Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. JemisinTitle: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

Yeine Darre is the daughter of a barbarian chieftain of the Darre people in the backwater continent of the High North. But she’s also the daughter of the sole child of Dekarta Arameri, the de facto ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Arameri family, from which her mother hailed, has ruled the world for over 2000 years, since the God War resulted in the death of Enefa, the Betrayer, and the triumph of Itempas, the Skyfather, over Nahadoth, the Nightlord.

Of course, that rule has been helped immeasurably by the fact that Itempas gave them control over the remaining gods and godlings he vanquished. It was unprecedented when Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, abdicated such power in favour of eloping with her father. Now, mere months after Kinneth’s death, Yeine has been summoned by Dekarta to the capital of Sky and been declared an heir to the throne. In a world where men and women control gods, Yeine learns that nothing – including herself – is what it seems.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately. Perhaps it’s the winter weather. Perhaps it’s been all the slush reading – which I love doing even if it takes up a lot of headspace. I don’t know. But after I finished The Troop last month, I just couldn’t stick with a book. I’d heard great things about The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, but didn’t read anything beyond the first 20 pages. Then, motivated by a recent piece on NPR by Amal el-Mohtar, I tried reading The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison, but I got only about 10% in before the weird pacing issues and sexual politics got to me.

So when I picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few days ago after it had been sitting on my shelf for over a year, it was a thunderbolt. Beautiful prose? Check. Interesting changes in point of view and non-chronological structure? Check. Lots of political machinations and Rubiks-cube-level plotting? Check. Goddamned amazing worldbuilding? Check, check, check. Transcendant, moving climax? Check. (And oh yeah – some pretty steamy love scenes. Although I don’t normally talk about that in my reviews, consider this book a definite check.)

I leafed through the first pages a few days ago to see whether it was speaking to me or not. But I didn’t start officially reading it until yesterday – and I finished it in less than 12 hours.

Let that sink in for a minute. After not having the mental focus to read anything longer than a short story in over a month, I read all 400+ pages in a single day. That’s how good this book is.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time, ever since I first heard about Jemisin through the Writing Excuses podcast. I was really interested in hearing about how she wanted to question fantasy tropes that reinforce a white male ideal, and this book succeeds in spades. From the critiques about colonialism, race, and power, to the true story behind this world’s religion, almost everything in this book forces readers to re-examine their expectations about fantasy worlds and protagonists. And aside from the concrete, intricate worldbuilding, the prose is absolutely lovely. It’s mythic and propulsive and the same time – quite the mean feat, since the prose of so many other fantasy books with the same ideas often take a turn towards the turgid.

Gods, I can’t praise this book well enough. It’s just – go, go read it. Don’t wait over a year like I did.

Ad Astra, Hell Yeah!

Ad Astra conventionTomorrow is the start of Ad Astra, and I can’t wait. I originally thought about attending last year when the lovely Beverly Bambury encouraged me to do so, but I didn’t go since I felt it was going to be too last-minute for me – we had talked about it only the week before. Now, though, my fiance and I have everything planned out: weekend passes, hotel booking, and even the  books we’re bringing to sign (as well as planning to buy). There are so many people in Canadian SF/F that I want to meet and celebrate good times and good writing with.

Oh, and speaking of good writing, yes, I am working on the novel, but it’s going slower than I anticipated. I’m thinking I may have to purge the giddy thought of writing 2,500 words a day from my mind, and instead settle on the more practical number of 1,100. Ah well. However, I did find out the results of the Friends of the Merill contest; I was originally going to write about this on April 1st (not a joke!) but then the idea of grappling with sexism/gender bias in genre fiction was too satisfying to ignore. Ultimately, I did not make it into the top 3, but considering this was the first story I ever submitted to a contest, I’m pretty satisfied.

So, Ad Astra. Fuck yeah, I’ll be there. What about you?

Book Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Title: Ironskin
Author: Tina Connolly
Publisher:  Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: this review contains spoilers.

Jane Eliot is a veteran of The Great War against the fey. The five years since the end of the war have not been kind to her, however, as the lingering scar on her cheek – as well as the iron mask she wears to cover it – signal to all that she has been cursed  by fey magic.

After failing to hold down a string of teaching jobs, Jane has only one option left: to become a governess. In particular, she’s found a delicately-worded listing asking for assistance with a “special” child – one born during the Great War. Jane has pieced together the signs and realizes that the child, like she, is fey-cursed. She takes the job because she’s convinced that she can help this child overcome the same problems she has had to face.

Of course, life in her new home at Silver Birch Manor is more difficult than she imagined. For one thing, Dorie’s fey abilities are both unique and frightening. For another, Dorie’s father, Edward Rochart, is a distant, forbidding man, and the moors outside his house hold many secrets. How exactly does Silver Birch Manor get its inexhaustible supply of fey technology when it is so scarce everywhere else? Why do Rochart and his servant Martha constantly go into the forest bordering the manor? And why does Rochart host so many other women at his house, only to release them back into the outside world looking as beautiful as the fey themselves?

As Jane encounters these and other mysteries, she realizes that there may be a way to shed the fey curse that has ruined her face – although, as always, things aren’t quite what they seem.

So, before I go any further here, let me state a few things up front. Yes, this story is a retelling of Jane Eyre. Yes, it involves fairies. Yes, it also involves steampunk. If you have a problem with these things, stop reading now – because goddammit, this book is fun. Go find a mouldering library to sit in and grumble about literary purity for all I care, because you won’t be missed.

There. Now that we’ve got the Sacred Arbiters of English Literature off our backs, let’s get back to business.

Ironskin is a fun book. It plays with the plot of Jane Eyre, but takes it in new directions, reinventing some aspects of Jane’s background from whole cloth. For example, gone are her miserable extended family and her subsequent education at Lowood. Instead, Helen, the saintly classmate from the original book, is now Jane’s sister and has been radically re-imagined as a woman desperately trying to come to terms with her own cowardice in the face of Jane’s iron resolve.

However, certain story beats remain the same. The mysterious forest on the edge of Rochart’s property, as well as the its inhabitant, are a direct analogue for the attic originally found in Jane Eyre. Although I deduced the true nature of the forest early on in the novel, this was no doubt intentional on Connolly’s part.

I’ve mentioned Tina Connolly elsewhere on my blog. Having read a few of her stories, and having listened to all of the episodes in her Toasted Cake podcast, it was remarkable to realize how entrenched her voice has become in my head. When I was reading Ironskin, I could tell that it was her writing it, and it was her voice delivering the descriptions and dialogue in my mind.

The book’s biggest strength is its world-building. Five years ago, British society depended on fey technology, but the Great War’s onset spurred Britain to restart the Industrial Revolution. In this story, the fey are incorporeal, immortal beings who can inhabit the bodies of dead humans. Of course, doing so gives them human frailties; the only way to kill a fey for good is by jabbing some sharpened iron into the vein of a fey-ridden corpse.

On top of all that, dwarves exist (though they’re called dwarvven here) and have closed themselves off from both fey and human interaction. Although they are master craftsmen, they also love stories and poetry, the more outsized and romantic the better – they were even important cultural figures in Queen Maud’s court back in the day. Jane uses this fact to her advantage when she bribes a half-dwarvven character with a copy of The Pirate Who Loved Queen Maud in exchange for some finely-wrought iron. And, of course, as the author mentions in her recent “My Favourite Bit” post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, Shakespeare’s plays have been reimagined so that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now A Midsummer Night’s Tragedy.

As I said in my review of Seraphina, it’s the inventive details like this that make me love fantasy books so much.

However, despite these delights, the ending is rushed. Jane’s eventual discovery of Rochart’s true profession (he employs magic to make women beautiful using fey-infused masks of clay) dovetails with her revelation that her disfigured face allows her to manipulate magic herself. The Fey Queen then emerges to reveal her true plans: the masks that Rochart has been making are the perfect conduit to allow the fey to take control of living bodies, and not just the dead. As Rochart’s masks have now been fused onto several members of Britain’s ruling class, this spells disaster.

The final events of this book – the revelation about the Fey Queen, the true importance of Rochart’s masks, Jane’s attempt to claim a mask for her own, and a mad dash to London and back – are all crammed into the last 60 pages. Compared to the slow, atmospheric buildup of the book’s opening, I felt its climax – which includes an extremely gory scene I’ll let you discover on your own – should have been a chapter or two longer.

This is convenient for Connolly, though, as it leaves the closing passages open enough to accommodate the sequel that will be coming out next fall. First The Hum and the Shiver, then Seraphina, and now this – it seems I’m unconsciously committing to all sorts of series which will continue in 2013.

Up next: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi

 

Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Title: Seraphina
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

One of the chief things I measure in a novel is how it affects me when I read it. Do the book’s events wend their way into my dreams? Am I compelled to keep reading? How concerned am I with the characters? Are there any scenes I can return to and re-read, savouring the prose on my tongue or goggling about at the audacity of the images that the author presents?

In other words, does the book that I’m reading make me feel delight?

Seraphina did. This book was part of the bag of free books I got at the World Fantasy Convention. However, I didn’t look at it closely until after WFC was over and my fiance and I were evaluating our respective hauls. Rarely am I held fast and astonished by a book’s very first passage, but then I came across Seraphina‘s opening lines:

I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the  heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.

Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.

I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.

Humans and dragons have been coexisting in uneasy peace for decades. Dragons, imagined here as keenly rational, analytical beings – think Vulcans with scales – have the ability to alter their forms to look like humans.

Such dragons, called saarantrai, live alongside humans and have carved out a respectable niche as teachers and academics. The heart of this coexistence lies in the court of Goredd, the kingdom that brokered the human/dragon peace treaty – the court that Seraphina Domberg, a talented young musician, now finds herself in.

However, merely weeks before the 40th anniversary of the treaty, Prince Rufus, the son of Queen Lavonda, has been murdered in a manner that looks suspiciously draconic. With tensions rising between the upholders of the treaty and anti-dragon zealots, Seraphina finds herself in the middle and teams up with Prince Lucian, the queen’s grandson, to uncover the truth behind Rufus’ murder.

Seraphina is caught in the middle in more ways than one. Not only is she a musician in a court composed of both humans and saarantrai, but she holds a secret that could lead to her death if it were found out: she’s half-human, half-dragon. Now that she’s joined Lucian’s investigation, she must find a way to preserve the peace and avoid the attention that her prodigious musical talent attracts.

I’m drawn to fantasy and science fiction because these genres examine interesting ideas in ways that others choose not to. In its own way, Seraphina tackles how racism affects people by taking it to literal extremes and imagining the external pressures faced by someone who is only half human. However, science fiction and fantasy also describe things that other genres can’t, like the internal pressures that Seraphina faces.

In particular, she experiences crippling migraines and strange visions, and the only way she can manage them is to spend time alone every day to meditate. Her meditation takes an extremely peculiar form, though, in that she visits a garden in her mind and talks to the people who live there – the people she sees in her visions, although she has no idea what is so significant about them. One of her vision-people lives in an orchard and litters orange peels along the ground. Another is locked inside a cottage. A third gazes up at a sky full of stars.

These people and these environments are all inside Seraphina’s head.

Think about this for a minute. How many mush-mouthed “important” literary works out there are willing to be as inventive as this? Would an author like Jonathan Franzen ever attempt to portray the mental state of one of his characters in such a literal fashion? More importantly, would they use such concrete imagery – orchards, observatories, ponds, walled gardens – to describe that state? Would they even consider the idea of the mind as a physical space, capable of being walked around in?

This is why fantasy and science fiction are important. This is what I look for when I talk about delight.

Hartman’s descriptions of the world her characters live in, and her unique depiction of dragons, are fascinating. Her world feels lived-in and filled with detail around the edges, like the fact that dragons bleed silver blood, and thus exhibit white bruises white when they get hurt. I also loved how hyper-aware Seraphina is of the draconic mindset, which is focused on patterns and angles and logic. Whenever she’s in conversation with a dragon, she automatically adjusts her speech so that it becomes more factual and less focused on intonation to convey meaning.

This highlights one of her greatest traits:  her intelligence. She’s not only smart, but she’s determined, too, and uses her unique knowledge of  dragonkind to become an important political player by the end of the novel. While she is prickly and unfriendly, this part of her personality springs naturally from her overwhelming need to hide her parentage.

However, this note leads me to my very few complaints about the novel. While she is considered prickly and often second-guesses herself, this is one of Seraphina’s only flaws. Otherwise, she’s a gifted musician who is brave and observant, and she even turns out to have psychic powers. (Hint: it turns out those people in her head are there for a reason.) In other words, she’s very close to being a Mary-Sue character.

In addition to that, Seraphina’s burgeoning relationship with Prince Lucian is telegraphed far too easily early on in the plot, and I despaired at the presence of the Obligatory Romance in this otherwise fine novel. Although Hartman sidesteps this by having Lucian choose to stay betrothed to his royal cousin, the potential for a romantic triangle is set squarely in place for the sequels. I wish that the relationship between Lucian and Seraphina stayed platonic instead. However, I will eagerly read the sequels in the hope that this development is replaced with something more satisfactory before the end.

Up next: The Universe Within, by Neil Turok.

Book Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

Title: The Hum and the Shiver
Author: Alex Bledsoe
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

The Tufa are a community of people who have lived in what is now east Tennessee for hundreds of years – they were there before the arrival of Europeans to North America, yet they aren’t Native American. No one knows quite what they are, actually, but the Tufa keep to themselves, and do what they do best: play music. Their music is more than just music, though. They use it to encourage the crops to grow. They use it to heal from injury. They also use it travel the skies along the night wind.

Bronwyn Hyatt is a prodigal Tufa daughter who has returned home to Cloud County, Tennessee, from Iraq after becoming a war hero. Bronwyn was a wild child growing up and joined the army to escape the pressures of home, like her good-for-nothing ex and the obligations of being the First Daughter of a Tufa family. However, now that she’s returned, those problems seem more pressing than ever – especially since signs and omens have been showing up marking her mother for death.

Now Bronwyn must heal from her war wounds and regain her lost musical skill in time to inherit her mother’s music before she dies.

One of the best things about The Hum and the Shiver is the care with which the Tufa people have been created. Bledsoe has found some particularly ingenious uses for the Tufa’s magic – for that’s really what their music is, at  heart. For example, to discourage reporters from hounding Bronwyn, her family bakes a batch of brownies and distributes them among the press scrum. The brownies, being somehow magically enhanced by Tufa music, fill the reporters with shame and empathy, and encourage them to disperse.

One reporter escapes the shame-by-brownie route, however, and his story forms a compelling sublplot to Bronwyn’s. Don Swayback is a has-been journalist whose apathy has caused him to slowly descend the corporate ladder. He also happens to be part Tufa, and his employer sees this fact as the perfect gambit to secure an exclusive interview with Bronwyn upon her return to Cloud County. Now Don has been given an ultimatum: interview Bronwyn, or find a new job. In his attempts to enter the Tufa community and gain Bronwyn’s family’s trust, he learns more about his previously buried heritage. It’s during a key exchange with an outsider (who provides a convenient infodump) that he learns the truth about what the Tufa really are.

Fairies.

Honest to God.

The Tufa (a corrupted pronunciation of tuatha) were a splinter group of fairies who travelled across the ocean and settled in Cloud County hundreds of years ago. Their music is a manifestation of their power, which, aside from making shame-brownies, also allows them to grow wings and travel along the wind. One of the best scenes of the book is when Don and Bronwyn both do this, albeit separately, and regain crucial lost parts of their identities.

Fairy-flight aside, though, things are not perfect. This being eastern Tennessee, highlighting the insularity of the Tufa community requires the insertion of some casual racism into the mix. In this case, it comes from Bob Pafford, the local state trooper.

This particular highway patroller and Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, Dwayne, are the closest things this book has to antagonists, and while they fulfill those thankless roles well enough, they’re a bit too one-dimensional to work. Pafford is a despot lording over his little fiefdom of the back roads, while Dwayne is your typical redneck/sociopath. Ultimately, both are disposed of in one fell swoop in an event that seems a little too pat.

This points to one of the biggest problems I had with the book: the way it handles the deaths of the major characters. As it turns out, the signs and omens of death surrounding Bronwyn’s family pertain not to her mother, but to her older brother, Kell.

However, not only does Kell’s death happen off-screen (so to speak), but he actually doesn’t die at first – Bronwyn has a chance to hear he’s injured and see him at the hospital, whereupon he tells her that he feels perfectly fine. It’s only after she leaves the hospital to confront his attacker  – I’ll give you two guesses as to who – that he dies of sudden internal bleeding. While this gives Bledsoe a chance to insert some lovely lyrics of Tufa mourning into the mix, it also feels like a huge cop-out.

Despite this, the entire concept of fairy magic and music in the southern US seems mighty interesting. This is the first book in an entire series about the Tufa – the next one, titled Wisp of a Thing, will be released in 2013.

I’m going to keep my eye out for the rest and see how Bledsoe juggles the other narrative balls he’s thrown into the air, like the rest of Bronwyn’s family, the Methodist preacher who’s fallen in love with her, and even a very special painting in a local library. There’s a lot of ornamentation around the edge of The Hum and the Shiver, and it will be interesting to see how Bledsoe fills everything else in.

Up next: The Shadow Scholar by Dave Tomar

World Fantasy Convention, and an Announcement

The 2012 World Fantasy Convention starts today! I have been waiting for this day for months. I don’t know if I can describe to you the relief and trepidation I feel this morning now that there’s the prospect of meeting some of my favourite authors in person. Then there’s the temptation of the dealers’ room, filled with books, books, books, and readings and panels to attend.

This will be my first con ever, so I have no idea what to expect, but I can imagine that by the end, I will be satisfied and exhausted. Whenever I go to events like this, I consciously turn on my “be social” light switch; I’m sure I’ll have no trouble meeting people, but I bet that at the end my switch will be burnt out and I’ll need a few days to recharge.

Aww, who are we kidding – I’ll probably squee like a fangirl the whole time.

Anyways, on to my announcement: last weekend, I was accepted as a slush reader for Electric Velocipede magazine! I’ve been reading slush for a few days now, and the experience has been exciting and enlightening – I get to get my story fix, and have some input on what stories I think others will enjoy reading. Even better, I can now go to WFC today with a small shred of publishing credibility on my side.

My only concern is that they’re hosting the damn thing in Richmond Hill, instead of in the downtown core proper. I don’t know how to drive (yet) which means that I still rely on using public transit – getting to Richmond Hill via the local network of trains and buses will be a… protracted process, to put it gently.

Anyways, there’s no time to lose – first, I need to read some slush, then I need to get started on NaNoWriMo, and then, I need to head out to meet the fantasy fiction pantheon. Wish me luck!

Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: DAW
Rating: 2 out of 5
Format: Print

Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, a girl growing up in Africa – Sudan is implied – after an unnamed apocalyptic event. Onyesonwu is not just any girl, though – she is an Ewu, a child born of rape between an Okeke (black) mother and a Nuru (white) man. Her pale skin and freckles act as an indicator of her outsider status, and she and her mother are pariahs within their desert community of Jwahir.

As far back as anyone can remember, the Okeke have always been poor and bound to serve the Nuru. So it says in the Great Book, which claims that the Okekes’ pride and greed caused the world’s original collapse, and that the Nurus are the ones tasked with reversing this grave error. This devotion to the Great Book has turned deadly, though, as a series of coordinated attacks by Nuru people (led by one powerful Nuru sorceror in particular) have led to entire Okeke villages being slaughtered, and to the systematic rape of Okeke women.

As Onyesonwu grows up, she realizes that she has special powers – another trademark of being Ewu – including shapeshifting and communing with supernatural spirits. Eventually, she realizes that it is her destiny to end the war that the Nuru people are waging on the Okeke. Also, in the ultimate example of the political becoming the personal, she learns that the Nuru man who raped her mother is none other than the sorcerer leading the Nurus’ campaign of genocide.

Part of why I dislike the book is that being an outsider is one of Onyesonwu’s few defining character traits. In Jwahir, Ewu children like her are outcasts, and the elders of the city refuse to teach her about magic because she is a woman. In addition, in an attempt to become accepted by within her community, she undergoes a ritual clitoridectomy only to find out later that the knives used to cut her flesh were bespelled so that she and other women would be unable to enjoy sexual pleasure outside of marriage.

So, she’s hated because of her dubious parentage, she’s kept in ignorance because of her gender, and she’s prevented from exercising her sexual agency. This is a trifecta of things guaranteed to piss off a Women’s Studies major like me – but the fact that it’s there is just a tad too on-the-nose. As I read the book, I kept on thinking I get it, Onyesonwu is an embodiment of epistemic privilege. Can you stop now and finish with the righteous outrage, please?.

The thing that’s really confusing about her enforced ignorance is that her tutors know she’s the central figure in a great prophecy to change the world. Why refuse to teach her, then, if so much depends on her mastery of magic? What’s more, it turns out that the prophecy is well-known, although most others think that the central figure it refers to is a Nuru man, not an Ewu woman. Why exactly her tutors know the truth when few others do – and then refuse to act on this knowledge – is a huge plot hole that’s never fully explained.

On top of that, the pacing in this novel is incredibly off. Onyesonwu journeys across the desert with a small group of friends to fulfill her destiny and stop her father’s genocide. However, the journey itself doesn’t start until nearly halfway through the book, and its salient feature is the sexual frustration her friends feel. Conveniently, Onyesonwu has the ability to grow back her cut-off flesh because she’s a shapeshifter. Even more conveniently, her failed attempt to heal a severely deformed woman (somehow?) imbues her with the knowledge to restore the cut-off flesh of her friends. Because obviously, the most important problem to solve in the midst of genocidal ruin is making sure your companions don’t get bitchy because they can’t have sex.

As the book’s fractious friendships, arguments, convenient revelations (Oh, so it turns out that Onyesonwu’s mother was also a sorceress? You don’t say!), and shifting sexual liaisons continued, the final page kept drawing closer and closer, and I had no idea how there would be enough room for a satisfying showdown between father and daughter.

Short version: There isn’t.

Long version: She meets with her father and attacks him, but doesn’t manage to kill him. She then manipulates her body in such a way that the resulting magic kills all of the men and impregnates all of the women in the surrounding environs. She then finds the master copy of the Great Book whose teachings are the source of the Nurus’ hatred for the Okekes, and magically rewrites it to prevent that hatred from ever forming. She then gets stoned to death by the remaining Nuru populace for her trouble.

If there was ever a literary embodiment of “nasty, brutish, and short”, the ending of Who Fears Death is it.

Throughout, I never felt a sense of wonder or awe when I read this book. I fail to think of a single sentence, image, or paragraph that stopped me cold with its eloquence, or sent shivers up my spine with its beauty. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the single most damning thing I can say in this review.

I really wanted to like Who Fears Death. For one, it’s written by a woman of colour featuring a female protagonist who is also of colour. I’m aware of the ways in which speculative fiction has marginalized non-white, non-male voices, so I’ve been making an effort to counteract that in my reading choices. Besides that, it tackles a variety of topics that our society either doesn’t talk about or tries hard to avoid discussing, including female genital cutting, genocide, and rape as a weapon of war.

Ultimately, though, I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy Who Fears Death, and read it mainly because I wanted to be a Good Feminist and assuage some of my White Liberal Guilt by reading about something depressing but politically important. Depressing as the subject matter was, I still hoped for at least a little bit of grace, but never found it.

Up next: Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain

Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Title: Deathless
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Tor
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

Russian folklore is not an aspect of Western/European mythology you come across much in modern fantasy – the only other example I can think of is a side story in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – so it’s nice to see Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless getting their due.

Deathless is a modern retelling of the myth of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna set during the turmoils of Russia during the first half of the 20th century. The opening chapter enchanted me with its fairy-tale-like repetition, and the writing style throughout reminded me of Silently and Very Fast, another work of Valente’s that I’ve enjoyed.

This is mere no fairy-tale, though, as it recasts Koschei – typically an antagonist in Russian folklore – into a flawed hero fighting a futile war against death itself. Marya Morevna, originally his beautiful young conquest, becomes his bride, and eventually a general in the battle against Viy, the Tsar of Death.

Wise readers will note that the crux of this war takes place at the beginning of World War II before and during the siege of Leningrad, and even wiser readers than I may speculate that the entire story could stand as a metaphor for the ideological changes that Russia underwent both before and after the war. However, as I am not an authority on Russian politics, I will have to settle for Baba Yaga and house imps reciting socialist political theory instead.

One of the book’s key themes is the idea of control or rulership – specifically, can a mortal woman like Marya gain the upper hand as the wife of Koschei, who is immortal? Ultimately, she can and does by adopting his methods and becoming as casually cruel as he – but such growth takes a long time to occur in the novel, and until then she remains frustratingly passive. I get the sense that this is deliberate on Valente’s part though; in one pivotal scene, Marya attempts to seduce another man using food the way Koschei seduced her, and the man in question doesn’t submit as easily to her overtures as she did to Koschei’s. Sometimes, you just have to be quiet and let a starving man eat.

Marya’s passivity is more than made up for by the other female characters in Deathless. I loved Baba Yaga and Madame Lebedeva, a magician who forms part of Marya’s coterie upon her entry into Kochei’s realm. Both women are intelligent and calculating, and understand how to wield power properly. Lebedeva in particular is a delight because she combines her magical skill with theatricality and refinement, yet manages to do so without becoming the insufferable sort of Mean Girl we expect of a beautiful woman who places great import on her appearance. Read the scene of Lebedeva and Marya in a magical cafe where Lebedeva holds court while very ostentatiously not eating the meal she has ordered, and you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a master storyteller.

Other images in Deathless are similarly vivid. Great attention is paid to colour and form, especially where Lebedeva is concerned. But beyond that there is the silver gleam that symbolizes the land of Death, and the deep red of garnets and pickled beets, and the gold and black of butter and caviar slathered upon fresh bread. Like Marya, Deathless casts its readers into a world of unexpected depth and luxury.

Up next: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

The Hugo Nominee Ballot, Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the Hugo nominees in various categories of fiction. Last time I discussed the short story, novelette, and John W. Campbell shortlists. Today, I’ll discuss the novella and novel shortlists.

Best Novella

My choices: Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente and The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

The Best Novella shortlist was easily the hardest one to vote for on the entire ballot, as both of the novellas listed above were extraordinary.

Silently and Very Fast is the story of Elefsis, an artificial intelligence that has interacted with the bodies and minds of one family over generations – they inherit it and merge with it in dreams. But it’s also about much more than that. It’s about the freedom that dreams afford us to imagine the beautiful and fantastical. It’s about the layers of resentment that build up when families have predicated their identities so thoroughly on one thing that to try to live a life outside of that thing is nearly impossible. It’s about the fear we have for the machines that will eventually replace us. It’s about fairy tales. Above all, though, it’s about Elefsis’ bone-deep need to be recognized as a being with needs and wants as complex as any human’s.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist is about Kit Meinem, an engineer from the capital coming to a small riverside town to build a bridge. This is not just any river, though – the current is made not of water, but of a roiling, caustic mist with no riverbed beneath it. Giant creatures writhe in its depths and the only method of crossing it is by ferry. However, the ferry is sporadic at best, as the ferrymen and women can sense the river’s moods and cross only when they feel it is safe to do so. The bridge could transform the sleepy little town into a vital trading centre, but it would also mean the loss of the ferrypeople’s livelihoods. Of course, the bridge is not just a symbol for the town, but for the engineer himself, a distant man who slowly but surely – and to his own surprise – becomes an integral part of the community.

Both novellas display assured pacing and characterization. I especially appreciated the “rightness” of the ending for Bridged the Mist, and was happy that Kij Johnson didn’t break the ruminative, contemplative tone of her story by inserting needless  drama into it. However, I ended up making Silently and Very Fast my first choice in this category because its ambitions were so outsized, and it was working on a much broader canvas.

The others: (in no particular order)

  • Kiss Me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal -This was a fun police procedural set in the future, where cops solve cases with the assistance of AIs that they interact with through VR glasses. Metta, the Portland police department’s AI, has been stolen, and it’s up to detective Scott Huang, working in tandem with a backup of Metta, to understand the case. It’s an interesting concept with a great workaround for mashing up Hollywood glamour with sci-fi tropes – Metta’s avatar when she works with Detective Huang spouts Mae West quotes – but ultimately, the central mystery left too many questions unanswered for me to enjoy it.
  • Countdown by Mira Grant – This novella is a prequel to Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, and explains the genesis of the trilogy’s zombie plague. However, the novella itself was plagued by flat, dead writing. I felt no spark when I read this – the text felt like a lifeless series of “this happened, and then that happened” occurrences. It brought to mind all of the other zombie/plague stories I’ve read – The Stand, World War Z, etc – and suffered immeasurably by comparison.
  • The Ice Owl by Carolyn Ives Gilman – This was a science fiction story with faster-than-light travel and hypersleep that also incorporated elements of the Holocaust into the plot. Its biggest flaw was the relationship between the main character, Thorn, and her mother, Maya. In the end, Thorn decided to run away from her mother, because she was sick of Maya’s bohemian, peripatetic ways – Maya’s carelessness resulted in the death of the title animal, the last of its species, which was given as a gift to Thorn by a friend. However, when Thorn arrived at her destination after years of hypersleep, her first independent taste of hostility had her running back into her mother’s conveniently nearby arms. The characters were unvinvolving, the references to the Holocaust were ham-fisted, and the setting was unmemorable. This was easily the weakest nominee on the novella shortlist.
  • The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu – What if time travel actually worked, but time travellers could revisit the same time and place only once? The Man Who Ended History is the story of how one man’s idealistic use of time travel – to unearth the truth surrounding Unit 731 – ended up causing an international diplomatic crisis. Most intriguing was the formatting of the story as the transcript of a real documentary, complete with descriptions of camera movements. I appreciated Liu’s skill in telling this story, but it was depressing, to say the least.

Best Novel

My choice: None.

This may sound harsh, but it really isn’t. On the ballot, you can list your votes in order of rank. you can state that none of the nominees deserve to win, or – as I did – you can abstain from voting altogether. I abstained because I didn’t feel informed enough to make a choice. Here’s what happened with each of the nominees:

  • A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin – I didn’t read this book. I haven’t read a single book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and I didn’t want (or have the time) to read the 4 gargantuan novels that preceded it in order to determine ADwD‘s own merits. My guess is that this one will win the Hugo anyway – HBO has allowed Martin’s books to reach critical mass with the public, and the fact that the TV show is now so popular/recognizable will definitely affect its vote count. Think, for example, of the 2001 Hugo award given to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – you can bet that it won not because of a large slate of informed fantasy afficionadoes, but because it had a huge fan base. In a nice bit of irony, Harry Potter won out over A Storm of Swords, another book in Martin’s series.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey – I reviewed this one previously. It was a fun story, and I am definitely considering reading the sequels, one of which is already out. But as I said in my review, I don’t think that this book was groundbreaking or ambitious enough for it to be considered award-worthy.
  • Deadline by Mira Grant – I didn’t read this one either. In general, I decided I didn’t want to bother with catching up to the latest books in series that I wasn’t familiar with. Anyways, if the calibre of writing in Deadline matched that found in Countdown – mentioned above – I’m probably better off for skipping it.
  • Among Others by Jo Walton – I just posted my review for this one a few days ago. I appreciated the depth of effort that went into making Mor a living, breathing person, but the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. Also, as I mentioned in my review, I’m worried that the book’s built-in references to and praise for various genre books from the late 1970s was a calculated attempt to win voters/judges over.
  • Embassytown by China Mieville – Alas, we come to the odd book of the bunch – the one I started to read, but could not finish. I am aware of Mieville’s critical reputation, and I am aware that he’s a very acquired taste. However, I just could not get through this book. I bailed about 10% of the way in. The book’s world-building was thorough, but too immersive in the sense that Mieville just expected you to accept the realities of his world without any context. Does this speak to an intellectual laziness on my part? Perhaps. But at the very least, I’d like to understand what I’m reading.

What does this mean in the long run?

This was the first time I’ve ever voted on the Hugo ballot. Overall, I was very pleased with the experience, as I got to read the work of a number of writers that were previously unknown to me, like Karen Lord’s wondrous Redemption in Indigo. It cost only $50 to get the support membership package, which meant that I got the entire collection of fiction on the ballot – all of the Short Story, Novelette, Novella, Novel, and John W. Campbell Award nominees – for a ludicrously good price. And it was all in electronic format, meaning I could upload the whole thing to my Kobo! Pure bliss.

Paying the membership fee also means I can nominate good works for next year’s ballot. Given the choice, I would gladly do this all over again in 2013.

On a related note, the World Fantasy Convention just released their shortlist for this year’s World Fantasy Awards. This is a set of juried prizes, but it’s pleasant to see some overlap between the WFA and Hugo ballots.

Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Title: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for this year’s Hugo award for Best Novel

Most of us feel miserable as teenagers, but we often don’t understand the depth of those feelings until adulthood. This is one of the things that intrigues me most about Jo Walton’s Among Others. Mor is aware that she’s isolated (being a working-class, Welsh, crippled girl in a posh British boarding school will do that to you) but will the depth of her isolation become truly apparent to her later on as an adult? Among Others is all about Mor’s isolation, her roiling thoughts, and her one coping mechanism: Reading a ton of science fiction and fantasy books.

Walton has structured the book in an unusual way. There are no chapters; instead, the book is presented as the diary Mor keeps during her first year of attendance at Arlinghurst, a boarding school in England. What’s more, the catastrophe that has shaped Mor’s circumstances – the castastrophe that tends to take centre stage in the books she so loves to read – is in the past, and due to the diary-like nature of the book is never presented in flashback.

Instead, we learn the following: Mor is the survivor of a pair of twins. Both of them, like their mother, were able to practice magic and converse with the fairies that lived in the ruins and forests surrounding their community in Wales. Her sister, also named Mor (one being short for “Morganna” and the other being short for “Morwenna”), died the previous November in a car accident that left the surviving Mor crippled.

Immediately before the accident, both twins had been involved in a fight against their mother. Mor is vague with the details, and says only that the fight was a magical one done to prevent their mother from turning into a “dark queen” – to quote Lord of the Rings – and gaining even more power. After the accident Mor ran away, and custody over her was not awarded to her extended family in Wales, but instead to her father, a man who abandoned the twins when they were children.

Now she’s been packed off to Arlinghurst by her father’s overbearing older sisters. Her only solace is reading loads of (now classic) science fiction and fantasy books from the late 70s – books by LeGuin, Zelazny, Heinlein, and Vonnegut, for example.

The omnipresence of science fiction and fantasy literature in Among Others accomplishes several things:

  • It establishes the time period: Mor’s diary takes place from 1979 to 1980.
  • It makes the narrator’s voice feel natural: Mor’s opinions about the books she reads are the kind of hyperbolic, righteous ones that are endemic to teenagers. I like to imagine that when she’s an adult, she’ll look back on her diary entries and cringe with embarrassment over how amateurish she sounded.
  • It reinforces one of the key themes in the book: That the magic that Mor reads about in her books is not like the magic she practices.

This last point is the most important. In many ways, Mor is looking for validation in what she reads, but she knows from her own attempts to practice magic – the consequences of which often scare her – that it’s much messier and less systematic in real life than it is in fiction. This also prepares us for the climax, when Mor finally confronts her mother again and manages to subdue her permanently using both her magic and her love of books.

However, the use of the diary format makes the final magical fight less immediate and rather anticlimactic. This is one of my biggest problems with Among Others. While I admire Walton’s consistency – magic in books isn’t like the real magic Mor knows, so why should the final battle read like something that came out of a book? – it’s not psychologically satisfying.

Perhaps this subversion of standard fantasy plots is why the book won the Nebula award for best novel, and why it’s also up for the Hugo award. However, I fear that the major reason for the book’s critical reception is precisely that it praises so many books that are part of the genre’s canon.

As an interesting parallel, think of how many Oscars The Artist won earlier this year. I haven’t seen it myself, but I understand the reservations of others who think the The Artist won because it praised the magic of movies and kept telling Hollywood how beautiful and pure it used to be. A similar strain of “Wasn’t sci-fi and fantasy fiction in the past just grand?” nostalgia threads itself throughout Among Others, and this became extremely grating. In essence, I worry that it’s going to win the Hugo because it gave the genre a hand job.

With all this in mind, did I enjoy Among Others? Yes. But do I think it deserves the Hugo award? As I said with Leviathan Wakes, no. Crafting a protagonist so eminently real as Mor is one thing. But trying to gain access to the Critically Praised Genre Novel Club just by invoking past members of said club is another.

Up next: The Big Short by Michael Lewis.