Horizon, by Fran Wilde

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also the author is a personal friend and all-around nifty person.

This is the culmination of the trilogy that started with Updraft. If you’re the sort of person who needs to know that something has a definite-and-for-sure ending before you buy that thing: here you are, here is the ending, it is a really-truly ending that ends. (I really want to encourage people not to do that, because it’s a good way to make sure people don’t get to have their endings published–especially people like Fran who have given you nice volume endings in addition to the larger series ending. But I know that such people exist, so! Here is the information you were looking for: ending!)

I don’t recommend starting with Horizon. This is clearly a culmination, and there are only two books before it to give you the plot and character arcs Fran is weaving together here; it’s not like you have to read twelve bugcrushers to get to what she’s doing here. Kirit and Nat and their friends and relations–and grudging allies, and adversaries–are back and struggling for survival–trying to figure out, from page one, what shape their survival can even take.

For that reason, it’s hard to review Horizon in very concrete terms, because there’s so much that it’s doing that depends on the previous books. It’s exciting from the first page, it’s all engineering and all social and all heart, all at once. Fran’s weaving threads and perspectives together in ways that she didn’t in previous books–rather than resting on previous successes, she’s doing this book in a new way, and it works. It’s the way this book would have to work, but I love to see that in a first series, rather than copying the structure of a first book that’s had as much success as Updraft has, I love to see an author following the story and doing what it needs even if the structure isn’t the same. The previous volumes didn’t pull punches, and neither does Horizon, but it does that in its own way.

The ending is satisfying without being overly tidy, without being one-size-fits-all for characters who have spent this whole trilogy coming in different sizes. And…I really appreciate the way people with common goals don’t always trust each other, don’t always like each other–and are sometimes very grumpy at the compromises they have to make with each other. The world is like that; the world of fiction too often finds it difficult to be both satisfying and realistic, but I think Horizon manages both. With lots of astonishing creatures and feats of derring-do in between.

Please consider using our link to buy Horizon from Amazon.

Stories. Liked by me. Recentlyish. Like ya do.

You know how this goes by now: I make no pretense of comprehensive reading, even of the magazines for which I’ve linked a story. This is some stuff I’ve read and liked. If there’s something you’ve enjoyed lately, please feel free–encouraged, in fact–to link to it in the comments. This is just a roundup of stories (and maybe a poem) I thought well of. Yay! If you thought well of some stories (and maybe a poem or two) since last time I did this, by all means please share.

Feeding Mr. Whiskers, by Dawn Bonanno (Fireside)

Dire Wolf, by Michael J. DeLuca (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Man-Size, by Gwynne Garfinkle (The Sockdolager)

The Last Cheng Beng Gift, by Jaymee Goh (Lightspeed)

We Came Here to Make Friends, by Martha Hood (The Sockdolager)

If a Bird Can Be a Ghost, by Allison Mills (Apex)

And Sneer of Cold Command, by Premee Mohamed (The Sockdolager)

Plain Jane Learns to Knit Wormholes, by Wendy Nikel (Flash Fiction Online)

Birth, Place, by Brandon O’Brien (Uncanny)

Stories We Carry on the Back of the Night, by Jasper Sanchez (Mithila Review)

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny)

You Can Adapt to Anything, by John Wiswell (Daily Science Fiction)

A Small Charred Face, by Kazuki Sakuraba

Review copy provided by Haikasoru Books.

This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time. The Bamboo, the creatures in it, are described as vampires, but they’re really more grass monsters who eat human carrion. They’re described as scary, but I’m not particularly scared by them so much as baffled by their strange, secretive, hierarchical laws. (For me, this is a feature, not a bug.) And on basically every other page, I’m left saying, “What? What?” (Again, a feature, not a bug.)

There are three sections varying widely in time, with different protagonists. Even within the sections, the timeline swings wildly, spending pages on a conversation translated lovingly to attempt to show what level of formality the Japanese conversation used (oh, a losing battle) and then going over forty years in a single line. I would say that it’s full of plot twists, but that sounds very linear, very straightforward, as though things are following one upon another with logic–it is full of plot twists the way the dream you are trying to remember from two nights ago is full of plot twists. “And then you what? Why? Okay.”

And then the grass monster reached the end of their life and exploded into flowers. What? Okay. No, different section, they ate someone who they thought was abusing a prostitute. What? Okay. If that’s not okay with you, you should probably move along, because that’s what there is here, a whole lot of angst and monsters and randomness, and some of you are saying, gosh, no thanks, and some of you are saying, sign me on up.

Please consider using our link to buy A Small Charred Face from Amazon.

Books read, early September

Alex Alice, Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869. Discussed elsewhere.

Hassan Blasim, ed., Iraq+100 Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 7. Kindle. Plotty, moving forward, full of dust storms and schoolgirl antics, as one would expect for this project.

Marie Brennan, Maps to Nowhere. Discussed elsewhere.

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Kindle. And this is what happened to my early September. Middlemarch is surprising; it is delightful. It is one of the longest classics of English literature, and it is a joy to read. I kept thinking that I would want to leaven it with bits of something else, go off and take a break and read something in the middle of it. I didn’t. (I mean, I always have a book of short pieces going. But other than that.) While I was reading Middlemarch, I kept wanting to read Middlemarch, and when I was done reading it I wanted more of it. The only thing of its size that’s at all comparable in my attachment to it is John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun, and that does not have the passionate following Middlemarch has–wherever I mentioned it I found that friends and strangers were ready to share my delight in this wandering intense chatty behemoth of a book. I’m discussing it with a friend who’s reading it with me. I’m not sure I have a lot to add for the general audience except to say, it’s funny, it’s intense, it’s gigantic emotionally as well as literally, it makes me want to read more George Eliot, it makes me want to read its giant self all over again. It is in some ways exactly what you would expect and in other ways nothing like what you’d expect. It is thoroughly itself. And oh, I love her, I love George Eliot so very much. I’m glad I read such a quotable thing when I was past the age of needing to strip-mine books for epigraphs. I can do that later. I’m glad I could just relax in and read this first time.

Masha Gessen, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. I enjoyed another of Gessen’s books and picked this up because the library had it, more or less on a whim. And it gave me a perspective on modern Russia that nothing else has, particularly on its criminal justice system. What the prison system is doing there, what trials are like, what sorts of things are prioritized, what and who counts, what and who does not. Enraging, illuminating. There are some things Gessen just takes for granted you will know about feminist art theory and punk, but I think it may still be interesting if you don’t? but even better if you do. Also, if you have a very strong high culture/low culture divide, read this book and have that nonsense knocked out of you. Not that I have an opinion about that.

Ben Hatke, Mighty Jack and the Goblin King. Discussed elsewhere.

Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. This is very much in the popular history category: short chapters, many things explained on a fairly straightforward level. Not a lot of delving deep into the obscure corners. However, Inskeep does a fairly good job of switching back and forth between the lens of the European settlers turned recent Americans and the lens of the cultures of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and especially Cherokee people in the region he was discussing. One of the things that this particularly underscored for me is how quickly the European/American settlers viewed the land as traditionally theirs in that part of the south: the beginning of the Cherokee Trail of Tears was twenty-three years before the US Civil War. Even the earliest of the resettlements was only thirty years before. So in some parts of the Deep South, there were indeed plantations that had been going for generations–but in large, large swaths of it, the land they were fighting so hard for was land they had just taken from its previous owners basically five minutes ago. References to traditional way of life in that context are basically like talking about GameBoys and other hand-held gaming devices as our traditional way of life: they are bullshit. I think the way we are taught this period of history in American schooling encourages us not to think of that. I will want to read much deeper works on Andrew Jackson’s presidency. In this case I will say: Inskeep is not trying to paint him as a great guy or not a racist…and I still think he ends up going too easy on him. But it’s a good starter work for this period, I think.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Language of the Night. Reread. The last time I read this was before I was keeping a book log, which means also before I was selling short stories regularly. I was a lot less prone to argue with assertions about fantasy not needing to compromise then. (Oh nonsense, of course it does.) But one of the things that makes Ursula LeGuin a great writer is that she argues with her past self, too. She evolves. She evolves in the course of this collection. And I think she’d be far happier with people thinking and arguing than uncritically absorbing anyway.

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch. So…I didn’t mean to go straight from Middlemarch to a book about it, but the other thing I had from the library, I bounced off, and…I wasn’t ready to be done. This is Mead’s memoir entangled with a bit of biography of Eliot. There are places where Mead is bafflingly obtuse (some areas of gender politics and the writing of sexuality, notably, but also the difference between a character who is fully human and a character who is generally sympathetic), but in general it is short and rattles along satisfyingly and tells me things I want to know about George Eliot without telling me too many things I actively didn’t want to know about Rebecca Mead.

A. Merc Rustad, So You Want to Be a Robot. This is a solid and heart-wrenching collection. It’s impossible to pick one true favorite because there are so many good choices. Definitely highly recommended, Merc hits it out of the park here. And they’re just getting started.

Gerald Vizenor, Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles. This is when Vizenor was just getting started, and gosh I’m glad I didn’t get started with his early work, because…why, oh why, did so many men of the seventies–particularly men who wanted to claim they were ecologically minded without doing much about it–pick the same direction for their demonstrations of their own sexual daring? Well, Vizenor grew out of it. But it’s a one of those. The person who wrote the afterword was sure that objections to it would be because people thought Indians couldn’t be like that! and no, it’s that it’s trite, it’s exactly the kind of trite sexual objectification of women–especially Indian women–that you’d expect from “seventies dude trying to be sexually shocking.” He got better. I’m glad.

Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The cover describes this as, “The first anthology of science fiction to have emerged from Iraq,” but “emerged” seems insufficient to describe the work the editors did to make this project happen. Without an established science fiction community, editors definitely can’t just call for submissions and put their feet up. From what’s in the introduction, Hassan Blasim, with the help of Ra Page, approached writers from many regions of Iraq, generations, and writing styles, coaxing and cajoling them to approach the idea of Iraq a hundred years after invasion, doing with it whatever they saw fit. That’s not just emergence. That’s beyond even encouragement.

My favorite part of the stories themselves is the focus on Iraq as a future setting: this square or that city taking pride of place, this saying or that legend being the focus. I love fiction in translation for that reason: for the shift in perspective. I want more of it. And in order to get more of it, I’m willing to deal with stories that are not what I would ordinarily like best: stories with more sexual threat, stories that retread similar ground to previous work in other languages/cultures, stories that don’t seem to be able to find any thread of hope in the entire world. Which is not this entire volume, but it is some of this volume. If what I really want is works in translation from all over the world–and it is–I need to let the people actually from those places tell me what stories they want to tell, not tell them that their stories don’t fit my preconceptions of what they should want to tell. So while in some ways this was a bumpy reading experience for me, with some delights and some difficulties, I’m very glad to have the opportunity for the bumps.

Please consider using our link to buy Iraq+100 from Amazon.

Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869, by Alex Alice

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

When a person who mainly reads prose expands into reviewing graphic novels meant for children, suddenly the form factor of the book starts mattering a great deal more than it ever did before. This book is a large, slender hardbound, the sort of book I don’t see regularly outside picture books. Its production values are glossy and very high–but it’s not a picture book, it’s a watercolor graphic novel translated from the French.

The paintings are lovely. The layout is sometimes quite busy for my eye, having extra rows and columns of illustration compared to a “standard” size of graphic novel.

Seraphin’s mother is an explorer of the aether, a scientist in her hot air balloon. When she disappears on a dangerous flight, Seraphin and his father try to balance their own explorations with a desire to keep each other safe–and to find out what happened to her. They wind up in Bavaria, at the court of King Ludwig, whose swan-shaped aether-ship is promisingly bizarre.

The “book one” in the title is not merely an indication that this is a series: the story is not complete in this volume. What adventures will our young etc. and his daring friends etc. etc. I think comics readers are pretty used to that sort of thing, and there is plenty of adventure, excitement, swashing, and buckling. It’s a fairly old-fashioned sort of adventure–maximum of one girl character at a time, apparently, and the gratuitous startled-in-the-bath scene–but airships and 19th century science jokes do have their charm; I would definitely read further to see how this comes out.

Please consider using our link to buy Castle in the Stars Book One: The Space Race of 1869 from Amazon.

Blue Ribbon

Today’s reprint has particularly good timing! Lightspeed is running a story of mine that has never been available online before, Blue Ribbon. (It previously appeared in Analog and in Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction.) Why is this good timing?

Well, for non-Americans, it’s a story to enjoy on a Tuesday, okay, sure. For most Americans, it’ll be something to ease you back into your work week after the Labor Day holiday weekend. Who could argue with that kind of timing? I hope you enjoy it!

But for those of you who are missing your State Fair now that it’s over. For those of you who were 4H kids in particular. Yes, this is my story of 4H kids in space. It’s not the perky tale of “and then I won the prize, hurray!” that that thumbnail might suggest, but I’m pretty proud of it all the same. And the day after the State Fair seems like just the right time for it to be more broadly available for the first time.

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, by Ben Hatke

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Ben Hatke is a favorite of mine, and I was excited to get this sequel to last year’s Mighty Jack. I darted through it–it’s definitely a page-turner, following the cliffhanger ending of the first volume into strange new spaces full of goblins and giants and creatures who live in pipes. Jack and his friend Lilly are out to save his mute little sister Maddy from who knows what fate–although we soon find out, and it’s pretty gruesome.

Along the way they get separated. Jack has to whack things with his sword, bravely and boldly. Lilly has to actually figure things out, stick up for herself, and also whack things with her sword. But Jack’s name is on the cover, so even the dragon tells Jack he has saved the day when Lilly does some A+ prime grade day-saving.

Also Maddy speaks a crucial word at a crucial moment. I feel like having a mute character who did cool stuff was entirely fine, and having a character who speaks for plot convenience when the author feels it’s RULLY IMPORTANT is really less fine. Maddy goes from opinionated and nonverbal to rescue-bait. I know that Jack is going to be protective of his little sister, but I am considerably less thrilled with how much the disabled girl (intersectionally here; both elements) has basically one moment of agency in a plot where she’s the object.

It’s not the worst example of this stuff out there. It just could have been better. There’s room for more here, and I hope Hatke takes the opportunities to do more with these characters, particularly with the girls, rather than taking the path of least resistance.

Please consider using our link to buy Mighty Jack and the Goblin King from Amazon.

Maps to Nowhere, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author, who is also a personal friend. Also the title is a Fire and Hemlock reference, which, come on, how can that not bias a reviewer.

If you’ve read any of Brennan’s work before, there are through-lines to it: anthropology, history/quasi-history, and adventure fantasy. These are clearly visible in this short story collection, although the adventure fantasy is the smallest strain in this bunch. I think it’s in some ways hardest to write something that feels like adventure fantasy and still has plot at this length. In any case, if you haven’t read Brennan’s work before, that’s the place where this collection is least representative of the spread of what she’s doing.

Other than that, there is quite a lot of what Brennan does. There are bits with faeries and bits with odd artifacts, stories of self-discovery and stories of community relationship. There are funny bits and deathly serious bits. There’s a lot of range here.

What there is not–and this was important for me the day I read this book, and it may well be important for you–is a lot of gratuitously depressing or cruel material. The characters are not all sweetness and light–some of them are basically no sweetness and light–but what this collection is unlikely to do is leave you numbed and helpless in the face of an uncaring world. I feel like when I ask for things that are not staggeringly depressing, people think I want books in which the teddy bears have their picnic, and this is not one of those. This is just…balanced. Sometimes we can use some balance.

Please consider using our link to buy Maps to Nowhere from Amazon.