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Monthly Archives: June 2018

“Provenance” by Ann Leckie

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Ann Leckie burst onto the sci-fi scene in 2013 with her novel Ancillary Justice, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Provenance is set in the same universe as the Ancillary trilogy but focuses on a different society.

The main character, Ingray, has a daring plan to bring a convicted criminal back from exile, in the hopes that information he has will prove beneficial to her foster mother’s political career. Needless to say, complications arise. As Ingray tries to keep everything on track, she gets embroiled in a murder investigation that could have serious repercussions for interstellar politics, possibly to the point of starting a war.

When I read the blurb for this book, I assumed that most of the novel would be concerned with Ingray’s attempted prison break. That does not turn out to be the case, and initially I was disappointed. But then I was drawn into the story by the intricate worldbuilding, interesting characters, and steadily mounting tension. Several plot threads are followed throughout most of the book, and they dovetail nicely at the end.

Provenance could be seen as an indirect sequel to the Ancillary books—not only does it take place in the same setting, but some of the plot points depend on a treaty that was established in the earlier series. Despite this, reading the trilogy isn’t necessary to enjoy Provenance. For those who have read it, the new book serves to explore another culture in that universe, adding depth and variety to the setting. For both new and old Leckie fans, Provenance is well worth reading.

“A Natural History of Dragons” by Marie Brennan

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Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series follows Isabella, a woman who defies the gender roles of her society to become the setting’s premier dragon naturalist. The first book in the series, A Natural History of Dragons, chronicles her youth, her marriage, and her first expedition to study dragons in their natural habitat.

Brennan deftly balances character development, setting details, and plot advancement. As Isabella matures and expands her researches, the reader learns more about the world of the books and the place of dragons in that world. Nor is the book devoid of action: a near-fatal dragon attack, a kidnapping, and a confrontation with a murderer all feature in the narrative.

While there are hints of future events throughout the book, the ending provides a satisfying resolution. The engaging story is likely to draw readers into the rest of the series, but Brennan doesn’t rely on a cheap cliffhanger to make people buy Book #2.

One feature that might make readers inclined to pick up a hard copy rather than an electronic edition is the excellent artwork. Drawings of dragons, locations, and characters are scattered through the book. The art style may be familiar to Dungeons and Dragons players, since the artist, Todd Lockwood, did some of the illustrations for the 3.5 Edition Monster Manual.

“The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea” by Ellen Datlow (editor)

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It’s been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the sea. Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea, features fifteen tales of what might lie in those uncharted depths.

By far my favorite story was “He Sings of Salt and Wormwood” by Brian Hodge. It evokes the mysteries of the deep ocean, both ominous and wondrous. I hadn’t read anything by this author before, and “Wormwood” compelled me to seek out more of his work.

I also enjoyed A.C. Wise’s “A Moment before Breaking.” Wise does a great job of drawing parallels between the two main characters—one human and one very much not. Both are alone, strangers in a strange land, struggling to adjust to their involuntary bonding. Despite vast differences in physiology and psychology, the similarities in their circumstances allow them to understand each other, which makes this a compelling story.

Several of the stories draw on folklore and fairy tales for their inspiration. Seanan McGuire’s “Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show to You the Sea” adapts the original version of the Little Mermaid story to a modern setting. Alyssa Wong’s “What My Mother Left Me” explores the unsettling implications of some aspects of the selkie legend.

I’ve been a fan of John Langan’s writing since I read his short story collection The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies years ago. His story in this volume, “The Deep Sea Swell,” is sort of a ghost story, although there are hints of something weirder going on as well.

Most creepy stories about the ocean tend to take place in settings where the ocean is cold, and often isolate their protagonist as well. While many of the stories in this anthology are in that vein, a few break with one or more traditions. Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Saudade” takes place on a cruise ship packed with vacationing senior citizens. “Broken Record,” by Stephen Graham Jones, is set on an almost stereotypical desert island, where heat is a much greater threat to the protagonist than cold. And the ocean in Bradley Denton’s “A Ship of the South Wind” isn’t made of water at all. These stories, interspersed with the others, keep the theme of the collection fresh.

There’s an old saying about three things all wise men fear, one of which is the sea in a storm. In this collection, stormy seas, calm seas, cold seas, warm seas, and even seas of grass are all envisioned in a way that sends a chill down the reader’s spine.

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

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Sujata Massey has won a number of awards for her Rei Shimura mystery series, which is set in Japan. In The Widows of Malabar Hill, she starts a new series taking place in 1920s Bombay. The main character, Perveen Mistry, is based on a real person: Cornelia Surabji, who became one of India’s first female lawyers. Like her real-world counterpart, Perveen is a pioneer in a historically male-dominated profession. While her gender presents some obstacles to advancement in her chosen profession, it also gives her an advantage in dealing with some clients. Some of Bombay’s conservative Muslim women refuse to interact with men from outside their families, but as a woman, Perveen can speak to them and obtain testimony. This takes on a great deal of importance when a local man is murdered and the only witnesses are three widows who observe a custom of religious seclusion, or purdah.

Massey does an excellent job portraying the complex cultural divisions of India at the time. Perveen is Parsi, a Zoroastrian born in India. Her clients are Muslim, many of her fellow Bombay citizens are Hindu, and her best friend is the daughter of an official in the British colonial government. Political undercurrents run through the story: Perveen’s law firm defends a man accused of fomenting “unrest” by advocating for better working conditions, her friend advocates for women’s suffrage, and there are mentions of a movement for Indian self-rule.

The central part of the story, of course, is the mystery, and this is well-written. Most of the people connected to the victim have secrets and potential motives. Each of the three widows who figures most prominently in the story has a distinct personality and past. Perveen’s attempts to find the truth show her to be intelligent and determined, but Massey doesn’t let things become too easy for her. And the reader is kept guessing about who the murderer is and what’s really going on. It’s not clear whether Massey is intending to write more stories about this character, but I hope she does.

“The Emperor and the Maula” by Robert Silverberg

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Robert Silverberg has been a major figure in science fiction since the 1950s, having won the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards multiple times. Recently, he published The Emperor and the Maula, a science-fictional take on the story of Scheherazade. Technically, this is a reprint, since an abridged version was printed in the 1990s. The new version of the story is nearly 15,000 words longer. The novella follows Laylah, a human woman seeking to free Earth from an interstellar empire that has made it a vassal state. As a “maula”—a word meaning, roughly, “provincial barbarian”—Laylah is forbidden to set foot on the homeworld of the conquering Ansaar on pain of death. But she goes regardless, hoping to petition the emperor for Earth’s freedom. Like Scheherazade, she forestalls her execution by telling stories.

Silverberg paints a vivid picture of a sprawling empire filled with wonders that Laylah can barely comprehend. But while the Ansaar are very different in culture and appearance from humans, some things are universal truths…like the tendency of bureaucrats to shunt problems off on someone else. Silverberg nicely balances “sensawunda” and relatability.

Another strength of the story is the complexity of the relationship it portrays between Laylah and the Ansaar. She wishes for humanity to be free, but develops a genuine friendship with an Ansaar official. Silverberg also makes some interesting sociopolitical insights. At one point, we’re told that “Aristocrats might shrug at the social codes, so long as their own positions remained secure, but the common folk, fearing a wholesale collapse of the social order that might bring chaos into their own lives, generally preferred that everyone observe the rules of behavior—even where that might be disadvantageous to themselves.” A great deal has been written in political science circles about instances in which citizens vote for policies that run counter to their own self-interest. Silverberg suggests one possible reason for this phenomenon: people may see even a crappy status quo as superior to the uncertainty that would accompany upending that situation.

This is generally an interesting and entertaining story, but I did perceive a couple of flaws. First, Laylah says that humanity had long since given up space exploration at the time the Ansaar came. She speaks of humanity turning inward with approval, and this seemed an odd viewpoint for a heroic protagonist in a science fiction story to espouse. At its core, sci-fi is about exploration, about the ever-expanding final frontier. The idea that humanity would forsake curiosity and exploration, not because of an apocalyptic war or natural disaster, but simply because they didn’t see any value in it, struck me as something to be lamented, not celebrated. I was also confused by the fact that all electrical devices on Earth immediately stopped working when the Ansaar invasion fleet deactivated the orbital solar-power satellites. Do none of these supposedly futuristic devices have batteries? Even my several-years-old laptop can chug along without external power for a couple of hours!