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“Sefira and Other Betrayals” by John Langan

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John Langan’s third short story collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, was finally published in 2019 after a long delay. It’s worth the wait.

Langan tends to anchor his collections with a novella-length piece: “Laocoön, or The Singularity” in Mister Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters and “Mother of Stone” in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. In Sefira, the anchoring novella is not the last piece but the first, and is also the title story. As with several of Langan’s other pieces of short fiction, “Sefira” is a reimagining of a classic monster, in this case, a succubus. A woman whose husband fell prey to the succubus chases the demonic being across the country, but her motives aren’t entirely about revenge: she’s undergoing a mysterious transformation, and the time to halt or reverse it is running out. This supernatural transformation serves as a metaphor for the curdling of the relationship between the woman and her husband and the psychological effects that has on her. Like much of the best horror fiction, the inner demons are just as terrifying and destructive as the external ones.

“The Third Always Beside You” is another story that uses a supernatural lens to examine a marriage strained to the breaking point by infidelity. Here, the paranormal element doesn’t enter until the very end of the tale, though once it’s revealed, the reader can see where its influence made itself felt earlier.

William Faulkner famously said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even really past.” That’s a major theme of the works in Sefira. While the title story and “The Third Always Beside You” apply this to interpersonal relationships, “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos,” portrays the effect of a past evil on the mind or soul of the people who committed it. Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the way in which the pull of the past on individuals is mirrored on a more cosmic scale. Is the being the main characters encounter at the climax bound to them as much as they’re bound to it?

A symbol briefly mentioned in “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos” links that story to both Langan’s own “Mother of Stone” and to Laird Barron’s “Old Leech” stories. Langan’s novel The Fisherman includes a reference to “Mother of Stone,” extending the chain of connected stories. Another piece from Sefira keeps that chain going even further, with Langan having said that “Bor Urus” is meant to take place in the same universe as the others. Here, the gateway to an otherworldly place isn’t fixed in a circular stone chamber or along the banks of a creek. Instead, it appears from time to time at the height of particularly intense thunderstorms. Once again, Langan makes masterful use of juxtaposition, this time between the natural and unnatural. He also gives us a haunting portrayal of the tension between fascination and terror the one would expect might accompany an experience of the supernatural.

While Sefira doesn’t quite reach the heights of Carnivorous Sky—both “Mother of Stone” and “Technicolor” in that collection are truly extraordinary stories—it’s a very strong book. People who are already fans of Langan’s work will find a lot to enjoy here, and hopefully it will introduce new people to a writer whom the L.A. Review of Books was right to call “a Leviathan of modern weird fiction.” (And for those who’ve read The Fisherman, I see what you did there, L.A. Review of Books writer.)

“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.

“The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher

Many stories that fall under the “weird fiction” umbrella are set in either England or New England, but there seems to be a recent trend of placing such tales in Appalachia. Brian Hodge’s I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky is set in West Virginia, and T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones takes place in North Carolina. This is particularly interesting since Kingfisher’s novel is very directly and openly inspired by Arthur Machen’s The White People, which is set in Wales (where Machen himself grew up). At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of commonality between the two locales, but Kingfisher vividly evokes the lonely atmosphere of wild places to create a link.

Another bridge between the settings is their folklore. The British Isles gave rise to many tales about the Fair Folk, and modern authors like Susanna Clarke and Elizabeth Hand have mined this rich history to tell beautiful and unsettling stories. But Appalachia has its own traditions of haints and odd happenings, and many of the early European immigrants to the area came from the English/Scottish border regions. A blending of the two folk traditions is thus more natural than it might first appear, and indeed Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels make the connection explicit. Kingfisher posits that Cotgrave, the main character of the frame story in The White People, emigrated to North Carolina in an attempt to escape some dark knowledge or threat precipitated by his reading of the Green Book. That same mystery begins to reveal itself to his granddaughter when she arrives to clean out the house he and her grandmother shared after they have both died.

Kingfisher gives enough background on The White People that one doesn’t need to have read it to enjoy The Twisted Ones, but having done so does add to the story. She also avoids the biggest potential pitfall of writing a sequel of sorts to a horror or weird fiction story: that in elaborating on some mysterious occurrence, one can reveal too much and drain all the wonder/terror out of it. While Kingfisher does explain things that Machen only hinted at, and gives more details about the mechanics of the supernatural phenomena, parts of the story were still creepy enough to make me reluctant to turn off the lights when it was time to go to bed.

In addition to the main character, known as Mouse, The Twisted Ones presents several interesting side characters. Not the least of these is Mouse’s dog, Bongo. Some reviewers I’ve seen felt Bongo’s constant presence in the narrative was distracting, while others were happy that the novel stated at the beginning that Bongo survived the events of the book. I have to admit to some prejudice here; because Bongo’s personality reminded me very much of my mother-in-law’s recently-deceased dog, I found Bongo delightful and a bit poignant.

Kingfisher has a follow-up novel (it doesn’t seem to be a sequel, but is set in the same universe) called The Hollow Places due out later this year. If it’s anything like The Twisted Ones, I think I’ll enjoy reading it.

“The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

David Wellington, a veteran author of thrillers and monster horror novels, takes a detour into science fiction with his latest book, The Last Astronaut. When an interstellar object passing through the solar system shows unmistakable signs of being piloted by an alien intelligence, a moribund NASA scrambles a mission to make contact with it. Unfortunately, the only experienced astronaut they have available is living in disgrace and self-imposed exile after a catastrophic aborted mission to Mars.

Wellington is a master of maintaining tension. He conveys the sheer strangeness of the alien object very well, and makes the reader feel the crew’s growing sense of unease as they travel through its interior. On top of that, he layers interpersonal conflicts among the crew. They haven’t had as much time to get to know each other as the crew of a spacecraft normally would, and this really starts to take its toll as the mission goes on and the difficulties mount. Mutual distrust between the civilian and military personnel rears its head, as does the team’s skepticism that the main character has what it takes to lead the mission in light of her past.

While The Last Astronaut probably doesn’t quite meet the qualifications of hard sci-fi, Wellington does keep things relatively grounded. Some aspects of the extraterrestrials’ biology are implausible, but Wellington has clearly put some thought into how such organisms might function. Once the basic premise is accepted, the extrapolations from it are fairly reasonable. And as far as I can tell, the technology used by the human characters is plausible.

The book uses a framing device in which the narrative is meant to be the text of an in-world book written about the mission. Interspersed with the text are excerpts from voice recordings made by the crew members. While these didn’t pull me out of the story as I was reading, in retrospect I don’t think the format really added anything to the story. The information conveyed through the excerpts could have simply been presented as the characters’ thoughts, and the overall framing device didn’t feel necessary at all.

Ultimately, The Last Astronaut is a clever, engaging, page-turner of a novel. I’d be interested to see Wellington return to sci-fi in the future.