Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

Today I’m reviewing two Tor.com novellas I’ve read this year:

  • The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, which I read this August and hadn’t posted a review of yet, despite having talked about it many times on this blog already
  • The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, a book I read this October for Spookathon.

34613788The Ascent to Godhood is about the relationship between Hekate, the series’ villainess, and Lady Han, a courtesan-turned-revolutionary. It follows how the two met, the times they spent together, and how the relationship fell apart – so, yes, it’s basically an f/f villain romance, with delicious intrigue in the background.

The Tensorate is a series of novellas written in unusual formats, some of which worked for me more than others, and when I heard that The Ascent to Godhood was to be a transcription of “a drunken monologue”, I thought this wouldn’t work for me at all. And was I wrong. You already vaguely know how the story ends, and you’re being told by Lady Han what happened, and yet it works – maybe too much? (Those were my FEELINGS, book. How dare you.) It makes up for the details lost in the telling with a narrative voice that you will remember, and maybe exactly because of the few descriptions you’re given, the few details you know are even more memorable.
This ended up being my favorite novella in the series.

This is not the story of a revolution. It is much more personal than that, it’s a story about love and loss and grief, and it deliberately doesn’t focus on Hekate’s downfall, because that’s not what was important to Lady Han to begin with. Lady Han loved this terrible woman, and hated her just as much, and this is about how those feelings can coexist, and this complicated, twisted relationship. If you’re looking for something that is about political intrigue and a revolution, you’re going to be disappointed – they’re the background, not the focus. I didn’t mind that; I was there for the villain romance, and all the conflicting feelings that come with it. It’s probably my favorite trope, and it means so much to me to finally see a book focus specifically on an f/f version of it.

Villainous, competent women are my favorite kind of characters, so I knew right from the beginning that Hekate was going to have a lot of potential, but I didn’t think I would get a book focusing on her, and I’m so glad this exists. Lady Han is also brave and shrewd and manipulative, and I loved reading her version of the story.
The Ascent to Godhood is a tragedy, one about how your love and admiration for a person can mislead you, and about how the excessive mistrust from those experiences can destroy you all the same. Tragic f/f love stories in which the tragedy has nothing to do with homophobia, like the m/f ones that have existed since forever, have so much value, and while this is a tragic gay story, it’s not the kind of tragic gay story we’re so familiar with.

I also loved how this novella and The Descent of Monsters were tied to each other. I didn’t love The Descent of Monsters, but this novella gave it more meaning. I really recommend reading this even if you, like me, thought the third book was kind of a waste of your time. The only thing I still don’t understand is what is even up with Sonami. I mean, this book kind of gave me an answer, but as she’s not a developed character at all, I’d still love to know more.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content warnings: suicide of a minor character, child trafficking, death of a toddler, forced sterilization. Nothing graphic because you’re just being told about it, and usually not in detail.


42269378-1This was so gory, disgusting and atmospheric you could almost feel the smell of decay wafting from the pages.

The Monster of Elendhaven is a dark fantasy novella following an immortal, magical man as he meets another man who might be even more dangerous than him, and who might have some nefarious plans; deliciously evil relationship ensues.

What I loved the most about this novella was the writing. It is vivid, even though most of the time you kind of wish it hadn’t been, because Elendhaven is a horrible place to be in, and every single character is on some level corrupt and/or unhinged. I loved it for that; it truly makes you experience just how ugly this world is. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the narrator’s humor made this city bearable to read about and also made it feel more real.

“Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle.”

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

I also really liked the way the relationship was being set up: as usual, I’m always there for the trainwrecks, especially if they involve gay characters being evil the way a straight one would be allowed to be. (I don’t feel like the novella explored the full potential of it, but that’s not too unusual for short books.)

Those two things were a significant part of why I loved the first half, which introduces the reader to the world, the characters and what they’re up to; I thought this was going to be amazing because of what it seemed to lead up to.
And then… it just fizzled out. It starts talking about an apocalypse and then just ends with that? (I know, I’m vague, but I keep things non-spoilery.) Maybe there’ll be a sequel, I don’t know. What I know is that when I got to the end, my main feeling was “that’s it?”

I hesitate to say that this isn’t good, because it is well-written, but I didn’t really get what it was going for, and in the end, I kept thinking about so many other directions it could have taken that I would have liked more – but then that’s kind of wanting to read a different book.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any great novellas/stories about villains lately?

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?

lists · Short fiction

Pride Recommendations: Short Fiction

I recently said, in my post about unpopular opinions, that I think short fiction doesn’t get half the appreciation it deserves. So not why make a post about my favorite queer short fiction like the one I did for graphic novels?


Novellas

  • the Tensorate series by JY Yang is my favorite novella series. It follows the rise of a revolution and the conflict between magic and technology in an Asian-inspired world, and part of the reason it’s one of my favorites is exactly the worldbuilding. This world’s concept of gender is completely different from our own, this series has multiple characters that we would consider to be trans, and there’s so much casual queerness.
  • I very recently read an ARC of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, and… while I thought it got somewhat pretentious at times, its premise is “epistolary f/f enemies to lovers with time travel” and the story itself is even better than it sounds. I loved the way this ended so much that words wouldn’t do it justice. A love born during war is a love that endures so much, and… just read this, ok?
  • If you’re here, you’ve probably already heard of the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and you might also already know that I love it – and one of the things I love about it is the casual queerness (book one has an asexual protagonist, book two follows a girl who likes girls, and there’s a trans side character). Another reason this series means a lot to me is how it talks about being lost, about growing up feeling like you are in the wrong place, and it’s… bittersweet, overall.
  • One of my favorite f/f romances is Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole, a story about a second-chance romance between two black women set in New York. The atmosphere was everything I could have wanted and more. It’s tied to the Reluctant Royals series, which are m/f royalty romance novels with black women as protagonists,  but you don’t need to have read the novels to understand this.

Short Stories and Novelettes

All the ones that are free to read online are linked.

I

Paranormal. While finding queer vampires in traditionally published novels and novellas is difficult, finding them in short stories is surprisingly easy, probably because people are willing to take more risks – and publish stories in a “dead” trend (sigh) – with short stories.

  • 26849365Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong: an f/f/f love triangle in which two out of the three characters are vampire-like creatures that eat bad thoughts, all three women are Asian, and the story is about toxic relationships and hunger and I loved it so much. (I’m glad that for once I agree with the Nebula awards about which story deserved to win.)
  • Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara: horny trans vampires. Yes, I really do think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, with the parallels it drew between transition and vampirism.
  • Sucks (To Be You) by Katharine Duckett: a succubus becomes obsessed with a woman instead of the other way around, because, as she discovers, being a succubus in the age of social media is complicated. Anyway: the voice in this story. It has so much energy.
II

Dark fantasy, because you can never read enough weird, bloodthirsty and otherwise disturbing short stories.

  • 26837046The Lily and the Horn by Catherynne M. Valente: queer women who are poisoners! Beautiful writing! The most mouth-watering descriptions of poisoned food you will ever read! And war, you should know, is a dinner party.
  • I Built this City For You by Cassandra Khaw: Hello. Is this your city? This story starts in the weirdest way possible, and only gets better; I love everything about it. Stories about cities and people’s relationships with them, stories about toxic relationships, even f/f ones, stories about this specific kind of speculative elements – I will never stop loving them, and the writing got under my skin.
  • Before She Was Bloody by Tessa Gratton in Three Sides of a Heart: f/f/m polyamory, body doubles, court intrigue, a worldbuilding more interesting and complex than half the fantasy novels I read, and an unforgettable atmosphere (the descriptions!!). One of my favorites.
  • Super-Luminous Spiral by Cameron Van Sant: if you’ve ever wondered how hallucinating about literary fiction and the concept of the “muse” but with a magical trans character involved would feel like, well… this story exists.
III

Quiet, bittersweet and/or sad stories, because quiet stories are underrated – and because, about the sad ones, I might not be able to read most sad queer novels, but I love sad queer short stories (and will always believe in the right of queer creators to write what they want). The stories not being long 300+ pages makes all the difference.

  • 35395539All the Time We’ve Left to Spend by Alyssa Wong: the fact that this one wasn’t nominated for either a Hugo or a Nebula is a sign that things are going wrong. Anyway, this is about a Japanese girl visiting a hotel where the memories of dead members of a pop band are preserved, and it’s… queer and haunting.
  • Waiting on a Bright Moon by JY Yang: this needs trigger warnings for being set in a homophobic world and for having a torture scene (not of a character who, as far as we know, is queer). It’s also one of my favorite short stories, about a forbidden f/f romance and magical songs in space. JY Yang’s descriptions are some of the best things I have ever read.
  • The Imitation Sea by Lora Gray: this is about grief and the aftermath of a suicide and it deals with homophobic religious abuse, so be careful. It’s also one of the most atmospheric and beautiful things I’ve ever read. I don’t know how I had not heard of this author before.
  • The Shadow Postulates by Yoon Ha Lee in Conservation of Shadows: this isn’t a sad story, just a quiet one, one that blends magic and mathematics, and the main character is a lesbian learning sword-dancing (sword lesbian!!). The worldbuilding in this one is everything to me (terrifying magical shadows tied to math? an university in which they study said math?) and I would read a whole book set there.
IV

F/F. So far, I have talked about queer stories I wouldn’t really classify as love stories, as some of these were about toxic relationships and death or didn’t have a relationship in them at all. But here are my favorite f/f stories with a happy ending!

  • 43064429If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho: an imugi trying to became a dragon keeps failing and meets a woman in the process! Funny, romantic, and very gay.
  • The End of Love by Nina LaCour in Summer Days and Summer Nights: on the surface, this is a cute, happy story about a girl finding love after she stopped believing in it (because her parents divorced). Not on the surface, this is the first thing with f/f content I had ever read and it will always mean a lot to me.
  • Death and the Maiden by Tara Sim in Color Outside the Lines: an f/f retelling of Hades and Persephone with an Indian main character! The atmosphere has a Star-Touched Queen feeling but gay and that was everything I didn’t know I wanted.
V

M/M stories that don’t fit into the previous categories, relatively happy:

  • ExtracurricularActivitiesExtracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee: this is technically tied to Ninefox Gambit, but as it’s set 300+ years before the trilogy, and as I read it before the book, I don’t think it’s an issue. It’s a story about a bisexual secret agent going on a mission in a neighboring space democracy (all the while flirting with a man he really shouldn’t be flirting with!) and it’s really fun.
  • Court of Birth, Court of Strength by Aliette de Bodard: this is also tied to the series Dominion of the Fallen, but again, it can be read without knowing anything about it and it’s set long before it. It’s about gay fallen angels and political intrigue, and the romance is… really well-written for something this short.
  • Unbound by Naomi Salman in Twisted Romance: contemporary romance about a mechanic and a mysterious neighbor, who is rumored of working in a sex club. It involves bondage and it’s one of my favorite short romances.

Do you have any queer short fiction recommendations? Have you read any of these?

Adult · Book review · contemporary · historical fiction · Short fiction

Reviews: Two M/M Adult Books + Two Non-Binary Graphic Novels

After making a post with two short reviews of F/F YA books I had read recently, today I’m making one for two M/M adult ones (a novella with a trans main character and a historical fiction book with steampunk aspects) and two graphic novels with non-binary main characters.


Coffee Boy by Austin Chant

32146161Coffee Boy is a new adult romance novella following Kieran, a young trans intern who gets a crush on his supervisor Seth, who has himself a crush on their boss.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one, because it’s very short, but I can say that the romance was adorable (novellas are the best length for romance, it’s the truth), and that it’s so refreshing to read a contemporary romance with trans representation in which there is no outing anywhere in the book. There is some misgendering, because the main character doesn’t always pass, and there are some scenes about well-meaning but condescending and sometimes outright clueless “allies” that were… very awkward and very real, at the same time – but, overall, this is a happy story.

Anyway, if “younger person who can’t keep his mouth shut” and “older, distinguished grump who is actually secretly a mess” is your kind of thing, I really recommend it! And it’s for sure a short, cute romantic read perfect for Pride month.

My rating: ★★★★½


The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

22929563What happens when you care about the characters a lot but the writing meanders so much that you almost end up DNFing a book? You end up skimming. Which is why I didn’t enjoy The Watchmaker of Filigree Street as much as I could have.

It was as if the author felt the need to describe every single thing. Which, sometimes, was interesting, as I love details – especially when it came to the steampunk aspects, and the atmosphere was perfect – but for the most part, wasn’t. There were whole scenes that could have easily been cut, or maybe I just missed their significance because at that point I was so bored that I was skipping paragraphs. That’s possible. It’s just… how can one put together such a compelling premise, featuring historical gay people, steampunk technology, clairvoyance and bombings and make a boring story out of it? I don’t know. This book managed, and its characters weren’t even that bland.

Or – Nathaniel could have won the “blandest man of the year” award, but Grace wasn’t bland at all, if unlikable, and Mori was… unlike every character I had ever read about before, in a good way. The romance was also very sweet, and there was a mechanical octopus, and the book said so many interesting things about chances vs. choices, but this book was still so boring that nothing could save it – not even that ending, the best possible ending, or the fact that I knew it was going to be slow beforehand.

One more thing: I feel iffy about some things in here – it’s not my place to talk about how the anti-Asian racism is portrayed, but know that, if you’re interested in reading this book, there’s a lot of it in here (and, just like the misogyny in this book – which is also what you would expect from English people of the time, but still, ehh – not all of it is explicitly challenged).

My rating: ★★★


The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912I wouldn’t have thought the day people in my country could walk into a bookstore and find a YA book with a non-binary main character on the shelves was going to be anytime soon, and I’m so glad to know that I was wrong.
I knew that book was probably going to be translated, seeing how the popular Italian YA books usually are. This one was, and I can’t even complain: it’s a graphic novel with a happy ending, one that doesn’t make a mess with the character’s pronouns, and overall a cute read.

It means a lot.

I’ve seen a few reviews say that we shouldn’t call this cute, or fluffy, because the main character gets outed. And I know. But this had such a light tone overall, and the main character is accepted by the people around him (the prince is genderfluid and both he/him and she/her pronouns are used during the story), including his family, so that by the end this story felt more like a reassurance to me – even if bad things could happen to you, you can still have a happy ending.

What I’m more annoyed by is the fact that books with this exact storyline (this one, Simon vs., and more recently Red, White and Royal Blue) or books that I really did found to be about queer pain (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugoare the ones that get the most popularity and then are almost the only ones that could even get a chance of being translated, so that the message becomes more “bad things will happen to you”. But you know, we don’t really get to be picky about representation here.
[This is why, by the way, I’m so glad that Leah on the Offbeat exists: no outing or queer pain in that one, and it got translated.]

Anyway. This is a story about a dressmaker with big dreams and a prince who likes to wear dresses, with an f/non-binary romance, set in an alt-history version of Paris. The art is very cute, and while it isn’t exactly my thing – I think I just prefer more realistic stlyes? – I still had fun with this.

My rating: ★★★★


The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill

42369064The Tea Dragon Festival is a companion prequel to the graphic novel The Tea Dragon Society, a cute fantasy graphic novel I liked but didn’t love. This installment convinced me a lot more. It features both old and new characters and just as many adorable dragons. The art is gorgeous, as always, but this time I liked both the characters and the setting more (there were fungi and beautiful woods! I loved that a lot.)

The story follows a non-binary main character who loves gathering food from the forest, and a confused dragon who woke up after eighty years of sleep. The story was cute, but what made it truly stand out was how it normalized queerness and sign language. Also, it’s so refreshing to read about a world in which people of many different ethnicities coexist and the world doesn’t always default to western customs – see which kinds of food was drawn and sometimes the eating utensils, for example.

Another thing I really appreciated was that this graphic novel said that just because something is easy for you, it doesn’t mean it has no value. More than anything, this is a story about community, and finding your own place in it, and I thought it was wonderful.

The only thing I didn’t love was the part at the end that attempted to explain dragon taxonomy, made a mess in which it mixed up species and subspecies, and capitalized specific epithets. I kind of wish it hadn’t been there at all, because I care about that sort of thing.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read or want to read any of these?

Adult · Book review · Short fiction

Reviews: 2019 Novellas From Tor.com

Today, I’m reviewing three Tor.com novellas that came out this year, In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh and Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan.


38244358In an Absent Dream is a cautionary tale about the dangers and consequences of indecision. You go into it knowing – or at least strongly suspecting – what’s going to happen, and that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking or impactful, because its tragic nature doesn’t live in a twist or in a revelation, but in how easily avoidable on a superficial level and completely inevitable deep down its ending felt.

This is a story about being caught between two worlds, about the inherent unfairness of having to choose paired with how it would be unfair to the people around you not to – because you can’t live in two worlds at the same time.

I think every reader can relate to Lundy’s struggle on some level. I think most of us have dreamed, at some point or another, to be able to escape to a magical world. After all, it’s what this series is about. It’s easy, and this book acknowledges that, to think that choosing one world over another would be painless when one isn’t actually confronted with that choice.
Lundy, unlike most people, is given that choice – and in a modern culture that values individual choices as the pillar of freedom, it’s really interesting and chilling to see how having to choose tears her apart.
I feel like we often overlook the role and power of communities even when we talk about agency and how a character’s choices should be the ones to drive the story, so this book is, if anything, a necessary reminder.

This novella also made me think about fairness, about whether something like that can ever really exist. The world of the Goblin Market is fair, supposedly – but is it really? It certainly highlighted a lot of flaws in our own, but it’s still not a place I would ever want to be in. I think most humans need some unfairness to exist and not be stifled by rules, but unfairness is a bad thing (now I’m thinking about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis in ecology and maybe humanity needs something like that to thrive too? But still, where would be the balance in that).
I don’t know. I’m not sure the way this book would want me to be. But it made me think about many things in a really short time, and I appreciate that a lot.

On a different level, I loved this book for the way it made the Goblin Market come to life. I felt like I could taste the pies and climb the trees along with Moon and Lundy, and I could see the archivist’s shack. This is even more remarkable considering that I usually struggle with this aspect while listening to audiobooks, but not this time. Cynthia Hopkins’ narration was amazing, and I might even say that Seanan McGuire’s writing works better when narrated, as it relies heavily on telling instead of showing. It slows down the story when you’re reading, but it’s actually a strength when the story is being read to you, and that was really interesting to experience.

My rating: ★★★★


43459657Silver in the Wood reads like a forest fairytale. It could be seen like a loose m/m retelling of the Green Man myths, so it’s fitting that this is a story about rebirth and reawakening, not only of nature after spring but of people after toxic relationships.

It’s a quiet, slow story, and if at first I thought that the pacing was odd – things happen too quickly, but the book is still slow? – I realized that in a way it was a reflection of how the main character, who is part of the wood, experienced time himself.

This is also one of the best plant magic stories I’ve ever read. Not only it’s about a vaguely creepy wood, it actually talks about which trees there are in detail – elms, oaks, and even a mention of gorse (I love gorse) – and there are scenes in which roots and vines are weapons.

What didn’t work for me as much was the romance, as this is barely longer than 100 pages and the characters interact for only half of them; I thought it was cute, but I didn’t feel it.

At times it reminded me of Witchmark for the sweet romance between a human and a paranormal creature, at times it reminded me of Strange Grace for the isolated town in the wood and the terrible things that lurk in it, and I’d definitely recommend it to everyone who liked those books.

My rating: ★★★★


40939044Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is a mind-bending and very gay futuristic sci-fi novella whose main character is a queer latinx woman.

At first, I thought this was going to be a cave horror story about an f/f/f love triangle, which I loved as a concept, but this book turned out to be something entirely different, which was… both the story’s main strength and weakness.

I love being surprised by things that are properly foreshadowed, but when the foreshadowing makes you feel like the main character could say “and it was all just a dream!” at any moment, it’s not really an enjoyable experience. (That’s not what happened, by the way.)
Because Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is dreamlike in an ephemeral way: it’s not whimsical, it just feels like it could fall apart at any moment and become something else – because that’s what dreams do.

Also, this book reminded me why I dislike amnesia as a trope: I don’t know the main character when I start the book, and when she doesn’t know herself either, how am I really going to ever get to know her? (Especially in so little space.)

However, I liked this book’s message and the way it talked about trauma and inner strength. (I wish I could say more, because I thought that aspect was really well-written, but it would be full of spoilers.) Also, reading something that is really short but manages to surprise me twice anyway is always pleasant.

My rating: ★★★¼


What are your favorite Tor.com novellas? Have you read any of these?

Book review · Short fiction

Short Fiction Reviews, Again

It’s time for some more short fiction reviews!

This time I’m dividing the post into three sections: stories and poetry I’ve read on my own, stories I’ve read because of the Hugo nominations, and stories I’ve read inside an anthology.


Stories and Poetry I’ve Read On My Own

The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Wind by Karen Osborne★★★½
A twist on the usual “girl is sacrificed to a dragon to save her village” trope. It’s very short, and while I didn’t like it quite as much as the other Karen Osborne short story I reviewed on this blog (The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power, which was gayer), it packs a punch. I don’t want to say more because the more would be spoilers, but I really recommend it to all of those who like fairytale-like stories that are written to uplift women and their bonds instead of using them as plot devices.

things you don’t say to city witches by Cassandra Khaw – ★★★★★
This is so short, and I love it a lot. It gives me I Built This City for You vibes, but that’s not the main reason – the main reason is that it’s fierce, that it’s a poem about loving a city so much that the people can’t ruin it for you, and do I relate to that feeling quite strongly. And very few people manage to set such an atmosphere in just eleven lines. I love it I love it I love it Cassandra Khaw did it again

A Silly Love Story by Nino Cipri – ★★★½
Cute! A love story between a neurodivergent main character and a bigender person, featuring a poltergeist. I had heard about Nino Cipri before but hadn’t read anything by them yet, and this made me want to read more. I’ll definitely try Finna when it comes out next year.

Date the Lizard! by RoAnna Sylver – ★★★★
Very short, very cute interactive fiction; I really appreciated that it’s about dating and it still gave one the option to say “I’m aromantic”.
Now I really want to know about the Chameleon Moon universe. (I will get to it, eventually. I think.)


Stories I’ve Read Because of the Hugos

Novelettes

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho★★★★★
This was the cutest story ever. About an imugi who is trying to become a dragon and the woman who falls in love with it (also, the imugi’s human form is a woman, so… f/f!). About not seeing yourself as a failure, and about whether persistence is worth it. And there’s even a really short, very adorable sequel! I really hope this one wins the Hugo.
Also: if you end up liking this and you haven’t read Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace yet… try it!

The Thing About Ghost Stories by Naomi Kritzer – ★★★★½
A woman studying ghost stories and what they actually mean loses her mother to Alzheimers’. This is the first story by Naomi Kritzer I’ve felt strongly about, and I thought it was… wistful? And really good, even though I don’t always enjoy things that are this meta.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confection by Tina Connolly – ★★★★★
Delicious food-based magic, poison tasting, deception, and revenge, all in only one bite. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s the best kind of bittersweet, the one whose ending doesn’t feel weaker than the rest of the story. And food descriptions have always been my weakness, of course I loved the story about resistance through magical pastries – but I especially loved how this story talked about the links between food and memory, and that’s something I’d like to see in fiction more.

Short Stories

The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker – no rating
On one hand, it did exactly what it meant to do, with its commentary on complicity that is… very relevant. On the other hand, I hated reading it. I won’t rate it.

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T. Kingfisher★★★½
Is this a fun, somewhat subversive story? Yes. Is it Hugo-nomination-material? I don’t know. It doesn’t do that much more than play with the “pines after faerie lover” trope by making the faerie pine after a human woman, and while I’m always here for stories about women having a fulfilling sex life, I don’t feel like this will stay with me. But it is a nice read.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark – ★★★★
A look at American slavery through magic and through the effect nine enslaved black people indirectly had on George Washington with their “donated” (…taken) teeth. It’s not my favorite thing Clark has written but it’s still really good – it talks about history as much as it talks about folklore, alternate universes and simply existing when you are not allowed freedom.

STET by Sarah Gailey – ★
I’m disgusted.
Listen, this is a clever story with a really original format I had never seen before – so many footnotes, and yet so short – and it talks about the inherent biases of AIs, in this case self-driving cars, which is a theme I love to see explored in fiction.
However, I loathe its (accidental? I’m not sure) message. Sometimes conservation efforts damage humans, and ecology needs to be sustainable from a human standpoint too, and balancing those things is complicated. And this story reduces all of this to something that feels like why do we care about animals so much? How much time do we spend looking at photos of endangered woodpeckers? But conservation is not about the animals that we think are cute. (By the way: read about the Bambi effect and why it can even be dangerous for the environment, get rid of that mentality, and do a favor to ecologists worldwide!)
Have you ever heard of ecological niches? About how every species has its own and you never know if causing an extinction will have barely any impact on the ecosystem or damage it for years (or even irrevocably, in some cases)? Because it’s almost never “just a woodpecker”, or “just a beetle” or “just seagrass” or things like that.
I can’t know what’s likely to happen with the extinction of that woodpecker since it seems to be a fictional species¹ (…and only ever mentioned as a common name, because binomial nomenclature is evil, right), but you don’t get to make something so complex, something that has an entire fucking branch of science behind, so two-dimensional. And you could say it gets that two-dimensional because the main character is angry – but that’s what it feels like the story it’s saying, that conservation is frivolous, its importance overrated.
And now, the “we care more about animals than we do about humans” thing has some truth to it, usually when it comes to pets (how many people would rather save a dog than a person, especially when it comes to marginalized demographics? Oh, I know) but this story acts as if we make too much a big deal about extinction. Extinction destroys ecosystems. We need ecosystems to survive.
Was dragging conservation ecology into this story without actually researching anything about why we need it (not because “we care about the poor fluffy birds” but because “we need functioning ecosystems to live”) necessary to make the story effective? No. I can think of so many other ways to set up a story about the biases of AI that wouldn’t end up doing that.

¹”It’s different just because of two stripes!”, says the story. As far as I know, it doesn’t exist (who knows, maybe it’s an obscure common name of some American woodpecker, with common names you never know), but: that’s not how any of this works! You might tell it apart from the others just because of the stripes, but if it were different just because of the stripes, it wouldn’t be a species.

Anyway, some TL;DRs for everyone:

  • You don’t get to worry about climate change and be annoyed at conservation efforts at the same time!
  • You don’t judge a species’ importance from how much humans care about it! I don’t care that you don’t care that much about eagles, by protecting a flagship species you protect their ecosystem, and I promise that you don’t want to lose that!
  • You don’t get to talk about these things without nuance and research and the story had none of the first and also probably none of the second

Stories I’ve Read Because of an Anthology

41953441I’ve also been reading the anthology The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Four edited by Neil Clarke, and while I’m finding most of the stories really boring – me and the editor have radically different ideas about what makes a great science fiction story, and I also have very little patience for short fiction (I asked for something short that will still pack a punch, not a whole novel’s worth of worldbuilding in the space of two chapters so that I understand nothing, thank you!) – there are some stand-outs:

Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby – ★★★★
This one is such a brilliant concept and also a relatively easy read for such a heavy topic – it’s about how smart home technology could be exploited by abusers, but it manages to be… all but depressing, actually. I loved the ending so much.

All the Time We’ve Left to Spend by Alyssa Wong – ★★★★★
I’ve mentioned this story on my blog before, but this is exactly the kind of thing that makes me think about how much we need queer sad books written by queer authors. It’s a gorgeous story about grief from the point of view of a Japanese girl who visits an hotel in which the memories of the dead members of a pop band are preserved, and one of them was her girlfriend. It’s haunting and sad and I feel strongly about this kind of thing not being in any way comparable to the bury your gays trope. Anyway, the fact that this wasn’t nominated for either a Hugo or a Nebula is a crime.

Entropy War by Yoon Ha Lee – ★★★★
This isn’t my favorite of Yoon Ha Lee’s but it’s still a stand-out, for the writing (which is, as usual, the best) and for the concept: this is about games and war the way many of his stories are, but what about a war against entropy? I loved the concept and it made me think about the theme of the inevitability of change and how, in a way, that’s also what the Machineries of Empire series as a whole is about, with the Kujen storyline.

Among the Water Buffaloes, A Tiger’s Steps by Aliette de Bodard – ★★★★
A happier f/f story about legacies and fairytales in a sci-fi post-apocalyptic scenario. I loved it, especially for what it said about the importance of imagining new endings for yourself. If you like the theme about “not being destined to follow your predecessors in their steps and especially mistakes”, this is a great story to read (sadly, you can find it only in anthologies).


Have you read any good short fiction lately?