roller derby/cryptid issue of Lumberjanes. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, you probably don’t want to read it. But strong kid friendships + cryptids, come on.

Drew Weing, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic. Reread. I hadn’t picked this back up since it came out, but I’m on a panel about teens and time travel and another panel about good and evil, and…really, this was an essential reread. Jane is doing so much about the Holocaust and family and memory in so few pages. It’s beautiful and heart-shattering. Also…I have a strong fondness for books where great-aunts are important. That’s a part of my life I don’t see enough, and this could easily have gotten ground down into “why can’t it be her grandma” etc. And it wasn’t, it was particular and loving about this relationship.

Speak up for those who speak up

So it’s been a wild ride in the last day–I had a tweet go viral to a level I’ve never had before, and on a topic where I got vitriol as well as support and randomness. (Oh, the internet.) My tweet was about remembering that Christine Blasey Ford is a person, an actual human being with a life outside all this. And to that I want to add:

You know people in your field or in your region who have spoken up about rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. You do. We all do. One of the things I would really like to ask you to do for them is talk about them a) on the internet and b) in ways that are not about the person who hurt them or the way that person hurt them.

When you do a search on the name of someone who has reported these crimes, quite often the first hits will be about the crimes. So the person will be linked with their accuser’s name, sometimes the place or event where they were assaulted (/raped/harassed), and the key words “rape,” “harassment,” “assault,” etc. It’s good to talk about these things, to try to stop them from happening again. It’s good to bring them to the light. But it’s really not cool when someone has to choose between keeping them secret and being defined by the event they reported. Being defined by someone else’s bad choices about them.

This is one of those cases where the silence of bystanders is not enough. For someone at the national level, you will probably not be able to do anything about the associations with them. Christine Blasey Ford will be linked to Brett Kavanaugh now, period; that’s what you’ll find when you look for her. But in smaller communities, more self-contained fields, there’s absolutely still a chance to fight back against defining victims solely as victims. There’s still a chance to paint a fuller picture. And we should.

Because our culture is really, truly broken on the subject of status and hierarchy, some people thought I was saying that Christine Blasey Ford matters as a person only because she’s a professor and a psychologist. No. We all matter as people. We all have individual details that matter. If someone has what the outside world looks upon as achievements, great! Name them! But getting our own heads worked back around to remember that people matter as people is important, too. So you can talk about Person A as a family member, a friend, a volunteer, a person who has their particular hobbies. It is worth saying “A makes pickles” or “B sings in the choir,” as well as “C is an accomplished physician,” “D writes beautiful poetry.” All of it. All of it counts. All of it matters. Being able to be seen as multifaceted, whole human beings who make choices matters even when those choices aren’t traditionally high-status.

So make a point of mentioning it. “I read E’s latest book, and it was so great!” So that E will be associated with “book” and possibly even the book title, not just with “harassment,” “assault,” the assailant’s name. And in those posts I do not mention the harassment, the assault, the rape. So that there can be some chance of not every single thing E accomplishes being colored by it.

Fighting this stuff directly matters. But the long-term support we can have for each other matters also. Let’s back each other up when we are victims, yes, definitely–but also let’s help people not be defined as that, but as the positive, worthwhile things they do instead.

The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall, by Drew Weing

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the sequel to the original The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, and in some ways it’s more a chunk carved off the same large story. The episodic resolution here is pretty incomplete. The plot moves forward, but not to any kind of conclusion. It begins with Chapter 4 and ends with an epilogue, though why it’s structured as an epilogue rather than Chapter 6 when there isn’t any doubt that there will have to be more story is not entirely clear to me.

The premise of these comics is that the titular kid is a go-between for humans in monster society, someone who understands that monsters are persecuted and hunted, someone who can try to talk the scarier monsters out of eating the humans. The comic is told from the perspective of her somewhat feckless kid reporter sidekick, Charles, who is learning all about his new home of Echo City and all about monsters. Charles is an extremely useful exposition device.

The empathy of this series brings the fun a little deeper, and Margo’s family situation is further explained in this volume in a very sympathetic way. It’s probably not going to revolutionize your worldview about monsters or relationships between different groups of humans, but it’s a fun and fairly non-toxic time for the kids who are its target audience.