Book review · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #5: On Rating Short Fiction (and more!)

Welcome to the fifth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.

This time, I will:

  • review six short stories (nothing like last month’s fourteen, I know; that’s just how my relationship with short fiction is, it comes and goes)
  • write a DNF review of an anthology
  • explain why I don’t give a rating in the aforementioned reviews.

What I Read

Short Fiction
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The Time Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu (Tor.com): A Snow Queen retelling with physics! Abstract and unusually formatted (with footnotes); not an easy one to follow, but really interesting nonetheless. It talks about the nature of evil, how we tend to rationalize and dismiss it, because that’s how it always has been. I’m not sure I fully got the scenes of the Robber Queen and the Lap Women: maybe an acknowledgment of the importance of friendship and elders in this situation, coupled with the distance that it has inevitably already formed? Apart from that, gorgeous writing; this is the kind of science fairytale I could see myself returning to.

A Stick of Clay, in the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential by JY Neon Yang (Clarkesworld): trans mecha phoenix pilot story in space! I think this one definitely could have been shorter (there are parts that kind of drag, which shouldn’t happen in a novelette! Of course it happened on Clarkesworld) and I’m generally not going to mesh well with stories that heavily involve religion without actually talking about the religion (in this case, basically AU Catholicism in space), but I recognize that there wouldn’t have been the space for that here. Still, I… really, really liked this? Especially the ending. There’s a lot to say about how the idea pushed on queer people (sometimes even by other queer people) that figuring oneself out is quick and easy is one of the ways society compels us to accept the roles we’ve been forced into – but sometimes you don’t know who you are because you’ve never been given the chance to be anything else. Powerful and so, so non-binary.

Beyond the Dragon’s Gate by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com): What I love most about queer SFF are the new perspectives it brings; this talks about AIs’ relationship with their hardware in a trans perspective – while also having human trans characters. By the way, no wonder the non-binary marshal is fascinating despite the little space they have to shine, it’s a Lee story with typical Lee elements (including Unfriendly Architecture, which I love). I liked how AIs crossing the Turing Threshold was likened to a carp turning into a dragon, it reminded me of one of my favorite novelettes (Zen Cho’s imugi story, which I think is inspired by tales with similar elements).

Taraxacum by Cristina Stubbe (Anathema): I read this one for sapphicathon! I’m in the middle of preparing myself for the phytognostic part of the botany exam, which involves dealing with a lot of weeds; this is about magical weeds, so it felt right. Specifically, it’s about dandelions growing on the windowsill in slightly magical ways. It’s a latinx sapphic story about grief, a relationship that ended unexpectedly, written like many diary entries. It’s quiet and full of botanical magic, just what I need to not mind that a short story is excessively straightforward. I really liked it.

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The Insects of Love by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com): dreamlike story about an entomologist looking for her dead sister… maybe. You can draw completely different conclusions depending on how you look at it. It’s barely grounded and one could question everything about it, as you have no way of knowing what’s actually real inside the universe of the story. I appreciate the attempt at sci-fi entomology (one really can’t have too many bugs in a book, I say), but I would have liked this a lot more if the author had asked someone with basic knowledge of taxonomy to proofread it, as it’s full of obvious and jarring mistakes.

Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Café by Vida Cruz (Strange Horizons): written like a tourist guide, inspired by stories from and current political situation of the Philippines, this is about a Café staffed by supernatural creatures, and one of the main ingredients is human heartbreak. It’s explicitly and deliberately political, which makes me think I would have gotten more out of this had I been more familiar with the context. Still, it was an interesting read, especially Maria Makiling’s outlook on non-humans and her goals (and everyone’s ideas about her goals). I also really liked that it’s a multilingual short story, as I don’t see them often – most of the parts not in English (I think they’re in Tagalog and Cebuano?) are already translated for English-only speakers, but not all of them – and, of course, the food descriptions.

Anthology
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This month’s anthology was The Mythic Dream edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, but sadly, it ended up being mostly “this month’s attempt at an anthology”, because I rather quickly realized that I was hating it. After having disliked most of Hungry Hearts (which I forced myself to finish) last month, I decided to just DNF this one. It’s not that all the stories in it were bad – they weren’t, actually! I liked the one at the beginning by Seanan McGuire, and the one by JY Neon Yang – but the majority of them were mediocre, forgettable, and didn’t say anything interesting nor came together in a way that made reading the weak ones worth it. Even the two stories I mentioned wouldn’t have been anything special outside the anthology, not when I’ve been reading so much great short fiction at the same time for free online.

I just think short fiction retellings aren’t that great of an idea. What sets a retelling apart is in the execution, and even with deconstructions and stories that play with format (like JY Neon Yang’s) there’s only so much that can be done in a short story. The result is… not that interesting 90% of the time? Outside of this anthology, even Variations on an Apple, a lovely & very peculiar retelling of the Iliad by my favorite author, is one of my least favorite of Yoon Ha Lee’s; and The Invariance of Snow by E. Lily Yu was good but it’s not a favorite. I just don’t think short fictional retellings are for me.


Why I Don’t Rate Short Fiction (Mostly)

If you’ve been following this series of short fiction reviews this year, you might have noticed that on this blog I don’t rate any of the short stories I read, and this is a recent development – in the past, when I wrote reviews of short stories, I always rated them. What changed?

Mostly, I’m finding that it isn’t useful to me, at least here. For the short stories I do mark on goodreads as “read”, I use ratings because I notice that having a rating calls attention to a review the way a text-only one doesn’t; short fiction is already something that gets little to no attention. However, this isn’t a problem on this blog, and mostly: I want people to read why I liked or didn’t like a short story and see if it would be for them instead of just basing themselves on the rating.

As I already find difficult to sum up what I felt about something so short with a rating, I don’t want people to ignore something just because I gave it three stars! Especially when in this format, “like” or “dislike” has so much to do with personal connection to themes and writing, more than it does with actual craft, at least most of the time. More than in novels for sure.

To be honest, I also find the one-to-five star rating useless when it comes to short fiction, because as far as I’m concerned all of short fiction is divided in “favorite” (will forever remember, left me something, maybe even changed my life – yes that has happened but it’s a discussion for another day, don’t dismiss short fiction) and “not a favorite, will forget about it”, with some exceptions being stories that I hated – but that happens rarely. I can try to translate that to star ratings, and I do, but it’s not accurate. There’s so much difference between a five (favorite) and a four (not a favorite), while there isn’t so much between a four and a three or a three and a two.

So I don’t rate it. I try to explain what I thought of it in words; I hope it works.


Have you read any of these? How do you rate short fiction?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Reviews: Recent Sci-Fi Reads

Today, I’m reviewing two adult science fiction novels I’ve read recently! Both are new releases; one is a new installment in a well-loved series and one an introspective futuristic novel translated from Chinese.


52381770._sx318_sy475_I first decided to read Network Effect because of the hype. I know, I know, that kind of thing usually doesn’t end well, but while I love Murderbot, I don’t think one character is ever enough to carry a whole novel – not when I hadn’t felt anything about any other character in the last two novellas. However, since I know this will probably be a Hugo nominee next year, and since I had just read Exit Strategy (of which I won’t post a full review just because I found it that uninteresting), this seemed like a good idea.

And at first, it didn’t go well. I was kind of bored for the first 30% and I considered DNFing the book, because none of the human characters were that interesting (as usual for this series, and to a degree I think this is a deliberate choice) and there was that weird alien contamination plotline I wasn’t a fan of. However, I like the narration and I do care about Murderbot (also, these books are funny), so I continued.

And, once ART/Perihelion was in action, I couldn’t stop screaming internally. I’m understanding just how much it wasn’t a case that Artificial Condition was my favorite of the novellas. ART and Murderbot have Feelings about each other! Which they’d never want to admit! And it’s so funny to see two characters be dragged by all the humans around them because they won’t admit they’re friends – and the effect is strengthened by Murderbot’s organic and inorganic parts running almost completely on denial.

Also, the way Amena (Mensah’s teenage daughter) ends up being the middleman of the situation? Perfect, best character dynamic of the year, award-deserving

I still didn’t strongly care about the plot, or the world; while I like the commentary around the existence of corporations and their profit-driven way of life being inherently tied to AIs (an certain people’s) lack of rights, I just don’t find this universe to be that interesting! It’s very straightforward, which I guess makes it accessible, but it doesn’t do much more than throw acronyms at you without much context. Why write sci-fi if you won’t even try to use the Cool Factor!

I might read the recently-announced Fugitive Telemetry next year, because Network Effect finally gave me the feeling that the plot is going to branch out from the repetitive outline of the novellas, which all kind of felt like remixes of each other – we’ll see. This was overall a fun time, and I wouldn’t mind rereading it someday (…though I’d probably be skimming the first 30%)

My rating: ★★★¾


Vagabonds is a Chinese science-fiction novel by Hugo-Award winning author Hao Jingfang, translated into English by Ken Liu, and I listened to an audiobook narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. This was a buddy read with Silvia, and if you’re interested in reading this book, I really recommend reading it with a friend. It will give you the motivation to get through what’s a 640-page-tome/21-hour-audiobook, and discussing it – because there will be a lot to discuss – is half the fun. (All of the fun? This was many things but it wasn’t fun.)

“This is the tale of the fall of the last utopia.”
Vagabonds, prologue.

48593538._sy475_Don’t let the prologue fool you: Vagabonds is not that kind of sci-fi. It’s not a war story, even though the possibility and memory of war are ever-present shadows; it’s not a story about an apocalypse. It is a slow-paced, introspective novel about a group of young Martians returning to their planet after having spent years studying on Earth, where they started to question everything about their way of life. This is a tale about the fall of the very concept of utopia in the characters’ mind; a story about loss of faith accompanied by gain of insight. A story about how a society came close to becoming the very thing it swore to never be.

While it follows many characters, the closest thing to a main character Vagabonds has is Louying, the granddaughter of the Martian consul and one of the eighteen-year-olds returning from Earth. We follow her journey in discovering the history of her family and some ugly truths tied to it; we follow her as she asks questions and tries to find answers that work for her, and a place that might fit her after the way her experience in with living on two very different planets shaped her.

Louying has been taught she lives in an utopia, while the citizens of Earth believe her grandfather is a dictator; the truth is much more complicated than either statement. This book navigates these questions – what makes an utopia; what is freedom; what it means to be a dictator – while exploring many different points of views. It compares Martian collectivism against the individualism of Earth, digs into each society’s failing, and it never gives you definitive answers, but it still exposes the dangers of cultural exceptionalism, supremacy and close-mindedness. At its heart, Vagabonds is a story about the importance of communication between different viewpoints, how we can all learn a lot from each other.

I’m always here for stories that talk about what utopia might mean. I find the very concept of utopia as we usually conceive it inherently disturbing because stasis seems encoded in its very foundation, when that’s antithetical to human nature, or nature in general. (If ecological stability in an ecosystem is always is a dynamic equilibrium, I don’t have reasons to believe the situation is much different for human societies.) This book gets how every generation perceives its society in a different way and always strives for change, as it’s natural, but sometimes doesn’t understand the impact it may have.

I liked the lack of answers paired to a very well-defined, resonant character arc. At the same time, my usual bookish habitat is western queer SFF, so I kept thinking that Mars is a dystopia without considering any of these things just for its treatment of women – all people involved in politics are men and so are most people this book shows being involved in the sciences (all the relevant female characters are artists); you can also see the reflection of this in how the men around Louying treat her. I recognize this as the simplistic take it is, and yet it’s not something I can brush off. Maybe it’s because it isn’t an element of comparison – I don’t have any reason to believe book-Earth is any better in this – so the book chose not to engage with that. I don’t know; I’ll just say that it kept jumping up at me. Especially considering how multifaceted the worldbuilding is, how the book manages to talk in detail about the role of art, architecture, history, revolutions and innovation in a society, also going into the details of physics and engineering on Mars.

In an American categorization, this book would probably be seen as something standing on the line between genre and literary fiction, with the premise of the first and the mood and aim of the second. As I’m only familiar with the first, I can say that compared to the average sci-fi, is significantly slower, descriptive and meandering, with an almost dreamlike atmosphere. The characters are wonderfully crafted but you’re not reading the story for them (for the most part, I say, thinking about Dr. Reini), and there are some beautiful parts involving space exploration on the surface of Mars, but they’re again not the point. I ended up liking this book for what it was, but I think it’s important to know all of this before going into it – it’s not what you usually get from a sci-fi Saga Press tome. As for the translation, this is possibly the best translation I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them. It probably helps that the translator is an author himself.

My rating: ★★★★


Have you read or want to read any of these? Can you tell I wrote one of these in a hurry because conjunctivitis means I can’t look at a screen for too long? I say it shows

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

How can you write something so unprecedented yet so tropey?

43561631The Never-Tilting World is a queer post-apocalyptic fantasy book inspired by ancient Mesopotamian mythology and climate disasters. It’s a really peculiar book, and yet, despite my love for weird queer novels, I never fell in love with it. I did enjoy it a lot, yes – it was overall a really fun time and the audiobook was amazing, making the four PoVs work perfectly with four different narrators.

Let’s start from this book’s main strength: the worldbuilding is inherently cool. It’s set on a tidally locked planet (instant love for me), it has an interesting spin on what could have been a very tired elemental system but wasn’t, with a sprinkle of creepy plant magic. This book understands how to maximize the cool factor with the characters as well, having two goddess with rainbow-shifting colored hair as main characters, and involving undead underworld priests covered in lapis lazuli. And it’s really diverse, having an all-PoC cast, an F/F romance, an amputee main character and another with PTSD, with some really great conversations around trauma, including what’s more or less their world’s version of therapy.

However, while The Never-Tilting World is made up of a lot of very interesting and often unique ideas, they never quite came together in a satisfying way, and you could see the scaffolding too much.
This book has two storylines, one that is a hate-to-love romance during a desert chase, one that is a goddess/bodyguard love story featuring a descent into darkness. And everything about them felt like the author came up with the pitch before actually writing the story. I don’t know whether that’s true, but the result felt a lot more like a list of ingredients than a book. I wanted more depth from it, from the relationships, instead of it relying on tropes over and over, but that’s difficult to achieve when the novel seems to think that the way to keep the reader engaged is throwing either romance tropes or fight scenes against monsters at them. (Fight scenes are really not that interesting. I promise. Please let the characters have an actual conversation for once.)
The result is character work that is shoddy in places, predictably.

This book is inspired by climate disasters, and it was promoted as a book that had “climate change” as a theme. Did it, though? I guess that it does in the sense that it’s a story about young people doing what it takes to change the status quo in an increasingly hostile environment, and it talks about how the powerful believe they can survive by living in a bubble (the golden city) while stealing resources from poorer people, but the thing about fighting climate change is that it’s nothing so cool as fighting monsters; rather the often depressing and too slow work of, among many things, pushing for better policies, learning to deal with our problems instead of making them someone else’s, listening to scientists and indigenous people, reshaping the ways we conceptualize growth and economy, changing our priorities and whole way of living. This is not a problem we’re good at dealing with as humans, and the fact that you can’t solve it by whacking something might have something to do with that. The solutions this book gives to the environment-warping magic do not resonate, so far.
Maybe that will change in the sequel, I don’t know – it’s true that there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and this novel kept my interest enough for me to want to read The Ever-Cruel Kingdom. Something in the ending made me think this might be aiming for “we can solve this problem only if all the world works together”, which would already be thematically a better path. I hope that’s what it meant, as there is already one egregious case of wasted potential: Odessa’s descent into darkness.

You’re telling me that you had a whole character arc tied to greed for power in a book about climate disasters and you didn’t tie the “greed” and “climate disasters” themes together? Why? Is that not one of the main driving forces of real-world climate change?

I also found Odessa’s arc, like most “descent into darkness” arcs, unsatisfying: it relies too much on magic that warps the character’s mind. It deprives the main character of agency, and generally makes for a very uninteresting story. Hundreds of pages of a main character falling into a trap, slowly, with stilted magic-induced character development: not great!
(Also, let’s add “character eavesdropping on other character’s therapy session” to the “content warnings I didn’t know I needed” folder.)

Acqua, you might say, you spent the whole review complaining. But you still said you liked this?
Mainly because I’m a simple gay distracted by shiny cool things and this book is full of them and gay girls, so this was actually a great time, as long as I wasn’t thinking too much about how much better it could have been if only it had done certain things differently. But I don’t want to undermine that this book did get a lot right, mostly pertaining to Lan’s storyline and the ways it talked about power.
Lan’s arc around trauma, survivor’s guilt, and her attraction to Odessa was really well-written; if Odessa’s arc disappointed me, the exploration of the power dynamics between her and Lan, the way they shifted as Odessa changed, was really interesting to read. So was the subplot revolving around abuse in religious orders, which was accompanied by some hard truths this kind of stories don’t often deal with – everyone has the potential to be an abuser, and switching the people in power won’t put an end to abuse if the power structure itself isn’t changed.

Also, it was fun. It was entertaining and it was tropey but tropes exist because they work, so yes, I enjoyed this a lot, and I want to know what happens next.

My rating: ★★★½

This is my third book by Rin Chupeco, and so far all the books I’ve read by them have been either 3.25 (The Girl from the Well) or 3.5 stars (The Bone Witch, The Never-Tilting World), which is… really interesting, considering that they’re an author I still want to pick up more books from in the future.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

Today, I’m reviewing two Asian-inspired fantasy novellas I really liked. As usual, Tor.com doesn’t disappoint!


46802653._sy475_Empress of Salt and Fortune is the best example of quiet fantasy I know. It’s a story about a revolution, about the upheaval of an empire, the way many fantasy stories are – and yet it’s unlike everything I’ve ever read. There isn’t one fight scene, it’s told decades after the events happened, and it relies so much on details and symbolism, as quiet fantasy does when it needs to talk about something not quiet at all.

It follows Chih (they/them), a cleric – who pretty much functions as a historian and archivist – and their nixin Almost Brilliant, a magical hoopoe, as they talk with Rabbit, an old woman who was once one of the Empress’ servants.

This novella is split between Chih’s present and Rabbit’s past, and most chapters begin with an inventory. It’s a story told through the history of objects as much as the history of people, as the small, mundane details have their own language, and this book understands that. This hidden language of symbols is an important thread running through the story, and it’s tied to its main theme – the power that lies in what is overlooked. Like servants. Like exiled wives, as In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, was. Like the bonds women form with each other, and the way they support each others through hardships.

Because of its setup, this novella felt a lot like the mirror version of another queer Asian-inspired novella about devotion and revolution told in flashbacks I’ve read, The Ascent to Godhood (by the way, I would recommend this to all Tensorate fans). Unlike Ascent, however, it’s all but a tragic villain story. Empress of Salt and Fortune is gentle, unhurried, and very short – and more powerful than a lot of fantasy trilogies.

Half of the reason this story is so memorable is the writing. It’s never flowery and always sharp, almost minimalistic, so that what isn’t said and is just left implied has just as much weight as what is written. The descriptions are short but incredibly vivid, as is true for everything in this book, to be honest. Even minor characters that only appear in flashbacks, like Mai and Yan Lian, are so well-drawn they jump off the page. And In-yo? She’s already dead at the beginning of the story, but you could feel the power of her presence. The writing is that good.

Also, I loved the worldbuilding. It’s deceptively simple, clear and never messy, and the amount of casual queerness – not only the worldbuilding isn’t binarist, there are queer side characters too, which include In-yo – was amazing. Also, there are talking animals and people ride mammoths. How could I not love that.

Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read, now maybe even my favorite! I really look forward to reading what Nghi Vo will write in the future.

My rating: ★★★★★


45166076._sy475_Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this, and it’s far from my favorite thing from Zen Cho, but I got emotional about the ending, so.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a wuxia-inspired fantasy novella following a group of bandits and an ex-anchorite nun after an unexpected fight in a coffeehouse.

I want to start with the positives and say that Zen Cho knows how to write effective banter even when there’s not much page-time to develop the characters, and really gets the serious-humorous balance right in general as well – this is overall a very entertaining story. It’s also always really nice to read about fantasy worlds where queerness is relatively unremarkable; I want to specifically mention that this is also true for being trans, as many supposedly queer-normative fantasy books don’t even try to acknowledge that trans people exist.

While this features the “outcast found family” trope, it focuses mostly on three characters:
🌘 naive-yet-shrewd ex-anchorite Guet Imm, votary of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, whose tokong has been destroyed; she was hilarious and definitely my favorite character.
🌘 mysterious Tet Sang, who is hiding far more than any of his friends suspect;
🌘 beautiful, charming Lau Fung Cheung, more or less the leader of the group.
The other characters were pretty much a blur. Here’s the thing: I don’t think novellas are the right format for the found family trope. It’s already hard enough to pull off in a standalone novel.

Another thing that didn’t work for me much was the lack of descriptions. Maybe it stood out to me because I just finished another novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune, that put painstaking attention into every detail and made them matter, but here I felt like I didn’t know how anything actually looked like.
Also, while I really appreciated how normalized queerness was, this book did kind of use a character’s transness* as a small twist, which could have been easily avoided – but it didn’t end up being the character’s Big Secret, which is refreshing.

*spoilery clarification:

it’s complicated, even for the character, how to define himself, but it’s clear that he uses he/him and doesn’t want to be called “sister”.

There are also some nods to topics I would have loved to see explored more, like how going through traumatic events like a war can change one’s relationship with faith. There are a lot of thing here I would have loved to see more of, characters included, and this definitely has sequel potential, so I’m hopeful.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

36292242._sy475_After loving Girls Made of Snow and Glass, I’ve been anticipating Bashardoust’s second novel for years. I broke my ARC ban for it (yes, again) and it didn’t disappoint. Faith partially restored in YA fantasy!

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a standalone YA fantasy novel inspired by ancient Persia, its folklore, and Zoroastrian beliefs. It follows Soraya, the shah’s reclusive sister, whose touch is deadly because of a div curse.

It’s the kind of fantasy story I prefer not to say a lot about, one I’d recommend going into without knowing much at all, because it’s really short and it’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, as it’s true for most books that rely on not quite being what they seemed. It makes so much sense that the original title of this was She Was and She Was Not, as so much of Girl, Serpent, Thorn relies on shifts of the main character’s perspective on the world and herself. It’s intricate in an elegant way (as the cover is); a little game of characters-as-mirrors that comes together in a wonderful story about the inherent power of self-acceptance.
The new title is just as appropriate, for spoilery reasons I hope you’ll decide to discover for yourself.

I could continue by praising the atmosphere for paragraphs, or Melissa Bashardoust’s effective, light writing, but I want to say that a big part of the reason I loved this book is that I, too, would fall in love with the moth girl. (And I did, of course I did, it’s Parvaneh.) The F/F romance isn’t even that prominent, but it stole my heart in a few scenes. This book is so short, and yet it doesn’t feel like it, and I mean that in the best way.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an atmospheric, almost fairytale-like story about growing up unloved, and the vulnerabilities that kind of experience opens; at the beginning of the story, Soraya can’t see other people, much less herself, clearly. (This also has one of the most chillingly realistic portrayals of lovebombing I’ve ever seen.)
It’s full of twists, betrayal, and trust, be it misplaced or not; it has as much beauty as it has thorns – and it has a lot of thorns, as the best stories featuring plant magic do. It also happens to have one of the best endings I’ve read in YA fantasy in a long time.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #4: Growing Out of YA? (And More)

Welcome to the fourth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.

This time, I will:

  • review all the short fiction I read in April, 14 stories (…yes I ended up reading a lot of short stories) which include 5 Hugo Award finalists.
  • review a YA anthology
  • talk about my current relationship with YA books and what said YA anthology made me understand about it

Recent Reads

Short Fiction

I read a lot of short fiction this month (short stories are so underrated and yet are doing so much and I love this format a lot) so I decided to implement emoji tags for clarity:

  • the 2020 Hugo finalists I review in this post are marked with a 🚀
  • while I recommend most of these, my new favorites are marked with 🌠

51175276._sy475_St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid by C.L. Polk (Tor.com): a bittersweet sapphic story involving magical beekepers that has an atmosphere of inevitability to it, the cost of it all looming in the distance until the end. It only makes sense that tarot reading is featured in it – so much of this story in some way involves fate – and that its title names three saints closely associated with bees. Bees as a legacy that keeps drawing you in. There’s something mysterious about it, too, because the story doesn’t tell you anything more than what you need to understand it; it doesn’t have one word out of place. I really liked it.

Escaping Dr. Markoff by Gabriela Santiago (The Dark): sometimes if you explore the motivations of the unimportant side character you get something far more interesting that the original story! This is about the horror movie Female Assistant who is in love with the Mad Scientist, and it plays with these stock characters by following someone whose only characteristic is usually the obsession for and the total devotion to the male Mad Scientist. And maybe, if you give a character the space to be something more, the story might break in very interesting ways (involving erotic and queer twists, because why not). Fun and meta and really smart – I’d probably get even more out of this if I knew anything about horror movies, but we know that’s not possible – and wow, was that An Ending.
I found it because of Hadeer’s wrap-up, so thank you!

29387827._sy475_The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho (not for free online): not my favorite from Zen Cho, also because I was told it was an f/f romance, and while it has sapphic characters, I wouldn’t describe it as such – not like I would with If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Still, it was a lovely read. It’s set in hell, where the main character – a Malayan girl named Siew Tsin – has been forced to marry a man; now the man has taken yet another wife, a terracotta wife. It’s a light, smart story about personhood and waking up from a paralyzed state of mind, with really interesting details in the worldbuilding and a lot of heart; I wish I could have had more of a sense of who the characters were.

A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny) 🚀: about a world in which the line between emotion and the weather is very thin, and maybe natural disasters are something more than a natural disaster, and sometimes the people are part of the weather and the weather is people. The lines in here are air-thin and it’s a story about family, about leaving or staying – and sometimes those things are their own kind of storm too. Don’t expect it to make too much sense, it’s one of those ambiguous/symbolic stories I talked about in my last short fiction time. I really liked the writing and the weirdness of it all, but it didn’t stay with me emotionally.

48594209._sy475_As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang (Tor.com) 🚀: in this world, to use a weapon of mass destruction, the president has to kill a child himself.
This story follows the child, Nyma, and it’s about costs, the necessity of making something unimaginably difficult vs the overwhelming pressure that wars can put on a country, and as a story it doesn’t give you a clear answer about which path is worse. It has some beautiful poetry in it as well. The worldbuilding is very vague (and let’s just say that calling something “the Order” won’t help me take it seriously), but for the most part that wasn’t a problem. Powerful, hearbreaking, and thought-provoking.

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny) 🚀: so far I haven’t found any of Sarah Pinsker’s short fiction to be particularly memorable, even though all of them are solid stories, and this one was no exception – a horror novelette about a mystery author who decides to write her new novel in an isolated cabin. The horror comes from a very unexpected place given the set-up (the premise sounds cliché? It’s not), which was clever, but I didn’t find this creepy at all – it was kind of boring, but horror is very hit-or-miss for me. Mostly a story about the importance of a good assistant.

51dwoeoslsl._sx284_bo1204203200_The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed) 🌠🚀: new favorite. I love reading about space archaeology – the whole “the past of the future” set-up really appeals to me – and this was also a very emotional story on a human level. About grief and the subjectivity of memory, what is lost in the act of remembering, the love and understanding that are gained, the pain that slowly loses its edge but never quite stops hurting; about how destruction is so often tied with discovery. Everything related to the Chronicle technology was so interesting, and so was the answer to the mystery (mysterious mass death!). Also, women in science and side relevant gay couple.

Away With the Wolves by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny) 🚀: I thought I would never read anything by Sarah Gailey again after how angry one of their short stories made me last year (STET, which tried to tackle a heavy, ecology-related topic with so much ignorance it was appalling) but since they got nominated for the Hugo again, here I am. And… I finally liked something written by this author! It was my fifth try. Anyway, this is a story from the Uncanny special issue about disabled people in fantasy, and it’s pretty much about accessibility for a werewolf who has chronic pain in her human form, which is a great concept. It had one (…and then two) really heartwarming female friendships, a happy ending, and the atmosphere was really good as well. Really straightforward, and sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs to be.

52667367._sx318_sy475_Water: A History by KJ Kabza (Tor.com): we don’t get many stories about elderly queer characters, much less in space! This is about an old sapphic woman on an arid planet in which water is the most important thing and going outside the colony is dangerous. About the importance of intergenerational friendships and the risks that make life worth living. It hits in a very specific way when read while on lockdown after a particularly arid spring (that’s why you should research stories before reading them, Acqua), but I didn’t find anything about it particularly remarkable aside from that and I don’t think it will stay with me.

Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (in the Upgraded anthology, reprinted on Lightspeed) 🌠: Hello! I’m in love. Who knew biopunk horror could be heartwarming? Anyway, this is a weird, sweet romance between two outcasts, and it’s set in a creepy space city that rearranges itself cyclically, has a strong preference for well-intentioned body horror, and is the perfect setting for a story that involves replacing body parts. Gorgeous writing featuring artistic murder, the usual asides of weird for the sake of alliteration that I love so much about Lee’s descriptions (“a pipe, rattling as of librarian lizards realphabetizing their movements”) and the occasional very specific and cursed™ detail (of course tentacles are “ever-popular” as a replacement). Another new favorite; I will never not love stories about cities.

53284124._sy475_Of Roses and Kings by Melissa Marr (Tor.com): queer, fucked up twist on Alice in Wonderland with lots of murder and various other questionable things, because what’s morality in such a place? It really doesn’t hold back and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending, but I have to say that, as with all books that try to make Alice in Wonderland darker, a lot of whimsy is lost in the process, and I miss it. Still here for the unapologetically toxic stories about loyalty, especially since I don’t often get a sapphic version!
(Very predictably of me, I always love when we do. Please give me novels like that!)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny): an older story and a Hugo nominee back in 2017, because who said that newest stories should get all the spotlight. Anyway, this is as much about a supernatural (phoenix-like) creature’s revenge as it is about the way stories are always centered and making excuses for rich white men. My overall opinion is that it’s really well-written (as usual for Brooke Bolander) but that there’s such a thing as too straightforward and unsubtle in a short story, and Our Talon Can Crush Galaxies really sits on that limit.

51097037._sy475_If You Take My Meaning by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com) – you probably already know about my new favorite book The City in the Middle of the Night (if not: here’s the review!), and this is set in the same universe. This novelette isn’t going to make any sense without having read the novel, but since I recently did, this was the epilogue I wanted the book to have even though I knew it wouldn’t fit, and it was perfect. The integration with the Gelet is in progress! People mess up and try to reach for the way to right certain wrongs, which also includes more mistakes! More direct digs at Xiosphanti culture and more subtly at America’s worst points! (That line about Xiosphanti believing in repression way more than was healthy or realistic… yes.) So many things are said about culture, understanding, and the importance of community vs the corruption and relative irrelevance of the people in power. And finally we also get some insight into Alyssa’s thoughts, as one of my main disappointments had been that by the end of the book I still felt like I didn’t understand her at all.
Meanwhile I’m wondering whether what this novelette said about love a certain trio is meant to be interpreted as polyamory, a really strong friendship, or neither – because who needs to categorize things in structures that are so singularly unhelpful once one has gone through integration? Anyway, I love that for them and love that they have their priorities in order. (What’s this kind of arrangement for, if not to sleep in a pile like cats? I approve.)

36426163Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May (Toil & Trouble) – women accused of witchery find power in each other while in their prison; I listened to it on scribd. It wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be something different from what it was once it turned out to involve religious abuse, because that aspect was used as a prop for the message (an effective-if-unnuanced exploration of how the not-like-other-girls line of thinking is misogynistic and contributes to victim blaming) instead of being explored like something in its own right. I don’t want to read a portrayal of forced penance if you’re not going to do anything with it – I’ve already had enough of that.

 Anthologies

This month’s anthology was Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love, edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond. I read it for free thanks to the scribd free trial: I chose it out of all the anthologies on my TBR because it was the most expensive (12€ for an ebook? No thank you) and as it turns out, that was a good choice – for all the wrong reasons, the main one known as “at least I didn’t pay for this”.
But let me explain why.

35858798Let’s say you’re an editor with some very interesting anthology ideas, and you’re fascinated by these concepts:

🍜 an anthology of interconnected stories that all take place in the same neighborhood at the same time, in which each story is full of tiny references to the others and forms a seamless web that enhances each story’s meaning;
🍜 an anthology that spans across genres, from contemporary romance and horror to gang rivalries and ghost stories and superhero tales, in which stories have little to do with each other in tone and themes and only have a tiny thread (here, food) to tie them together

Then, please, don’t be like Hungry Hearts. Only choose one of the two. If this had stopped at the first of the two points, if it had been an anthology of interconnected contemporary stories all involving food in some way, it could have been so good. I can only describe the result of trying to do cross-genre connected stories as a complete mess.

It doesn’t help that the individual quality of the stories themselves was questionable. While it’s true that I’m realizing that this kind of YA doesn’t work for me as much as it used to, most of these stories were incredibly bland and couldn’t even be saved by the food descriptions.

The only story I loved was The Grand Ishq Adventure by Sandhya Menon, a contemporary story about a girl who decides to go to restaurants alone to face her anxiety, which was wonderful in every aspect, from a beginning that draws you in (the voice in this story was amazing) to a delicious continuation and an ending with a sweet twist. There were other stories that worked, like the bittersweet Rain by Sangu Mandanna, the fiery revenge story Sugar and Spite by Rin Chupeco, and Panadería ~ Pastelería by Anna-Marie McLemore, which was like the dessert at the end of a meal. All of these were contemporaries or contemporaries with a slight magical twist, so that I could believe they coexisted in the same universe, and were well-written. All the other stories were either a boring blur or completely outside of the tone of the rest of the anthology.

I think the editors were going for something that felt not only like a story made by many interconnected parts but also a meal with many courses, and so were trying to get as much variety inside of it as it was possible, but the result was dissonant and messy.
There’s still a lot to love about this, from the diversity to the food descriptions (you really can’t go wrong with those) and especially the celebration of foods that mainstream white, western American society would consider “too weird”, but apart from these things, most of this was forgettable.

My rating: ★★


About Me and the YA Age Range

While reading Hungry Hearts, I started wondering if my lack of interest in it was also tied to me being tired of stories about high schoolers, which I started noticing while trying out series on Netflix. I don’t think I would have liked Hungry Hearts at any point of my life, but even in the stories I liked – with the exclusion of Sandhya Menon’s – I struggled to feel interested in anything they talked about. This is usually not a problem I have with short fiction.

But I do still like YA books, so this doesn’t make sense! I thought.
Then I looked at my reading so far this year, and:

of all the 45 books I’ve read so far this year, only 5 were YA.

I didn’t expect this at all. And yes, that’s counting Hungry Hearts. It’s not like I’m not liking them, not necessarily (there was a 5 star book!), but interestingly most of them were audiobooks, because YA books are easier to follow and less intimidating for me when I started to really try out the format this year. Would I have read any YA had I not wanted to try audiobooks?

I was surprised to find this out, because this was in no way a conscious choice; my TBR is still 50% YA and 50% adult, I’m just avoiding the YA books without even realizing I was doing so.

In a way,  I thought this wouldn’t happen to me. I spent half of my teen years being a mostly-YA reader and following reviewers way older than me – way older than 20 – who read mostly YA; in a way, I grew up knowing that while it prioritizes (or at least, it should prioritize) teens, YA is in fact for everyone, and that sometimes a book’s age range depends more on the publisher’s ideas about effective marketing than on anything about its content. A lot of YA SFF is following characters who are so clearly aged down for marketing reasons that it gets kind of ridiculous.

Still, here I am, 20, tired of YA and yet not even noticing that until I tried some TV shows. But I did DNF several YA books this year, too – I just didn’t think much of it. I’m realizing that the main reason I keep coming back to YA even though it appeals to me less and less is that I don’t quite know where to find what I want in adult fiction, especially the non-SFF part of it, which I should try to explore more.

Also, it’s relevant to mention that in my experience YA-focused content gets a lot of attention on blog posts compared to adult SFF.

So, what does this mean?

  • my main response, since I am who I am, is that my TBR could definitely handle a cut! It makes no sense for it to be half YA when YA books aren’t even a quarter of what I read.
  • I will definitely still be reading YA, at the rate that feels natural to me – I’m not the kind of person who thinks excluding an entire age range from their reading on principle is a good idea. It’s just that the rate at which I reach for YA is currently really low.
  • I probably should face the truth and start considering myself an adult SFF reviewer instead of someone who reviews that and YA in equal amounts, as if I were stuck in 2018. (Thinking back, a lot of my YA reading in 2019 was due to ARCs. Not requesting/barely requesting ARCs anymore is doing a lot for making me understand what I actually want to read and I strongly recommend it.)

Have you read any of these? Has your relationship with an age range category changed over time?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Sci-fi

Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

42036538I deeply admire this book’s dedication to not making sense.

After all, who needs to make sense when you have sword lesbians, space necromancy, rot, magical science, and a murder mystery? If someone had tried to make space for something as mundane as sense, Gideon the Ninth might have exploded in a mess of mold and bone shards, and now, wouldn’t that have been a shame.

Here, the idea that things aren’t going to make sense and that everything is going to feel mostly like a caricature of itself is something one has to get on board with before starting the novel (I mean, look at that cover. It already tells you everything you need to know.)
It’s funny, it really is, and in a way I’m not used to – when most SFF books try to outdo themselves with witty banter, this one mostly relies on dissonance, outdated memes, and deliberately horrible puns, to the point that if one were to translate it, they’d inevitable lose half the charm of the story.

The humor, the melodramatic characters and settings, the neverending cast of characters – it all works because of how confident this book is. It goes for its goal without feeling any need to explain or justify (of course Gideon lives in a tomb cult but still has access to many dirty magazines!). As long as what’s in it feels in line with the aesthetic, it works.
I’d usually say that aesthetic is important but not as much as making sure things are coherent in the world – but no, not here, there’s no way any of this would work if it took itself any more seriously.

Do I mean this never got too much even for me? Oh, it did. Let’s just say that while “I’m going for over-the-top, I might as well go all the way” is a principle I appreciate, I will never get through a 30 pages long fight scene without skimming, and that ending should have been a quarter of its length. It got to the point that some (in theory) emotionally impactful and very painful developments didn’t have any effect on me because I just wanted this book to be over, after loving pretty much everything that lead up to the ending.

Because yes, apart from that, this book’s dedication to the aesthetic didn’t get in the way of the characterization, relationships, and more emotional parts. The growing respect between the Sixth and Ninth House? Everything about the Fourth? Also, there are nine different iterations of the necromancer/cavalier duo dynamic, and it’s everything. (There are a lot of Houses, but don’t worry! There’s a more extended glossary here on Tor.com.)
At the heart of all of it, there’s the enemies-to-allies dynamic between Gideon and her necromancer Harrow, with ~tension~ (in a very gay way). The growing trust! The changes in names and nicknames! The pool scene! (Of course there’s a pool scene.)

And can we talk about Gideon for a moment? Characters who walk the line between “really competent in something very specific” and “walking disaster” are always my favorites, as are those whose first instinct is to run after things with a sword. She’s both, but what stood out to me the most was that she was a jock who could very much be both horny and crass, which… isn’t something fictional lesbians are allowed to be very often! Probably for fear of “reinforcing stereotypes”, but there’s nothing stereotypical about Gideon, and a queer book’s role isn’t “changing bigots’ minds” anyway. Here, there’s no doubt about who is the target audience. Also, “lovable fool” female main characters aren’t common in general.

Still, the best part of this book has been showing the cover to friends and relatives just to see what face they make. 10/10 would recommend

My rating: ★★★★½