Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

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.

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Title: The Troop
Author: Nick Cutter
Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Note: I was given an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher.

Imagine the savage survivalism of Lord of the Flies merged with the creeping bio-engineered dread of The Stand. Mix in the five personality archetypes of The Breakfast Club (albeit a boys-only version) and you get Nick Cutter’s (aka Craig Davidson’s) new horror novel The Troop – with all of the positives and negatives that implies.

Scoutmaster Tim Rigg has taken his 5-member Boy Scout troop on a 3-day camping trip to Falstaff Island, a small island off the coast of PEI. There’s the jock, Kent Jenks, son of the local police chief; the wild child, Ephraim Elliott; the sensible everyman, Max Kirkwood; the creepy loner, Shelley Longpre; and finally the nerd, Newt Thornton, last in the pecking order. Scoutmaster Tim, who is the town doctor back home, has high hopes for 3 days of hiking, learning, and otherwise hearty outdoor activity.

But there’s another person coming to the island. A man who carries inside him a genetically-engineered horror the likes of which the world is unprepared for. And he’s hungry – so very hungry.

So, let’s get the literary clone-work out of the way. Like many people, I had to read Lord of the Flies in high school, and absolutely hated it. My opinion as a teenager was that the whole descending-into-savagery thing would probably have been completely avoided if there were at least one female in the whole group. Growing up and learning about what occupies the minds of teenaged boys, I have to amend that opinion somewhat – but my absolute dislike of that book has not lessened. (And if you’re wondering, I couldn’t stand Catcher in the Rye that much either.)

At first, I was nervous that The Troop would travel down that same everyone-turns-into-animals-because-Man-is-the-real-monster path. This was especially worrisome in the first half of the book, since the author tries so hard to establish the meanness and social hierarchy of the boys. With the exception of Newt, the requisite fat nerd, the rest of them are cardboard cutouts: Kent is a bully, Ephraim is supposedly angry (I say “supposedly” because although we’re told an awful lot about how angry he is and how he always starts fights, he doesn’t actually act violently until he’s pushed), Max is friendly and average but resolute, and Shelley is your standard-issue sociopath-in-training.

However, once the true menace of the book is revealed, the characters display more psychological depth than I expected. There are some predictable turns here (especially regarding Shelley), but the addition of Tim, who believes he can help the sick man who’s wandered into their midst, adds a new dimension to the story. In Doctor/Scoutmaster Tim, not only do we see a man blinded by his own confidence in his abilities, but we also see the boys’ reaction to that blindness – and the lack of trust in the adult world that results.

Now that’s interesting.

Less interesting, but still helpful, are the interstitial pieces of text showing how the bio-engineered parasite came to be, and the political and cultural aftermath of the outbreak. They provide context and help the novel’s pacing, but I think they strip the real threat (a genetically-modified tapeworm meant to promote weight loss but secretly developed as a biological weapon) of some of its mystique. They do contribute to the novel’s ambiguous ending, however.

Other than that, the book contains some unusual and truly repulsive body horror. I have a pretty strong stomach, so when I say that, I mean it. I found it particularly hard to handle the scene where Ephraim cuts himself in order to remove the parasite from his body.

Overall, I thought this book was okay, but I wish more time had been spent on character development, especially in the rather creaky opening.

Up next: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Book Review: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Blood: The Stuff of LifeTitle: Blood: The Stuff of Life
Author: Lawrence Hill
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital waiting for a doctor to examine my stomach and declare with authority why it was hurting so damn much. It was a Saturday night and no walk-in clinics were open, so my husband and I took the bus to the closest ER. Part of the triage involved giving a blood sample, so I did my standard routine when it came time for the nurse to stick me with the needle, which goes something like this:

  1. Don’t look. Look as far away in the opposite direction of the blood-giving arm as you can.
  2. Make noise, or focus on existing noise, so as to avoid hearing the small suctiony sound of your blood going into the vial. (Don’t scoff. You really can hear your blood entering the vial if the room is small enough. It is not pleasant.)
  3. Mentally count off the clicks you hear as each full vial is switched out for an empty one.
  4. Wait for the sensation of the needle being withdrawn, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Except this time, #4 took an awful long time in coming. The nurse asked one of her colleagues, “Do we need 2 vials or  3?” and just sat there waiting. The needle was still in my arm. Where was the blood going? Would it fountain up out of the needle end?

When the nurse got her answer and took the final vial of blood away, she also tossed a small flexible tube into a biohazard container. It was clear, and full of my blood. “Oh, it’s okay,” she said, “it’s just a teaspoonful.”

I felt slightly sick at the thought. And thus did I realize that I needed to take Blood by Lawrence Hill off the TBR pile and read it post-haste.

Blood is the latest installment in the CBC’s Massey Lectures, and it’s about as far away as one can get from the previous year’s subject matter by Neil Turok. Blood is a substance that is both physically and socially complex, and Hill does his utmost to examine each of the social and physical realities surrounding it: race, vampirism, menstruation, religion, identity, transfusions, sports scandals and doping, disease, citizenship, murder, vengeance, and more.

It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, to marry the scientific and the sociological like that. And while Hill does do an adequate job of balancing on that tightrope, there are more than a few places where he slips and falls.

I think this is most apparent in the prose style itself. Blood is a topic full of nuance, but Hill’s writing is so portentous and repetitive that it feels like he’s struggling under sheer mythic weight of the thing he’s writing about. Here’s an example of what I mean:

It’s an awfully seductive fluid. When it leaves the body, it’s a big deal. People might die. People might be accused of attempted murder, or worse. Even when it is supposed to spill – think of menstrual blood, for example, or of the blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules – it has power and significance. Maybe it is impure. Maybe it could damage you. Maybe that menstrual blood could spoil food or rob a man of his hunting power. Or maybe it is the blood of the virgin, suggestive of innocence and protection. In addition, blood acquires holy significance in the world’s pre-eminent religions. Christians consider Christ’s blood to be sacred, and imagine that they drink of it when they lift the cup of holy wine to their lips. Judaism and Islam have intricate rules about how animals are to be bled and how blood must be absent from food.

I didn’t really put my finger on what bothered me so much about his style of writing until I typed the above excerpt out. Forget the fact that he bounces around madly from murder to menstruation to sex to religion and back again. Focus instead on the digressions he makes, and the way he describes things. It can’t just be “blood from a woman’s wedding night,” but “blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules.” It can’t just be “wine”, but “holy wine”, as if you’d use any other kind in a church and instead just go down to the corner store for a medium-bodied red to use for the Eucharist.

In other words, his writing doesn’t let the topic speak for itself. It spells things out to a painful degree, and in the process, fetishizes something that has already been fetishized enough. Considering that this book’s goal is to unpack a lot of the unspoken assumptions behind the idea of blood, we need less of this mystic attitude, not more.

I’m conflicted about this book in other ways as well, as there was at least one glaring factual error that I found (in the section about Harry Potter, oddly enough – aren’t there any editors at House of Anansi who have read the series?), and some truly dismissive attitudes about adolescent depression and self-cutting, such as this little gem:

Just as many young people are drawn to vampire culture, many are also drawn to cutting themselves as form of controlled self-abuse. Experts theorize that cutting among young girls is not generally the expression of suicidal impulses, but rather a way of managing pain and anxiety. The vampiric seduction is a private act, as is the act of drawing out one’s blood. People tend to get over their vampiric obsessions as they emerge from adolescence, as do most girls who have been drawn to cutting.

The vampiric attack is irreversible. Once you’ve gone over to the dark side, there is no coming back. You do get to live forever, but no longer as a human. Cutting, however, allows for more control. Who will see the marks, which you can cover up with clothing? How seriously are you to be hurt, by losing a little blood? For some, perhaps, cutting focuses one’s pain in the body, instead of in the psyche. But it is temporary. And most adolescents grow out of it.

Is this for real? “Oh, cutting isn’t that serious, it’s just an adolescent phase. How much harm can it do, anyway?” I doubt that it’s a coincidence that this passage comes right on the heels of a discussion about the Twilight series. Gee, I wonder which major demographic most commonly cuts themselves? And does there happen to be any overlap between that demographic and the demographic responsible for making Twilight a runaway success? Ah well, never mind. Those things are just phases. Let’s give them a cursory discussion just to say we talked about it and move on.

The more I think about this book and what it chose to focus on versus what it chose to skim, the more frustrated I get. And it makes me sad, because in many ways, Blood‘s observations about identity and race are trenchant and well-thought-out (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Hill’s own ancestry). But it’s missteps like those above that get my blood boiling.

Up next: The Troop by Nick Cutter

Book Review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces by C.S. LewisTitle: Till We Have Faces:  A Myth Retold
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: N/A (pirated copy)
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5

Despite his importance to the fantasy genre, I’ve never been a big reader of C.S. Lewis. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just a single time as a child, and the story was so un-engaging that I promptly forgot what happened. Subsequent attempts to read the book led to me stalling right around the time Lucy encountered Mr. Tumnus.

Add to that The Problem of Susan, and it’s easy to see why I’ve been wary of his books.

However, I love stories that reinterpret classic myths, and this particular interpretation was analyzed wonderfully by Karen Burnham and Karen Lord, so Till We Have Faces leapt onto my TBR pile.

And boy, am I glad that it did: I am not ashamed to call this book a masterpiece.

Orual, the veiled queen of Glome, is old, alone, and approaching death. One thing she is not, though, is pious. She has seen the gods for the charlatans they are, and wants the whole world to know what she knows: that they are cruel, and delight in taking only the most precious of things from humanity, leaving nothing in return. Such a thing was her sister, Psyche. Years after Psyche’s ruinous disappearance, Orual wants to tell her side of the story and hold the gods accountable. And so she writes:

Orual is the eldest daughter of the king of Glome, a small kingdom near Greece that worships the dark goddess Ungit and her son the Brute. Orual is so ugly that it is immediately understood by her lout of a father that the only value that she’ll bring to the kingdom is to be educated as a man would – her younger sisters Redival and Psyche are far better marriage material. As a child, Orual is happy because despite her ugliness, she has people who love her: the Fox, a Greek slave who is her tutor and her father’s most valued advisor, and Psyche, who is gifted with both great physical and spiritual beauty.

However, when drought and plague strike the kingdom and rumours spread that Psyche is being worshipped for her beauty, it is taken as blasphemy of the highest form. Despite the philosophical interpretations of the Fox (who says that Ungit is really a debased version of she whom the Greeks call Aphrodite), the high priest of Ungit decrees that she must be sacrificed on a mountainside to the Brute.

Orual learns of this and takes ill. Upon her recovery, she resolves to find Psyche’s remains to give her a proper burial – Antigone was able to do at least that much, she reasons. However, upon her journey to the sacrifice site, she finds out that her sister is alive and well. Orual is shocked and convinced her sister has gone insane – what Orual sees as a sprig of wild berries Psyche sees as a feast in a palace. And how can Psyche, who is so beautiful, love something as ugly as the Brute? Has Psyche lost all sense of sisterly duty?

Who, really, is in the right? And why should the gods, who are powerful, make such playthings of humans, who are weak? Orual resolves to test her sister’s newfound happiness, with disastrous results for both of their souls.

For a long time, Lewis was dissatisfied with the classical story of Psyche and Cupid. Nothing about it – Psyche’s sisters’ jealousy, Psyche’s own gullibility and disobedience towards her husband – made any sort of sense to him. Till We Have Faces was his attempt to create fully-fleshed, believable characters whose actions were consonant with those of the original myth.

Lewis succeeds in doing this by making Orual a real piece of work. She may be physically ugly, but she makes up for it with a keen intellect and a good sword hand. However, she’s also desperately lonely and needy, unwilling to be honest with anyone about her true motivations, least of all herself. Orual’s insistence that Psyche look upon her own husband’s face is not only a test of loyalty, but also a desperate gambit on Orual’s part to make her sister realize the truth about her life on the mountain.

I really don’t know how well I can describe the book after this point. Both sisters pay a terrible price for their actions. Psyche disappears. Orual becomes queen and rules successfully for decades. But deep inside she’s a thornbush of guilt. It is only at the end of her life that she’s willing to delve into the reasons why she originally forced Psyche’s hand.

In fact, it’s easy to see that the series of visions she has (which are chock-full of Jungian imagery) before her death leads to a conversion experience. C.S. Lewis was known for writing extensively on Christian themes, so it’s interesting to note that he manages to lend a Christian veneer to Orual’s experience, despite the fact that she worships the gods of ancient Greece.

Considering conversations in the last year about whether female characters should be likeable, Till We Have Faces is a timely book to read. In many ways Orual is not likeable – she’s needy and manipulative, and convinced that the sacrifices she forces other characters to make are made for the right reasons, rather than for her own happiness. But within the confines of the story, the choices do make sense, especially when viewed through the funhouse mirror that is Orual’s mind.

What I mean is that more people should be reading this book. After hearing Burnham and Lord talk about it, I was desperate to read it myself. But you know what? It appears to be out of print. I couldn’t buy it through my Kobo. I couldn’t even find a copy of it through the Toronto Public Library, which quite an is impressive feat. Scanning Abebooks resulted in finding copies that were a bit out of my price range. So when my friend sent me a pirated PDF version of this book, I threw up my hands and said “good enough.”

Let me repeat that: I have a huge library of eBooks. Hundreds of books and magazines that were purchased legally, or gotten for free through otherwise legitimate means. I am generally against eBook piracy. Yet I was willing to read a pirated version of this book, because it was otherwise so hard for me to find.

Lewis’s Space Trilogy just got a handsome new reissue from HarperCollins for its 75th anniversary. Of course, I wish that Till We Have Faces was still in print, but the 60th anniversary of its original publication is only a few years away. Will anyone else be rooting for a new print edition to celebrate?

Up next: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Book Review: Hawkeye Vol 1: My Life as a Weapon

Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life as a WeaponTitle: Hawkeye, Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon
Author: Matt Fraction
Illustrators: David Aja, Javier Pulido, and Alan Davis
Format: Print
Publisher: Marvel
Rating: 3 out of 5

Despite my enjoyment of superhero-comic-inspired movies, I’m not a huge person for the comics themselves.  However, the buzz surrounding the new Hawkeye series has been pretty hard to ignore – it’s been praised elsewhere for its verve and playfulness. This book collects the first 5 issues of the series, as well as a tie-in issue from Young Avengers.

Playfulness I will definitely give this volume, but otherwise I’m a poor judge when it comes to books like these. I was spoiled last year by the balls-to-the-wall gonzo beauty and emotional heft of Saga volumes 1 and 2 last year (I am so happy it won the Hugo), so this is a big change of pace.

My Life as a Weapon follows the lives of Clint Barton, the Avenger known as Hawkeye, and Kate Bishop, his protege also known as Hawkeye. The two take part in the usual superhero escapades – falling off of buildings, fighting gangsters, thwarting evil plots, covering their own asses when things go south, etc – but their adventures are distinguished by a refreshing focus on the small scale. Clint goes into a seedy little warehouse casino, and after bullying a gangster, rescues a dog (aka: Pizza Dog) caught in the crossfire. Clint’s attempt to buy a classic muscle car from a pretty redhead turns into an all-out car-chase against even more gangsters. And so forth.

What really separates this book, though, is its experimentation with panel layout and narrative. Perhaps the best example of this is in issue #3, the one with the car chase. As the images show the story happening in chronological order, the narration from Clint reveals that this is all a flashback, and provides commentary upon the events in reverse chronological order. Interspersed throughout are small circular callout panels with close-ups and descriptions of the variety of arrows that Hawkeye uses – arrows that, of course, will come into play as the chase ensues.

I think the Young Avengers tie-in issue at the end is the weakest part of the book. The shift in tone between it (straightforward superhero’s-journey stuff, with a helping of romance) and Hawkeye proper (arch and kinetic) is profound. Ultimately, colour me intrigued about the series; I’m particularly looking forward to the Pizza-Dog-centric issue #11 when Volume 2 rolls around.

Up next: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Book Review: Machine of Death

Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !Title: Machine of Death
Editors: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !
Rating: 4 out of 5
Publisher: Bearstache Books
Format: eBook

A few months ago, I read submissions for Apex Publications’ upcoming Glitter & Mayhem anthology. Reading the slush, and reading more stuff about it in the aftermath, I’ve learned something about what it takes to put together a good themed anthology. Specifically, don’t take stories that do obvious things with the stated theme.

Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, is a collection of short stories that upholds that lesson in spades.

First, the theme, originally proposed by Dinosaur Comics: in the future, a machine is invented that can predict how a person will die based on a small blood sample. The machine is always correct, yet its predictions are vague and cryptic, resulting in deaths that are unexpected yet technically accurate.

The great pleasure of MoD is seeing what ways the authors have devised of going beyond the obvious idea of people meeting their demises in unexpected yet delightfully ironic ways. Instead, the strongest of these stories talk about what changes this new technology would have on our society, or how it would subvert previously-normal aspects of our lives. This is a long collection – at 34 stories, perhaps exhaustively so, and this length is my only complaint about the book – so instead of going through each story, I’ll pick out a few of my favourites:

“Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions” by Jeffrey C. Wells – I loved that the main character actively welcomes his death and is conditioning his body to be as healthy as possible when he dies, all so that the lions who are destined to eat him will have a good meal. This one had great dialogue, a truly memorable character, and an ending that reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”.

“Firing Squad” by J. Jack Unrau – The framing story on this one is slightly odd, but the political commentary (as well as the uncomfortable truths it exposes about the ignorance of many rich Westerners backpacking through a developing country) pleased my inner university student.

“HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” by Brian Quinlan – It’s all there in the title, folks. Audaciously brief.

“Not Waving but Drowning” by Erin McKean – This is my favourite from the entire collection. It’s brief, but the narrative voice behind it is spot on. I felt like I really knew this character – a high-schooler in a place where the MoD tests are mandated for all students – and why she made the choices she did to keep her death prediction private.

“Exhaustion from Having Sex with a Minor” by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw – Saucy title aside, this is a clever send-up of the media circus surrounding a political campaign. What really makes it is the twist at the end, which would have been impossible to conceal in any other narrative medium.

“Cocaine and Painkillers” by David Malki ! – This one went on a bit longer than it needed to, but it turns out that combining the Machine of Death with institutional sexism and infomercials is a success.

“Prison Knife Fight” by Shaenon K. Garrity  – Yet another one that comes up with a unique societal implication for the MoD: the death predictions are used as part of the screening and application process for elite preppy pre-schools. Here, the title knife fighter is one such toddler under consideration, and his plebeian manner of demise looms large over his patrician family as he grows up and slouches towards Yale.

“While Trying to Save Another” by Daliso Chaponda – Most of this story didn’t work for me, especially the main character, but there was one scene within it of particular beauty. In it, a secondary character knows that she will die tomorrow, and hosts a farewell party for her friends – the secrets they reveal, and the manner in which the person about to be murdered wishes to be remembered, is extremely poignant.

“Miscarriage” by James L. Sutter – I think this story subverts the anthology’s theme the most out of the entire collection. Ultimately, the death machine bodes well for the start of a life, rather than the end of one. It all hinges on the final line of dialogue.

“Cassandra” by C.E. Guimont – This is the last story in the book, and I can see why the editors chose to close it out with this one. Not only is it the only one in the collection that actually attempts to give a full explanation of where the machine’s predictive powers come from, but more importantly, it shows the devastating length to which one person will go to save herself – and the entire world – from destruction.

Anyways, if you’re up for some morbid, intriguing fiction – or if you happen to love neon green dinosaurs – Machine of Death is a worthy read, despite its length. The sequel anthology, This Is How You Die, will be coming out in July. I’m looking forward into seeing what new ways these contributors will reinvent its central concept.

Book Review: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova Title: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells
Author: Ben Bova
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I’m going to out myself right now by revealing my lack of true geek cred: before I started reading this book, I’d never heard of Ben Bova. In fact, my knowledge of most of the Golden Age sci-fi authors is pitiful. Asmiov? All I’ve read of him is I, Robot. Arthur C. Clarke? Nada. Sturgeon? The only novel of his I’ve read is More than Human.

The point is that my knowledge of the sci-fi greats is painfully limited, and Ben Bova’s work fits comfortably within that void. So learning that he used to be the editor for Analog magazine – and that he used to read every story that crossed his slush pile – got my attention.

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is Bova’s attempt to teach struggling sci-fi writers the nuts and bolts of story writing so that they can get out of the slush pile. In it, he breaks down story craft into four key elements: character, background, plot, and conflict. Each section is broken down into three chapters: one on using the element in theory, one with a short story showing the element in action, and a third one analyzing the short story in question.

The final portion of the book is devoted to analyzing the differences between novel writing and short story writing, and explaining how the publishing industry works. Considering that this book is nearly 20 years old, the information about sci-fi markets and submission practices is outdated, but the advice about planning, research and story craft ring true.

Despite this, this book is not without its problems. The chapters earlier in the book on theory were much more engaging than the short stories or the ones discussing the element in practice. In particular, the chapter on character theory contained a piece of advice I found so revelatory that when I had a chance to talk to Ben Bova at Ad Astra early in April, I told him how much it meant to me, and how it gave me a completely new way to think about a character I was working on.

He was lovely in person, by the way – a complete gentleman.

The book’s biggest weakness is the stories that Bova includes to prove his points. I’m not quite sure what to think of them – the best way I can describe them is that they exhibit a simplicity and naïveté (especially the story of the young boy running away from home in the hopes that aliens can cure his leukemia, and yes, I am being totally serious here) that seems like it’s dialed straight from the 50s, post-war optimism intact. Considering Bova’s age and background, they probably were written then. But I can guarantee that if stories like those crossed my path in the slush pile, I wouldn’t give them a second chance.

Ultimately, The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is a very handy reference book for speculative fiction writers of all stripes – perhaps I’m just too much of a black-hearted cynic to enjoy Bova’s fiction, even if his non-fiction is sound.


Book Review: Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak

Before and Afterlives by Christopher BarzakTitle: Before and Afterlives
Author: Christopher Barzak
Rating: 3 out of 5
Publisher: Lethe Press
Format: eBook

Note: I received a advance review copy of this book from the author.

Before and Afterlives is my first exposure to Christopher Barzak’s writing, but this collection of 17 stories returns to a few themes so noticeably that I imagine they appear throughout his body of work: the despair of living in a declining community, gay relationships, and coming to turns with loss. Not every story deals with these motifs, but they are present enough to make me wonder. However, in this case, I think it’s best to deal with each story on its own terms. Here’s a breakdown of all 17:

What We Know About the Lost Families of – House: Part Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, part Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, “What We Know” involves an unnamed collective narrator recalling the history of a local house haunted by malevolent spirits. This story informed my impressions of Barzak’s writing style throughout this collection, as it employs a sort of Southern Gothic sensibility that I noticed in subsequent stories.

The Drowned Mermaid: This was one of my least favourite stories in the collection. On the surface, it’s about a woman who finds an injured mermaid and nurses it back to health in her bathtub. Underneath, it’s about her attempts to deal with the disappearance of her drug-addict daughter. The subtext is painfully obvious, however, and the woman is so self-indulgent in her mourning that I ended up losing whatever sympathy I had for her at the start. I happened to read Ted Chiang’s novellette “Story of Your Life” this month, and Chiang’s take on a mother mourning a lost daughter is so distinctive that this one suffers badly in comparison.

Dead Boy Found: A young man deals with the ripples of shock that spread throughout his community after one of his schoolmates is found murdered. Although I fully understood the protagonist’s anger and disconnectedness, I thought the climax of the story – where he, completely nude, climbs into the hole where the other boy’s corpse was found – was the kind of overwrought, Laden With Meaning occurrence that I typically associate with literary fiction, and thus try to avoid.

A Mad Tea Party: Here’s another story about a woman dealing with loss in an unhealthy manner. In this case, the protagonist is railing against the death of her controlling mother, and still has her domineering sister to deal with. My interpretation is that she has some sort of mental illness which is exacerbated by her family’s lack of compassion, but despite this, I didn’t feel any sympathy for the main character. Instead, I got irritated by her self-indulgent anger and lack of foresight.

Born on the Edge of an Adjective: In comparison to the previous few stories, “Born” was a welcome change of pace. At first, it starts out as a story of a man not being able to get over a breakup, and then it turns into something different. The ambiguous ending works surprisingly well, but what really anchors everything is the depth and reality of the spurned protagonist’s emotions.

The Other Angelas: This story centres on a gimmick – a drab woman solves a mid-life crisis by inadvertently creating more audacious clones of herself – but it’s handled with a light touch, so it works. This story is short and ends on a happy note, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

A Resurrection Artist: When a young man discovers that he has the ability to resurrect himself after committing suicide, his pragmatic older sister turns his knack into a form of income. However, this story left several questions unanswered at the end. Is he the only known person who can do this? If so, then why does the title reference “A” resurrection artist instead of “The” resurrection artist? Whenever the main character resurrects himself, he finds a new belonging – a notebook, a gold ring – on his person. What is the significance of this? I really wish this story ran longer.

The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire: Yes, the protagonist really does have barbed wire growing from his body. All his life, the boy has been isolated from others on account of his strange affliction, but the arrival of a new preacher in town – along with his comely daughter – changes things. Predictably, teenage hormones get involved, and just as predictably, the protagonist displays absolutely no foresight about how he’ll be outcast again if he has a (never explicitly stated but pretty obviously sexual) liaison with the preacher’s daughter. This one seems like another example of People Doing Stupid Things Because This Is A Beautiful And Literary Story, Dammit.

Map of Seventeen: Meg is a girl with a fierce will and penetrating insight. She doesn’t like it at all when her opportunistic brother Tommy moves back to the family home after college, new boyfriend in tow. But what can she do? Ultimately, when she learns the truth about Tommy’s new boyfriend, she also learns that sometimes leaving harsh judgement aside is best. I loved learning about Meg’s inner life in this story, as she’s a remarkably intelligent, canny girl. However, while I applaud her new maturity about learning to let things be, part of me hoped she would tell her brother off. Meg has valid reasons for resenting her brother, and I really wanted him to be taken down a peg. Despite this, I think that the relationship between Tommy and his boyfriend was well-realized.

Dead Letters: Alice has just learned that Sarah, her best friend from childhood, is dead – but she doesn’t believe it. She was dead once too, after all, but she came back, so Sarah must be back as well. She takes it upon herself to write a series of increasingly disturbed letters to her best friend. However, over time, the lack of response forces Alice (and the reader) to question her existence. This story works better in theory for me than in practice. After a while, I found Alice’s continued insistence that Sarah was alive to be annoying rather than creepy. The implication that Alice was Sarah’s imaginary friend didn’t work for me either, especially since the fact that other people can see her appears to contradict this.

Plenty: Here, the main character looks back on his time in Youngstown as a grubby university student and on the rifts that developed between him and his housemate when their goals for the future diverged. In particular, he thinks about the sweet old lady who left bags of groceries on everyone’s doorstep, and the secret power she had that allowed her to be so generous. This story displays a similar generosity of spirit, and is probably the most fairy-tale-like of the lot.

The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter: Sylvie can see ghosts and talk to them. When her father discovers this, he decides to take advantage of her unique skills and sets himself up as a ghost-hunter. Eventually, as Sylvie grows up and her father takes all of the credit for her supernatural abilities, she realizes that his efforts cause more harm than good. This story works on a lot of levels, but in particular I liked how creepy Sylvie’s father sounded under his veneer of oblivious benevolence.

Caryatids: Lucius is a male prostitute who’s been paid to do something new by a repeat client. In this case, the client is a scientist, and he’s created a new type of nanomite that, when injected, induces a sex change in the injectee. I wanted to like this story for its boldness, but the section where Lucius acclimates to his new female body is positively dripping with the Male Gaze. It left an awful taste in my mouth, especially since his depiction of gay relationships in some of the other stories here are fairly positive and/or nuanced.

A Beginner’s Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse: This is the only previously unpublished work in B&A, but it’s a stunner. I’m a sucker for fiction told in the second person, and this story is a good example, as we trace the unnamed protagonist into back alleys, underground meetings and caves while the society around them becomes more totalitarian and quickly breaks down.

Smoke City: Along with “A Beginner’s Guide”, this is my favourite story of the collection. There’s an overtone of the myth of Persephone and Hades in the proceedings (a woman goes down into some sort of underworld to periodically reunite with her husband), but the underworld itself is a hell of smoke and industry and giant furnaces. Some of the details of the setting are made even more macabre by their steadfast normalcy, like the fact that the giant factories are given women’s names like “Eliza” and “Carrie”. This story filled my head with images of grit and smoke and damp yellow kitchens – a much stronger visual imprint than many of the other stories here.

Vanishing Point: Nathan disappeared from his family’s lives last year, and his mother still hasn’t recovered. Of course, that’s hard to do, especially since Nathan didn’t disappear all at once. First his skin became transparent. And then, slowly, over the months, the rest of his body did too. Now, Nathan’s mother is telling the story of his disappearance all over again to a researcher trying to get to the bottom of his strange malady – though it turns out that Nathan still has a few things to say about the subject. This story was fairly neutral to me – I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other.

The Language of Moths: This final story is the longest one in the book. It, like “Born on the Edge” and “Map of Seventeen”, has a young gay character, Eliot, as its central focus. His family – made up of his entomologist father, academic mother, and autistic sister – go off on a camping trip in the hopes that his father will be able to capture a specimen of a previously unidentified species of moth that he saw once as a child. Eliot is resentful of his family’s unspoken expectation that he will always look after his sister, and when he’s given an opportunity to be on his own, he takes it. This part of the story is well-told.

However, the depiction of Dawn, Eliot’s sister, is hugely problematic. She’s barely verbal, and often wanders off by herself if no one is watching. This is typical for some people on the autistic spectrum. But, unbeknownst to her family, she can communicate with insects. When she sees how much her father wants to discover that species of moth, she asks her new friends for help, because she wants him to be happy. Likewise, when Eliot starts up a relationship with a young man in a nearby town, Dawn notices this and decides to leave him alone because he’s so happy. Looking at the math here (special powers + interested solely in helping others + no discernable wants of her own), Dawn looks like a textbook Magical Autistic Person. This saddens me, because otherwise this story is full of great beauty and depth.

Overall, my opinion of Before and Afterlives is mixed. Some stories, like “The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter” and “Smoke City”, were near-perfect. Others, like “The Language of Moths” and “Map of Seventeen” were interesting but flawed. I found that what turned me off most consistently from his writing was when his characters displayed extremes of obstinance or emotion that I didn’t fully understand, especially when the consequences of those characters’ actions seemed obvious to me (as the reader) but not to the characters themselves. In the end, this collection has left me puzzled more than anything else.

My 2012 Hugo Award Nominations

Today was the deadline for this year’s Hugo Award nominations, so I finally got down to work and submitted my ballot.

I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable of the field to submit nominations in every category, but I also wanted to talk about what works I did nominate, and why. So here goes:

Best Novel

Best Novelette

  • Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente, published by Clarkesworld Magazine – Valente is one of those authors I desperately want a blood transfusion from, in the hopes that I might absorb and recreate her writerly amazingness. Like the previous year’s “Silently and Very Fast”, this story examines the uneasy ways in which technology and progress affect our bodies and our families, but this time through the lens of 50’s boosterism and Cold War paranoia. The full text is available to read here.
  • The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal – A lovely story that blends together The Wizard of Oz; 50’s-era retro futurism; and painful truths about old age, losing the one you love, and balancing your family hopes with your career. You don’t think it would work,  but it totally does. The full text is available to read here.

The whole “revisionist look at the 50’s” theme present in both stories is just a coincidence, I swear.

Best Short Story

This is the category I felt most informed about because of all the stories I consume, but even so, the frontrunners were obvious.

  • Robot by Helena Bell, published in Clarkesworld Magazine – The thing I love about this story is that it’s written in second person – and God, does Helena Bell make it work. This has to be one of the most jaw-dropping, inventive, virtuoso-like (virtuosic?) stories of 2012. The full text is available to read here, but I honestly think it’s better in its audio form – Cat Rambo’s narration gives it an extra edge of pain and verisimilitude. You can listen to the podcast version here.
  • Immersion by Aliette de Bodard, published in Clarkesworld Magazine – This was one of the most heartbreaking stories I heard last year. This is one in a string of stories written by Aliette de Bodard taking place in the future on a series of Vietnamese space stations. She is one of several authors whose writing has forced me to analyze my position as privileged reader and writer of speculative fiction – being that I’m white, anglo, straight, ablebodied, and cis-gendered – and for that I am grateful. The full text is available to read here.
  • Spindles by L.B. Gale, published in Lightspeed Magazine – This one is a bit more experimental, but I’m a sucker for stories that reinvent and subvert fairy tale tropes, and this one has a healthy, heaping tablespoon of feminist dissent. The full text is available to read here.
  • The Seven Samovars by Peter Sursi, published in Lightspeed Magazine – This one isn’t as “deep” or issues-laden as the nominees above, but there’s something about the breeziness and whimsy of it that I dig. It’s quite dialgoue-heavy, but it works because it sells the otherworldliness of the story’s setting; I would love to work at a coffee shop like the one in the story – either that, or have a cup of Erzebet’s mint, basil, and lemon verbena tea, which sounds delicious. The full text is available to read here.
  • Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain by Cat Rambo, published in her anthology Near + Far by Hydra House – Cat Rambo read this story aloud at the 2012 World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, and it made me and the audience gasp. Literally. I figure any story that can do that is worth greater attention. The full text is available to read here.

Best Related Work

  • Writing Excuses with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells – This podcast has taught me so much about writing in the year and a half that I’ve been listening to it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Best Editor, Short Form

  • Lynne M. Thomas for Apex Magazine – I really love Apex in the short time that I’ve been subscribing to it, so I might as well give it, and her, another form of support.
  • John Joseph Adams for Lightspeed Magazine – It took me a long time to get into the groove of Lightspeed after I subscribed to it. A lot of the time, I don’t like the stories and novellas he chooses for this magazine. However, his choices do display a consistent editorial sensibility, and for that, I respect him.

Best Editor, Long Form

  • Brett Savory of ChiZine Publications
  • Sandra Kasturi of ChiZine Publications

What can I say? I love me some ChiZine. I love the work they put out (as evidenced by my Best Novel nominations above), and I love the fact that they’re based in Toronto like I am.

Best Fan Artist

I found these suggestions through Twitter – thanks, Mary Robinette Kowal and co!

Best Semiprozine

I subscribe to the first three magazines, and read slush (quite happily!) for the fourth. There is no way I can be objective about this category.

Best Fancast

  • SF Squeecast – Yes, this won the Hugo last year, but I only started listening to it a few weeks ago, and it’s amazing. I love the hosts’ crazy conversations.
  • SF Crossing the Gulf – I love Karen Lord, so I’ll gladly support the podcast she cohosts with Karen Burnham.
  • The Geeks Guide to the Galaxy – Transcripts of GGG’s interviews show up in my electronic subscription to Lightspeed Magazine, and I quite enjoy them, so this gets a nod. One caveat, though: I much prefer the transcripts over the original audio versions.

Best Fan Writer

  • Requires Only That You Hate – Like I mentioned above, several websites in the last year have made me re-examine the privilege that I hold in regards to being a “normative” consumer and (hopefully) producer of fiction. I’m nowhere near close to writing truly inclusive, progressive fiction, but Requires Only That You Hate, with its queer, feminist, and PoC critical lens, does a fine job of lobbing introspective grenades.

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Damien Walters Grintalis – Here I admit my bias again: Damien is an editor at Electric Velocipede, which I read slush for. I haven’t read her debut novel Ink, but several short stories of hers are available online, and they’re dark, literary, and fantastic. Try these on for size if you’re interested: When She is Empty and They Make of You a Monster.
  • Peter Sursi – As I mentioned above, I quite liked “The Seven Samovars,” and figured that since he was one of the few new/upcoming writers on my ballot, I should show him some support.
  • L.B. Gale – Same thing. I liked “Spindles”, and I also quite like her blog, so I want to support someone new and awesome.
  • Rachel Hartman – Seraphina was Hartman’s debut, and as far as I’m aware, she hasn’t published anything else. Since her book was one of my favourites of last year, it’s foolish to leave her off the list.

So that’s my ballot for the year. What about you? Even though today’s the deadline, what remarkable fiction from 2012 can you recommend?

What I read in February

Writing News

Taking Tobin’s course in creative writing has really increased my confidence, and so I decided to try my hand at writing a few short stories (flash fiction, really) and entering them into contests. One of the contests is still ongoing, but I have great news about the other one: I made it on the shortlist of the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest!

The winners won’t be announced for roughly another month, but being a finalist means that I still get a chance to pitch a novel to ChiZine Publications.

Of course, this means that this month, I’ll actually have to start writing a novel worth pitching. No pressure, right? I have a few ideas, but I don’t know if any of them are viable yet.

Reading News

February was a much tougher month than January. That always seems the case, I guess, as the rush of positivity from the new year slows to a trickle. So, I read only about half as much in February than I did the month before. Actually, I only finished that many – I certainly began other books, but my interest flagged; I started on strong with reading the first volume of Malcolm Lyon’s translation of The Arabian Nights (more about that here), but I ended up getting fatigued about a third of the way in.

In fact, apart from Silent Girl, the only other full-length book I finished last month was The Cat by Edeet Ravel. I liked it and sympathized with it immensely (like the main character in that book, I also experienced the pain and shock of losing someone very close to me because of a car crash), but the emotional impact of the novel faded very quickly after I finished it. Also, the cover copy made me feel like it was going to be more of a psychological horror piece where the main character feels constrained by her cat in a Yellow-Wallpaper-ish sort of way, but it turned out to be nothing like that at all.

However, as usual, I still read and listened to an abundance of short stories. I still haven’t caught up on my backlog of issues from Lightspeed (seriously, each issue is about as long as a full-length novel – reading one of them is a major commitment), but I did continue with my usual habits of Apex, Clarkesworld, and several podcasts. Here are a few of the highlights:

Lightspeed: I read the November 2012 issue and finished the July 2012 issue (which for some reason, I started reading several months ago and forgot about). My favourites from both include “Requiem in the Key of Prose” by Jake Kerr, “Ghost River Red” by Aidan Doyle, “Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss, “Gordon, the Self-Made Cat” by Peter S. Beagle, “Searching for Slave Leia” by Sandra McDonald, “As the Wheel Turns” by Aliette de Bodard, and “A Princess of Spain” by Carrie Vaughn.

Apex: I loved the February issue’s theme of stories reinterpreting or inspired by Shakespeare. In fact, it turned out to be a nice companion volume to Silent Girl, another book of stories inspired by Shakespearean plays. In this issue, I liked Kat Howard’s “The Face of Heaven So Fine.” Patricia C. Wrede’s retelling of the story of Hamlet from Gertrude’s point of view (“Mad Hamlet’s Mother”) was also quite interesting, but I think it would have had more punch if told in first person rather than third.

Clarkesworld: Oddly enough, the February 2013 issue still left me pretty lukewarm, like the January issue. Of the three stories published, my favourite was “The Wanderers” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, for the audacity of its premise and its success in making such disjointed, ungrammatical sentences work. The other stories were so poignant as to nearly become parodies of Clarkesworld’s particular style (“Gravity” by Erzebet YellowBoy) or were all atmosphere with no substance (“Vacant Spaces” by Greg Kurzawa).

Escape Pod: The best EP story of February was “They Go Bump” by David Barr Kirtley – a great mix of science fiction and horror, with the horror being supplied by the paranoia of the human mind. Other good ones were “The Tamarisk Hunter” by Paulo Bacigalupi and “Punk Voyager” by Shaenon Garrity (technically, a bunch of Excape Pod, Pseudopod and Podcastle stories were podcast January, but what the hell).

Pseudopod: Pseudopod has had a really strong run for the past few months. In particular, I liked “Cry Room” by Ted Kosmatka, “Cell Call” by Marc Laidlaw, “The Persistence of Memory” by William Meikle, and “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Dark” by Michael Marshall Smith – the last one in particular had pitch-perfect narration.

Podcastle: Oddly enough, the two most notable stories by Podcastle that I heard in February were published in January: “Tiger in the BSE” by E.Lily Yu (yes, that E. Lily Yu) and “A Memory of Wind” by Rachel Swirsky. However, I think that I would have enjoyed the latter more if I had read it instead of listening to it – the narration of the story was competent, but not full of rage, and this is a story where rage definitely needs to be present. This is weird because normally, modern exegeses of Classical mythology are my catnip.

Daily Science Fiction: DSF publishes so many stories I’m just going to do a bullet list of my favourites instead.

  • “Substitutes” by Colin P. Davies
  • “The Needs of Hollow Men” by K.A. Rundell
  • “A Hairy Predicament” by Melissa Mead
  • “Maps” by Beth Cato
  • “The Small Print” by Amy McLane

So, that’s what going through February was like! What about you? Do you have any recommendations to make in the comments?