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Monthly Archives: March 2021

“Orconomics” by J. Zachary Pike

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The story told in Orconomics might seem familiar at first: a down-and-out hero finds himself thrust together with a group of equally rag-tag adventurers. They all have secrets and most of them don’t get along very well. If the dangers of their quest don’t kill them, they might kill each other. But if they can survive, they have a chance to redeem all their past mistakes and perhaps even become legendary. But this isn’t an ordinary fantasy novel. As its subtitle indicates, it’s a biting satire, not only of RPG tropes but also of real-life society (and particularly our economy).

Pike does a wonderful job of hitting different emotional beats as the story progresses. The laugh-out-loud moments aren’t unexpected for a satire. But there are also a couple of tearjerker scenes, a dramatic reveal, and scenes that make you want to stand up and cheer for the characters.

The satirical aspect of the book is also well-handled. It can be difficult to tell a story that has a message without letting the point you’re trying to make overwhelm plot, characterization, and suspension of disbelief. In Orconomics, the message doesn’t detract from the story. On the contrary, it’s an essential part of the story. The injustices of the society the main characters live in propel the plot, and Pike does the work of creating characters the reader will care about, so that we’ll feel the unfairness of what they’re subjected to and want them to succeed in changing things.

Orconomics won the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off in 2018, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and I bought the second book as soon as I finished Orconomics.

“Rogue Protocol” by Martha Wells

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The sarcastic, perpetually exasperated title character of Martha Wells’s Murderbot series is back in the novella Rogue Protocol.  This time, their investigation of GrayCris’s various unethical dealings takes them to an abandoned terraforming station that’s more than what it appears to be.

The general form of the plot will be familiar to readers of the previous installment, Artificial Condition. Murderbot would much rather conduct their investigation on their own, but they find themselves saddled with a bunch of humans who they need to protect while simultaneously concealing their nature as a truly free-willed SecUnit. Over the course of the story, they find themselves becoming attached to these humans, as well as to a less-sophisticated AI.

While Murderbot’s attempts to uncover the machinations of GrayCris are certainly interesting, this is primarily a character-driven story. Murderbot’s trademark misanthropy and snark are on full display here, with a number of lines that provoked a chuckle from me. On a more serious note, I appreciated the continuing exploration of questions about personhood and sapience. One moment in particular really tugged at the heartstrings.

That said, this did feel a bit slighter than the previous entries in the series. Some readers have voiced the criticism that the first few Murderbot stories are more like arcs of a single plot than complete books. This isn’t entirely off-base. All Systems Red felt like a complete story to me, but Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol do read as if they were meant to be part of a larger story. This is more likely to be the fault of the publisher than of Wells, though, and I did find the story entertaining regardless.

“The Messenger” by Mayra Montero

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Mayra Montero’s novel The Messenger begins with a real historical event. In June 1920, a bomb went off in the theater where famous tenor Enrico Caruso was performing. Caruso fled the theater and proceeded to disappear for several days. The Messenger imagines what might have happened to the singer during that time. At 218 pages, this is a short book, but it explores questions about life and death, fate and free will, love, family, and the mingling and conflict of cultures.

Aida Petrirena Cheng works with her mother as a seamstress. When a dazed Caruso stumbles into the kitchen of the hotel where she’s delivering some of the clothes she and her mother have mended, she senses that he’s connected to a prophecy about her future made by her godfather, an African Babalawo (mystic). A question hovers over the rest of the narrative: How much of what’s happening has been preordained?

Cuba’s population is comprised of several ethnic groups, and many Cubans are multiracial. This diverse cultural heritage is represented by the Cuban characters in The Messenger. Aida has African, Hispanic, and Chinese heritage. This doesn’t always make life easy for her: some people sneeringly refer to her as “Chinita” because of the facial features she inherited from her Chinese father. But she’s also able to draw on the support of both the Afro-Cuban and Chinese-Cuban communities when she becomes entangled with Caruso. The syncretic nature of Cuban culture is also demonstrated with respect to folk magic and spiritual beliefs. Aida and her mother believe in the mystical power of both the babalawo and a Chinese man who holds a similar role in his community. Neither is truly better or worse than the other, just different, and the characters don’t see any mutual exclusivity in their truths.

Montero grew up in Cuba, and The Messenger was originally published in Spanish. I’m hoping more of her work is translated in the future, as her unique voice is one I’d like to hear more from.

“The Winged Histories” by Sofia Samatar

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Sofia Samatar’s novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories are somewhat unconventional in that they’re set in the same world but not direct sequels or prequels to each other. Sisters Tavis and Siski, along with their cousin Andasya, are scions of a noble family in the Empire of Olondria. Olondria absorbed their home province of Kestenya long ago, and it’s still seen as something of a backwater. Some of the Kestenyi long for independence, and the three relatives get caught up in their machinations, violent and otherwise.

The Olondrian novels not technically being a series isn’t the only way in which they’re unconventional, at least not with respect to The Winged Histories. This is a book about a revolution, and yet we see very little of that revolution directly. The few battle scenes we see are fights between small squads, and they aren’t even part of the revolution. When the rebels attack the capital city, our POV character spends most of the time locked in her room, gleaning information from what she can see looking out her window and what her guard’s willing to tell her. Samatar considers the reasons for the war and the aftermath of it to be more important than the war itself. While I enjoyed this because it’s so different from the standard narrative, some readers may find it unsatisfying.

Of course, The Winged Histories isn’t just a war story; it’s a fantasy novel. Here, too, Samatar’s authorial priorities are different from what one might expect. Legends of gods and magic and mythical creatures pop up throughout the story, but it’s not until the very end that anything which couldn’t plausibly exist in the real world shows itself. Samatar is more concerned with the human dynamics of the situation that with the magic itself. Again, this is something that worked for me but might not for other readers. When the revelation at the end comes, it’s poignant specifically because of all the buildup that’s happened. It forces the reader to re-evaluate and reinterpret the events and dialogue that have come before. And the physical aspects of the magic aren’t as important as what the magic means for the characters’ relationship to each other, to the rest of their family, and to their homeland.

In terms of craft, The Winged Histories is absolutely beautiful. The language is dense and poetic. This isn’t a book you can breeze through, at least not without missing a lot. It took me as long to read as a book 200 pages longer, because I was savoring the language and tying together threads from previous sections of the narrative. Samatar goes through a lot of work to make the setting feel real, particularly through the use of small details. Overall, this was an engrossing read. I have Samatar’s short story collection Tender on my bookshelf, and I’m interested to see how her writing style plays out in a shorter format.