Adult · Discussion · Sci-fi

On the Importance of Queer Worlds

As queer SFF moves from an once-in-a-while presence – seen at the same time as a weird curiosity and a revolutionary statement – to something of which we get several dozens of new titles every year, I’m seeing more and more discussions regarding the role of anti-queer bigotry in those titles, and whether it should be playing one at all.

As everything I often see on twitter, this is not a new discussion, and if you’re around in queer SFF circles at all, you’ve probably seen it many times; you might especially have seen a push for stories in which queerphobia Just Isn’t A Thing. Since I love talking about worldbuilding, I thought I’d give my opinions on this anyway.

(With footnotes. Who would have thought.)

What Is A Queer World, And Why It Matters

When I talk about SFF worlds in which various forms of anti-queer bigotry aren’t a thing, or as I will call them in this post, “queer worlds”, I don’t mean what is often phrased as “a story in which the characters just happen to be queer”, because bigotry is not a surface-level thing born from nowhere, and you can’t expect to do away with it and leave everything the same¹. For clarity, I’ll say that the “just happen” category is what I’d call “books with no on-page queerphobic aggressions”: for example, you can write books set in the contemporary US with no on-page queerphobic aggressions, but you can’t write a “queer world” book, because the society in the US has homophobia, transphobia and other connected forms of bigotry embedded in it.

I want to talk about those SFF worlds in which the author tried to portray a society completely different from our own, in which queerness isn’t only “not an issue” but an integral part of the worldbuilding.

I sometimes see worldbuilding dismissed as something secondary, not that interesting, something “white dudes who write adult fantasy are obsessed with” (seriously)², but worldbuilding isn’t so much the background of a story as it is the foundations of it. It’s vital, and in a genre that is as much about how thing are as it is about how things could be, imagining stories in which there is no place for homophobes, transphobes, other assorted bigots and the structures they support/are supported by has its own weight. So much about our notion of “important queer stories” is about “stories rooted in queer pain” (especially marketing-wise), but as an actual queer person, they aren’t the most important to me³.


The First Time I Read About One…

I remember reading the short story Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee, a prequel to Ninefox Gambit, back in early 2017. That was my first encounter with a queer world. And when I read that short story – weeks before I could get my hands on the book – I knew that the novel would be a favorite. What are made-up worlds for if not to completely do away with homophobia, make polyamory the norm, and write an all-queer series about villainous geniuses trying to outsmart each other? I don’t think I can explain what Ninefox Gambit did to “used to only find gay people almost only in issue books” 17-year-old me, but I’m not surprised it has occupied my brain ever since.

I remember that when I read that short story, I kept getting stuck on the details. It has a short-story appropriate worldbuilding, but there was so much about it, stuff that maybe was only mentioned in passing, that just made me go you can do that? you can just do that??, like Shuos Meng and their five-people marriage; I didn’t even know polyamory could be a thing back then.

The novel was even more of a revelation because of 1) it being half written in what I call “realistically mimicking sciencespeak”, a form of communication I kind of grew up with and was therefore close to, and for 2) the way it… let queer people be evil. I know, that sounds paradoxical, but what I usually heard even only about cis gay people was:

  • “gays go to hell” – nuns in Catholic middle school
  • “homophobia is bad, some gay people are perfectly normal™” – my family
  • “gay people are gross. I’m not homophobic, I’m just old school” – high school math teacher, during a math lesson
  • “gay teens aren’t allowed to have flaws. If you’re a lesbian you don’t even get a personality” – queer YA written for the straight gaze
  • “this is a gays only event!! also flawed lgbt people are freaks and created homophobia and asexuals are the source of our oppression” – tumblr in 2016

Lovely times! Anyway, Machineries of Empire was the first time I saw only queer/trans people at the center of a story… and many of them were very competent, compelling, evil people. There was no trying to appeal to homophobes’ morality, no fears of “making us look bad”, no attempt at saying that “actually, we’re normal people too!” because the book didn’t even bother to, it was queer and it was weird and it was gloriously abnormal.
To write a queer world is to disregard bigots’ reality, which I think we should do more often, but also, you know what? Queer villains are very sexy and that’s reason enough.


Some of My Favorite Examples

Something queer worlds are great for is also examining preconceived notions about gender, especially in the context of gender essentialism and gender roles. The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley has a cast made up only of women and it’s one of the most gory, brutal things I’ve ever read, which was surprisingly refreshing – taking male characters out of the picture entirely really makes you notice the way female characters almost never get to be written, and you also get so many lesbians. [Again, the F/F/F love triangle with the villainess sex scene was the best part, because queer villains >> everything else]

Temper by Nicky Drayden has some of the most imaginative, vivid and plain out weird worldbuilding I’ve ever read. Among the many things that set it apart: in this society, there are 3 genders one can be assigned at birth (kigen for intersex people, who are very common, female, male) – and it also features a trans side character in this context. Temper isn’t many people’s concept of “queer book”, as far as I remember the mc isn’t queer, but the world certainly is – and I mean, as a whole this is a story about how being assigned some role at birth that doesn’t reflect you sets you up for a lot of struggles. [This is so underrated. Please read it.]

I want to point out that by “queer world” I don’t necessarily mean “queer utopia”: for example, in stories like the Tensorate by JY Yang, while homophobia doesn’t exist and children get to choose which gender to be confirmed as (before that, everyone uses they/them for them), most of this series is set in a strictly binarist society – you’re expected to either choose to be a man or a woman, and the Tensorate explores the life of non-binary characters in that situation. It’s really interesting to read stories about places with biases completely different from our own, with completely different bigoted ideas backing them. If you’re even marginally interested in queer worlds and haven’t read these yet, what are you doing? [By the way, The Ascent to Godhood is also a queer villainess story!]

But what if we want to talk about utopian narratives? Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is the only one I can think of, and it’s about a young Black trans girl with selective mutism discovering what it means for her “utopia” (mostly-utopia? As usual, it’s complicated) to have monsters. A beautiful story portraying a future America without transphobia and other kinds of discrimination (and no billionaries or police either!), and still not what I’d define a light book. This is the only YA on the list, because I couldn’t think of any others – YA seems to find the kind of worldbuilding necessary to lay down a queer world to be too much.

I read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie later than many of the books on this list, but its success likely paved the way to them. In this trilogy, the characters in the Radch either don’t seem to have a concept of gender, or have a radically different one from ours; the narrator refers to everyone as “she” to translate this situation. Reading it is also an experiment in exploring your biases, if you catch yourself thinking of someone with different pronouns by accident. If you haven’t read it but the thought of backlist discourages you, I can say that it’s also an incredibly compelling story and I remember never wanting to put it down.


Footnotes! Not Sorry This Time Either
¹

Or, you could! Many successful authors of queer SFF do this. I also think it’s a very boring approach and makes the worldbuilding inherently inconsistent. You can’t have a society that is exactly like our own (or, exactly like Medieval France or Edwardian England… you get the point) just with no homophobia. That’s not how things work, but it’s common in US publishing because the idea that you can take an aesthetic and some of its core elements outside of its overall context is a popular one in all its aspects – I’m wondering if this is yet another side effect of seeing your society as the default and therefore not being able to see the parts that make it what it is, or what it’s a consequence to. This is the same fault that leads to hilarious things like books pitched as “a desert society inspired by 16th century Florence”, but then I remember that stuff like that really can get published.

²

Counterpoint: it is true that worldbuilding the way Men Have Done It is often used to gatekeep what does and doesn’t qualify as “good worldbuilding”. My post On Rules and Magic Systems was a somewhat sideways attempt at tackling part of that (oh really Brandon Sanderson writes the most realistic magic systems… according to writing advice popularized by Brandon Sanderson. Revolutionary!), but I really should have framed it in a larger context: I’m so tired of seeing unconventional worldbuilding – especially when from marginalized authors – be dismissed. Still, acting like focusing a lot on worldbuilding is a white man’s thing does a disservice to them too.

³

I’m sure I’m not the only one, and yet I’m sure that’s not necessarily true for everyone else, and more than anything I will never push for designing one type of story as the most progressive, empowering and uplifting kind of queer or want to participate in similar tiresome endeavors. One can’t on the surface push for diversity but deep down want all queer people to fit into one box.


What are your favorite queer worlds? Have you read any of these?

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

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

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

40815235._sy475_I almost didn’t read The City of the Middle of the Night because my previous experiences with Charlie Jane Anders – both with short fiction and with her novel All the Birds in the Sky – weren’t positive. Then I decided to challenge myself to read all the Hugo Award finalists in the Best Novel category, and I’m so glad I did; this book has some of the most interesting worldbuilding I’ve read in a while, character dynamics that deeply appeal to me, and writing so beautiful I could cry.

At its heart, this is a story about a toxic relationship between two women, the kind of toxic relationship queer women in a heteronormative society are intimately familiar with: the love for the popular, Straight best friend who claims to love you (though how is always left to interpretation, deliberately) but actually sees you as a pawn, as means to an end more than anything. It’s not a case that this book ended where it did, and the final confrontation wasn’t about the revolution or what will happen to Xiosphant. The City in the Middle of the Night is about Sophie and Bianca, what they feel for each other, why they are drawn to each other and why they chafe, always chafe in the end.
It’s a story about the importance of open-mindedness and acceptance, about how for some fighting for change is a way to help people thrive, while for others is only important as far as it gives them privilege, attention, power over others. It’s the negative of a love story, and yet there’s so much love in its pages, in the questions it raises, in the ending it chose.

Sophie and Bianca aren’t the only main characters. Half of this book is told in Mouth’s PoV, and I found those parts to be less compelling for a variety of reasons, the main one being how the supporting characters in it weren’t as well-drawn. Mouth’s and Alyssa’s relationship was an interesting foil to Sophie and Bianca’s, strained for different reasons but born from similarities between the two characters (though again, I didn’t feel it was as well-developed), and Mouth’s arc was a foil to Sophie’s. Sophie’s story is about knowledge as a bridge over misunderstanding, the importance of learning about the past, while Mouth’s was about knowledge as something that drags you down, and the need to let go of the past. I live for foils, and I thought this was really clever, because it’s true that a core part of being human is wondering how much of the past one can forgive or understand or let go. It’s often not easy to understand which between forgetting or deepening one’s understanding would help.
And, of course, Gelet society is a foil to humanity in that! It only makes sense for a book set on a tidally locked planet, half day and half night, to exist in mirrors and explore the gray between the ends of binaries, after all.

Now, let’s talk about the worldbuilding. Setting a book on a tidally locked planet is an incredibly cool concept to begin with, and the details made it even better, made it feel real, while never making anything difficult to grasp. We start the story in Xiosphant, the city in which Time has become a way to control the people through the idea of Circadianism: everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Everything is designed to make you feel like you’re running out of time, to make not wonder about the past so that you can’t talk about privilege and power being concentrated in certain groups, to make you not talk about what’s outside because the solutions that work for other countries could never work for Xiosphant, Xiosphant is special (this has a quote that is basically a parody American exceptionalism and that was my favorite moment). This book isn’t exactly subtle, but sometimes one needs to go for the throat. And this might be a horrible place, but the details about the many different kinds of currency, the shutters and the farmwheels… it was so fascinating to read.

Xiosphant’s foil is Argelo, the city that never sleeps, in which there’s always some kind of party going on, some kind of battle, sometimes both things at the same time, and everything is based on “freedom”, the freedom to do as one pleases, which usually includes trampling others and forming gangs to survive. The descriptions of the parties and locals in Argelo were breathtaking in all their extravagant details, and yet there was always that atmosphere of emptiness to it.
Both cities are dying, and have a lot in common – the violence, the lack of care and sense of community, the aversion to meaningful change – and the climate is going to destroy them in not much time, if everyone on the planet doesn’t start cooperating in some way. While reading this, especially the Argelo part, I kept thinking about how in a book that doesn’t grasp the dynamics of privilege, what privilege does to people (like, uh, most YA dystopians) Bianca would have been the heroine. I’m glad this is not that kind of book.

Argelo, Xiosphant and the City in the Middle of the Night (where the alien Gelet live) aren’t the only societies explored. We also get to know about the people in Mouth’s past, the Nomads, and their storyline had some really interesting parts, but again, like everything in Mouth’s storyline, I didn’t feel like the full implications of them were explored. When we have a storyline as well-rounded as Sophie’s, with a in-depth exploration of PTSD, of a toxic relationship and of an entire alien society, Mouth’s story just feels faded, even though I get why it was there.

I couldn’t end this review without talking about the writing, which I loved. For the descriptions, for how effective it was, for how much of this I highlighted. I understand why it’s polarizing, it keeps you at arm’s length from the characters. But, once you settle into it, it carries you in its flow like the visions of the Gelet, and it’s breathtaking.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

38914991A biopunk horror generation ship sci-fi novel with a main f/f relationship between two black girls, a strong and well-thought-out environmentalist message, really well written body horror, and, uh, plot-relevant tentacle sex.

I loved what it had to say and what it was trying to achieve, but some things – especially in the ending – just didn’t end up working for me. I’ve said this before about Nicky Drayden’s books, but there’s always something about the pacing, about the transition from one scene to the next, that just doesn’t flow as well as it should. The result is a stilted, odd-paced book. Here, the first 70% was interesting, if somewhat slow moving; then the book both gained steam and completely lost me. Things were happening too quickly, plotlines that were set up as a big deal were suddenly abandoned with very little consequence or even discussion, plot threads were left floating… like tentacles in empty space, I guess.

And it’s a shame, because this had so much potential. Escaping Exodusis set in a giant, dying space-faring cephalopod-like beast, and not only it has all the wonderful biological horror you can expect from this kind of setting, there are also discussions about classism and environmentalism – the dying beast situation is great as a metaphor for Earth and climate change – and how the two are tied; not enough books approach environmental justice even when talking about the consequences that a looming catastrophe of this scale has on people’s behavior. I also highlighted a good portion of one of Seske’s chapters, because I found it a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a young person in this situation and feeling disappointed by the adults around you. As far as this aspect goes, I loved how the dying beast situation was handled in the end, with a focus on fixing things instead of running away.
However, even this aspect of the novel felt forced. This book felt as if it set out with the idea of having this message, of ending in this specific way, and didn’t give as much thought to the journey: the characters were led to that point as if they were marionettes, instead of getting there themselves.

And it couldn’t have felt any other way, not when the characters are so flat. I finished the book realizing that I still knew nothing about the two main characters, rich, privileged Seske and beastworker Adala, apart from them being young teens and… loving each other? At times? It’s really messy, and I might have appreciated that more, if not for the fact that a lot of things in here didn’t have the space and time to grow.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to love about Escaping Exodus. I might have been annoyed that this book, after deciding that making sense was overrated, also deliberated that consistency was for the weak, but I thought the worldbuilding was amazing. I love reading about world-ships, and the book goes into enough detail about the anatomy to make me want to know more (so, a primary heart, branchial hearts and tentacles, like cephalopods? But it has bones? Are those tentacles or arms or both? I have questions) and the society that inhabits it was just as fascinating. In Escaping Exoduspolyamory isn’t just accepted, it’s expected, and just as the society has many layers and rigidly assigned roles, so do people in the family; one can see both where these things came from and why they’re damaging or stifling to many people. It’s a matriarchy, which was interesting to see as well. I did like that it talked about what happens to trans people in these circumstances, but I didn’t love how the major trans character basically paid the price for what happened in a way that the cis main characters didn’t.

If I had to describe this in a few words as a tl;dr, I would say that Escaping Exodus feels as if The Stars Are Legion and An Unkindness of Ghosts had a charmingly messy child that takes itself far less seriously than either of them. It reminded me of both, but it’s entirely its own, very weird thing. Not my favorite book by this author, and it had enough material in it that to properly address it I think it should have been a duology, but worth reading nonetheless.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · contemporary · Sci-fi · Young adult

Review: The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum + Small Haul

My physical copy of The Weight of the Stars arrived yesterday, which led me to realize that I haven’t posted my review of it – of one of my favorite novels of the year, which I can now confirm is also beautiful in person – on this blog yet. I read in in June as an ebook and I have talked about it multiple times, but never scheduled the review, so here it is:

36952571The Weight of the Stars is the kind of novel that reminds me of the power of quiet books. There are no grand revelations, surprises or explosions; just two girls, their friends, and the stars – and yet it feels so wide, carrying so much weight sometimes in just a paragraph, so much emotion in the unspoken moments.
It does feel like looking at the stars.

This is a story about Ryann, a queer butch girl, who falls in love with Alexandria, a biracial black girl whose mother left to live in space and never returned to earth. It’s a story about them and their friend group, a group of teenagers (many of which queer and/or people of color) just trying to make it work despite their trauma and the general unfairness of life. It’s about humanity, and the ways we look at space. It’s so many things, and I won’t lie, just like The Wicker Kingit’s such a strange book. It will either speak to you or not make much sense, but I’m sure that in either case it will be unlike every other thing you’ve ever read.

The romance felt also very different to me. Not only because it’s f/f, even though that’s always something I look for, but because Ryann and Alexandra’s relationship isn’t… soft, unlike most f/f romances I know, especially in YA. It’s angry, it’s raw, it’s deeply beautiful.
The friendships are far softer, though not always, but I loved them too. Of the side characters, Ahmed was my favorite, and I was living for the cameos of the characters from The Wicker King (so, Ahmed’s three parents. Who are happy and in love. Polyamory rep and Sikh rep!)

Just like with the previous book, there are some mixed media aspects to this. I’m not only referring to the way chapters are structured – extremely short, with a time in the place of a title – but also to some things that happen near the end. I thought that part was beautiful; I thought it was necessary, because one can’t think about space and not be aware of their own smallness, one can’t think about space and not be aware of being just a part of a whole – one can’t think about space without thinking about humanity.

I loved most of this book. However, I don’t see it as a full five stars. Because I liked these characters, and cared about them, and yet I didn’t understand them, and something got lost along the way.

I think I know what happened. A big plot point in this book is people being separated because they decide to live the rest of their lives in space, away from earth. I think I was supposed to feel that mix of wonder and grief and longing for infinity they felt, and at times I did, but mostly I couldn’t. I am the kind of person who sees the meaning of life on leaves, and feels so strongly about plants that is afraid of them. I… have roots, and the idea of leaving it all behind, the plants of which I want to learn the names of or the combtooth blennies or even the polychaetes living in polluted waters – I don’t think I will ever be able to understand that decision.

I understand that not everyone sees things like I do, but I was so caught up in how horrifying I found even only the idea of teenagers deciding to leave the earth to live shut off in a box floating in nothingness, so away from life, that the ending landed with half the impact it could have had.

It still made me feel so much, and for that, I will always remember it positively.

My rating: ★★★★¾


Small Haul

I only buy physical copies in English a few times a year, not counting the rare occasions in which a book worth buying mysteriously appears in my Italian bookstore’s minuscule English section. (For example, that’s how I got my paperback of The Kingdom of Copper. If you’re wondering, no, the first book in the series never showed up. Neither do far more popular high fantasy series. Italian bookstores really are a mystery.)

This time, I got:

IMG_20190912_202638353

  • Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: this… this was a replacement goldfish, basically. You might already know that I almost only buy physical copies of favorite books, and only make exceptions for some authors (Yoon Ha Lee, mostly) and really, really, really anticipated releases. The really anticipated release this time was Gideon the Ninth, but when I saw that the price (30€? Is that a joke? I hope gets reasonable before next year), I decided to get something else instead of buying nothing, because I could. Middlegame was half the price, which is saner.
  • The Weight of the Stars by Kayla Ancrum: see review. If physical copies are an option for you, I really recommend it, as the mixed media aspect works even better (the background of some pages is different, which wasn’t true for the ebook).
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear: one of my favorite books of the year, another of which I still need to post a review of (yes, I fully admit that I was lazy about scheduling this summer). I don’t know if the picture shows that very well but this is a Tome. Such a beautiful book, inside and outside, and really heavy (only on the outside… mostly.)

Have you read any of these?

 

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

45429770._sy475_Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a short story collection written by one of my favorite authors, Aliette de Bodard.

I knew I needed to read this when I got to know that there was an f/f novella in it – about Emmanuelle and Selene from the Dominion of the Fallen series, and really, the main reason I love them are the scenes of them I saw in various short stories and novellas, this one included – and it didn’t disappoint. I probably would have read this anyway because I always want more Xuya universe (and short stories set in space in general), but the fact that the novella wasn’t the only f/f story was also a nice surprise.

As one can guess from the title, most stories in Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight have something to do with a war. If you think this could be repetitive, it’s not, because these stories about war aren’t stories about battles, but about the repercussions of it. It’s about how war changes people on a personal level just as much as it can change a country, and about how war and diaspora influence a culture.
What I want the most from collections (and anthologies, too), is that they feel more than the sum of their parts, and that’s definitely true for this book. There’s a value in this multifaceted approach to a theme that one can’t get from reading all these stories individually in different moments.
So yes, this is about war, from many different angles, and yet it’s all but depressing. Some parts of it are definitely dark – I think this hits the darkest points in The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile and in The Waiting Stars, though The Jaguar House, In Shadow was also almost there, since it dealt with totalitarianism – but others aren’t, and the collection ends on a lighter note with the novella Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness, in which the main characters try to make a party work in the aftermath of the fall of House Silverspires. (By the way: all the scenes involving Morningstar were so funny. I’m kind of sorry for Emmanuelle, but… so funny)

Even then, not all stories deal primarily with war. The Dust Queen is about the role of pain in art, Pearl is a beautiful retelling of a Vietnamese lengend in space, and there are a few stories that are mostly about grief – Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, which was a reread for me and my introduction to the Xuya universe, and A Salvaging of Ghosts – and some in which the main theme is colonization, my two favorite stories in here, Memorials and Immersion.
Memorials does talk about the aftermath of a war, and it’s about… pain-based tourism and voyeuristic portrayals of war, but it’s also a story about taking back the ways your culture is misrepresented, and about what you owe to your people. This one was so vivid that the first thing I think of when I think about this book are the food descriptions (especially the scene in which the aunts order chè ba màu).
Immersion is about globalization as a subtler form of colonization. It’s one of the stories that stands better on its own and it’s about how the colonizer’s interpretation of a culture can be prioritized, and about how people who are used to living as a part of the dominant culture assume their own as a default (the usual “I have no culture”) and so they try to reduce others to a few key points, the ones that feel the most different. About how this affects the people who are othered, and their sense of self, because being more similar to the dominant culture is seen as “progress” no matter what, and people end up hurting themselves in the attempt to assimilate. There’s a lot here and it deserves all the awards it got.

(Also, I didn’t mention it before because that’s true for basically everything Aliette de Bodard writes, but I think all the main characters are people of color, mostly but not only Vietnamese, and almost all of them are women.)

Since these stories have been written from 2010 to 2019, there are a few that feel dated. While I really liked The Shipmaker for being a bittersweet f/f story, the way it talked about being queer in a far-future space society and the way it accidentally conflated having an uterus with being a woman really made the fact that it was written in 2011 stand out.
Overall, while not every story worked for me on its own – that’s the way collection and anthologies go – I’m really satisfied with the collection as a whole, and I really appreciated seeing so many sides of the Xuya universe, which I previously mostly knew from the novellas. If I rated every story individually, I would have an average rating of 4.07, but this is worth more than that for me, and I rated it five stars on goodreads.

The Shipmaker – 4,5
The Jaguar House, in Shadow – 4,5
Scattered Along the River of Heaven – 2,5
Immersion – 5
The Waiting Stars – 2,5
Memorials – 5
The Breath of War – 3
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile – 3,5
The Dust Queen – 4
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight – 4,5
A Salvaging of Ghosts – 3
Pearl – 5
Children of Thorns, Children of Water – 5
Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness – 5

Adult · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley

43801821._sy475_I could sum up my thoughts about Meet Me in the Future by saying that all the stories were, if not always good, at least solid, but not one of them was memorable on its own the way I find short stories can be.
These stories are not pretty. They’re not necessarily satisfying. They would, however, be really interesting to discuss, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the whole purpose of how some of these were written. They’re meant to be shared and talked about, not read and put down, I think.

As you’d expect from something Kameron Hurley wrote, many of them are about war. War is an element in the past, still casting a shadow on the main character (Elephants and Corpses), it’s something that is seen as inevitable by a society, but is also a direct danger to it (The Red Secretary, oh had this story a lot to say), or something that is paradoxically seen by some as “bringing civilization” even as it actually destroys it (The War of Heroes), something that is always inherently tied to the dehumanization of someone (When We Fall) and horror, horror, horror as much as an instrument to keep the attention away from the actual enemy (The Light Brigade – I recommend skipping this one if you want to read the book, however), something that needs to end (The Improbable War).
Not all of these were anything remarkable when read on their own. Inside the collection, it’s a running thread, and there is for sure a lot to discuss.

There’s also, of course, a lot of queerness and discussions about gender. The collection starts with a body-hopping mercenary who happens to be a trans man (Elephants and Corpses), and presents gender as something not tied to bodies, even though still relevant to the person, and continues with stories about violent matriarchies (The Women of Our Occupation, possibly my least favorite story, I’m not that interested in reading about speculative reverse sexism), stories in which gender is never stated (The Light Brigade), stories in which there’s only one gender (Warped Passages), and stories in which there are at least four different genders recognized by the society (The Plague Givers, my favorite story). In these stories, women are allowed to be ugly, to be dirty – queer, disabled, brown women are allowed to be all of these things without ever be seen as anything but wholly human, the way a man could be portrayed. The idea that women have to be beautiful is so woven into everything, even everything fictional, that these stories almost feel jarring.
And, since we’re talking about women and imperfections, here women are allowed to be evil or morally gray, humans with the capacity to experience a full spectrum of emotions. I will always be there for portrayals of queer women that are all but soft and unproblematic; in Garda we get a woman who is divorcing from her two wives (if the story had been about that, instead of becoming about a mystery with a main character who wasn’t Nyx but felt exactly like Nyx from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, I would have liked it a lot more), and in The Plague Givers we get a story about the consequences of a very toxic f/f relationship in a world where magic can bring plague (I loved this one so much).

There are a couple stories that felt like filler (notably, The Fisherman and the Pig was a completely unnecessary sequel to Elephants and Corpses), but overall, this is a collection with a lot of things to say; the average rating might be a weak 3.5 stars, but the whole is more than a sum of its parts.

My overall rating: ★★★★

Individual ratings:

  • Elephants and Corpses – 4 stars
  • When We Fall – 4 stars
  • The Red Secretary – 4 stars
  • The Sinners and the Sea – 3.5 stars
  • The Women of Our Occupation – 2 stars
  • The Fisherman and the Pig – 2 stars
  • Garda – 3 stars
  • The Plague Givers – 4.5 stars
  • Tumbledown – 4 stars
  • Warped Passages – 4 stars
  • Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light – 2.5 stars
  • Enyo-Enyo – 3 stars
  • The Corpse Archives – 2.5 stars
  • The War of Heroes – 3.5 stars
  • The Light Brigade – 4.5 stars
  • The Improbable War – 3 stars

Do you rate anthologies with the average rating of the stories or do you have another system?

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War + Small Discussion

Today, I will be reviewing This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, and also talk about a short story I really recommend reading before/after reading this novella, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn.


36516585This Is How You Lose the Time War is a novella about a love that transcends time, space and humanity. It’s beautiful and lyrical and heartbreaking; it’s all of these things and I loved its ending so much that I don’t feel like I can do this story justice with a review. Just know that, while this is an epistolary f/f enemies-to-lovers story set during a time-travel war, calling it that feels almost reductive.

It follows two entities, “Red” and “Blue”, both presenting as women but who don’t strictly adhere to our definition of what a human is, and there’s a time war. If you’re the kind of person who needs to know the reasons and the workings of everything, this won’t work for you; it’s often vague, but as I didn’t feel like much more context was needed, I didn’t have a problem with that.

The writing in here will be polarizing. At times, I hated it: it was pretentious, and it made me feel like the authors were trying to show off how many pretty sentences they were able to string together without saying that much at all. But in other places it was beautiful and powerful, and the foreshadowing was woven into this story effortlessly – which only makes sense in something about braiding time.
And you know what else makes sense? That a story about Red and Blue writing to each other would be 90% Purple prose.

In one of my updates, I said that I wondered whether this started out as a short story. If you’ve ever read some short fiction on online magazines, you probably recognize the metaphor-heavy style and the vagueness of the worldbuilding, and I mean, if I’m going to read something that short, I want something really pretty that will make me feel and won’t need that much background to do so. I wouldn’t have minded if the authors had toned all of this here a bit down, however.

My rating: ★★★★½


On What I Got From This

The major spoiler is hidden but there could be small ones

It’s weird how sometimes reading a book can help you understand something you read years before.

You should know, from that title, that This Is How You Lose the Time War will be in some way about someone losing a war involving time travel. And it is. But the question that is woven between its lines isn’t “how could they have won”: it’s “can you ever win a war?” Can a successful war effort ever be seen as a victory? The title tells you, this is how you lose.

A certain character says, at the end:

This is how we win. Losing the war – letting go of it – is winning at life.

ThatGameIt reminded me so much of a few lines that had stuck with me in a short story I loved in 2017, That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn. A few lines that had something important to tell me, and I knew that, but while I loved the story, I didn’t really get what¹.

For some context: the war has ended, and the main character Calla (who is Enith, non-telepathic) is playing chess against a telepath (a Gaanth, so someone who was an enemy – at least on paper – until very recently) and employing a specific anti-telepath strategy. One of the other Gaanth says:

“This is how you won,” one of them said, amazed. He wasn’t talking about the game.
“No,” Calla said. “This is how we failed to lose.”

I think I know what it means, now. Winning would imply there was something positive about the whole thing, and there wasn’t, there had never been. The deceptively happy tone of the story is a happiness built from ruin, so fragile and so impactful, and it might feel naive at times, but sometimes you need to let go of that cynicism. Sometimes you need to let go and rebuild.


¹ something about 17-year-old me: she kept falling in love with books she didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain why. It was something like a message hidden, something that resonated with me in ways I didn’t have words for – the biggest example of this is The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, a story about perfectionism that I didn’t even understand was about perfectionism until I reread it.

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

42201485Hexarchate Stories is a collection of stories – from flash fiction and prose poems, both old and new, to a sequel novella – set in the universe of the Machineries of Empire series.
While many of these stories develop the worldbuilding, give a PoV to characters that were only minor in the trilogy, and give you some insight into how this series came together, they’re not necessary to understand it. Nor – I think – would mean a lot to someone who isn’t familiar with the main trilogy. I would recommend this mostly to those who loved this universe and want more.
As I’m part of said those, I’m glad these stories exist, and I’m glad that I can find most of them in only one place now.

This collection starts with The Chameleon’s Gloves, following Rhehan, an alt (non-binary person) who is trying to pull off art theft and gets roped into something much more dangerous instead, something that will make them question their loyalties. This was interesting mostly because of its worldbuilding, as it’s set before everything we saw in the series came into being.
Of mostly historical significance is also Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam, snapshots about a faction then gone heretical, which made me realize just how much the Hexarchate misunderstands its own history.

And I can’t not mention the gorgeous prose poem How the Andan Court. I’ve always been intrigued by the Andan faction, mostly because a) pretty and b) we see a lot of the inner workings of the Shuos, but not of the Andan, but from the little we see of actual Andan in the series they’re equally terrifying.
And now I want them to court me instead

There are also stories following Jedao’s childhood and family. They’re bittersweet, especially if you know what happens later, and really interesting, because Garach Ledana is a very fascinating person and because foreshadowing. The one in Rodao’s PoV was especially heartbreaking, as I can’t help but wonder about all the what ifs.
(Also, of course kid!Jedao cut class to play jeng-zai)

Then there’s Extracurricular Activities, the novelette that introduced me to this series. It has all the humor of the series, but it’s much lighter in tone; I’ve read it probably more than ten times by now, and every time I catch some new detail that makes me laugh. (The part about eating utensils and Jedao’s thoughts about knives never fail.)
It’s just – Jedao. He’s a charming, murderous bisexual disaster?
Also, here you’ll get more details about his mother, about the Gwa Reality, and you’ll get to read probably the closest thing to a (m/m) romance there is in this series, apart from the Brezan/Tseya storyline, maybe.

Far less romantic is Gloves, in which Jedao visits a brothel, feat. forbidden Kel uniform kink. Basically PWP, but as I suspected, there was some seriously ugly context, because my experience told me that when this author takes the time to describe a sex scene instead of just mentioning it – at least in this universe – there’s always some seriously ugly context.
And I mean, that was one messed up ending.

Another story I read before the actual trilogy is The Battle of Candle Arc, about of one of Jedao’s most well-known battles, in which he was outnumbered eight to one. I’ve read it a lot of times by now, and every time, my favorite parts are the ones about cross-faction bickering and the Jedao/Menowen dialogues.

Then there’s Calendrical Rot, which started out as the prologue of Ninefox Gambit but was then removed. It’s just a fragment about one of the many places in which the story began, and now I have questions, and is it weird that unanswered questions just make this world feel more real?

The following stories (BirthdaysThe Robot’s Math LessonsSword-ShoppingPersimmons) are about Cheris, her Mwennin upbringing, and her relationship with servitors. I love how Cheris is simultaneously a math lesbian and a sword lesbian, this is the kind of representation we need
The servitors have never been my favorite part of this series, but reading about how they see humans and how they interact with them, especially with Cheris, is always interesting.

Then there are two stories following some of my favorite characters: Irriz the Assassin Cat, of course, which is probably my favorite of the flash pieces, because it’s about Zehun and cats and Shuos parenting, and Vacation, about Brezan and Tseya, featuring questionable Nirai experiments.

The last short story is Gamer’s End. I’m not sure where it’s placed timeline-wise, but it’s a really interesting piece in second person about Shuos Academy’s new ethics curriculum. This is probably the most unethical way to have a test about ethics anyone has ever come up with, but what can you expect from the Shuos?
Also: a medical unit decored with knitted lace? Mikodez, why. (No, seriously, half of the reason I like this series are this kind of details.)

And then there’s the sequel novella, Glass Cannon, in which Jedao Two escapes the Citadel of Eyes to get his memories back from Cheris, and the two kind of reconcile in the process. I have some mixed feelings about this, because it has an exposition problem. I think there was an attempt to make this novella accessible to those who haven’t read the main series or don’t remember it that well, but it… really didn’t flow smoothly the way the rest of the series does. (How many times did you need to directly tell me that Kujen liked luxury?)

Also, I’m not sure if there are going to be more stories in this universe, but reading a very open-ended sequel novella after the trilogy had a pretty satisfying conclusion is… somewhat disappointing? However, there were some things left open in the third book, and this novella started to deal with them (servitor rights! moth rights! Seriously I love the Harmony), and Jedao Two was in a terrible place mentally when we left him – at least what happened here seems to have made that better. Also, Cheris now knows more details about what happened with Dhanneth, which is something I had hoped would happen in Revenant Gun, and I’m glad that was addressed, if somewhat obliquely.

I realize that so far what I’ve said about this novella sounds mostly negative, but I actually really liked reading it – it’s hilarious. As Cheris/Jedao and Jedao Two are both Jedao to a level but not fully, and as no one alive hates Jedao quite as much as Jedao himself does… well, it goes exactly as messily as one could think. It reminded me of Extracurricular Activities, as it has all of the humor and some of the darkness of the main series but none of the heaviness. And since I’m always there for mirroring, something about this ending made a lot of sense to me, too.
(My favorite parts were the ones in which Jedao was described as “the regenerating menace from outer space” and “what did the void vomit forth”.)
Also: Niath cameo (I’m so glad he seems to be doing ok, even though I hadn’t really met him before), Hemiola cameo, and poor Mikodez.

My rating: ★★★★½ [5 for the short stories, 4 for the novella]