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Monthly Archives: August 2016

“The Fifth Season” by N. K. Jemisin

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Following the success of her Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods), fantasy author N.K. Jemisin has begun another three-book series, The Broken Earth. The Fifth Season, the first book in the new trilogy, is set in a world where the inhabitants live in a perpetual state of readiness for Seasons, periods of time during which seismic or volcanic activity cuts off sunlight and causes other ecosystem-wide effects.

The worldbuilding in this novel captivated me. Jemisin gives her setting (a world called the Stillness) a rich history and detailed culture that make the story feel more real. One aspect I particularly enjoyed was that each chapter ends with a quote from the history texts or lore of the Stillness.

The story follows two primary characters: Damaya (later known as Syenite), a young girl; and Essun, a woman living in a small community whose son has just been murdered. Both are orogenes, people with an innate ability to stop—or start—the deadly earthquakes that everyone in the Stillness fears. Because orogeny is considered to be dangerous, most people hate and fear orogenes, and some will even kill them on sight. The only way for them to earn even a modicum of social acceptance is to undergo rigorous training to control their abilities at a place called the Fulcrum.

Jemisin’s writing draws the reader into the struggles (both internal and external) that these characters experience, and makes us care about what happens to them. As with the detailed worldbuilding, the complex relationships between the characters enhance the realism and emotional impact of the story.

While the quality of the writing is generally excellent, there’s one stylistic choice Jemisin made that I found a bit off-putting. Essun’s chapters are written in second-person POV. While this can work well for short stories, I found it getting a bit tedious over the course of a novel-length work. However, this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book much. Overall, I would say that this is one of the most engaging novels I’ve read in quite some time. While partway through, I pre-ordered the sequel, The Obelisk Gate. Since the last time I ordered the next book in a series before having finished the first one is when I was reading A Song of Ice and Fire, that’s a pretty big compliment.

“Penric’s Demon” and “Penric and the Shaman” by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Best-known for her Vorkosigan Saga novels, Lois McMaster Bujold has also written a fantasy trilogy previously known as the Chalion books: The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt. Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman are novellas set in the same world, which Bujold is now calling the World of the Five Gods.

The main character, Penric, is the younger son of a minor noble. On a trip to meet a woman he’s been betrothed to, he encounters an elderly priestess in distress. This chance meeting results in a not-so-chance meeting that will change Penric’s life forever.

Penric’s Demon, the chronologically earlier of the two novellas, tells the story of this initial encounter and its immediate consequences. Enough background is given that the reader can understand what’s going on without having read the Chalion novels but is woven into the story in such a way as to avoid the dreaded infodump. Penric is a likeable character, and the other main character, Desdemona, is complex and interesting as well. The story features both intrigue and action, and both of the main characters change as a result of it.

Penric and the Shaman takes place several years later, after Penric has undergone training as a priest. Now working in the city where a good chunk of the previous story took place, he’s sent on a mission to track down a suspected murderer with mystical powers. Naturally, the case is more complicated than anyone suspected at first. This story adds to the lore of the World of the Five Gods. It also presents us with a Penric who has grown into the powers he obtained in Penric’s Demon. In that sense, it’s a very different story from the earlier one, but it maintains the tone and some of the themes that made Penric’s Demon so enjoyable. I’m hoping that Bujold continues writing stories in this setting—I would definitely read the further adventures of Penric and Desdemona.

“Rogues” by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (editors)

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In this anthology, Martin and Dozois have collected nearly two dozen stories that focus on characters who have less straightforward ways of dealing with challenges than the typical hero. A number of the pieces are set in worlds already popularized by a given author’s novels: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicles, and of course George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

The Marquis de Carabas was one of my favorite characters in Neverwhere, so I was happy to see him return in “How the Marquis Got his Coat Back.”

“The Rogue Prince, Or a King’s Brother” is written in the style of The World of Ice and Fire. One of my favorite things about the ASOIAF series is the richness of its worldbuilding, and I loved the extension of that in The World of Ice and Fire. As such, I enjoyed this story, which describes the buildup to the Dance of the Dragons. However, readers who aren’t as interested in the intricate details of a setting’s history may find this one a bit dry.

Although I haven’t read The Kingkiller Chronicles, I liked “The Lightning Tree.” The story was easy to follow even for someone who isn’t familiar with the setting, and the way each event chains into the next one worked well to keep me interested.

Two of the stories present a similar concept. In both Matthew Hughes’s “The Inn of the Seven Blessings” and Garth Nix’s “A Cargo of Ivories,” the main characters encounter small carved idols that actually contain the essence of the gods they depict. In “Inn,” the god in question is more-or-less benevolent, while in “Cargo,” the deities are more akin to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. Both of these pieces feature interesting characters, humorous moments, and engaging plots.

Phyllis Eisenstein’s “The Caravan to Nowhere” is somewhat remarkable for being the first new story featuring an established main character (the teleporting minstrel Alaric) in decades. It’s also one of the best stories in the anthology, with an ending that leaves the reader wondering whether or not a character whom all the others view as deluded is truly as addled as he seems.

There were a few lackluster pieces in this collection. The opening story, Joe Abercrombie’s “Tough Times All Over” moved from one viewpoint character to the next without giving the reader much time to really get to know any of them. Connie Willis’s “Now Showing” had some interesting concepts, but the plot was very repetitive, with similar things happening to the main character over and over, or similar setting elements being emphasized repeatedly when they didn’t need to be. However, these are vastly outnumbered by the excellent stories (and of course, in an anthology that covers a variety of genres and writing styles, it’s to be expected that at least a couple won’t ring true for any given reader).

The one gripe I had with the collection as a whole is the lack of science-fiction stories. Paul Cornell’s “A Better Way to Die” does feature the concept of parallel universes, but it’s not clear whether the characters’ ability to jump between those universes is fueled by magic or science. And while “Now Showing” clearly takes place in the future, the technology featured isn’t so far beyond what’s available today—it doesn’t evoke the sense of wonder that starships and so on do. It would have been nice to see at least one tale of pirates raiding the interstellar shipping lanes, a spy infiltrating an alien culture, or a con man trying to sell someone a wormhole.

Overall, Rogues is an entertaining anthology featuring a wide variety of stories by a number of celebrated authors. It’s definitely worth reading.

Nightmare, John Joseph Adams (editor), July 2015

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This issue of Nightmare opens up with Alison Littlewood’s “Wolves and Witches and Bears.” I will admit that at first, I didn’t have high expectations for this story, because it seems to revolve around a classic trope (maybe even a cliché) of horror: a couple of clueless hikers who get lost in the wilderness. But Littlewood won me over with two things.  The first is a story element that one doesn’t often see in these kinds of stories. The second—and, I think, the more important one—is her mastery of atmosphere. The sense of building frustration, dread, and hopelessness that the main character experiences is vividly rendered, and the setting is given such detail that you almost feel like you’re out there with her.

The next story, Lisa Tuttle’s “Replacements,” is a reprint, having been originally written in 1992. I had read this story previously (although I don’t remember where), and the resulting sense of déjà vu as I started the story added to the unsettling atmosphere. One aspect of the story that I had somehow managed to miss in that first reading is the way Jenny’s adoption of the creature that the plot is centered on represents having and raising a child. The strain that this adoption places on their relationship—particularly the decrease in physical intimacy and Stuart’s insecurity that Jenny may love the creature more than she loves him—mirrors what some couples may go through after the birth of their first child. One could almost read it as an allegory for post-partum depression (though in the story, it’s the male partner who experiences those feelings).

One of the things I love about Stephen King’s older novels (Salem’s Lot, Needful Things) is that they’re just as much about small towns and the people who inhabit them as they are about the supernatural goings-on.  Nate Southard’s “The Cork Won’t Stay” is a story in the same vein: it’s just as much about coping (or not coping) with loss as it is about the narrator’s supernatural power.

The last fiction piece in this issue is “Under Cover of Night” by Christopher Golden (his novel Snowblind is on my ever-expanding “to read” list). It’s a well-written riff on the Mexican folktale of el chupacabra.

This issue of Nightmare also includes several nonfiction pieces. Paul Tremblay’s “The H Word: The Politics of Horror” gives an interesting perspective on the resolution (or lack thereof) of a horror story and how it ties into the progressive/conservative dichotomy. There were also two interviews: one with tattooist and horror artist Dennis Carlsson, and one with Kc Wayland and David Cummings, who run horror-themed podcasts. I was impressed by the insightfulness of the questions and the depth of the answers (particularly for the interview with Wayland and Cummings).

“No Strings Attached” by Nina Shepardson published in Devilfish Review

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My latest short story, “No Strings Attached,” has been published in Devilfish Review. Like most of my writing, it falls into the subgenre of magical realism. You can read it here.