Adult · Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #3: Ambiguous Endings in Fiction (and more)

Welcome to the third post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. In 2019, I wasn’t reading as many short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

This time, I will:

  • review four short stories, including a Nebula finalist and recently published stories by well-known SFF authors like Alix E. Harrow and Yoon Ha Lee;
  • one short story collection from a well-known horror author;
  • talk about ambiguous endings with a focus on short fiction vs novels.

Recent Reads

Short Fiction
  • 46301916For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com): this is from a completely new-to-me author; I decided to read it because it’s a Nebula Award finalist. And… it was amazing? It’s about cats fighting the Devil to protect a poet, full of delightful cat logic and very interesting cats (I’m sorry but I want an entire book about Nighthunter Moppet now). It doesn’t take itself seriously at all but it talks about the nature of temptation in a way that doesn’t feel too one-dimensional and yet makes sense even for a cat. I think I would have liked this even more had I been already familiar with Christopher Smart (as usual, everything kind of assumes you already know English classics), but that was interesting to learn anyway.
  • The Sycamore and the Sybil by Alix E. Harrow (Uncanny): this was wonderful, and yet I don’t fully love it. It’s as much of a modern witchy twist on Apollo and Daphne as it is a commentary on how society shapes women to turn our anger inwards, our problems against ourselves, so that we’re pretty much trapped by our own minds. And it’s beautifully written, but there’s something about Harrow’s complete lack of subtlety coupled with the predictable trajectory of the story that makes most of her short stories (and her book) not work for me. It’s just so obvious and there’s not much to take away from the journey. Still, I didn’t think this was bad, and I loved how the author mentioned which kinds of plants she was talking about (that’s the way to go if you’re writing about witches!), even though I spent the first third of the story wondering which kind of tree she actually meant with “sycamore”, since that can mean several wildly different species and I have very weird priorities. (I’m still not sure, by the way.)
  • The Whale Fall at the End of the Universe by Cameron Van Sant (Clarkesworld): this is from the author of one of my favorite short stories, the very trippy Super-Luminous Spiral, so I was immediately intrigued. This is set… around a space whale carcass? And I think the main characters are something like space mermaids (they/them pronouns are used for both). This is kind of sad but it’s also a story about love at the end of the world, so not completely sad? Weird, but this time not a kind of weird that resonated much with me. I don’t really know if I got it.
  • The Mermaid Astronaut by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies): apparently, this is Space Mermaid week! This is a story about a mermaid who wants to become an astronaut, and it’s about sisterhood, relativity, and the way learning science can shift one’s worldview. Also, now I want a scrimshaw depicting a sacrifice to eldritch gods. Apart from the descriptions, though, this is… not my kind of thing. It’s very sweet, and it reminded me of the flash fiction of The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales in its gentle, unhurried nature (…which one wouldn’t expect if only familiar with Lee’s longer works). However, this is not a flash piece and wouldn’t work as one, and it has no sense of urgency behind it. I would recommend it to fans of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, because they’re somewhat similar in nature (alien space crew!) and because I felt pretty much the same way about them: lovely message, boring story.
Collections

The collection of short stories I read this month was Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I loved both her memoir In the Dream House (review) and her short story The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (review) in February, so it seemed like a good idea to read this as well.

33375622Some of this was brilliant and daring, some of this really wasn’t, and most of it bored me.

There’s a running thread of unease and alienation in this collection, of things never being quite right, of details that might seem innocent becoming more and more uncomfortable as you look at them. It’s a collection about bodies, especially women’s bodies, representing the impact of the psychological violence against them as a physical manifestation. It forces the reader to look at it, to acknowledge it exists; just because a lot of it is subtler than a punch, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

The stories are ambiguous and twisted, and there’s enough material and subtext to write pages-long reviews of most of them. But here’s where the issue comes in: I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel drawn to dissect or discuss them, or spend any more time on them. I just wanted this book to be over.

This had to do both with personal taste (this is not my kind of body horror, apparently) and because some parts were frankly overdone.
Let’s take the longest story in this collection, Especially Heinous. My biggest takeaway from it is that litfic-adjacent authors can get away with almost everything and have it praised as an incisive masterpiece, and “everything” includes bad fanfiction. Not only I didn’t care because I didn’t know the show this was rewriting (as it happens with fanfiction), it had nothing new to say – it read like a cheap fever dream with nods at twice-reheated commentary.

There were two stories that I really liked, Real Women Have Bodies, an eerie story about the damaging effects of beauty standards with an f/f relationship at the center, and Eight Bites, about the ways fatphobia and misogyny are tied, and how their impact is seen across generations. Mothers was also a really interesting piece about the double-edged nature of fantasy, but I find myself already forgetting most of what I thought about it apart from my feelings about the writing (those descriptions were… something else. I really have no complaints about the writing).

This is probably the first time the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me: individually, I only actually disliked two stories; together, I found myself thinking that again? a lot. I can’t even say it was repetitive, because it isn’t that, exactly; these stories explore an array of different experiences. It was emotionally monotonous to the extreme, however.

My rating: ★★½


On Ambiguous Endings in (Short) Fiction

As I don’t doubt many others are, I tend to be annoyed by ambiguous endings in novels. Of course, there are a lot of situations in which they can make sense, and giving the readers space to find answers themselves can sometimes be a good thing, but there’s always that undercurrent of… betrayal, in a way: the book took a certain amount of time to set up a question, and the reader dedicated a certain amount of time to reading it, but then the book didn’t give an answer. Of course it can be frustrating, especially when there isn’t going to be a sequel.

Something I realized while reading Her Body and Other Parties is that I don’t feel that way at all when it comes to short fiction. The shorter a story is, the more I appreciate what isn’t said, what is purposefully left out. While I didn’t feel compelled to dissect the stories in that collection – for reasons different from their ambiguity – I did see a lot of parts that would have been perfect for that, and if I had been reading this with others, maybe I would have. I remember having a lot of fun with the more ambiguous parts of Salt Slow just a few months ago. I want to be confused and have something to untangle.

Everyone takes away something different from a novel, it’s the fun part of reviewing; with short fiction, this is true to the extreme. People can read Machado’s short stories and come to a completely different conclusion about what they actually mean, and I’m not even really interested in knowing if there is a real answer, the truth of what the author was trying to say – more in various interpretations and how the reader got there. So, Her Body and Other Parties wasn’t necessarily the most interesting collection to read, but it was a really interesting collection to read reviews of.

I think my feelings on this topic have a lot to do with time, how much time the story required me to spend on it just to finish reading it. If it took me an hour, I’m fine with doing all the work myself, but if it took me three days (so, average book-length), I’m going to feel differently about it.


How do you feel about ambiguous endings? Have you read any of these stories?

Book review · Discussion · Fantasy · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #2: Reading From People You Disagree With (and More)

Welcome to the second post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. I haven’t been reading as many short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

This time, I will be reviewing four short stories, of which two are Nebula finalists, one short story collection from an acclaimed SFF author, and talk about the importance of reading from people you disagree with.


Recent Reads

Short Stories
  • The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta, 2020): I will never forget this. It’s decadent, visceral, and very gory, with a thick, uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s about a messed up relationship between an actress and the young woman who basically becomes her servant, including BDSM and a dynamic that is both toxic and intoxicating. And it certainly doesn’t shy away from the grotesque! (The fantasies about vore, of course, are there just for literary purpose! If you don’t know what that means, please, don’t google it.) The points it makes about sex and violence, about what we see as depraved and oddly don’t, about body horror being something so tied into the feminine… it really is true, when our bodies are the landscapes of everyday horror themselves. I’m currently reading Her Body and Other Parties, but this new story is still my favorite short from Carmen Maria Machado.
  • 26199196Variations on an Apple by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, 2015): What if you were in love with a city?
    The Iliad, retold in Yoon Ha Lee’s signature math-fantasy style. Dizzying, wonderfully queer, and suffused with a quieter sadness than one would expect from a story about war, it talks about fate, and the unstoppable potential of human discord. It’s an even more remarkable experience if one is familiar with either Ninefox Gambit or Lee’s game Winterstrike, as some parts of it felt like glancing at those through a distorting glass. Also, of course cities have no concerns for something as human as gender. It’s not my favorite by Yoon Ha Lee (my favorites remain Ghostweight and The Knights of Chains, the Deuce of Stars) but really good nonetheless; some parts almost read like poetry, and the writing is sharp enough to cut.
  • Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, 2019): cannibalism, lesbianism, and the othering, oppressive nature of western anthropology all rolled into a short horror story, one told through excerpts of fictional books and articles. Original, and manages to pack a punch in very little space.
  • His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light by Mimi Mondal (Tor.com, 2019): a story about freedom, loyalty and gay love between a human and a jinni set in India. Like the previous one, I tried it because it was announced as a Nebula finalist. I feel like the characters had a lot of backstory I couldn’t see nor feel in this space, and I didn’t feel attached to them as a result, but I did really like the escaping devadasi subplot. Overall, nice, but not that memorable for me.
Collections

40855636In February I read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, a collection of short stories from N.K. Jemisin, an author I’ve had mixed experiences with before. That didn’t change, since this collection was even more of a mixed bag than I’d usually expect. Still, it made me want to at least try both the Dreamblood duology and The City We Became; I don’t have any doubt about her skill, especially when it comes to the writing in itself – there’s hardly a word out of place.

In fantasy, I love her worldbuilding. I now want to read The Killing Moon purely because of how much I liked the world in The Narcomancer; it was so vibrant and atmospheric and intriguing. I also love the way she talks about cities – especially New York and New Orleans. The concept of a city itself having a deep, positive power despite all its flaws is one that appeals to me, and so does reading about the complicated relationships marginalized people have with the place they live in and the other people who live there with them. Of course, The Effluent Engine and The City Born Great were two of my favorites. Jemisin always has a fantastic grasp on atmosphere, which shines in this kind of stories.
Sadly, I don’t seem to get along with her sci-fi stories the same way? This is probably more on me than on her, because while sci-fi is my favorite genre, there are some subgenres of it I really can’t get into (cyberpunk and the like) and several of the sci-fi stories fell into that. The Evaluators was the main exception, and it would have been interesting if the ecology in the story had made any sense.

One particularly low point was L’Alchimista, in which the author attempted to write about Italian characters in real-world Italy without even trying to get the Italian language right.

“Mi scuza”
– N.K. Jemisin, 2006.

…that’s like having an American character apologize by saying “Hi’m sorpy”. You can’t expect your readers to take you seriously while talking about Italian food and politics after you do that! As usual, I’m left wondering what American authors have against putting effort into other languages.
Still, since it was written more than ten years ago, I hope she’d make different choices today and it doesn’t influence my interest in her other works. And I do like how she writes about food when she’s not writing about Italy; I really liked the food witchery  in Red Dirt Witch and what she did in Cuisine des Mémoires, because stories that explore the link between food and memory have always been my kind of thing.

Overall, this was very interesting, because I didn’t feel the same way about two stories. Some I loved, some I couldn’t even finish, some I finished and hated, some I liked but didn’t feel strongly about, some I liked while partially disagreeing with – it’s far from my favorite collection, but as far as reading experience, it was one of the most dynamic and I never quite knew what to expect next.


On Reading From People Who Disagree With You

The idea for this discussion was born when I read the first story in How Long ’til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight, which has since been reprinted on Lightspeed Magazine, where you can read it online. It’s a response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (a story I’m only tangentially familiar with because of discussions on twitter) based on Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance.

This story made me think about how we in the book community frame the idea of reading from people who we disagree with. Because I disagree with some points in the story, especially its concern with passive corruption¹ (it’s probably because it reminds me of the twisted, nonsensical book twitter ethics towards fiction²).

The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a story that celebrates diversity while underlining the importance of strong boundaries against intolerance, which can’t be just seen as a “difference of thought” – something I strongly agree with. What I don’t agree with is the process through which this story thinks people become intolerant. Reading this story gave me a reason to truly dissect why I don’t think this feels right to me, which I don’t think I would otherwise done; it means that I did get something out of it, just not necessarily what the author put on the page.

And… being able to read something I disagreed with without feeling attacked by it is something I see as a progress. I learned reviewing from looking at what other people did, and tried to use that framework to talk about my own feelings. But the thing is, we are all hobbyists, and it’s difficult to tell – especially if personal and painful topics come into play – when something stops being an interpretation and starts becoming projection. Couple that with general insecurity about one’s own opinions, and you get defensive callout mentality. There’s a lot of it in the book community, and it’s often rewarded – in places like book twitter, anger and lack of nuance get more traction than anything else – and I’m still trying to disentangle from it; I’m not completely sure I’m successful (also, the worst part about misguided righteous anger is that it feels good). But if I tried to avoid stories like these, that make me a little uncomfortable by having parts I strongly agree with and parts I don’t, and examined what my knee-jerk reactions were, I wouldn’t have reasons to realize this even was a problem.


¹ coming in contact with bigotry will make you partially a bigot? And having come in contact with it means you will spread it and need to get murdered to save the utopia? People never come up with horrible ideas on their own if you shelter them enough…? Simplistic and I don’t think people even work like that.

² Book twitter increasingly seems to operate with the assumption that fiction influences real life (concern towards possible passive harm) but what we accuse others of on the internet somehow doesn’t influence real life (lack of concern towards probable active harm). As you can imagine, it’s hell. I recommend reading this interview by Tamsyn Muir and what happened to Isabel Fall if you want to know about recent examples.

³ In case it wasn’t clear, I agree about them being dangerous, but not the “they will contaminate you” part. It’s far more complicated than that.


Have you read any of these? How did you learn to review? Have you ever gone through realizing that you were doing some parts of it badly?

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #1: How Do You Rate Anthologies? (and more)

Hi! Welcome to a new series of posts.

“Short Fiction Time” will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. I’ve mentioned before that I haven’t been reading as much short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

In this post, I’ll be reviewing what I’ve read lately, and talk about reviews of anthologies and short story collections.


Recent reads

Short Stories
  • 50636271._sy475_The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods by Maria Dahvana Headley (Tor.com): I tried this one pretty much on a whim. While I found its beginning really compelling and the format really original as well – braiding comparisons between common shitty boyfriend antics and godly misbehavior from Greek myths – I found myself kind of bored in the end, when the story turns into… a long list? It’s probably meant to mirror the way one might invoke a goddess, but it was boring to read. I didn’t really get the point of that, though of course Headley’s writing is gorgeous.
  • I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married by Fonda Lee (MIT Technology Review): structured like a r/relationship reddit post and just as wild as reddit posts sometimes get, this is a tale about online dating in a very near future, and it’s… creepy. Both because of the main character’s lack of self-examination (which was realistic for the kind of structure this went for, wasn’t it) and for the way I know some people trust algorithms this much. A compelling read with an ending that made me laugh. Some people never learn.
  • Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny): she’s one of the authors I had bookmarked (she’s been nominated for awards and I hadn’t read anything by her yet), so I decided to start with this one. And… oh wow. Way to start a story? I don’t know if I’m meant to, but I find fictional firearm unsafety very funny (…that’s a very specific trope). Anyway, this starts with gun sex. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Apart from that, this is a story about trauma, and finding ways to survive and be ourselves in the connections we form. A really unusual read about gay supersoldiers, and what can I say, I definitely won’t forget it easily.
Collections

42870948._sy475_In January I read Salt Slow by Julia Armfield.

This managed to gross me out in so many different yet very quiet ways, so of course I really appreciated it.

Salt Slow is a collection about unruly women. Women who defy the rules of reality, who are messy and ugly and feral, or turn so; women who are violent, long for the worst, howl at the moon.
In a society in which even a hint of these things in a woman is met with retaliation, it’s really refreshing to read stories that bend reality to allow us to be. This book isn’t afraid of gore, of going to dark places, and Julia Armfield’s prose certainly has teeth – both in the sense that this book will happily sink them in you and in the sense that almost every single story contains multiple occurrences of the word “teeth”. (why?)

Salt Slow has the kind of attention to detail that makes magical realism and contemporary fantasy truly magical for me – it cares about the mundane and the small, finds the shine and the rot in it. Most of its power comes from exploring speculative paths based on very real, very unremarkable events, turning an average day into an experience of quiet horror.

These stories all have the kind of conclusions that made me think, which I appreciate immensely. I know this will stay with me, as almost every single story did (interestingly, all of them but the one that gives the title to the book).
I often ended the stories feeling uneasy, and even more often, confused. I had to work to make them make sense, or to find a sense – sometimes the sense is a condensation of a story and your own experiences – and I will never turn down a puzzle, so this was fun as well.

As for what it talks about apart from the unifying thread, there are a lot of themes discussed here that are personal to me – most of all, the experience of being raised as a Catholic woman when you’re queer (Cassandra After) – and some that were not, like divorce (Smack), miscarriage (Salt Slow) or a marriage growing cold (Granite).

Individual reviews of the stories that stood out for me the most:

  • My favorite was probably Stop your women’s ears with wax: not only because it centers an f/f relationship, though that is really appreciated too, but because of its sheer energy. It’s vibrant, unforgiving in its attention to detail, and has so much restlessness and color that it all blurs together. It’s about girl bands – kind of a response to sexism in the music industry and the way female bands and their fans are seen with disdain or not at all, with a disturbing turn evoking a fae court-like atmosphere.
  • Cassandra After was probably the most personal to me, as it’s about being a Catholic-raised queer. Me and the main character don’t have the same experiences with it exactly, but this story gets how the shame that is written into us rewrites our experiences, makes it harder for us to do right by our loved ones, cleaves the connection between us and our communities, between us and our own bodies. This is a soft, quiet ghost story – the main character is visited by her dead ex-girlfriend, and both are looking for closure – and haunting stories have a special place in my heart, always. It’s about grief, regret, and the many small-yet-so-heavy ways things are more difficult for queer people, even in absence of explicit homophobia.
  • The Great Awake was also remarkable, a beautiful, slow, sleepy story about sleeplessness, following the relationship between two women who each envy what the other has. It’s dreamlike and unhurried, and the ambiguous ending was a really interesting choice. I appreciated the exploration of the consequences of sleeplessness, but for me it’s more than anything about the sleepless, isolating nature of cities, and how we can survive them only by forming connections.

I want to also mention the two stories about puberty-as-metamorphosis, Mantis (which I reviewed here) and Formerly Feral (probably the most stunning symbolism I’ve seen in a long while), as I think those are also really interesting and would especially appeal to Wilder Girls fans.

My average rating of this might not be five stars, but that’s definitely how I see this collection.

What Next?

As I loved reading Salt Slow – only one story every day, slowly, to give myself the time to think about them – I’m going to make an effort to read at least a short story every day. I’m currently reading How Long ‘Til Black Future Month and will probably review it in my next Short Fiction Time.


Now, onto the discussion topic of the month:

On Anthologies, Collections, and Ratings

The first anthology I ever read was Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins. When it came to writing a review – one I can’t link, as it’s on my old Italian blog – I didn’t even ask myself how to do that; the answer seemed obvious. An anthology is made of a certain number of short stories, there’s no content outside of them. It should go without saying that the most accurate way to review an anthology is to review and rate every single story. And as far as the overall rating is concerned, there’s nothing more accurate than the average rating.

That was 2016. I was sure of all of this then, but I’m not so sure now, because I realize this is not the way I remember anthologies. I don’t remember the stories of Summer Days and Summer Nights that didn’t speak to me; I remember the ones that did, I remember the one that changed my life – The End of Love by Nina LaCour, the first time I ever saw a sapphic girl be the protagonist of anything at all – and what if the average rating is a little under four? I remember it as something that is fully a four and nothing less. And this is one of the least glaring examples.

The most glaring for me is probably Three Sides of a Heart. In it, the average rating for me was also a little under four, and I originally rated it a four on goodreads – when it’s the anthology that completely changed my mind on love triangles as a trope, as it was its goal to do, to convince readers love triangles have potential. That’s because some of the short stories were such standouts (Vega by Brenna Yovanoff, and especially Before She Was Bloody by Tessa Gratton) that I completely don’t mind I DNFed some others. I changed the rating to five a few days ago.

Today, I think of anthologies and collections as more than a sum of their parts. I can’t even fully describe why, but I don’t feel like the way I recall them is accurately described by my average rating of the stories. I also think that not resonating/agreeing with all stories is a feature instead of a bug; an anthology should present as many facets and perspectives as possible, and it’s only natural that I’m not going to like all of them. I’ve moved from reviewing every story and saying almost nothing about the anthology as a whole to doing the opposite. Not all stories are as interesting, not all of them deserve as much space, but my feelings on the book as a whole do.


  • Have you read any of these?
  • What reviewing/rating method works best for you and describes your feelings about the anthology/collection more accurately?
  • Are there any anthologies and collections you recommend?
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: 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]

Adult · Book review · Short fiction

Review: Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

17913917Conservation of Shadows is my favorite short story collection.

On the surface, this is about beautiful sci-fantasy universes with complex magic systems – from spaceships tuned with music to quantum chess battles, from shadow magic to mythological characters coming to life from paper – and beautiful, terrifying technology, which includes shadow ink, killer stardrives, flying war-kites, guns that can erase a person’s ancestry, books that grow teeth.

But Conservation of Shadows is so much more than that.
There are so many themes addressed in these stories – colonization, the cost of war, suicide, the role of art, choice and fate, the importance of language – and the endings never let me down. All of it in the settings I mentioned before, and the beauty, the way the writing was enchanting sometimes, made everything even more painful when things went wrong.
It’s also a collection about the blurred line between science and fantasy, with science that looks like magic (magical scientists included) and magic that looks like science, and that’s probably my favorite aspect of Lee’s fiction.

Ghostweight (2011) – 5 stars
The best new story I’ve read this year so far and also the best new-to-me story in this collection.
It follows Lisse, a woman from a colonized city that was destroyed by mercenaries. She has lost her fathers, but she’s not alone: her people tie the ghosts of the dead to the living. The story starts when she and the ghost find an abandoned war-kite (if there was a competition for the best book spaceship, this would definitely win).
This is a story about memory and the way time changes it, but it’s also about war, cultural appropriation and… folding. I won’t explain why, but I can say that the art of folding paper is one of the main symbols in this story, and that the war-kite’s weapons unfold themselves from origami. It’s a beautiful, deeply sad story and I loved all of it.

The Shadow Postulates (2007) – 5 stars
Sword lesbian!! Sword lesbian!! Sword lesbian!!
This science-fantasy story isn’t set in space, but in Black College, and follows Kaela Navus, a shadow mathematician in a world in which shadows are magical and have been used both to write books and kill people.
This story is about casting your own shadow, and about learning to question things, learning to not take even postulates for granted. My favorite part was the ending, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love the rest of it too. It’s short and atmospheric, full of pretty descriptions (sword dancing!) and I loved reading about shadow math and creepy shadow science even if I didn’t understand any of it. Also, it’s about an East Asian-coded lesbian mathematician. I need a sequel in which she finds a cute sword-dancing girlfriend.

The Bones of Giants (2009) – 5 stars
A fantasy story following Tamim, a suicidal soldier who was raised by ghouls, going on a quest with a mysterious necromancer. Tamim meets Sakera while she’s raising the bones of long-dead giants. This story is as much about death as it is about living, and I always like to see characters struggling with suicidal ideation who do not die by suicide.
Also, there’s pretty necromancy and destruction! I love when the most terrible things get pretty descriptions without becoming any less terrible. Anyway, I loved Sakera, this setting, and I really didn’t see the ending coming.

Between Two Dragons (2010) – 4 stars
Imjin War retelling set in space. It was really interesting to see the parallels between this story, which is a close retelling, and The Battle of Candle Arc/Jedao’s backstory, which are also loosely based on the same historical events.
The main reason this got a lower rating is that the narration was weaker than it should have been. I don’t understand why it was told in second person, it made everything feel distant, especially since I know almost nothing about the narrator.
The main strength of this story is the symbolism, and the ending is really powerful because of it.

Swanwatch (2009) – 4.75 stars
This is a story about art and not glorifying suicide. In a space society in which suicide itself is a work of art – people throw themselves into black holes with “swanships” – a musician is sent into exile on a space station until she will compose “a masterpiece honoring the swanships”. I loved the ending, and the side characters were really interesting, but this story was too short to reach its full potential. There were a lot of great ideas that were just hinted at.
Anyway, as I said before, stories that deal with suicide in which the characters involved do not die by suicide mean a lot to me and this wasn’t an exception. Also, I really liked reading about a character composing.

Effigy Nights (2013) – 5 stars
Haunting.
This is a sci-fantasy story about war and occupation, and what they do to art, even to a whole civilization’s traditions, focusing mostly on mythology and stories. It’s the darkest story in the collection yet. There are book characters who come to life, magical science and scary libraries. The descriptions of the art and the city before the war are breathtaking – and this makes the whole thing even more sad.
The beautiful-but-fallen city aesthetic reminds me of Winterstrike and now I want to start it again.

Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (2010) – 5 stars
As wild as it was short. This is about the coexistence of free will and inevitability, seen through… the opposite of the theory of parallel universes? Features magical guns that can erase your whole ancestry, creepy human-looking AIs and almost-freezing water. Also many kinds of death and pretty writing that flows perfectly.
The beginning felt like home, which is to say it reminded me of a physics problem.
This is also the first story I struggled to “get”, because it’s… really philosophical – also, that was a weird ending, it took me two rereads to understand it and I’m still not sure I completely did. I loved it anyway.

Iseul’s Lexicon (2013) – 5 stars
The longest story in the collection, and also the only one that isn’t a reprint.
Iseul’s Lexicon is a fantasy story about a war on languages and “tactical linguistics”. The magic system is… creepy, with charms that devour languages – destroying civilizations in the process –, magic that can rise storm-horses and books that grow teeth. It may be set in a made-up country, but it’s loosely inspired by Japan’s occupation of Korea, and some of the parts about linguistic are inspired by the history of Hangeul.
What stood out the most to me about this story was the way it experimented with format, as parts of it are written like a dictionary.
Part of the ending was predictable, but I didn’t mind that.

Counting the Shapes (2001) – 3.5 stars
The oldest story in the collection, and also the one I feel less strongly about. It’s set in a kingdom that seems loosely inspired by France, and that kingdom is being invaded by demons. The main character is a mathemagician (magical women in science!) who is trying to interpret a prophecy.
It’s not that there was anything wrong with this – it’s actually a solid story – it’s just not that interesting, and it doesn’t stand out here, not for the magic system or the plot or the prose. The worldbuilding had some aspects that intrigued me, mostly the many kinds of magic that exist, but that wasn’t enough.

Blue Ink (2008) – 4.5 stars
Another story that wasn’t easy to get. It starts in a contemporary setting and follows Jenny Chang, who is recruited by another version of herself to fight a war at the end of time in a parallel universe.
This isn’t a story that explicitly deals with suicide, but it does so in small doses (blue is the color of uncut veins, it says, and the opposite of redshift, which becomes a sign of suicide in Swanwatch). The ending also says something really interesting about self-sacrifice in fiction, and goes in a direction I had never seen in post-apocalyptic fiction or in stories dealing with similar kinds of situations.

The Battle of Candle Arc (2012) – 5 stars
The only story in the collection that is tied to Ninefox Gambit, and also the short story that made me realize I wanted to read that book immediately.
This story follows General Jedao’s most famous space battle, in which he defeated the enemy while outnumbered eight to one. I love Jedao’s narration and everything about this story – the descriptions of the battle, yes, but also Jedao’s very mixed feelings on the whole thing, the magic system based on ritual torture timed through the high calendar, or exhausted, unsubtle Menowen. This is my fifth or sixth reread, and every time I notice new details. While this series is full of terrible, sad things, it’s never a heavy read for me, because it’s fun – in a way that does not detract from the fact that everything that is happening is terrible.
The Battle of Candle Arc was inspired by the Battle of Myeongnyang.

A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel (2011) – 5 stars
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities meets linear algebra! Probably the most unusual premise in the collection. I always love to see things inspired by Italian classics even if I don’t like to read them myself – but Calvino was one of the authors we studied this year at school.
I’m not even sure it would be right to call this one a story. It reads almost like an encyclopedia of FTL stardrives, with meditations on war, economy, knowledge, suicide, religion, and fiction influencing reality through stereotypes. Beautiful.

The Unstrung Zither (2009) – 4.25 stars
Ling Yun is a musician in a space empire in which music is used to tune weapons and starships, and also closely tied to the elemental magic system. She has been tasked with composing music about five teenage assassins from the ashworlds, the places the empire has colonized.
It’s a story about numbers and games as much as it is about music and colonization. I liked the worldbuilding here, but almost everything in this story felt… underdeveloped? I mean, lovely writing, interesting characters even if we catch only a glimpse of them, but I wanted more.

The Black Abacus (2002) – 4.75 stars
One of the oldest stories in the collection.
This was… something. What happens when your magic system is basically quantum chess in space? All space battles play out in quantum space, exploring every possible outcome. A fascinating story about a test, ethics, and two lovers who want each other dead because of ethics. I always love this trope and this was no exception – I wanted more, maybe a longer story told in a more linear way, but I know that wasn’t in any way the purpose. The story is itself a part of a game and a test.
I loved it, but I agree with the author’s note – the ending could have been better with a small tweak.

The Book of Locked Doors (2012) – 5 stars
Futuristic sci-fantasy inspired by Japan’s occupation of Korea. The parallels with the longest Iseul’s Lexicon are there, but this story, while also mentioning the way colonization affects language, is more about how colonization affects a culture and the cost of war.
This story features a book that holds inside the dead’s abilities, which the main character could unlock if she wanted. The almost apocalyptic scenario that ensues because of her actions was as beautiful as it was terrible, and kept me glued to the pages. I almost felt like I could fall in one of the keyholes myself.
This is also a story about sisters, as the book was compiled by the main character’s sister; this adds even more weight to the ending.

Conservation of Shadows (2011) – 4 stars
A retelling of The Descent of Inanna (Mesopotamian mythology) written like the narration in a videogame, second person included. It was very weird, but the shadow symbolism was lovely. I’ve never really been into videogames, and the ending wasn’t as powerful as in many other stories in this collection, but I liked almost every other thing about this story.
Also, it’s only appropriate that a story about shadows starts with one of the best examples of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen in short fiction.

Average rating: 4,67

Adult · Book review · Short fiction

Review: The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente

38768896The Future is Blue is a collection of short fiction written by Catherynne M. Valente. She is of my favorite authors (I’ve read three of her novels and loved all of them), so I wanted to see if I liked her short fiction as much.
Valente’s writing is unique and beautiful, but it’s also very heavy and, I have to say, it’s almost too much sometimes. There are so many layers and hidden meanings that you can’t enjoy the story unless you’re deliberately looking for them, and this seems to become more blatant in her short fiction.
In The Future is Blue I found some stories I loved, some that were just weird, and some I had to DNF.

The Future Is Blue – ★★★★★
This is a short post-apocalyptic story set on an island made of garbage, and Catherynne M. Valente makes it feel beautiful. The story was tragic and hopeful at the same time.
I loved seeing how humans adapted to life on the island, their new traditions, their fascination and disgust for the life of before. (The humans who ruined the Earth are called “the Fuckwits”.) It’s political, in a way, because it’s about climate change, but it’s not only about that.
My second favorite in the collection.

No One Dies in Nowhere – ★★
This story is set in a monastery near a mountain, and in a city inhabited by bird-like people. Nothing ever changes. It’s about the purgatory, and there’s Girolamo Savonarola. The characters were bored and so was I. It was bleak and unsettling and not in a way that worked for me.

Two and Two Is Seven – ★★½ 
Maribel lives in a neglected nonagonal nunnery in the valley of N, where everything has to start with the letter N. The king hasn’t visited for a while and Maribel misses him, but she doesn’t actually know what he’s looking for when he returns.
I didn’t get the point of this one. There were a lot of machines with Polish names for some reason, and I liked the ending – but at the same time, what was that supposed to mean?

Down and Out in R’lyeh – ★ DNF
About Cthulhu. I’m not sure this one even works if one isn’t familiar with Lovecraft’s works, and I’m not.

The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery – ★★★½
I’m conflicted about this one.
It starts out in Venice and it continues in London, and while I liked some aspects of it – the magical glasswork, the way Master Peek used it to influence politics, or the fact that this plays with gender in a historical setting – I wasn’t completely convinced.
It’s that kind of Italian story. The kind that is written in a way that makes you feel like the author thinks your culture and country are oh-so-exotic: they feel the need to put random italicized words in your language when an English one would work just fine – and not in the dialogues, in the narration.
English-writing authors, 90% of the time you can just say “palace” instead of “palazzo”, it’s not a perfect translation (almost no translation is!) but it saves all the awkwardness. Also, it’s Samaritana, not “Samaritiana” – what is the i even doing there?
And why is literally every Italian story written by Americans set in the ultimate tourist trap Venice? Try something more original!
However, I liked how every name had a meaning that was relevant to the story.

Snow Day – ★★
I didn’t get this one. I liked the beginning and what it said about “bad art”, what we consider bad art, and the role of erotic novels. I didn’t understand anything else, ending included.

Planet Lion – ★★★★
This one was fun, and also humans ruin everything. I’m not sure it was supposed to be and I’m not sure that was what I was supposed to get out of it, but I’m fine with what I got.
It’s about a lion named Yttrium, telepathy gone very wrong and a weird alien planet where human intervention changed everything in a way humans didn’t anticipate at all (…as usual).
(Nitpicking Taxonomy Brain Time: the “thylacoleo” in Thylacoleo carnifex needs to be capitalized.)

Flame, Pearl, Mother, Autumn, Virgin, Sword, Kiss, Blood, Heart, and Grave – ★ DNF
This one starts out with deformed children and continued with my boredom.

Major Tom – ★★★
A… cubist story? This follows a man who became the Aspera Orbital Surveillance Satellite after his death. We get to know his life in fragments, twisted and rearranged until they make almost no sense together but in a way they do. Really interesting, even if I was really confused at the beginning.

The Lily and the Horn – ★★★★★
War is a dinner party.

I had already read this one a few months ago, and I loved it even more on reread. It’s my favorite in the collection. It’s both an exploration of venom as a weapon “for cowards” (a woman’s weapon, while war is considered “noble” and for men) and a bittersweet f/f story. In this fantasy world, conflicts are sorted out with a dinner, and I would read a whole book set here – this set up is so interesting it almost feels wasted for just a short story. The food descriptions are wonderful and they managed to make me hungry even when the main character described how she had poisoned everything in the same paragraph.
The ending was as heartbreaking as it was powerful and I loved every moment of this beautiful story.

The Flame After the Candle – ★★★
An Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass retelling. Parts of it follow Olive in Wonderland, the others follow real-life Peter Pan as he meets real-life Alice.
This falls in the “interesting, but too long and I don’t feel like I understood what it was trying to do” category. I liked what it said about the obsession with childhood, and I managed to guess the ending even though I didn’t really know what was going on.

Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune – ★ DNF
From The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. It’s about addiction and drug dealing and a child in a difficult situation. I think it was meant to be a modern retelling of The Girl without Hands. Didn’t work for me at all.

A Fall Counts Anywhere – ★★★½
From Robots vs. Fairies, and it’s literally about a fight between robots and fairies narrated from two announcers, a robot and a fairy. Really interesting idea and execution, but the constant all-caps were irritating.

The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild – ★★★★★
This was very weird, but just my kind of whimsical weird. It’s about Violet Wild, a nowgirl (just like a cowgirl, but her herd is made up by squirrels pregnant with the present. They’re very aggressive.) who lives in Purple Country until the boy she was in love with dies. She teams up with her sorrow and a mask and tries to find him in the Red Country, but she has to cross all the rainbow and escape a shapeshifting emperor to get there. It’s a beautiful story about growing apart and finding each other again.
Also, stories are dinosaurs. The imagery was great because it was almost nonsense and I like that.

The Beast Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End and Further Still – ★★★★★
This is set in Valente’s middle grade Fairyland universe (I think it’s a prequel), which I’m not familiar with at all, but I loved this story, and now I understand why the Fairyland series is recommended for both adults and children.
Fairyland has been conquered by the Marquess, who is now killing some creatures for no reason apart from the fact that she needs someone to blame for every bad thing that happens (or, as it’s said, the story of her own greatness doesn’t work without a villain).
The protagonist is a Wyverary, son of a Wyvern and a library, and he has a conversation with two other characters about the power of stories and using words like weapons. Loved the message and the world.

My rating: ★★★


This was the third book I completed for Marvel-A-Thon (“read an unpopular book” challenge).

 

Adult · Book review · Short fiction

Short Fiction Reviews: 2 Novellas + 1 Anthology

31372178Passing Strange is a novella set in San Francisco. It follows a group of queer women, some of which are magical. Most of the story is set in 1940, but the first chapter takes place in modern day, and from the first page the atmosphere drew me in.

This book is exactly like its cover: atmospheric, gay, apparently quiet but beautiful if one takes the time to look at the details. Yes, I love this cover, and it’s a plot-relevant beautiful cover (one of the main characters is an artist), which makes everything even better.

The descriptions of the setting were my favorite part of this novella. Not only because they were really pretty – the writing is great, of course – but because this story wouldn’t be the same without them. Passing Strange is about San Francisco just as much as it is about its characters. There’s a focus on the “hidden” parts of the city, the ones tourists visited as if they were a zoo – Chinatown and LGBT clubs – and the story comments on racism, sexism and homophobia through these scenes.

The characters were, for me, the weakest point. There were too many of them, but only the main couple – Emily, a singer, and Haskel, a mysterious illustrator whose gender is unknown to most – and their friend Helen (who works as a dancer in Chinatown) were actually developed. I liked them, and kept confusing the others.

The ending was one of my favorite novella endings. It wrapped up the story perfectly, just like the beginning drew me in immediately. If you’re looking for a historical f/f book on the quiet side with just a hint of magic, try Passing Strange; it’s definitely worth it.

My rating: ★★★¾


25697521In Waters of Versailles, a former soldier introduces toilets to the court thanks to a magical water creature, but this power might not be completely in his control, and will the court ever truly accept him anyway?

It’s a novella on the shorter side, free on Tor.com.

I read this story because the premise was a great idea – if there’s magic, of course people use it to make actually useful things like toilets and plumbing, but you don’t see anyone in fantasy novels trying to gain status this way!

It was a very easy read, but I found this story mostly forgettable and I’ve nothing to say about it. I read it five days ago and I’ve already forgotten most of it – it’s the kind of story that is entertaining even if nothing about it stands out but the premise, the kind of story that is entertaining even if you’ll never think about it again.

My rating: ★★½


30753807Cosmic Powers is an anthology of sci-fi stories from 18 different authors; many of them were new to me.
I found it slightly disappointing: there were many stories I couldn’t even get into; not all of them were necessarily bad, some were just really not my kind of sci-fi. On the other hand, the stories I was looking forward to were just as good as I expected.

I’m going to review only the ones I tried to get into (not the ones which I DNFed immediately from lack of interest), which are 12 out of 18.

A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime by Charlie Jane Anders: ★½ DNF
Charlie Jane Anders’ writing really isn’t for me, I already knew that because I tried her Nebula-winning novel All the Birds in the Sky and couldn’t get past the first chapter, and I couldn’t complete this story either: it’s a space comedy set around an eldritch orbiting mass, and I get tired of comedy after a few pages. Not for me; I gave it one and a half stars because it had some genuinely funny moments.

Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance by Tobias S. Buckell: ★★★★
While the worldbuilding was confusing at first, I loved the writing and the themes. This is a story of a crab-like maintenance form that contains a human mind and a human CEO who believes every mind who does not reside in a flesh-and-bone body is inferior. It’s a fascinating far-future sci-fi story which raises some really interesting questions about what it means to be human.

The Deckhand, the Nova Blade and the Thrice-Sung Texts by Becky Chambers: ★★★½
While the narration and the diary format were intriguing, the story itself was not: it’s a chosen one narrative played straight, with no twists ever, which makes it quite predictable but also an easy read. I think that just like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this is supposed to be heartwarming and I just don’t get why. It wasn’t bad at all, the writing was fine and I liked the main character’s voice, but it felt meaningless to me.

The Sighted Watchmaker by Vylar Kaftan: ★★½
I didn’t get this one. I think it was meant to be a story about god and… sci-fi theology themes? Growing up as a species? Whether or not evolution can work if it’s controlled by a god-like entity, maybe. I don’t know, I found it quite confusing even if it had some interesting parts.

Infinite Love Engine by Violet Allen: ★ DNF
Unfamiliar Gods by Adam Troy Castro and Judy B. Castro: ★ DNF

Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World by Caroline M. Yoachim: ★★★
It was too long and got confusing near the end; otherwise, this was a really interesting story. It follows Mei, a scientist who is dreaming of other worlds and wants to travel through space faster than light. It had beautiful descriptions: magical temples, spaceships, towers on the Europa moon.

Our Specialty Is Xenogeology by Alan Dean Foster: ★ DNF
Golden Ring by Karl Schroeder: ★ DNF

Tomorrow When We See the Sun by A. Merc Rustad: ★★★★¾
According to this story, space is non-binary and very pretty. I agree.
This follows a Wraith – an organic drone – who works as an executioner and is trying not to get its and the dead’s memories erased. It took me some time to understand what was going on, but I didn’t mind that because the descriptions were beautiful and I loved the worldbuilding. Also, eel spaceships and so many non-binary characters.

Bring the Kids and Revisit the Past at the Traveling Retro Funfair! by Seanan McGuire: ★★★★
A clone is fighting against her identical sister in a Dyson sphere, escaping with a scientist and trying to repair the gravity support. It was a fun, fast-paced story with a lot of action, and Seanan McGuire’s writing is great as usual. I don’t exactly understand what the title has to do with the story (yes, I know the main character has a traveling funfair, but it’s not actually part of the story).

The Dragon That Flew Out of the Sun by Aliette de Bodard: ★★★★½
Another short story in the Xuya (Vietnamese-inspired space opera) universe, of course I loved it. This is about the aftermath of war, displacement, the lack of meaning of conflicts and what repercussions these have on the following generations and their myths. I love Aliette de Bodard’s writing and the imagery of this story.

Diamond and the World Breaker by Linda Nagata: ★★★★
A story about a group of worlds who are trying not to become an utopian society to become a better society – which was an interesting concept and is less complicated than it sounds – and about a mother and a daughter who have to work together to avoid disaster, even though they’re almost never on the same side. I really like mother-daughter stories and this was no exception.

The Chameleon’s Gloves by Yoon Ha Lee: ★★★★★
This story is set in the Machineries of Empire universe and it’s the main reason I bough the anthology. Of course, it didn’t disappoint. Unlike the other two short stories I read from this universe, this didn’t follow a character we know from the novels, but an alt (non-binary person in the Hexarchate) who has been exiled by the Kel (military faction) and is now an art thief to make a living—until the Kel claim to want them back. I love the themes of loyalty/betrayal that Lee’s space stories often have, and the writing was as good as it usually is; also, it was really interesting to learn more about the Kel.

The Universe, Sung in Stars by Kat Howard: ★★★★★
This was as beautiful as it was short and now I want to read more by Kat Howard (I’ll try to get to An Unkindness of Magicians this year). This story is about a world where people can wear galaxies in their hair and stars on their necks, where universes sing and the main character builds orreries to replicate them.

Wakening Ouroboros by Jack Campbell: ★★
A story about choices set at the end of the world and told from the point of view of the two last humans. I mostly skimmed it, as I found it boring and didn’t like the writing.

Warped Passages by Kameron Hurley: ★★★★★
This is a prequel story to one of my favorite sci-fi books, The Stars Are Legion. It follows two sisters (Kariz and Malati Bhavaja) who are trying to escape the legion, ships who have been trapped by an alien entity and whose engines don’t work anymore. And now I think I know who built the Mokshi and what the ships are like (giant organs that were eaten by a weird cephalopod-like parasitic entity? It always gets weirder and I love it). Just like The Stars Are Legion, it’s a story about agency/free will and family.

The Frost Giant’s Data by Dan Abnett: ★ DNF

I had never found another anthology in which I didn’t care about this many short stories, but I also found some new favorites, so I’m not completely disappointed.

My rating: ★★★