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Monthly Archives: March 2020

“Desdemona and the Deep” by C.S.E. Cooney

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C.S.E. Cooney has written a great deal of short fiction, including the World Fantasy Award-winning collection Bone Swans. Desdemona and the Deep is her first work of longer fiction, a standalone novella about a set of three linked worlds. When Desdemona’s father trades away thirty-six miners to goblins, Desdemona is determined to get them back. But to reach the Bone Kingdom where the goblins dwell, she’ll have to pass through the twilight realm of the fey-like Gentry. Both worlds are full of both wonder and peril, and the journey will leave Desdemona forever changed.

There are some wonderful characters in this book. Desdemona herself starts out as a spoiled heiress, but finds a deep well of compassion in herself when she learns just how her father has maintained his wealth. Chaz, her best friend, at first seems very passive, willing to go along with whatever scheme Desdemona’s cooking up at the moment—but appearances can be deceiving. Farklewhit’s just delightful, and the plight of the Gentry Sovereign is truly sad and touching.

The other strength of the story is its worldbuilding. Many fantasy settings have a fairyland or spirit world side-by-side with the world humans know, often with pathways that open only under specific conditions. Desdemona goes a step farther by giving us three linked worlds and takes care to make the two supernatural realms different from each other. The human society is placed in an era not often explored in fantasy; the closest analogue is the 1920s. These details of setting make the tale seem fresh and unique even to a veteran reader of fantasy.

The one major flaw is the pacing. With such a rich world and so many interesting characters, the book is just too short to give everything the attention it deserves. I would have loved to see Desdemona spend more time in each of the Worlds Beneath, to see more of her mother’s crusading for social reform, and to explore the setting more fully. It would be absolutely wonderful to see Cooney write a full-length novel in this world.

2019 Hugo Award Nominations

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Nominations for the 2019 Hugo Awards have just closed. Below are the works on my ballot, in no particular order. Some of the stories are free to read online; where that’s the case, I’ve included links.

 

Best Novel

The Kingdom of Copper, by S.A. Chakraborty. A stellar continuation of her Daevabad Trilogy.

The Last Astronaut, by David Wellington. A great sci-fi novel with some thriller aspects.

The Forbidden Stars, by Tim Pratt. The conclusion of his Axiom Trilogy. I only heard about this trilogy this year, blitzed through the first two books, and read this as soon as it came out.

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden. A wonderful end to Vasya’s journey, filled with beings from Eastern European folklore.

The Outside, by Ada Hoffman. A fascinating blend of far-future sci-fi and cosmic horror.

 

Best Novella

In the Shadow of Spindrift House, by Mira Grant (pen name of Seanan McGuire). A chilling story of a young woman caught between the biological family she never knew and the “found family” she’s built in their absence.

In An Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire. The latest installment in her Wayward Children series. Although it’s of a very different genre and tone to Spindrift House, there are some similar themes.

Summer Frost, by Blake Crouch. A thought-provoking story about AI.

Desdemona and the Deep, by C.S.E. Cooney. A fun story about friendship, finding oneself, and fighting for justice.

“Waterlines” by Suzanne Palmer, in the July/August issue of Asimov’s. An engaging mystery set in an interesting world where humans have very limited interaction with an inscrutable species of aliens.

 

Best Novelette

“The Thirty-Eight Hundred Bone Coat” by R.K. Duncan, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“A Handful of Sky” by Elly Bangs, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulus” by Rich Larson, in the March/April issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“The Disappeared” by Leah Cypress, in the July/August issue of Asimov’s

“The Ocean Between the Leaves” by Ray Nayler, in the July/August issue of Asimov’s

 

Best Short Story

“Elegy of a Lanthornist” by M.E. Bronstein, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“The Moss Kings” by David Gullan, in the May/June issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“Boiled Bones and Black Eggs” by Nghi Vo, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“The Boy Who Loved Drowning” by R.K. Duncan, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“The Garden’s First Rule” by Sheldon Costa, in Strange Horizons

 

Best Series

Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire

The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

The Axiom Trilogy by Tim Pratt

The Song of the Shattered Sands by Bradley P. Beaulieu

The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

 

Best Graphic Story

The Dreaming, Vol. 1: Pathways and Emanations, by Neil Gaiman

House of Whispers, Vol. 1: The Power Divided, by Neil Gaiman and Nalo Hopkinson

House of Whispers, Vol.2: Ananse, by Nalo Hopkinson

The Order of the Stick: Utterly Dwarfed, by Rich Burlew

All Night Laundry, by Zachary Hall

 

Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Good Omens Episode 5: “The Doomsday Option”

American Gods S2E6: “Donar the Great”

American Gods S2E7: “Treasure of the Sun”

Game of Thrones S8E2: “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Avengers: Endgame

Good Omens

 

Astounding Award for Best New Writer

R.K. Duncan

“The Copper Promise” by Jen Williams

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The first book in Jen Williams’s Copper Cat trilogy is a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure yarn. Wydrin, better known as the Copper Cat, and her friend Sebastian have been hired to explore the caverns under an ancient ruin. They do find what they’re looking for, but in the process, they unleash an ancient evil that threatens to overrun the world. To defeat it, they’ll have to deal with erratic magic, a trickster god, and a murderous demon-worshipper.

I enjoyed both Wydrin and Sebastian as characters, largely because there’s more to them than meets the eye. Wydrin, like many roguish characters in fantasy, is full of snark and witty banter. But as the story progresses, we also see her deep devotion to her brother and loyalty to Sebastian. Sebastian also seems, at first glance, to fall into a fantasy archetype: the brooding warrior with a tragic secret in his past. The additional depth in his character comes when he’s given a chance to forget about the past that’s gnawing at him, but at the potential cost of his humanity. His response to this shows the reader a lot about him, and brings him to a place where he can finally start moving forward.

The major flaw in the book, for me, was that this depth in the protagonists wasn’t met by similar complexities in the antagonists. Both the ancient evil referenced above and a more human villain who plays an important role in the story are simple forces of destruction and bloodshed. In a story with more than one bad guy, having them be essentially the same in motivation (if very different in power) can get to feel repetitive and boring. The ancient evil’s minions, who have no experience of the world and begin to diverge from their creator’s intentions as they gain that experience, were more interesting than the Big Bad herself. The later part of the plot, in which the heroes must retrieve an ancient weapon and lure the villain from one place to another to set it off, also felt rather formulaic. Overall, this was a quick, fun read, but I don’t know if I’m invested enough to read the sequels.

“Ninth House” by Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo has earned a great deal of acclaim for her Grishaverse YA novels. With Ninth House, she makes her first foray into writing aimed at adults. Galaxy “Alex” Stern has been offered something that seemed out of reach: an education at Yale. This gift doesn’t come for free, of course. Alex is being asked to join Lethe House, a secret society whose job is to police the other secret societies of Yale, making sure that the magic they practice doesn’t get out of hand. Her quest for justice on behalf of a murdered “townie” will end up endangering her tenure at Yale, her life, and maybe even more than that.

Reams of paper, physical or digital, have been written about the advantage attending an elite university provides its graduates in terms of networking. This is particularly true for alumni of fraternities and sororities, and presumably also for members of more clandestine groups like Yale’s Skull and Bones. Bardugo takes this a step further by adding in magic, with each of the societies specializing in a specific type. Magic allows its practitioners to predict the stock market, make themselves appear glamorous and charming, or take the form of a small animal to spy on others. The edge this gives them is used to comment on the edge provided in the real world by more mundane organizations. Privilege—and the lack thereof—is a major theme of the novel. It’s examined from different angles in the present-day narrative, in the flashback sequences to Alex’s past, and in the story of a long-ago murder that Alex gets drawn into.

Speaking of magic, Bardugo does something very interesting with it in Ninth House. Fantasy tends to portray magic users as becoming more powerful with age—an ancient wizard hobbling around with his staff is not someone you want to mess with (hi, Gandalf). But when Alex questions why the societies are letting a bunch of college kids manipulate the fundamental forces of reality, the dean in charge of Lethe gives her a surprising answer. Magic, in this setting, is physically taxing to use. Magical power only increases with age up to a point: once someone’s body starts to decline, so does their ability to use powerful magic. I liked that subversion, and it also provides a good reason for most of the main characters to be fairly young.

Bardugo was born in Jerusalem, and part of Alex’s background draws on an aspect of the Jewish diaspora that I wasn’t aware of before reading this book. Alex speaks Ladino, a language she learned from her grandmother. Ladino is a language that evolved from Spanish but also includes elements of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Italian. It spread from Spain to many other countries when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Today, most Ladino speakers live in Israel, although it’s spoken to some degree in at least 30 countries. Modern scholars of Ladino take a particular interest in its folk songs, and in Ninth House, we see Alex drawing comfort and even occult protection from her grandmother’s songs.

The ending of Ninth House makes it clear that this is meant to be the first book in a series. While it’s very much a departure from Bardugo’s previous work, it’s a compelling and interesting one, so I’ll look forward to seeing where Alex’s story goes from here.