Short stories I’ve liked recently

Elizabeth Bear, Erase, Erase, Erase (F&SF)

M. E. Bronstein, Elegy of a Lanthornist (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Deborah Coates, Girls Who Never Stood a Chance (F&SF)

Ruthanna Emrys, Cassandra Draws the Four of Cups (Strange Horizons

Amanda Hollander, Madness Afoot (F&SF)

Jon Mayo, A House With a Home (Anathema)

Aimee Picchi, Search History for Elspeth Adair, Age 11 (Daily Science Fiction)

Rachel Swirsky & P.H. Lee, Compassionate Simulation (Uncanny)

Greg van Eekhout, Big Box (Uncanny)

Nghi Vo, Boiled Bones and Black Eggs (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Chilling Effect, by Valerie Valdes

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a Twitter buddy.

Eva Innocente and her crew may not be rich, but at least they’re honest–mostly honest–welllll, more honest than Eva’s family. So when Eva’s even-more-honest sister is kidnapped and threatened by a galactic crime syndicate called The Fridge, Eva has to save her–even if some of the decisions she makes along the way are not technically what would be known as wise or sensible or OH MY GOD EVA WHAT ARE YOU DOING. There are spaceship maneuvers, low-gravity cats, brain parasites, human-alien relations…in more senses of the word than one…fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love…actually I’m not remembering the fencing very well. But this is in fact a kissing book, and also there are true friends who stick with the heroine.

Also she expresses herself in emphatic Spanish from time to time, so if that’s a thing you need–and for some of you it definitely is a personal positive, I know–and the rest of you can pick up what you need to from context, trust me. No, you can. Suck it up, buttercups, you can do Klingon, the Spanish is great.

Here’s my caveat, though, having read it but also seen the marketing and some other reviews: there is a purple upbeat Julie Dillon cover, and the first chapter features the cats, and the word “fun” is getting used a lot for this book in discussions I’ve heard. How much you parse it as a pure fun adventure is likely to depend on how you read a book where one of the main engines of plot is (and this happens very early, so I don’t feel like it’s a major spoiler) the threat of sexual violence against the heroine. Because there is a very persistent sexual violence threat against the heroine. It is, in fact, one of two or three central things that drives the plot. If you don’t find that fun or relaxing–and I don’t–you might still find this book interesting and well done for the things it is doing–and I did–but your “fluffy fun yay!” quotient is going to vary considerably. One of the things it is not doing is providing a place where people who find the threat of sexual violence stressful can relax and read about space battles and cats and aliens and spaceships. Not every book has to do that, but be forewarned that this one is not. Well-written, yes; fluffy, no.

(I’ve also seen some assumptions that this must be YA based on the cover and–let’s be real here–the fact that the author is a woman of color. Don’t do that. This is adult space opera, go read it as adult space opera. Or not, if you were looking for YA! But be clear that Valerie never once claimed this was YA, not even a little. Know what you’re getting.)

Books read, early September

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. This is a charming novella of extrasolar planetary exploration. The crew works well together while having clear and distinct personalities, the planets are very different and spark different human psychological reactions, it’s all very classic SF while at the same time being very contemporary…there is hardly anything that is for everybody, but among SF fans I should think this will come pretty close.

Gavin Chappell, trans., The Saga of Half and Half’s Champions and The Saga of Ragnar Shaggy-Breeches and the Yarn of Ragnar’s Sons. Kindle. Two more legendary sagas, full of random mythical beasts and great weirdness. I live-tweeted one of them, because the depths of weirdness were inspiring. Hypothetically I am reading legendary sagas as preparation for a project I might be doing (read: will be doing, but when, who knows), but in reality let’s all admit that I just love them a lot. Also, as I clarified on Twitter, the first one is the saga of Half’s champions, and also of Half himself, not the saga of the champions of a thing you can put in your coffee. Oh, phrasing and punctuation.

Chen Qiufan, Waste Tide. There are certain kinds of books that get translated first, I am noticing, because I tend to read a lot in translation. Maybe this is unfair of me. I enjoyed Waste Tide for what it is, but…I also notice that in the wave of Chinese SF that is getting translated first, the stuff that is fairly traditionally structured and extremely male-focused to the point of being somewhat sexist is getting translated first. So this is interesting in its ideas about waste disposal and intercultural assumptions both inside and outside China, and also there is fridging and minimal use of women’s perspectives, and it is basically exactly what you’d expect would get translated early. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have interesting points, just…I’ll be glad when there’s more variety of what’s written in Chinese SF available in English.

Amanda Downum, Still So Strange. This is a collection of Amanda’s short mostly-urban dark fantasy, and I had been missing her work, and now here’s a bunch of it all at once. Yessss.

Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten, A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals. This is a beautiful compendium of extinct animals, each with a description and a painting. Some of them are heartbreaking, and it’s hard to predict which.

Sarah Gailey, Magic for Liars. If you’ve been missing books that center a non-romantic relationship, this one is all about, all about sisters. There is noir detective work around a magic school, and either of those things may push some of your buttons, but for me it was the sister relationship that centered the book’s appeal.

Theodora Goss, Snow White Learns Witchcraft. This is substantially fairy tale retellings, but for me the poems were the best part, crystallizations in a few pages of fairy tale extensions and extenuations.

Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Discussed elsewhere.

Jaime Lee Moyer, Brightfall. Discussed elsewhere.

Malka Older, State Tectonics. The conclusion to a science fiction series about microdemocracies in a high-information society. Basically I would not recommend reading it without the first two, but as a series conclusion I found it thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Sarah Pinsker, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea. This is a beautiful and varied collection. Highly recommended. Spans length, genre, theme, mood. Yay.

Sherwood Smith, Inda. Reread. I think what stuck out to me on this reread was how much this book was a study in leadership in its different modalities, how to inculcate leadership in people who didn’t have it naturally, how to use it for your own ends, all sorts of themes and variations around education toward leadership. I should probably restrain myself from just plowing through the rest of the series.

Pauline Stafford, Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. This is a fascinating look at England over the period of the Norman Conquest with an eye to the commonality of culture more than its disruption. Extremely useful if you’re doing a thing.

Jane Yolen, A Plague of Unicorns. This is one of those children’s books where the adults will have seen the twist a million times, but the crucial difference is in how it’s handled–in this case not just deftly but kindly, deeply kindly. And also with lots of apples and cider.

Present Writers: Candas Jane Dorsey

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, and Diane Duane.

My first exposure to Candas Jane Dorsey’s work was the singular Black Wine, which did more with themes of servitude and slavery than the vast majority of science fiction prior to its publication. From there I went on to A Paradigm of Earth, the kind of near-future SF that was present-SF by the time I read it, one where aliens were trying to figure out humans and gender, and friends, couldn’t we really use some confused aliens going “wait but what but wait” on this one because it’s not like we’ve got a good fix on it ourselves, and poking at it with an alien is not a bad plan at all, nor is it in the book in question.

Most lately, though, and the one that made me think of writing a Present Writers post about Dorsey, was Ice and Other Stories. Because it is such a far-ranging collection in tone and mood and time and genre. It is doing so many things, it is reaching for so many things and then actually achieving them, that it was a sudden reminder: oh! Oh yes, she’s been doing this a minute! She’s gotten quite good at this! (And that, if you recall, is what this series is for.)

But when I looked up her bio, it turns out that Dorsey, like so many of the writers in this series, had done so much more than what I’d already realized. Television and stage scripts, arts journalism and arts advocacy…it makes me want to send her a fruit basket and a comfy place to sit down for a moment. But that’s what these posts are for: to say, we see you, well done, keep doing it, here is your internet fruit basket for continuing to do the thing.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

Review copy provided by the publisher.

For a long time you couldn’t get a portal fantasy for love nor money, most particularly not for money, as I’m pretty sure the fanfic ones were out there for love. But for several years, portal fantasies were out of fashion for adults. They seem to have come back in the last few years, but in a self-aware, self-examining iteration.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is one instantiation of that. It is full of portals–the title is no exaggeration–but almost all the action takes place in this world, or a version of it. January Scaller has spent her entire childhood puzzling over various mysteries of her existence–when her father will make one of his brief returns from his assorted travels, for example, or what happened with the mysterious and magical door she found in Tennessee as a child, what the coin she picked up beyond it meant. The other people she meets are her guardian’s house are varied in age, race, expertise, but none of them seems ready to answer her questions.

And then as January comes closer to coming of age, everything seems to happen all at once. Her guardian tells her that her father is dead, that she must adjust to a new role in the world–and all of the things that she has hoped and known about her guardian shift out from under her. The world opens up new possibilities, many of them terrifying–many of them worlds themselves. And her own power and control are simultaneously beyond what she dreamed and woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

So it’s a good thing she’s made some loyal friends along the way.

Brightfall, by Jaime Lee Moyer

Review copy provided by the author, who is a long-time friend.

I was obsessed with Arthurian legends in my early adolescence, as I think a lot of kids that age are and especially a lot of kids that age in that period were. I also read Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood, and somewhere along the line it occurred to me to wonder why there weren’t more Robin Hood novels. On the surface there was a strong similarity with Arthurian stories: both British, both featuring nearly infinitely expandable bands of buddies and sidekicks and character actors, both romantic and action-packed. But the shelves were packed with the one, nearly empty of the other. Why?

One of the theories I formulated was that the Arthur story has a narrative arc, whereas the Robin Hood story’s arc, when it has one, is a deus ex machina: King Richard returns and all is well through no particular action on the characters’ part. It’s not even ripe to be a picaresque because nobody really goes anywhere. It’s full of episode without direction. In order to have an actual novel, I speculated, you’d have to add a lot to the basic Robin Hood story.

Brightfall is basically exhibit A for this theory. This is a Robin Hood novel, no mistake, but Jaime brought so much to the table. Witchcraft! The Fair Folk! A dragon! Entirely new characters completely separate from the extensive original cast! Plot that extends in time–that, in fact, starts–far after the glory days of the Merry Men, that gives Maid Marian her own home and priorities and life–a life that can be disrupted by nefarious plots from another realm.

Also Robin Hood is a complete butt in this book.

Seriously, though. A. Complete. Butt. But it’s not one of those books where the author doesn’t recognize it; a good third of the dialog is approximately:  Someone: Why are you such a butt, Robin Hood? RH: …I dunwanna talk about it. Is he not a butt in the end? Well, that’s for you to find out for yourself. Marian gets an earned happy ending, I’ll promise you that, but with whom and how and when is for you to find out.

Books read, late August

Wilfrid Blunt, Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist. I hate Wilfrid Blunt and wish he was still alive to give the cut direct to. He doesn’t really care about Linnaeus’s students and under-researchers, which…neglects a major component in his success. But he also just had a major hate on for Sara-Lisa Linnaeus and took random swipes at her for completely unjust reasons. Oh gosh, sorry you didn’t find Sara-Lisa to be as cultured as you’d like, Wilfrid, too bad she was literally not allowed to study anything. So tedious. So many places where he wasted time sneering at Sara-Lisa when he could have been talking about failed attempts to grow tea in Sweden. Only get this book if you are a truly dedicated Linnaeus completist.

Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Sphinx’s Secret. The second in its series, featuring kids with varied skills and magical backgrounds solving problems and mysteries. If friendship and teamwork are elements of MG fantasy you like, this series delivers those along with sphinxes and time travel and monkeys going berserk and sentient elevators. Just plain fun.

Alan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead. The latest Flavia de Luce mystery. Do not start here, there is a lot of assumption that you know the characters and care about them, but really, 12-year-old girl chemist in post-War Britain, great fun for a cozyish mystery read, very fast to zip through.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 22. Kindle. I really need to learn to let the installments of a serial pile up, but whenever I’m traveling I read what’s come around since last I was traveling, and this was only one chapter, and…more! More adventures! More!

Greg Brick, Minnesota Caves: History and Lore. This is exactly what it says on the tin. All the Minnesota caves, including some fictional ones, and what they’ve been used for, so far as Brick has been able to figure out. There is history of cheesemaking, the mushroom industry, brewing. There is tourism, there are structural uncertainties. It’s a slim volume, but it covers a lot. The prose is not necessarily sparkling, but if you want this for the contents, it sure does what it does thoroughly. (I do want this for the contents, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Gavin Chappell, trans. The Saga of Arrow-Odd. Kindle. This is the first listed of several legendary sagas I’m going to be reading. And I mean “legendary saga” here as a technical term, as distinct from family sagas and king sagas, and buckle in, because these are a trip and a half. I am researching a thing, and if that means that I have to read about abrasive Vikings who suddenly run into mythical beasts who were nowhere foreshadowed in the text, so be it. That will be my fate. (Dang, legendary sagas feel random.)

C.S.E. Cooney, Desdemona and the Deep. This is a delightful romp through mining labor relations, faerieland, self-knowledge, and friendship. It packs a lot into every single page. There is also couture. I think you know from that if you want this. You probably do.

Candas Jane Dorsey, Ice and Other Stories. This is a very large range of stories and types of story, with a lot of fairly icy science fiction as its core. There’s a high prairie range to it that made me glad I read it when I had just been to Alberta. It’s the sort of collection that pulls a career into focus.

Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw, eds., A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War. This is totally a tell that I’ve been in a Canadian museum shop in the last month, because really, you can’t get things like this in the US–I mean, probably you can special-order them, this is the future we live in, but how would you know it was out there to do. Anyway: Glassford and Shaw and the authors they’ve assembled are careful and thoughtful about what range of girls and women they manage to cover and what range they do not and why, where more study is needed, and it’s very interesting and exactly the sort of thing I’ve been wanting to know for thirty years and more now, thanks, L.M. Montgomery. (Why “and Newfoundland,” say the non-Canadians? Newfoundland was a separate entity from the rest of what we now consider Canada until 1949, the more you know!)

Tessa Gratton, Strange Grace. This is a horror-fantasy or dark-fantasy with a village that sacrifices one of its boys, and how you feel about it may depend on how much you’re willing to sit through some gender essentialism and social toxicity to get to the utter deconstruction of the gender essentialism and social toxicity. For me, having enjoyed other books of Gratton’s, there was a level of trust there–I knew she was not going to go somewhere dreadful at the end. It may still be too much for you, you may still crawl out of your skin before she gets there, because it’s borderline in spots, lots of people accepting a pretty bad status quo and having to be shaken out of it. That may be just what you need right now, that may be the last thing you need right now, depending on whether you find it cathartic or too close to the bone.

Melissa Harrison, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather. Very short, very much what it says on the tin. Four different locations throughout England, lyrical, lovely.

Rokuro Inui, Automatic Eve. Discussed elsewhere.

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs. Kindle. This is a chatty short novel of small town Maine life early in the twentieth century. Some of the interactions between women characters particularly ring true to my experience of family life even though their details are not the specific details of either setting or time frame–the dialog and characterization are note-perfect. One of the major characters is an herbalist, and I find the entire thing charming.

Barbara Krasnoff, The History of Soul 2065. This is a mosaic novel of two intertwined Jewish families, their ghosts, and their loved ones of various ethnicities/religions. Barbara has a particularly sharp ear for dialog, which is such a pleasure to read, making the ghosts warm and human and in places all too poignant.

Adam Morris, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation. This is a history of people claiming to be God or the voice of God in America. It gets more depressing to read the closer to the present it gets, the less it can be an academic exercise and the more it’s immediate. It’s worth knowing about, and I feel that Morris is very careful about being skeptical yet respectful–that is, respecting the humanity of everyone in the book. If you’re going to read about this topic, this seems like a good choice to me. But oof.

Mary Oliver, The Leaf and the Cloud. I really don’t like John Ruskin, like, not quite on the level of Wilfrid Blunt (still mad about you, Wilfrid Blunt!), but I would be very chilly about the process of not giving him the cut direct. However, and unlike Wilfrid Blunt, he did lead to a great many lovely things, and one of them is this book-length poem in several parts, about the universe, the natural world, and, er…everything. It’s Mary Oliver having a good wander, a bit like it was reading a new Madeleine L’Engle book as a child but all poetry. It’s lovely.

Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, translators, Gautrek’s Saga and Other Medieval Tales. This is more weird legendary saga stuff. Fewer sea monsters than Arrow-Odd but continuing in the randomness vein.

Robert William Sandford, Cold Matters: The State and Fate of Canada’s Fresh Water. This reads like an extended conference talk, which is fine by me. The gallery owner who sold it to me said, “Oh, he’s very smart,” and now that I’ve read it I realize this was meant as a warning, but it’s a topic that’s worth being smart on. Lots of stuff that we simply do not know yet about drainage and erosion in regions where that water was formerly frozen in glaciers. Lots to investigate and, uh, worry about. But it’s worth the worry. I was thinking this was going to be mostly limnology, but really not, mostly it’s frozen or recently-frozen water which is a different study completely.

Iona Datt Sharma, Not For Use in Navigation. Kindle. Iona is an agentsib of mine, and their work feels…neighborly. To me. If you like my short fiction, I think you might well like Iona’s. It just feels companionable. Of course they are coming from somewhere completely different from me, so what you want in my work and what you find in theirs may be quite different. I just was startled at how much I could notice the fellow-feeling across the miles and years and gender and…everything. So that was awesome.

Lilah Sturges and Polterink, Lumberjanes: The Infernal Compass. Brief and friend-focused and fun and basically everything I am looking for in Lumberjanes. I am not the target audience for this particular message, but hoo boy do I know people who are.

Sara Teasdale, Helen of Troy and Other Poems. Kindle. The persona poems in this volume fascinate me, the particular empathies Teasdale finds with historical and legendary women and the way she chooses which women to shape empathies with. The rest is more typical Teasdale, but those felt very worthwhile as a separate category.

Ngozi Ukazu, Check, Please! Book 1: #Hockey. I’d read this as an online comic, but I really like physical books better (really) (really really), and I didn’t even mean to sit down and read this, I just…got lured. It is a college hockey and baking comic. At the end of this volume there is some romance. It is so much fun. It is so hockey, but I think in a way that draws non-hockey people in rather than shuts them out. I will be so glad to have volume 2.

Adriaan Verhulst, The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe. This, it turns out, means Belgium. It is always startling to me to be exposed to regions that had the Romans and thus Christianity but particularly the regions that were not at all central to that, that had bishops but not, like, consistent secular governance. Like Belgium. And it was interesting to watch cities not entirely map to Roman settlements or bishoprics or…well. Go Belgium, do your thing.

Jane Yolen, The Emerald Circus. This is a collection of Jane’s stories, mostly the newer ones. If you’ve read a lot of her short work, there will be some old familiar favorites in here, but also probably some new ones even the avid followers haven’t run into before unless you’ve been getting every anthology she’s got one in–which, with Jane, takes quite some doing; it’s difficult enough to keep up on the books she’s authored by herself.

Catfish Lullaby, by A.C. Wise

Review copy provided by Broken Eye Books. Also the author has become a convention buddy of mine.

This novella is an incredibly fast read for something this creepy and dark. I started reading it in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment, and…it’s not the pulse-pounding raise-your-blood-pressure kind of dark fantasy. It’s the creeping-chill kind of dark fantasy, the kind that won’t show up on any monitors but will stick with you.

So. This is very Southern Gothic kind of dark fantasy, which the title is not trying to keep from you in the slightest. The title is very, very accurate in that regard. As with a lot of the best in Southern lit, there’s a lot of time and generations, there’s complicated history that people only know parts of at any given time, and there’s…dark and swampy stuff going on. Literally this time. Literal dark and swampy creepy stuff that the protagonist has to unravel if the people he cares about have any chance of making it through in one piece.

Gotta tell you the odds do not look great at several points in this, and it’s dark fantasy, so I’m not going to tell you what the survival rate is. Just…lots of bayou stuff and lots of family history, and some people who make their own families caring about each other and sticking by each other through some unimaginably dark times. Good stuff, though very far outside my usual.