Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: The Core of the Sun

The Core of the Sun The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one gets a lot of comparison to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," and deservedly so - both are dystopian futures focused on women and gender relations. Sinisalo's tale has its own spicy flavor as part of the Finnish Weird genre, but the similarities to Atwood's tale are strong: women are divided into distinct castes based on their desirability and kept essentially illiterate, and while men are allowed to work and learn, most of the men are not necessarily fulfilled or happy with this arrangement. Sinisalo has been getting a lot of buzz lately in the English-speaking SF world, partly due to this translation and partly due to some good press from the Vandermeers (who are established fans of Weird in all its forms).

The story centers on Vanna, who has lived her whole life pretending to be a gender she isn't. She has the body (or "phenotype") of an eloi - she's a blonde, sexually desirable woman - but unlike the rest of the airheaded, brainwashed eloi, she's a sharp and intelligent woman, and that makes her a morlock. She's spent her whole life in the country with her grandmother (who's old enough to have a special immunity from gender assignment) and her sister (a happy, oblivious eloi). When she moves into the city to go to eloi college - where they study how to keep house and bake - she gets caught up in the illegal chili trade.

And that's where the weird comes in. Chilis have been banned like alcohol and drugs because of their addictive, mind-altering properties. That's also just about where the weird ends. The story reads as familiar to me as a non-Finnish reader. It focuses on the relationship between the sisters and Vanna's struggles as a false eloi and chili addict. Much too much of the story is devoted to basic exposition for this very familiar landscape and still doesn't fully explore little gaps where things would be most interesting. What are the lives of morlocks and minus men like? How permeable are Finland's borders? The third act hints at answers but it's not given quiet enough space in the story to explore them.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this so much. I read the whole thing in one late night with a tiny booklight - something I don't do so often anymore. But there were definitely some flaws - it did feel too familiar, the feminist critique of patriarchal societies felt flat and unsubtle, and the story relied too heavily on flashback and "newspaper-article" insert exposition. I think I would've loved it unreservedly if I hadn't already read "The Handmaid's Tale" and other, more nuanced feminist dys/utopias. But the flashback/article format meant that the relationship between Vanna and Manna, upon which the story rests, doesn't get fully explored or have its full weight until late in the story.

The things "Core of the Sun" does that no other story like it does that I love are 1) critiquing not a patriarchal capitalist society but a socialist one and 2) loving its zany bits. The first is something you don't see in contemporary, revolutionary American literature, and it's interesting to see that whether the government i s capitalist or socialist, what we fear about it is over-regulation and prescription of our lives. I'd love to read this in conjunction with "Herland" or "The Woman at the Edge of Time" or "The Female Man" as part of a course on feminist dys/utopias. The second is mostly rewarding but occasionally a bit of a stumble. There are lots of little tidbits and facts in the books - lots about chilis, some about psychological and evolutionary research, a bit about synesthesia - and clearly Sinisalo enjoyed researching and writing about them. But sometimes they're just not as interesting to me, or they don't weave in to the story in any meaningful way. Vanna's synesthesia is an example of that. I think the writing is beautiful because of it, but having a character comment on it in the last 10% of the book made me think it would matter, and it really doesn't. Still, I learned a heck of a lot about chilis and evolutionary psychology.

I enjoyed this quite a bit, and would highly recommend it.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Review: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received a free e-galley copy of this book (as separate issues) from NetGalley.

Monstress is my favorite currently-running comic. Hands down. The artwork is gorgeously lush and elegantly stylized. The story features kickass action sequences *and* quiet character moments. The pacing is perfect - you get exactly enough information early on to pique your interest and it keeps giving you bits and pieces of backstory at just the right pace to keep you eagerly waiting for more.

I can't wait for this series to be over. Is that weird? It's probably weird - usually you want your favorite series to last forever. But I want to skip to the end because this series has the deep, intricate mythology of a 500-page fantasy novel and I suspect it will best be served as one indulgently delicious dish. And once it's over, I'm pretty sure this will go down as one of the classics of comic canon.

The story has a steampunk vibe and follows a young girl, Maika, who harbors the spirit of a violent being. She, like many in her world, is half human and half *something else.* Her people are being "studied" (read: experimented on) by a group of magical human women, women who control human politics. We see Maika grapple with the monster inside her while she becomes more involved in the war between her people and the human scientist-witches. The book balances her personal journey - vengeance against those who killed her mother and learning to control herself - with the larger story that mixes science, magic, and gods. Think Bioshock meets anime tropes. There are also talking cats.

I can't do this its proper justice. Please, please go read Monstress. It's fantastic.

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Review: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was on my (physical) to-read shelf for over a year before I finally picked it up. I think it's good that I waited - I read Jeff Vandermeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy in that time, and having an idea of how he writes is really essential to understanding his guide to writing. He writes weird (the genre, not the pejorative), dreamlike fiction, and I think this guide is most helpful for writing that particular flavor of speculative fiction. I also like that he focused on his process as opposed to the technical aspects (getting an agent, finding an editor, etc.) but that those aspects also weren't completely absent, as the book generally follows the creation of a story from idea through publication.

There were times I loved this and times I thought it was completely useless.

Most of the former were Vandermeer's descriptions of his publishing experiences and writing process or "guest post" moments where other writers contributed a few words. Reading advice and anecdotes from genre authors about the process of writing and publishing was illuminating, and the book's biggest strength is in Vandermeer's networking abilities. Lots of big names contributed bits and pieces that were substantial and worth reading on their own and complemented or contrasted Vandermeer's perspective.

Most of the latter were the completely horrendous visual aids. Honestly, I get that this is a book by writers for prospective writers and that writers are probably better at the written word than at graphic design, but someone involved with this book should have, at some point, checked to see if the graphics made any sense at all. Visual aids are there to *aid* you by *visually* organizing the information into something interesting and/or easy to digest. A good graphic stands on its own. So many of the graphics were so not good - they were just words thrown on top of a picture. Forget about checking the visual aid before reading to get a sense of how to mentally organize the material you're about to read. They didn't make sense even after reading the corresponding pages, and in some cases they managed to completely obfuscate the point. And on top of that, I wasn't a huge fan of the aesthetic that many of the graphics seemed to push, a kind of scrapbook steampunk. Since this is advertised as an "illustrated guide" I was very, very disappointed in how simply unhelpful the illustrations were.

The writing exercises were fun and interesting (though I'll confess I didn't do the ones that *didn't* seem interesting to me). I was partial to the editing/revising ones but that doesn't surprise me one bit. I'd rather reorganize and restructure book matter than generate it on my own. It was very cool to see exercises tailored to speculative fiction. I did think there would be a bit more on the accompanying website than there actually is, especially in terms of exercises, but ah well.

Overall - I enjoyed the process of reading this, and even sometimes enjoyed how angry the completely nonsensical graphics made me. It inspired me to write more and I think it improved my writing. Definitely a good read (or good gift!) for speculative fiction writers.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review: A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories

A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories by Lisa Tuttle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories" wasn't mind-blowing. I wasn't on the edge of my seat, thrilled by every page I read. It was, instead, haunting. Each story was steeped in a eerie, sharp beauty that dug into me while I wasn't looking and I only seemed to notice when I put the book down and found one of Tuttle's ideas stuck somewhere in the corners of my brain.

I like keeping track of how I found a book or author and this one was pretty fortuitous. Two and a half years ago, my school's English department had their annual book sale. Faculty contribute old books they're no longer using, and prices drop each day (until, at the end, the books are free and stick around on communal shelves for the rest of the year). I picked this one up because it had the word "spaceships" and my first name on the cover, alongside probably three dozen other books because I have a serious book-hoarding problem, and it stayed in that stack until pretty recently. I've read or found-and-have-yet-to-read several other books from the Women's Press Science Fiction collection and recently looked into Tuttle's history. To my pleasant surprise, she's a fairly well-known author (she has a collaboration with George R. R. Martin and wrote the Encyclopedia of Feminism). So, I started this brief collection.

Honestly, Tuttle reads more like Shirley Jackson or perhaps Joan Aiken than Joanna Russ or Alice Sheldon. Her command of language is powerful in its clarity (lookin @ u Russ and Tiptree, u gals famous for ur wonderful obfuscation) and pretty solidly in the camp of New Yorker-style straight fiction of the 70s and 80s. This collection is also heavy on what I keep thinking of as body horror but is also the slow realization of the horrible loneliness of being a human. Over and over again Tuttle's characters see their bodies change as they become different people, or watch their lover's body become a hollow shell forever beyond the narrator's emotional grasp, or realize that their lives have shifted and their past isn't quite what they thought.

It feels like I'm exactly the target audience for this book. I fit the descriptions of many of the narrators: young women with academic pursuits in long-term relationships (and variously successful or not in those pursuits and relationships). There are so many things I love in these stories: queer narratives, linguistics, punch-to-the-gut stories on love and loss. I didn't love it as much as I thought I would but those stories are certainly sticking with me. In particular, I loved "The Cure," about two queer women who share a love of Chomsky and writing until one loses the ability to speak or understand language. It's beautiful and poignant and I want to read it over and over and over again.

Her science fiction concepts are simpler than I expected, not quite as interesting on their own as some of her contemporaries. At times they seemed tacked-on to more mainstream non-genre stories. There was one story that, to me, emphasized how underutilized the SF aspects of her stories can be. It follows several generations of a family that takes in a marooned alien. The alien learns how to sleep and dream, and ends up teaching one young girl in the family how to experience other humans' dreams. While there are powerful vignettes exploring racism and sexism within this larger narrative, on the whole it feels disjointed. The fantastical elements don't cohere with the larger story, and the smaller stories don't build into anything larger. On the whole, the collection does a generally good job of working in the realm of SF but I expected more complexity in the concepts and enthusiasm for the genre. Perhaps I'm reading too much pulp lately.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this quite a bit and I've enjoyed thinking about it even more, even if it wasn't what I expected.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories

The Lottery and Other Stories The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't know what I was getting into with "The Lottery and Other Stories." I was pretty sure I'd read the titular short story before, but couldn't bring it to mind. But Jackson's name came up regularly on on recommendation threads, even occasionally in SF forums. So I went for it.

Reading it around the same time as "The Price of Salt" was a good choice. Both focus on middle class women in roughly the 1950s. Both are permeated by an eerie sense of foreboding. Both capitalize on the creepiness inherent in the expectations and societal roles of women in the 1950s to create that sense of eerieness. Jackson steps into supernatural territory while "Salt" stands firmly on real ground, but I enjoyed reading them both so close to each other.

One of my favorite parts of this collection was an unexpected connection between many of the stories: a ghostlike man haunts the book. He shows up as a main character in some stories, only to disappear before the story's end and re-enter in the background of a later story, over and over again. It's like a literary Slenderman.

I also appreciated the insight into the subtle horrors of being a woman - pervasive in the 1950s but not at all absent today. Jackson is all about mundane horror, everyday shadows that creep in at the edges and make life uncomfortable. Many of the stories focus on women working and living alone in the city, and even when they don't veer into supernatural territory there's an edge about them as if the characters are on alert for something to go wrong.

Overall, I very much enjoyed the collection.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

The Geek Feminist Revolution The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The Geek Feminist Revolution" sounds like literally everything I would want out of a book of essays. It's one of those books I heard about months ago and instantly marked the release date on my calendar. Unfortunately, while it's a pretty good collection, it definitely suffered from by super high expectations.

The collection is broken into four parts: Level Up, Geek, Let's Get Personal, and Revolution. They're roughly themed into essays about writing, pop culture, the author's life, and social justice movements, respectively. There's some overlap - in fact, a lot of overlap, which is reflective of one of the key problems I had with this collection. Much of the content is repetitive. There are a few major incidents in the author's life that are the focus of personal essays but also appear in many of the other essays, either as a core theme or in passing. The essays are, obviously, generally all related to geek feminism, which I love, but which gets treated with pretty much the same few notes in all of her essays.

It's the same problem I had with "Bad Feminist." I like all the content, but collecting previously-published thinkpieces/personal essays by one author into a collection reveals that 1) the essays are all pretty similar, 2) thinkpieces are short and 3) internet publishing favors strong, vibrant rhetoric over nuanced logical argument. To be clear - I'm not saying that either is better, or that the latter is absent from either of the collections. I favor academic writing because that's what I'm familiar with. If I'd read all of Hurley's pieces separately spread over the several years they were originally published, I'd appreciate them more. She has several pieces where she takes nuanced, controversial stances and defends them well. There are others where she argues from a place of passion for things that I also strongly believe in, but her approach loses all steam if you don't already agree with everything she's saying. Not every piece has to be written to argue, to persuade, to convince - some can just be written to 'y'know what? I think this sucks, don't you?' and vent some steam. But there were too many of those for me in this collection.

It's a breeze to read, though, and I especially loved her essays on her history and her writing. I read the essays in the first section slowly, one at a time, because every time I finished one I immediately wanted to spend the rest of the night writing stories. It was inspiring. And for such a young author, she's lived a (hard, but) incredibly interesting life.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review: A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is adapted from a post I made in a discussion thread about the book.

I had my doubts after the first section of the story; it was a slow start, and I just didn't like the way the Valan society was structured. But about halfway through the book, I realized I was completely sucked into the story and found myself constantly thinking about it as I went about my day.

I want to gush about the beautiful world-building on Shora. The ecology is believable and complex, and everything about the physical and social construction of the rafts is my #aesthetic. I want to live there, or at least read more books set there. It's also amazing for a book written 30 years ago; I feel like we're already worlds closer to the kind of technology she describes the Sharers as having. Given today's climate and environmental concerns, the book seems markedly prescient.

One of the things I loved about the story (and it's something I've noticed I'm fond of in SF in general) is how well Sloanczewski created a culture that's so fundamentally different, not only in behavior but in thought, and committed to it. It reminds me of Leckie's Radch trilogy in that the perspective of the character is preserved even perhaps at the expense of making things easy for the reader. Merwen (like Breq) sometimes thinks things that the reader doesn't understand, or maybe misunderstands, unless they are fully buying into this world and this perspective and trying to understand Merwen as a Sharer would. (Also like when reading Ancillary Mercy, I feel like I 'got' the perspective about halfway into the story and went from feeling meh/pretty good to loving it.)

I'm not sure exactly how we're supposed to understand the ending. There was a moment when Realgar was trying to convince Talion not to attack Shora, and Realgar walked away from that conversation thinking that he hadn't changed Talion's mind at all and that Talion was definitely going to kill everyone as soon as Realgar left anyway. But I also felt that Spinel's last few scenes (and I guess all of the Sharers' scenes at the end) felt optimistic, like they had won their victory. Did I miss something? I couldn't put it down and ended up finishing it at like 2 a.m. so it's very possible my sleepy brain skipped something important. Are we supposed to feel like the Sharers won at the end, or that their efforts weren't enough to beat the Valans' fear of death?

I think the villains (Nisi exlucded) of the story are all drawn with a surprising lack of empathy, given how thoroughly and complexly the Sharers are drawn; they remind me a bit of villains in an Ayn Rand story, where the people are primarily stand-ins for ideas or types of people (and bad ideas/people, at that). NISI THOUGH. Great character arc. I like that she deceives even the reader, in some ways; we think that because she's a viewpoint character introduced early on she'll be the most important bridge between the Sharers and the Valans, but she ends up as the biggest obstacle to peace.

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Review: The Sparrow

The Sparrow The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed "The Sparrow" quite a bit. It's not a perfect book, but it's certainly a page-turner, and I appreciate the incorporation of a religious journey into an SF setting. It's not something I see very often - generally, religion pops up in SF and fantasy that focus on diplomacy, but usually as constructed religions and not real ones - and Russell treated it with respect and insight.

The premise is first contact, but the story is the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who becomes part of a Jesuit-led mission to visit an alien planet and contact its inhabitants. The aliens are discovered through a broadcast of a strange song, picked up at an observatory near Sandoz's hometown. Jimmy Quinn, the tech who first recognized the signal for what it was, calls his friend Sandoz and their friends - George, an engineer; Anne, a doctor and George's wife; and Sofia, an expert in AI tech - to listen to it before he tells anyone else. And the group of them realize that together, they have most of the expertise needed to lead an expedition to this planet. Sandoz's Jesuit superiors immediately back the idea (after all, Jesuits were quick to send priests to the New World after its discovery), add a few more priests, and send them off without alerting anyone else on the planet.

Russell takes her time developing the relationships between the characters; it's many chapters in before we even reach the alien broadcast. But we know right off the bat that Emilio is the only survivor of this mission, because the story of the origin of the mission alternates with chapters about Emilio's recovery post-mission. He is under the care of the Vatican and the Pope himself, and it's clear some sort of scandalous tragedy has occurred. Emilio is blamed for causing the near eradication of the Jesuits because of something he did 17 years prior (Earth time; for Emilio, not a year has passed since he began his journey back to Earth) on Rakhat, the alien planet. Emilio is a tortured man, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. One of the strengths of the novel is its ability to pack an emotional wallop and nowhere is it more powerful than in Emilio's haunted dreams, his anger toward his superiors, his brooding melancholy. And interspersing Emilio's return with the story of his life before the mission is heartbreaking; what could have made this spirited, witty, charming, devoted priest the miserably broken wreck he has become?

I'm a little ambivalent about Russell's ability to write characters. One one hand, Emilio and his makeshift family are warm and hilarious and likeable, and Emilio's misery is believable and evocative. On the other hand, there are many moments of unbelievable wittiness, dialogue too prescient and on-the-nose for any real human to have spoken it, and characters with phenomenal skill sets and personalities but no apparent flaws. Everyone is too good at everything and gets along too well, but damn, is it a pleasure to read. (Joss Whedon comes to mind when I think about the dialogue/characters - everything's too smart for its own good.)

I have generally similar but better feelings about the Big Questions that the novel tries to tackle. Russell goes after one of the biggest ones: How does one deal with God in a universe where horrible things happen? In answering that, she also takes on questions on what it means to be a priest, on the value of family, on colonialism. While the characters can feel over-the-top, Russell deals with these Big Questions wisely: by making them small. Nowhere does anyone claim to know the answers for anyone else. Instead, they lend an ear and offer their own contributions. Sandoz tells Anne, who is a firm atheist, that God is "in the why" of things, but his own faith is shaken (to put it mildly) when the "why" is horrific. There are definitely some moments where answers are provided a little too neatly, but again, those answers tend to hold for one character (and are often overturned later in the story). I've read some reviews that indicate the story is too much an argument for belief in God, but I see almost the opposite. If anything, it's an argument for the theraputic benefits of confession.

Most of my problems with the book, from characterization to lack of subtlety, are related to the prose, which isn't always elegant but is generally crafted to make the biggest emotional impact. One person described the book as "emotionally manipulative," which I would say is pretty accurate - but isn't that the point of books? To manipulate the reader's emotions? It's not the deepest book I've read, but it has substance and it was engaging, so overall I consider its obviousness an asset, not a hindrance.

There were two small aspects of the book that bothered me unrelated to the above. First off, the aliens and the alien world. There are some beautiful descriptions of the alien planet and the time they spent acclimating to the world is absolutely my favorite part of the book. It's pure joy. But. It's not a particularly alien alien world. I wrote that off as "well, in this novel, God probably exists, and the similarities are a pretty good indicator that God created all life," so it wasn't a huge problem for me. The other issue is the construction of many of the interpersonal/group interactions. There are so many times where characters react to something and then we see what they react to. Paraphrased example:

"Something that is a complete non-sequitur," Anne said in response to the look on the other characters' faces that had not been described prior to just now.

It made it some scenes difficult to follow, and it wasn't necessary except to show how quick-witted and insightful the characters are, which we already know through many other means.

One thing I did love above everything else - Russell's insight into the life of a priest and the psychology of priesthood. She handles doubt and conflict respectfully and creates a portrait of Emilio Sandoz, sinner and possible saint, that represents religion well.

Overall: engaging, tear-jerking, emotional, fun read, even if you don't like SF or priests. I'm usually one to encourage "killing your darlings" and this book is largely Russell's darlings (she admits to basing Anne and George on herself and her husband) but it works. Not a masterpiece of prose, but maybe one of heart.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Friday, May 13, 2016

Satellite Falling #01 Review for Bounding Into Comics

Check out my review of Satellite Falling #01 from IDW, written by Steve Horton, drawn by Stephen Thompson, and colored by Lisa Jackson.

Review: Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received a free e-galley of this book via NetGalley.

How many books do you get in your life that make you sit in a stunned daze then cry softly because they are such a beautiful, moving piece of art that's now over, and to which you will constantly compare every book you read until you come across another book that moves you so strongly?

Well, add one more to my pile.

This is a book I've been waiting for since the cover reveal months ago. I put its release date in my calendar, I was so intrigued by the gorgeous cover art and the wonderfully strange synopsis. I was lucky enough to get an ARC from NetGalley but I'm probably going to go out and buy it anyway, because this is something I want to own and lend and proselytize, I need to spread the word of this Good Book.

So what makes this so good? So many things. The worldbuilding is phenomenal. This is Earth 400 years from now, recognizable but foreign in the same way that Earth 400 years ago is to us. Our history - both the history we are familiar with now and the history we're writing for people 400 years from now - is woven into the fabric of the world. Some threads are predictable, and some aren't. We finally get flying cars and it changes the world in a surprising, sensible, fundamental way: no two locations on Earth are more than a few hours from each other. It's a change that seems obvious - yes, that's exactly how that would happen! - now that it's pointed out (a feeling I got about so many things in this story). The effects of these changes are much more subtle, and it was a joy discovering the fascinating ripple effects that turn up in unexpected places (the flying cars change the shape of the family unit and government) and interact so cleverly with each other.

The voice of the story, Mycroft Canner, is like a song stuck in my head. He is a criminal, but also a genius and a charmer, and his frequent eloquent, rambling asides are as confusing as they are illuminating. He is the culmination of the unreliable narrator. He is writing or maybe telling this story for posterity and he tries to explain to the reader the way things are in his time, but he is a poor example of a creature of his time. He introduces us to a fantastically large, diverse cast of power players in the economic, political, and artistic spheres.

The plot. Oh man, the plot. I don't want to get into what happens (I know I'll regret this in December when I'm prepping to read book two) because, well, a lot happens. Let me just say that every action of this story has impact, every moment has meaning, and while it starts out fairly slow (thank god, because the layers of culture and character and world needed to understand the plot can nearly drown you), it picks up quickly. It's as if I was in a giant house and just when I had explored the main building, new doors opened up. But not even like that - more like new rooms slammed from the sky, fully formed and fully compatible with what I knew but completely new and different.

Even with all of those great elements, I think what made me love this book was that it wasn't perfect. About a third of the way through I almost gave up. The world is chaotic - just familiar enough to lure you into assumptions but different enough to overturn them all, leaving you knowing less than you knew before. The international power dynamics of the world didn't add up. Gender was supposed to be fairly unmarked but so many characters supposedly luxuriated in extravagant gender performance. Many small things (for example, a tree that grows dozens of kinds of fruit in a home kitchen) feel too wonderful to ever exist, and I felt somehow wronged by their inclusion, even though I loved them. But this is an optimistic world, so those marvels can be marvelous. I pushed through, and I'm glad I did. I underestimated how deep the planning of the story runs, and everything paid off in the end.

This is magical, powerful, strange, and smart. Read it if you like well-written, well-plotted, engrossing SF.

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Monday, May 2, 2016

Review: Lagoon

Lagoon Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to "Lagoon" in audiobook format and not only was it a greatly entertaining experience, I suspect it might also be the best way for Western, white audiences to experience this book. Because, and this shouldn't have been a surprise to me since the book is set in Nigeria, all of the actors are either Nigerian or are very comfortable using Nigerian accents. It's something I wouldn't have thought much about if I were reading it visually, but fundamentally shaped the story for me when listening.

Adaora, Anthony, and Agu all happen to be on a beach in Lagos, Nigeria when a massive sonic boom occurs, followed by a wave that pulls them all into the ocean. Aliens have landed in the water, and they are particularly interested in these three. Adoara is worried that it may be because she is what her husband accuses her of being: a marine witch. She got into a fight with her husband and accidentally held him to the floor, seemingly by magic. Similarly, Agu almost killed a man with one punch. And Anthony knows that his songs draw on the power of the Earth.

The aliens can take on whatever form they like. They're mostly impervious to harm. And they come in peace, but Nigeria doesn't quite believe that. And this story is as much about Nigeria as it is about the aliens; Okorafor shows us Nigeria are by showing us their varied reactions to First Contact. A Christian priest decries Adaora and the alien she shelters; an LGBT group parades in the street next to the priest's followers; a group of young men scheme to kidnap the alien; a prostitute desperately resents the aliens and violently acts out. Even the city (and its gods) gets in on the action. The main highway is the home of the Bone Eater and feeds off the accidents and chaos caused by the aliens. Under Nigeria, the spider sits and spins the story of her people. Okorafor's incorporation of mythology, of every class from prostitutes to President, of native-born Nigerians to Black Americans, is chaotic, yes, but exciting and surprising in its activity.

Parts of the story didn't click for me, at the time, because the sheer number of voices was chaotic and I wasn't sure which characters I should invest in, which people I could expect to be important. But in retrospect I consider that a strength, because every voice is important, and that chaos is the human response to change. I do think it weakened the sense of plot, and it didn't give the story the opportunity to explore the aliens as a species, or the transforming things they said to Anthony, or the long-term impact on the lives of Adaora, Agu, and Anthony. I know that none of those things are the point, but they're still questions I wanted to see addressed (or would like to read about in the future!).

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Review: Super Extra Grande

Super Extra Grande Super Extra Grande by Yoss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received an e-galley copy of this book from Edelweiss and Restless Books.

I was super extra excited to read this because Restless Books' last Yoss translation, "A Planet for Rent," was one of the best books I read last year. "Super Extra Grande" isn't quite up there, but it has different strengths. It doesn't have the emotional teeth as "Planet," instead showing off Yoss's comedy chops by dialing up the absurdity and dispensing with the colonialism allegory. Yoss knows how to build a functional, coherent SF world without going on at length. His universes are brightly colored with unusual (but logically consistent) working parts - think a world of Lego or K'nex.

Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo (whose last name is a play on words that essentially means 'big') is a veterinarian - in space! He specializes in "super extra grande" creatures, giants from all planets. When we meet him, he's literally wading through shit as he walks through the bowels of a giant space whale. He's huge himself, for a human, and his previous two assistants (both beautiful women, for their species, who he had to fire because they were in love with him) were also incredibly tall. Sangan Dongo can't do anything small.

The book gets off to a slow start. Sangan Dongo wades through shit for a good third of the book, with many asides and reveries that give the reader background on this world. We learn that Spanglish is the universal human language. We learn that there are seven spacefaring species who all happened to discover interstellar travel at the same time. We learn that Sangan Dongo has always had an affinity for larger creatures - because in veterinary school, his size was a hindrance when working with the smaller animals - and the only giant species he has never worked with are laketons (so named because the single-celled organisms look like large lakes, and weigh tons). Once he gets out of the belly of the beast, he's sent into the belly of the beast again - to rescue his assistants, who have crash-landed (together!) on the home planet of the laketons. The plot wraps up as quickly as the beginning was slow, but altogether, it's a good ride. As I said before, the book is a riot, and it's a quick read, so if you have the chance to pick it up, do!

Personally, as a linguist who's currently in a lab focusing on bilingualism and code-switching, I'm fascinated by Yoss's (and the translator's) idea of what Spanglish will be in the future. I'd be really interested in seeing the changes Frye made in translation - what words did he switch from Spanish to English, and vice versa? Did he change the syntax? Because honestly, I don't know if I would've understood huge patches of the story if I didn't know Spanish, but it's also not in line with general patterns of Spanish-English codeswitching. One easy example: If you switch from Spanish to English in the middle of a determiner-noun pair, the determiner will almost always be masculine - you'll say "el fork" or "el spoon," never "la fork" or "la spoon," even though fork is masculine and spoon is feminine in Spanish. But "la (English noun)" occurs a lot here. So what does this sound like in the original Spanish to native Spanish speakers - like a natural extension of Spanish/English contact, or like some strange futuristic evolution of the two languages?

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My boyfriend has been trying to get me to read Erdrich for a year now. I don't know why I didn't listen to him earlier, because Erdrich has everything I could possibly want on my author wishlist: she's a woman writing magical realism from the perspective of a minority who often incorporates gender issues into her stories and comes highly regarded as a master of prose. And is she ever! This is easily the best book I've read so far this year in terms of beauty of prose and emotional power of the story.

"The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse" is a strange place to start with Erdrich, though. From what I understand, many of Erdrich's novels take place in an Ojibwe (Native American) community in North Dakota, so characters appear and re-appear in different novels. And this novel revolves around a huge spoiler for the rest of those novels, and you can't talk about the book without talking about this reveal, so here goes: the white priest for the community is a woman, and has been masquerading as a man (by the end of her/his life) for about 70 years.

Father Damien Modeste, also known as Agnes, has been writing to the Pope since he became a priest, and finally, it seems, the Pope has answered as Modeste nears the end of his life. A young priest has come to investigate the miracles of Sister Leopolda, an Ojibwe woman who became a Catholic nun (and often the subject of Modeste's letters), and consider her for canonization.

Modeste is old, long-winded, and absent-minded, so the young priest finds his job surprisingly difficult. Modeste alternately rambles about moments in his life and becomes lost in nostalgic reminiscence, and the reader is privy to it all. He remembers the love he has always had for both God and music, looks fondly on his life prior to the priesthood, considers his changing relationship to religion as he becomes integrated in the Ojibwe community.

I say "he" because Erdrich has cast Modeste as a character who is comfortable with ambiguity. He is perfectly at home entertaining two conflicting ideas and making a whole from those disparate parts without destroying or betraying either. This is true for his gender and his religion. There are moments where Modeste is a man, and he is a he; there are moments when Agnes is a woman, and she is a she. Both exist within the character, and each comes through in varying degrees at varying moments, and Agnes/Modeste is not bothered by it at all. Agnes grew up Catholic and maintains that love for God throughout her life, and as she becomes Modeste, she incorporates Ojibwe beliefs into her Catholicism (and converts Ojibwe by incorporating Catholicism into their existing beliefs).

Erdrich has mastered elegant nuance of character, of ideology. Her imagery is enchanting; the story is full of descriptions of nature and characters that are beautifully striking. Novels are often described as tapestries and I think that description is nowhere more fitting than with Erdrich - this book is a warmly hand-woven tapestry carefully made and illustrated with an expert's detailing, but still full of charm and heart. It evokes a natural garden, lovingly planted but allowed to grow almost wild with only a touch of carefully-placed cultivation and love. Read this, or some other Erdrich book, if you want to be woven into that tapestry and grow in that garden and in the end be wrenched out of it and it hurts to leave but you can see the beautiful whole.

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Review: On a Red Station, Drifting

On a Red Station, Drifting On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella pairs well with two books I've read and reviewed recently - "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" and "The Winged Histories." All are focused on women (and generally women of color) in a setting with colonial or imperialist elements, and are concerned with navigating power in both interpersonal/familial and political contexts. "On a Red Station, Drifting" is more about family than diplomacy, but both threads are still there. This is one of my favorite kinds of stories to read and I'm lucky to have read three that are so delightful and so different in such a short period of time.

My only qualm with "On a Red Station, Drifting" is that it isn't longer. I've read many interviews with Aliette de Bodard, I've read some of her short stories before in various anthologies, and I've certainly heard this story in particular praised many times. But somehow I didn't retain that it's a novella, not a novel. It didn't occur to me until I was about halfway through and thought, "Hm, things are coming to a head way sooner than expected..." at which point I checked my progress on my ereader. Anyway, the story is set in what she calls her Xuya universe, and while there's no longer work set in that continuity there are a host of short stories (one of which ended "The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women," which I read last year). I'm sure I'll be reviewing one of those shortly.

De Bodard's stories focus on family, especially in the Xuya universe where many people live with neural implants containing the consciousnesses of their ancestors. In Red Station, Quyen flees her Imperial post when rebels attack and travels to Prosper Station, where she has distant relatives. She does not hit it off with Linh, the woman who runs the station. Quyen is an academic (and recently wrote a treatise denouncing the Emperor who would let her planet fall to rebels) and a privileged success story of the meritocratic system of the Empire; Linh is a home-making wife who has nothing but her family, and many of the more prestigious family members have left for war and have yet to return.

The conflict between these two women, the conflict between family and duty, the conflict between duty to family and personal dislike, are the heart of the story. Linh is alone, and while she proudly asserts herself as the one keeping the station together, we know she doubts she can keep the station going much longer by herself. She tells the sentient AI-cyborg creature that has run the station for hundreds of years that she can't do it alone; she mourns her family's absence; she resents Quyen because she assumes Quyen thinks of her as a lesser spouse. Quyen is resentful, too; she resents that Linh won't give her a position that will use her skills, that she won't accept Quyen's help with family or station matters.

It's a beautiful, elegantly written story. The characters are compelling, and the story builds to such a satisfyingly character-driven conclusion. I'm sorry it's not longer, and I'd love to read more in this universe.

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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review: Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Sex Criminals" was a disappointment from beginning to end. Matt Fraction and Christian Ward created ODY-C, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and they've received rave reviews for Sex Criminals, so I'll admit my expectations were high, but the bar would've had to be pretty low for me to love this. On the upside, it was pretty funny, and I like its frankness and its attempt to speak to the awkwardness and shame attached to sex (especially for adolescents).

Right away I could tell the art wasn't for me. The character designs are boring and lack style, and it was hard for me to tell characters apart. The effects they use for "The Quiet" or "Cumworld," as they call it, are tacky and superficial. In general, the art is meh at best and feels cheap at worst.

Also confusing is the general story format and layout. There are at least three, maybe four storylines spread throughout time, and it's hard to tell which one is happening at any given time. When the main female character described her late teen years, it took me a while to understand it wasn't happening in the present, because she looked the same and there was no difference in the artwork to indicate it. This happens repeatedly throughout the novel, and didn't ever really get better.

Another device that didn't work for me, related to the above, is the breaking-the-fourth-wall element. The main character speaks to the reader directly. She narrates her life, with several panels devoted to her speaking 'face-to-face' with the reader (and shows up, as an adult, in scenes from her childhood). But this only happens occasionally, and wanes as the story continues, until I'm not sure why they included it at all because it only made the beginning more confusing. And again, if they had clearly demarcated with the art what was happening and when, this wouldn't have been an obstacle. I wish they had done something with the art to separate either the narrative voice from the story or the different eras from each other. Even using a larger panel at each transition to clearly establish setting. Or anything to give the reader a sense of time, location, and weight.

The story premise is ridiculous, and I wish they had taken that absurdity and run with it, because there are hints of the silly hilarity that could have ensued. The real Cumworld (a sex shop they frequent) always has laugh-out-loud worthy videos and products. (My favorite porn section: "Obamacore - socialist/medical themed.") There are innumerable puns. Some of the characters are off-the-wall, but in the fairly grounded and serious setting, all these wild elements feel tonally out of place. I get that the story is, at its core, about the relationship between these two people, but it's also a story about people who can stop time when they have sex! And there's a sex-world police force! You can keep the serious, grounded characters and still have a zany, strange world, but I think the overall effect here is that there are some really weird, strange things that are played down or played straight when they should've been played up. It's a crazy world, but no one in the story treats it that way.

As I mentioned earlier, I like the cheeky humor throughout, and I do appreciate the attempt at an allegory for teenage sexual awakening. But the latter feels pretty obvious and unsubtle, so while I like the idea behind it, it didn't stick the landing with me.

Either way, it's not that bad. I was entertained. I just don't think it was very good, and I certainly don't have any desire to read any further.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review: Patchwerk

Patchwerk Patchwerk by David Tallerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Patchwerk" is the third selection I've read of Tor.com's novella publishing series. It's nice that I can read these in a brief afternoon. I finished this one while at the library on the day it was due.

It's hard to talk about Patchwerk without spoiling the conceit of the novel. I had a similar difficulty with The Last Witness, the last Tor.com novella I read, but these stories couldn't be more different. Patchwerk doesn't try too hard to hide its premise, so I don't feel bad about spoiling it. Dran Florian, an inventor in a near-future world, has invented a machine that can pull matter from parallel universes. Dran realizes the extent of that power when he's confronted by his estranged wife and a sociopathic bureaucrat-inventor. As Dran repeatedly nears death, his machine pulls he and his wife (and unfortunately his enemies) into parallel universes.

The constant pushing forward and stepping sideways is the centerpiece of the story, and rightly so. If it hadn't worked, if it had been clunky, if it weren't compelling, this whole story would have failed. (And it easily could have been any of those things.) But it worked, and it was a delight to jump through many different genres and tropes along with the characters. There's a typical spy story, a steampunk airship, a bug-Earth, and a fantastical Egyptian barge. It's fun, it's a little campy, and it's full of vivid imagery that has stuck with me for weeks.

The character relationships and the plot itself are simplified somewhat, since the characters don't necessarily retain their identity as they switch worlds, but this simplicity allows Tallerman to tie up the end of the novel neatly while giving the idea driving the story some space to get complicated.

Overall, I didn't love it, but I certainly enjoyed it. I'd like to see it expanded and made into a movie because it would be a beautiful spectacle.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Plutona #1, by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox

Plutona #1, by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox
Publisher: Image Comics
Art: Emi Lenox
Story: Jefff Lemire and Emi Lenox
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Rating: 2/5

I think that Plutona is directed to a much younger age group than the one that I belong to, and most of my criticisms can be reduced to that. It's a simple story, with young characters who are broadly and sparsely sketched in this first issue. It's also a sweet story, though, with a cute premise and a diverse cast that will probably appeal much more to kids.

In Plutona, five kids - snarky and self-centered Mie and her younger brother Mike, quiet superhero-watching Teddy, unhappy, cigarette smoking Ray, and Mie's downtrodden friend Diane - find the body of a superhero named Plutona in the woods. That's essentially all that happens in the first issue, after the introduction of our cast.

The dialogue can get pretty cloying and too on the nose, in the way that writing for kids gets sometimes. Hopefully the characters will be more than just the fairly wooden stereotypes from the first issue.

The art is beautiful, with pastel watercolors on the cover and a kind of saturated-pastel color palette inside. I particularly liked the switch to Plutona's POV, which featured an emphasis on traditional comic elements and stylization.

This isn't for me, but I'd definitely recommend it to a younger child (partly just to see whether they actually like or not - I'm worried that it might be a little too twee, too written-down).

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" over a month ago, but it feels right to be reviewing it now, just after finishing "The Winged Histories" by Sofia Samatar. Both are lush, tightly constructed fantasy empires that happen to be light on the fantasy elements for most of the story. Both feature women who love women (and, in various places, are or aren't treated badly for it). Both have similar things to say about colonization, imperialism, and rebellion.

Where the two books differ, though, is in style. "The Winged Histories" was poetic, elegant, wandering, organic. "Baru Cormorant" is sharp, a perfect machine where each action triggers a precise reaction and gains momentum until every piece has fallen into place in a completely logical but surprisingly powerful ending. It's a masterwork of plot and story creation.

The titular Baru is a woman from an island nation where families are comprised of a mother, two fathers, and children (or Baru's is, at least; there may be variation we don't see). When the colonizing Empire of Masks, or Masquerade, comes, they conquer not by force but by trade. The Masquerade is ostensibly a meritocracy, totally unconcerned with inherited power; all of the public servants wear masks (at least in their official capacity) to emphasize that it's not about the person, it's about their skills. They are also obsessed with chemistry and genetics, but (predictably) focused on the more destructive aspects of these sciences, like bombs and selective breeding.

That's not to say there isn't fighting the empire, though; one of Baru's fathers leaves to fight them and never returns. Baru is smart - a savant, as the Masquerade calls her - but it's not until she's older that she realizes that he might not have died. Instead, he might've suffered the painful punishments the Masquerade deals to those who commit "unhygenic" sexual behavior. By the time Baru figures it out, she's also learned something about herself: she loves women.

She is also fiercely committed to bringing down the Masquerade and she knows it cannot be torn down from outside. She uses her savant skills to get a posting in the imperial goverment: she is the chief accountant for another colony of the empire, and in this particular economically-fragile colony, that makes her in charge.

The rest of the novel grows from this firmly established foundation. Her appointment as accountant is the first domino in a series of events that lead to Baru winning the love of the people (and saving the imperial government in the region) by destroying the value of imperial currency. She leverages that power with the nobility to foment and lead a rebellion. Baru is reticient, determined, and sharp. Her focus is the center around which this entire novel (and probably this entire world, eventually) is wound. It's hard to put so much work on the shoulders of one character and have them carry it without turning into an overpowered robot, but Dickinson has built Baru strong and fanatical, and she'll do it - and she'll stay interesting, flawed, and human the whole time.

She also forms a deep but unconsummated relationship with a noblewoman, a relationship that can't ever be real because Baru must not let the Masquerade have any ammunition to use against her. The relationship is understated but Dickinson conveys the trust and loyalty and strength between them beautifully through small, intimate moments and oblique gestures. Baru is a stoic character by nature, and hiding even the small outward signs of love buries the romance deep for even the reader privy to some of her thoughts. I think Dickinson excellently makes it so that the small hints of romance that Baru does reveal are indicative of a powerful love. Their storyline has some of the most tender and fierce moments I've seen in a fictional lesbian romance, and while I have some qualms about how it worked out, I was wholeheartedly invested in the journey.

As carefully and measuredly as each event unfolds, I do feel that if you think too hard about some of the causal connections, something is lacking. Baru's achievements and her brilliant theories seem overexalted both by the characters in the book and metatextually (the book is getting a lot of praise, and the tone of the text leads the reader to fully believe in Baru's superpowers). In retrospect, I'm highly suspicious of any secret group of elite throne-manipulating powers that decides to let someone join them just for knowing intermediate economics.

The other curious lack here is the fantasy elements. There aren't any. Some are referenced toward the end of the story and will undoubtedly turn up in the next book, if the ending is any indication. The few fantastical elements in the book lean more toward science fiction than magic, which is something that felt fresh and interesting - an old-fantasy world with almost-industrial science and some strange powers of psychological conditioning.

As ambivalent as I am about some aspects of the story, the world-building and the character of Baru Cormorant were so thoroughly and enchantingly established that I can't wait for the sequel.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

At the End of Babel, by Michael Livingston

"At the End of Babel," by Michael Livingston. Art by Greg Ruth. From Tor.com, edited by Claire Eddy.

Published: July 1, 2015
Word count: ~7600
Rating: 4/5 stars

As a linguist and avid reader, I live for words. Stories about words are the best kind of stories, in my opinion, and anything referencing the Tower of Babel immediately jumps to the top of my 'to-read' list.

In Livingston's "At the End of Babel," words are powerful - but most of them are forbidden. All languages have been outlawed except one (which I assume, but I don't think is specified, is English). Tabitha Hoarse Raven is the last remaining member of her clan, and the last speaker of Keresan. She watched her father and the rest of her community get gunned down for speaking Keresan and dancing the moondance when she was a child. Now, she is going back to her ruined village to dance the moondance and call the gods in Keresan.

The story is anchored on Tabitha, and although we know a lot about her life, I feel she's lacking in personality. Still, she has a persistent, focused determination to complete her mission, and the story feels much the same. It is focused, constantly moving forward, and while it leaves little time for niceties (like elaborate character touches), it grabs your interest and marches you through this tightly-written story. Her determination is Livingston's determination is the reader's determination. We are all in this together, and we want her to succeed.

Until it happens, it's left a mystery what this 'success' entails - and when it does, it provides the most fantastical element of the story. In the beginning, I almost didn't recognize the story as SF/F, because the premise of a country (especially a dry region of the southern US, where I imagined this taking place) outlawing any minority languages under the pretense of 'unity' is hardly far-fetched. Livingston starts the story off, even, with a quotation from a proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 that states:
No person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English.
This isn't a dystopia; it's modern-day America.

Livingston, though, shows us the visceral strength of language, the surprising and powerful things minority languages can do, in his closing act. Tabitha sings to the gods and they rain lightning down on her enemies in a storm that doesn't dissipate but travels on. And like that storm, Tabitha and the other native people she accumulates along the way show that people and cultures don't simply disappear, either, but persist.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Limbo #1, by Dan Watters, Caspar Wijngaard, and Jim Campbell

Limbo #1
Publisher: Image Comics
Art and colors: Caspar Wijngaard
Story: Dan Watters
Letters: Jim Campbell
Rating: 4/5

Another first-issue review! I have a lot of great things to say about Limbo. The comic takes place in what I imagine is a southern US town - lots of Spanish names and signs, but I also got a New Orleans feel from the city. Clay, our main character, is a detective straight of a noir film. He's got his own mystery to solve, though, because nine months ago, he woke up with no memories. A lounge singer named Brigitte asks for his help dealing with a crime lord (The Thumb) who she witnessed some freaky shit involving a sacrificial goat and a staticky TV set.

I'll say right off the bat that the one reason this isn't a 5-star comic for me is that it's just not my thing. Everything about it is quality and I liked it quite a lot, but it didn't hit that right combination of buttons for me to love it. The art is awesome, it's just not my favorite style, etc. I suspect that will change as the story grows in scope (and grows on me), but I've never been a huge fan of noir - it's just not my cup of tea.

That said, the art in this is awesome. The city is full of neon lights and Wijngaard conveys that by using cool neon blues, pinks, purples, and greens against sharp black backgrounds. It's a neat effect and gives the story great visual and stylistic coherence.

I'm also impressed with how well-paced this is. In just one issue, Clay takes on and (perhaps) completes a case, so we have a sense of continuity and closure, but that case also introduces us to the major players in the city. Best of all, it's clearly tied into some crazy otherworldly magic that's affecting the city as a whole, so we get a glimpse of the overall plot.

I'll definitely be picking up future issues of this, so stay tuned for more reviews!

From Under Mountains #1, by Sloane Leong, Claire Gibson, Marian Churchland, and Ariana Maher

From Under Mountains #1
Publisher: Image Comics
Art and colors: Sloane Leong
Story: Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland
Letters: Ariana Maher
Rating: 3/5 stars, with potential

So this is a new thing I'm trying: quick reviews of single-issue comics. I've picked up a bunch of first issues lately and I'm slogging through them, and I think doing a 100-200 word review for each one will 1) keep me motivated and 2) help me keep track of how I felt about all of these once I'm done, and see which ones I want to keep an eye on or add to my pull list.

I picked up From Under Mountains #1 because I like Image comics, the art looked vibrant, and I liked the setting. Once I opened it, I noticed the all-female creative team, which I like, a lot. It's hard to find a comic with even one woman involved so this is a grand slam.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot here to keep me interested. The art was bright and bold and I love the use of colors and layout in the first third of the book, but after the first spirit-summoning sequence, all of the backgrounds were flat and monochrome, which left me visually bored. The body and face proportions seemed off in some of the panels, too - little details not quite in the right place.

There is some potential in the story and characters, but there's an awful lot of info-dump-y dialogue paired with those flat-background panels. Looking at it now, the art and story are at their best when they rely mostly on visual action and less on dialogue. It's hard to tell what the main plot is going to be, but there's a pair of noble siblings (the brother gets to have adventures while his sister stays at home),  some women summoning lethal spirits, a drunk would-be assassin, and a scruffy hero. Some of the scene changes (and plot-line introductions) feel a little disjointed, and I had a hard time keeping track of what was happening and who was who. It feels like there's a rich mythology behind this, but that it didn't quite get conveyed in the telling.

Still, I'm intrigued enough that I might pick up the second issue to see if it improves. When the art is good, it's lovely and uses some great bright jewel tones (which are my favorite), and I suspect in the future the dialogue will flow a little better.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Killing Jar, by Laurie Penny

"The Killing Jar," by Laurie Penny. Art by Koren Shadmi. From Motherboard, edited by Claire Evans and Brian Merchant.

Published: January 14, 2016
Word count: ~5300
Rating: 3/5 stars

So Motherboard does science fiction. That's news to me, but apparently they've been publishing short fiction for over a year. I've been poking around their website for a while now and I absolutely adore the artwork they use. It looks like a lot of it is done by Koren Shadmi, who did the above art for "The Killing Jar," and who is absolutely killing it. Go check out the link above for some great SF art!

"The Killing Jar" didn't knock my socks off, but it was a good read. The premise is cute: the main character is an intern for a professional serial killer. Oh yeah, and professional serial killers exist, and are encouraged by the government, because serial killing has been designated a Fine Art. It's a tough gig to get, though, so you have to intern and work your way up through the ranks.

Our main character has a knack for killing, and a is pretty darned good at the paperwork that goes along with it. She is repeatedly frustrated by her employer, Tony, who just doesn't get what makes a good serial killer good. He's never in the news, and he can't figure out why - but our main character does. She understands that you need to be creative, you need to go after the right kind of people, and you need to fill out all the paperwork so you can keep killing people.

She also has a roommate, Mona, who dissects frogs, and as a gift covers the main character's walls in dead butterflies.

Like I said, it didn't blow me away, but there are some great moments here. In the culmination of every millennial intern's dreams and the climax of the story, the main character kills her boss and takes his place. She's encouraged by her roommate (and now partner, both romantically and in business), who shows her that she is truly suited for this. You get the feeling that she's a psychopath, or sociopath, but maybe just a frustrated intern.

The prose is clean and functional, and while some short stories fall flat on their neat little premises, this carries it out to a conclusion that is both interesting and logical, and keeps it fun along the way. The professionalism of both the website and the writing is encouraging; I may not have a compelling desire to read more by Laurie Penny (though I would if I came across it), I will definitely be reading more of these Motherboard stories.

Review: The Winged Histories

The Winged Histories The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received an e-galley copy of this book from Edelweiss and Small Beer Press.

I went into "The Winged Histories" without reading its companion novel, "A Stranger in Olondria." Sofia Samatar's first book came out three-ish years ago, and I'd heard of it in passing but never picked it up. I love Small Beer Press, though, so between that and the positive buzz I jumped at the chance to review this.

Now, "The Winged Histories" is explicitly not a sequel, but for a large chunk of this book I felt like I was missing something. Much of this review is going to detail what my expectations were based on the back-of-book blurb and my experience at points in the book, and how they didn't quite match up to what the book actually was. As the blurb states, it is the stories of four women - a soldier, a poet, a priestess, and a socialite - and their involvement in a war.

The soldier, Tav, gets the first story, and we're thrown into her life as a warrior right away. This was my first stumbling block: it's difficult to tell what the timeline is in this first story, at least in the beginning. Tav is disoriented and remembering events, and she alternates between short, sequential anecdotes and summary recollections with few cues for the reader. Part of my confusion might have been due to my disjointed reading, and I strongly feel a re-read would solve all of my problems (but not starting the book with this particular sequence might have prevented them, too). Once things settled down and became linear, I had an easier time with it.

The second revelation that helped me cope with the story came from another reviewer as I was skimming reviews, about halfway through. They suggested reading this as if it were four short stories, not one narrative, and that immediately made the story 100% better for me. I thought the book was going to be a slow burn that would encompass Tav's emotional trauma and recovery, paralleling the nation of Kestenya's trauma and recovery during and after the war, mostly focusing on Tav but with the other three women woven into her narrative. And even halfway through, toward the end of the priestess's chapter, I was still expecting the rest of Tav's story. That's not exactly what I got, but from this point on, I was able to adjust my expectations and thoroughly enjoy the book with no qualifications.

So, aside from the confusion, I loved this book. All the characters were beautifully written, compelling, tragic, human. The story is, generally, about a war for Kestenya's independence, led by Tav and her cousin, Dasya. The drama of the story is based largely in the elaborate culture that Samatar has created. Inheritance goes to nephews before sons and nieces before daughters. Dasya is the son of the Telkan, and heir to the throne because he has no male cousins - only Tav and her sister, Siski. Legends of Drevedi - winged vampires who supposedly share a lineage with humans - are the fantastical element lurking in the background, waiting to step forward. The Drevedi are maligned, supposedly extinct, but intertwined with the traditional religion - which has now been outlawed in favor of the Cult of the Stone. The Stone in question is covered in fragments of writings in many different languages, and supposedly fell from the sky to the middle of a desert. All in all, the worldbuilding here is fantastic, rich, and decadently layered - and remarkably fresh and original.

The characters Samatar chose to follow - Tav, Siski, Tav's lover, and the isolated daughter of the high priest of the Cult of the Stone - are all of varying importance in the war for Kestenya's independence and its fallout, ranging from Tav, who leads the charge, to her lover, who comforts her and who doesn't shy away from reminding her of the cost of such a war to the women like her who are left behind. Tav's story, appropriately, is more narrative, but troubled by the trauma of war. Her lover's story is absolute poetry. Siski, the socialite, tells a story of romance and loss of innocence. And the priestess reveals the secrets of the Priest of the Stone, who claims to know secrets of the gods but knows nothing about people. Together they form a portrait of a country that strives for unity and independence but is itself a messy, heterogeneous collection of peoples and beliefs. This is a story about history, and how what 'history' is depends on the perspectives that construct it.

This book also shines in its prose. This is the most elegantly, painfully written fantasy book I've read in years. Samatar's language is subtle but impactful and haunting. She writes poetry, outside of her novels, and it's clear and apparent on every page. She knows the power of a word in the right place and when to hold back, to wait or omit entirely. The result is a treasure where every page is steeped in beauty and emotion.

Overall, this was definitely a challenge, but one that was absolutely worth the effort and perhaps worth more because of it. The characters, the prose, the world-buidling are rich and beautiful and I am itching to pick up "A Stranger in Olondria" as soon as I possibly can. Read this book, even if you're not a fantasy fan, because this is a beautiful book first and a fantasy book second.

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Review: ODY-C, Vol. 1: Off to Far Ithicaa

ODY-C, Vol. 1: Off to Far Ithicaa ODY-C, Vol. 1: Off to Far Ithicaa by Matt Fraction
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've talked a lot recently in other reviews about the kinds of things I particularly enjoy in comics - weird narrative structure, experimental page layouts, abstract and non-representational art with bright colors - and "ODY-C" hits all those marks and more! I was hooked the moment I read the description: it's a re-telling of the Odyssey, in space, and all the characters are women. And it's such a blast!

I'm going to start with the artwork, because I've already mentioned it and because it's the most immediately striking thing about this story. The colors are incredibly vibrant and alive, and they melt into each other or clash forcefully against each other as the story demands it. Christian Ward has done an amazing job creating art that stands beautifully and powerfully on its own but also serves and uplifts the story. There is often little dialogue on a page, and the art alone tells large parts of the story. Character design (and world design) is fabulous. Most of the characters are women, but their physicality and gender presentation vary wildly (and gloriously). Hera has a beard. Zeus is large, insisting on taking up as much space as the head of the gods deserves. The characters (usually) are clear and distinct (with some exceptions, see below). Some of the character designs remind me of Moebius, which is high praise coming from me. There are almost no traditional comic panels in the story. Ward does some amazing things with concentric circle layouts that are simply stunning. The flexible and non-linear layouts add to how weird and trippy this whole story feels.

I'm enjoying the story quite a bit, too. I'll admit that it's sometimes difficult to get through, because while the overall story mirrors the Odyssey, that provides more of a general structure and many of the specifics are original (or very loose interpretations of the original story). So often, my rusty knowledge of the Odyssey is more of a hindrance than a help, because those expectations are subverted or diverted to a different direction. Other reviewers have mentioned difficulty with the language, as well, and there are times when it is hard to understand what's happening. Generally, I followed the story pretty well. There were some scenes I puzzled over, moved on, and understood in retrospect. There are others where I think I know what happened, but am genuinely not sure (though a re-read or going back to the scene would have helped). Most of the confusion stems from the combination of abstract, poetic Homeric language with sci-fi plotlines, but some also comes from the difficulty keeping track of some of the characters. Their names are often substantially changed from their original Greek, and in at least one instance I confused two of the non-Zeus gods and am still unsure who is who. The confusion and difficulty are what knocked this down from a home-run five-star story to four stars, but I suspect as the story continues (as I get used to the prose, as characters get more established, and I get myself the cliff notes for the Odyssey) this will get easier.

The characters themselves are, as in the Odyssey, not necessarily the kind of characters you warm up to, find compelling, and eagerly await their whole life story. The gods get some personality, and Fraction has given Odyssia more grounding, more personal and emotional depth than Homer ever bothered with Odysseus. Otherwise, it's a grand narrative with larger-than-life events, and with more narration than dialogue, so it's not particularly character-driven. But that's okay; that works here, because it's like the Odyssey in that regard and the story choices complement that decision.

And often, it's the small choices here that make the story great. Hera's beard - I love it. Odyssia captains her ship through literal willpower and mental synchrony with her subordinates; if anyone is not in general coordination with the rest of the crew, the ships can be thrown dangerously off course, and only Odyssia has the force of will to command the ship. Fraction mirrors the Odyssey by frequently using wolf metaphors to refer to Odyssia. Circe is a space pirate. The jealousy and pettiness of the gods (though certainly not unique to this telling) was delightful. There's a lot to love in the small moments, and it shows that Fraction and Ward know how to tell a good story.

The concept itself is pretty great, and Fraction has woven a neat little SF premise into the story beyond the whole 'set in space' conceit. Zeus has cursed humans and made it so no male creature can exist. Humans are trying to get around this in various ways - gender-neutral people, and one old man creepily tries to father sons on young woman after young woman - and it appears that Odyssia's child, as in the Odyssey, is a young man. I'm excited to see where that plotline will go, because it's such a clear departure from the original text. I'm excited to read more of this in general, and I definitely recommend it if you want an SF comic that's both a challenge and a delight.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review: Invisible Republic, Vol. 1

Invisible Republic, Vol. 1 Invisible Republic, Vol. 1 by Gabriel Hardman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Invisible Republic" isn't my typical choice for SF graphic novels or comics. I like flashy, bright, colorful art and tend toward stories that play around with narrative structure. "Invisible Republic" is darker, grittier, and has a straightforward story - but both the art and the story have such a tight focus that it's a gripping read. The 'what if...' at the core of this SF story isn't particularly wild: what if the disenfranchised people of a colonized moon took power, and then potentially damning information about their leader threatens to leak after he is deposed? The story follows two threads, one in the 'present' and one, told through the journal of his young cousin, about the rise of a populist dictator.

I'm not sure what the stakes are in the present-day part of this story line, as the dictator - Arthur McBride - has already either died or been deposed, marking the end of the Malory Regime, and the economic/political scene is already in chaos. A journalist has discovered a journal written by McBride's cousin, Maia Reveron, that begins with McBride's murder of two soldiers, kicking off the story of his rise to power. I'm a little muddy on the exact politics in either of the story arcs. I think that at the beginning of the earlier story, they live on a moon that was settled prior to FTL travel and so was fairly rural and poor, but now that FTL exists and there are new, higher-tech powers settling the moon, there is conflict between the original and new settlers. I think. Either way, there's a dearth of clear sci-fi elements in the story which was kind of disappointing for me as an SF fan. I suspect we'll see more of those, though, as the story continues. Still, the story is the most compelling aspect of this volume, and I'm eager for more.

Although the characters are the vehicle for the story here, and in fact the story is essentially the story of two people and the journalist covering them, the characters really take a backseat to the politics, and aren't particularly memorable. Maia is a promising lead, and I enjoyed her sojourn into beekeeping, but I have no idea what makes her Maia - I don't know her desires, what she enjoys, any character ticks or traits. Same goes for pretty much all the rest of the characters (with the partial exception of McBride, because we know he wants power and we're also supposed to be unsure of his motivations).

I mentioned before that the art is not my typical style. I like abstract art, things that aren't super representational. In that respect, "Invisible Republic" strikes an okay balance for me, because the art style is pretty loose and sketchy. The rough edges and unfinished quality fit the feel of the story, which is nice. I liked the visual distinctions between the storylines - mostly in terms of color, with brighter colors for the past - but I'm not sure they were entirely intentional, since much of the earlier storyline takes place in rural places while the later one is entirely in the urban centers.

Overall, I enjoyed this and I will probably pick up another volume if I stumble across it, but I'm not sure how good a grip I'll have on the plot, politics, and characters at that point, because even now it's hazy and muddy for me.

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Vader

Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Vader Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Vader by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the Star Wars EU, so I was pretty sad when they de-canonized them (for months, I teared up every time I saw a bunch of them on a shelf at the library or bookstore). But I was also cautiously hopeful - maybe we'd get new stories that were more inclusive, or maybe as fun as the old ones with a more professional shine to them! Then we'd have two great universes to read in! But honestly, the tone of the EU that I loved, the craziness and campiness and never-ending space opera, was the result of individuals who loved Star Wars. There were some real out-there stories, some terribly bad stories, but they were usually bad because people took risks and they failed. It was fans who made the old EU happen, because they loved it, and the EU grew from the bottom up. And the new novels are entirely the result of top-down story direction, with Disney deciding what plots and character types to include so they can market the books to as wide an audience as possible, and "obsessive, life-long, passionate Star Wars fans who loved the EU" is a very niche audience. You can see it in the recurring bland character types they use for every truly new character. They won't have any Starcaves or MindHarps or Sun Crushers (oh wait...), but I think it will take a while for the books to get back to the beloved, well-worn feel of the old EU, if they ever do. I think it would require Star Wars falling out of the public consciousness for a long time, and there's no way Disney's going to let that happen if it can still make them money.

(Above taken from a comment I made on reddit.com/r/StarWars to provide some context for my feelings).

So, obviously, I've been disappointed by so much of the new EU. But this first volume of the Star Wars: Darth Vader comic has finally given me a new hope for the future of the new canon! For the first time, we get some crazy, strange ideas that aren't slick, consumer-tested plots and characters guaranteed to offend no one, or re-packaged ideas from the original trilogy. And, like in the old EU, I'm not sure these ideas do work - but I'm so excited to see how they work out! There's a woman who's draws heavily on Indiana Jones, an archaeologist-turned-thief who gets recruited to work for Vader himself. And on top of all of that, they're mucking about in the plotlines directly relevant to the original trilogy! Palpatine has a secret group of apprentices(? maybe?), beings trained and scientifically augmented to be weapons that don't necessarily draw on the force. There are psychopathic twins, a person who controls a swarm of flying robots - this is weird shit, folks, and it's all happening during the original trilogy. It's glorious. I want all Star Wars to be like this again.

The story also continues the new EU theme of Vader's ambivalence toward his role as Palpatine's apprentice, and his constant memories of the life he lived before. I don't know yet how I feel about this. In some ways, it makes his conversion in Return of the Jedi make a little more sense, and it provides some character continuity; Anakin doesn't immediately become the monster Vader and change personalities. In others, though, it kind of cheapens the work Luke does throughout the original trilogy. If Vader is doubtful, if Vader has always questioned his choice to embrace the dark side, then Luke's job wasn't actually difficult at all (or at least not as hard as it was made out to be). It definitely works better than in Lords of the Sith, because at this point, Vader's old life has been forcibly re-awakened by Luke's entrance into his life.

I'm not a huge fan of the artwork, though. It stays in incredibly safe, well-trodden territory. I like my art weird and symbolic and colorful and abstract, and Star Wars comic art has generally always been fairly iconic and strictly representative (though I like the strange color palettes for some of the pre-Republic tales in the old EU).

I will gladly keep reading this series, because it's kickass. I want to see more of Indiana Jones-lady. I want to see more of Palpatine's insane kill squad. I want more risky, strange, fun stories in the Star Wars universe.

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