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“The Forever Sea” by Joshua Phillip Johnson

Joshua Phillip Johnson’s debut novel, The Forever Sea, features seafaring explorers, pirate cities, and ship-to-ship combat—but there’s very little water to be found. The sea in question is a boundless prairie. Ships are propelled across this grassland by magical fires, which must be tended by magically talented Keepers. Kindred Greyreach is one such Keeper, on a quest to discover what happened to her grandmother, the famed Marchess.

The Forever Sea exhibits so many of the things I love about fantasy. There’s a fascinating magic system with just the right amount of explanation. It’s grounded enough for the reader to feel like they understand what should be easy or hard (or impossible) for the characters to do, without overexplaining and taking away the sense of wonder. There are complex characters who relate to each other in realistic ways, regardless of how much magic they have. There’s a unique setting that draws me in right from the start. And there are some great action scenes.

I do have one major gripe with the book, though. The main story is nested within a frame story that I don’t think is necessary. We’re presented with some tantalizing hints about this framing narrative and how it might connect to the main plot, but those aren’t resolved satisfactorily. I think that as strong as the novel is, it could have been even better if the primary narrative had been allowed to stand on its own.

“The Sol Majestic” by Ferret Steinmetz

As a fan of cooking shows like Chopped, I was excited to read Ferret Steinmetz’s novel The Sol Majestic. It follows Kenna, the son of parents desperate to restore a long-discarded philosophical movement. Opportunity arrives for both him and them when the eccentric owner of the galaxy’s most famous restaurant sets himself the task of creating a feast for Kenna’s initiation. Kenna finds himself having to navigate conflicting loyalties as well as his first romantic relationship.

Steinmetz really makes the setting come alive with small details. The book is filled with creative concepts for how futuristic technology might be used in the preparation of haute cuisine. The head chef’s spacecraft is named Escargone, a play on escargot. And one character has a disorder known as Niffenegger Syndrome. Based on context, this seems to be a reference to Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. I’ve seen commentary to the effect that many science fiction stories still have their characters reading/listening to/watching classical artistic works, as though nothing creative was produced in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. In many cases, this is likely due to copyright and trademark issues, but I appreciated that Steinmetz found a way to reference a modern work in his futuristic setting.

There was one detail that didn’t entirely work for me, because it set up a mystery that never got resolved. An alien lifeform is introduced and specifically described as being of unknown origin. I was expecting the lifeform’s provenance to be important to the plot and was disappointed when it was never addressed.

One of the most tense and dramatic moments in the book is a fight between Kenna and his boyfriend, Benzo. Both come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but they were disadvantaged in different ways. Each one feels that the other fails to appreciate the hardships he’s been through, and this comes to a head when the two are stuck in an isolated and stressful situation. Their relationship becomes stronger when they recognize that despite the differences in their backgrounds, they should have the same goal. There’s a lot of social commentary throughout the story, and this moment feels like a major theme: that in order to move toward justice and equity, people with different experiences need to work together and listen to each other. This is a timely message, and one that Steinmetz delivers with real emotional heft.

“No Gods, No Monsters” by Cadwell Turnbull

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I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cadwell Turnbull’s debut novel The Lesson won the Neukom Institute Literary Arts award for a speculative fiction debut novel, and his short fiction has been included in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019. His second novel, No Gods, No Monsters, marks the beginning of a larger project for him: a series that Turnbull is calling The Convergence Saga. I have some suspicions about what the significance of that series name might be, but that would be getting into spoilery territory. What I can say is that the book details the aftermath of society learning of the existence of beings who might loosely be called monsters—werewolves and the like.

The biggest strength of this story is its complexity. Turnbull refuses simplistic categories for his characters. There are more than two sides, and all of them include both humans and monsters. Also, the monsters are just as divided as the humans are about how to respond to the public’s new awareness of their existence. Some factions want to cover up the revelation, out of fear that widespread knowledge of monsters’ existence will lead to them being manipulated by governments or persecuted by bigots. Others feel like this is an opportunity to come out of the closet and claim an equal place in society. Some belong to other marginalized groups—one character is trans and another nonbinary, and several are Black—and seek to build solidarity with others who have been subject to oppression or cultural erasure.

Of course, the very term “monsters” is fraught in this context. It’s the one used in the narration throughout the book and by many of the characters, including some who are monsters. But as one might guess from the title of the book, characters participating in a demonstration that forms the novel’s climax insist that those with magical abilities are neither gods nor monsters—neither superior nor inferior to ordinary humans. This is very much a story of people reaching out to each other, building solidarity, and trying to navigate a place for themselves in the world. All of this makes it a very timely and very powerful book, and I look forward to seeing the Convergence Saga continue.

“The Well of Ascension” by Brandon Sanderson

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I’ve seen the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Era 1 trilogy recommended as a good read for anyone “who wanted to know what happened after the good guys won.” This is an accurate description, as the book follows the efforts of Vin, Elend, and the remaining members of Kelsier’s crew to build a more functional and just society after having overthrown the Final Empire and killed its tyrannical Lord Ruler.

In the first book of the series, Kelsier warned Vin, “There’s always another secret.” This advice was well-founded, as several new mysteries are introduced here.  The resolutions for the ones that get conclusively answered in this book were satisfying, and the hints for the others are tantalizing. Sanderson has definitely whetted my appetite for the next book.

As in The Final Empire, Sanderson has written some thrilling fight scenes for The Well of Ascension. I’m consistently impressed by the creative uses for the various forms of Allomancy, and it was great to see mild-mannered Feruchemist Sazed get a chance to be a legitimate badass.

The novel also touches on a question that an increasing number of superhero stories have been addressing: Can one have a just society when some members of that society have so much innate power that no non-superpowered person can stop them from doing whatever they want? The Lord Ruler used Mistings, Mistborn, and the Steel Inquisitors to keep the skaa cowed. Elend has no wish to do this, but Zane points out to Vin that even if Mistborn become protectors rather than enforcers, they’re still being used as tools. Is it possible for a Mistborn and a non-Mistborn to ever be truly equal citizens? Zane doesn’t seem to think so. I found it interesting to see Sanderson tackle a philosophical question like this alongside all the fighting, politicking, and mystery-solving the characters get up to.

“Middle book syndrome” is a well-known phenomenon, but The Well of Ascension largely avoids it, and I’m looking forward to reading the trilogy’s conclusion. (And the sequel trilogy, because, come on guys, did you really think one trilogy was enough for Brandon Sanderson?)

The Murmur of Bees, by Sofia Segovia

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The Murmur of Bees is Mexican author Sofía Segovia’s first novel to be translated into English. Set in the northeastern Mexican city of Linares in the early 20th century, it tells the story of the Morales family, and in particular of an adopted family member, Simonopio. The Morales’s wet nurse, Nana Reja, finds Simonopio abandoned under a bridge. He’s covered by bees, none of which have stung him, and there is a beehive laying beside him. Because of the “living blanket” of bees and because of his cleft palate, some of the campesinos working on the Morales’s hacienda are suspicious of Simonopio, with one going so far as to say he’s been kissed by the Devil. But the family patriarch, Fransisco Morales, takes Simonopio in and raises him as an adopted son. As Simonopio grows up, it becomes clear that he has a mystical connection with his bees, making this a novel of magical realism in the grand tradition of authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Marquéz.

The 1910s weren’t an easy time for Mexico. In addition to the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the Morales family has to contend with the 1917-1918 Spanish flu epidemic. For obvious reason, this section of the book was especially hard-hitting. Part of what gets the family through these challenges is Francisco and Beatriz’s strength, but part of it is also their willingness to listen to Simonopio. Despite his young age, he’s something of a guardian angel to the Morales family, and in turn, they treat him as a true member of the family. More than anything else, The Murmur of Bees is a portrait of a family whose members deeply love each other, regardless of whether they’re biologically related or not.

One of the other aspects of this book I really liked involves some spoilers, so I’m going leave a gap here. The Murmur of Bees is an engaging story with protagonists who are easy to root for. I hope to see more of Sofía Segovia’s work being translated to English in the future.

SPOILERS AHEAD

As with many stories in this subgenre, The Murmur of Bees leaves some things mysterious. We never find out who Simonopio’s biological parents are or why the bees chose to form a bond with him. A nearby community of women reputed to be witches is mentioned a couple of times, but we’re not told whether his abilities have anything to do with one of them possibly being his birth mother. We can speculate that he was abandoned because of his cleft palate, but we never get explicit confirmation of this. While some readers might be uncomfortable with this ambiguity, I felt that it worked very well for the kind of story Segovia’s telling. Simonopio’s origins are less important than the place he finds with the Morales family.

“Ordinary Horror” by David Searcy

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In recent years, David Searcy has become known for his essays, with excerpts from his nonfiction book Shame and Wonder being included in The Paris Review and Best American Essays. But he got his start as a novelist, and his debut, Ordinary Horror, was described by Publishers Weekly as “audaciously original.” Variously described as “quiet horror,” “literary horror,” and “psychological horror,” the book follows retired teacher and widower Frank Delabano. Frank’s pride and joy are his rosebushes, so he’s dismayed when he observes signs of gophers digging around them. He sends away for a plant called gopherbane that should get rid of the critters without harming anything else. Imagine his surprise when the supposedly non-flowering gopherbane plants bloom! But that’s not the strangest thing that happens, although Frank is hard-pressed to explain exactly what is strange.

This book is all about atmosphere. Searcy imbues ordinary objects and actions with sinister meaning. Looking out his window at night, Frank finds that the pool of light under a streetlamp makes him uncomfortable because something hidden by the darkness might step into the light, thereby making itself known. He has no particular reason to think anything is lurking in the dark, but if there is, he’d prefer it to remain unseen. On another occasion, he finds that children at a local playground have made a giant saurian footprint. Normally, this would be cute, but because Frank’s field of vision is limited, he can’t be sure that there really is only one footprint. What if he were to find more of them, proof that this one is part of a full set of tracks and decidedly not made by local kids?

Searcy masterfully creates a sense of dislocation. Part of this is due to the reinterpretation of ordinary situations, but there’s more to it than that. Present-tense narration is often maligned when used in long-form works, but here it makes the reader feel caught up in the mystery alongside Delabano. We’re not afforded the comfort of knowing that the story is safely over. Searcy also employs long, complex sentences and paragraphs, which increase the feeling of being swept up in a current. We’re also presented with a number of ambiguous scenes. Is a neighbor’s behavior ominous or merely eccentric? Is the dark shape that just ran around a corner a stray dog or something weirder? All of this adds up to a persistent feeling that everything is just a little off-kilter.

The ambiguity of the story and the poetic writing style won’t be for everyone. While I typically enjoy quiet horror, I found Ordinary Horror a little too obscure at times. But I did appreciate Searcy’s skill and the unique concept behind the plot (if I’m understanding the climax correctly). I think devoted fans of quiet horror will find this a rewarding read.

“Hyperion” by Dan Simmons

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Dan Simmons has written in a variety of genres, from the historical mystery of Drood to the King-esque horror of Summer of Night, but he’s probably best known for his science fiction trilogy The Hyperion Cantos. The first volume of this trilogy, Hyperion, is essentially a futuristic retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A group of pilgrims seeking out a mysterious creature known as the Shrike arrives at the planet of Hyperion just as a fleet is massing to attack it. To pass the time as they journey to the Shrike’s stronghold, they tell stories of their lives.

I’ve been reading and watching science fiction since I was a child, and this may well be the most creative sci-fi novel I’ve ever read. Some of the stories incorporated into the overarching narrative would be publishable as standalone short stories. The Priest’s Tale, for example, is a masterwork of horror. Yet Simmons doesn’t neglect the need to connect the individual stories into the overarching framework. Indeed, the pilgrims’ stories intersect more and more with each one told. I certainly have nothing against short fiction collections, but Hyperion is a novel, and Simmons really makes it feel like one.

Beyond the structure of the novel, the science fictional concepts are fascinating. The forest of tesla trees that Father Paul Duré has to make his way through is very cool, as is the house whose rooms are each on a different world. On a larger scale, Simmons creates a number of interesting societies and subcultures to populate his setting. I wish we had learned more about the Templars and their treeships, but I enjoyed seeing glimpses of their worlds-spanning nature preserve, and the chase across it was full of tension and action. The Consul’s Tale highlights the tension that exists between the main Hegemony of Man and the colonies that were founded during the chaotic final evacuation of Earth centuries ago, and which have been isolated from the bulk of human society since then.

If I had to make any complaint about Hyperion, it would be that the novel ends on too much of a cliffhanger for my tastes. But I honestly didn’t mind this as much as I did with The Half-Made World because of the sheer excellence of the book as a whole. I wholeheartedly recommend Hyperion to all science fiction fans, and I hope the sequels The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion can meet the very high bar it sets.

“A Man of Shadows” by Jeff Noon

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Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Jeff Noon introduces private investigator John Nyquist in A Man of Shadows. Nyquist lives in a city divided into two halves: Dayzone, with innumerable lamps that keep it permanently lit, and Nocturna, which exists in permanent darkness. When the teenage daughter of a wealthy industrialist runs away, Nyquist is hired to find her without getting official law enforcement involved. But there’s more to this case than meets the eye, and the missing girl’s fate may be intertwined with a series of insoluble murders that have terrorized the city.

In addition to the city’s split between permanent day and never-ending night, it features a myriad of different timescales that the citizens switch between as they move from one place or role to another. This makes for a really fascinating setting. I’ve been reading and watching science fiction since I was a little kid, and I’m always impressed when an author manages to create a world that doesn’t feel like anything I’ve seen before.

I liked the central mystery of the story as well. It soon becomes clear that Eleanor isn’t an ordinary teenager, and that while saving one girl would certainly be a noble goal for Nyquist, the stakes are even higher than that. Noon has been described as a writer of weird fiction, and A man of Shadows fits under that umbrella. The divided city and fractured timelines are treated as normal by the characters, but other elements of the story appear to be outside their understanding. Places and beings that seem to be genuinely supernatural intrude into a setting that’s otherwise more science fictional than fantastical.

Unfortunately, despite these strengths, I found it a struggle to get through the book because I had a lot of difficulty connecting to the main character. I don’t have any objections to the archetype of the hard-boiled noir detective, but I just couldn’t get interested in Nyquist. While this was a major impediment to enjoying the book, I can appreciate Jeff Noon’s skills as a writer and would be interested in checking out his stories that focus on a different character.

“The Red Tree” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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I’ve been a fan of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s short fiction for a long time, so I was excited to dive into one of their novels. The Red Tree is the story of Sarah Crowe, a novelist who flees to Rhode Island after a romantic relationship goes disastrously wrong. There’s an ancient oak tree on the grounds of the isolated cottage she rents, and over the course of the summer, she becomes more and more aware that the tree is not entirely what it seems.

The literary technique of false forms—writing a story as if it were some other type of document—is one I’ve always appreciated. Kiernan makes good use of the technique to place us even more firmly within Crowe’s POV than would be possible with standard first-person narration. Sometimes there are multiple journal entries for a single day, with the later ones reinterpreting or adding to incidents described earlier. In one case, a string of increasingly egregious spelling and grammar errors indicates that Crowe is experiencing the prodrome of an epileptic seizure. Kiernan also incorporates a short story Crowe wrote, and while it has metaphorical significance for the larger narrative, it’s also a polished piece that could stand on its own. (Interestingly, Crowe mentions another story she’s written, “The Ammonite Violin,” which is the title of a story by Kiernan.)

As usual, Kiernan’s command of language is superb. One of my favorite lines in the book—from a poem written by one of the characters—is “I know the ugly faces the moon makes when it thinks no one is watching.” This sense of the eerie permeates the novel, and Kiernan doesn’t give the reader easy answers. It’s hard to describe these aspects without giving things away, but I can say that by the end of the novel, even basic elements of the situation are called into question. Kiernan also isn’t afraid to draw on multiple influences: there are definite Lovecraftian elements to the story, but some of it is also reminiscent of the Celtic legends of the Tuatha De Danann. This gives the titular red tree a sense of being something that transcends any individual myth or story, perhaps being at the root (pun intended) of multiple such tales. But we’re never told exactly what’s going on. While some readers might find that frustrating, I’ve always loved stories that fall under the “weird fiction” umbrella, where we often don’t get everything tied up in a neat bow. I loved this, and it makes me eager to check out more of Kiernan’s long-form fiction.

“The Half-Made World” by Felix Gilman

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Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World presents a fascinating fictionalized America in which everything west of the Rockies is in flux. The conditions of reality haven’t been fully defined, and the farther west you go, the more pronounced this lack of definition gets. Two great powers, the Line and the Gun, are embroiled in a decades-old war for the right to impose definition on these nebulous regions of the country. Psychologist Liv Alverhuysen is drawn into this war when she journeys to a hospital whose neutrality is enforced by a mysterious spirit. Unbeknownst to her, the patient she’s going there to treat has a secret locked in his mind—a secret that could finally bring the war between Gun and Line to an end.

I loved the characters in this novel. Liv at first seems rather blithe about her journey into the half-made world, but the reader is gradually shown that her apparent serenity is the byproduct of a laudanum addiction. Beneath that is a trauma that has defined her adult life. Creedmoor, an Agent of the Gun, is a fascinating character. In some ways, he’s a classic character type for a Western: the world-weary old warrior who just wants to be left alone but gets drawn back into conflict. Like Liv, he hides sorrow behind a devil-may-care attitude, and watching the two of them interact is a delight.

I also really enjoyed the concepts behind the two great powers in the setting. The Line are order and the Gun is chaos. Beyond that, both represent entities or archetypes that are central to the Western genre: the Line are trains (and more generally, expansion), while the Agents of the Gun are outlaws. But, of course, there’s a third side: the First Folk or Hill People, who live in the unmade portions of the West. The story has been framed as a conflict between the Line and the Gun, but from the perspective of the First Folk, they’re both invaders. This also raises larger questions about the very nature of the setting. The characters persistently describe the West as unmade, or half-made, or unformed. But unformed by whose standards? Perhaps it’s not truly unformed, but simply formed according to an aesthetic the main characters don’t understand.

There is one aspect of the book I didn’t like, and that was the ending. (So, spoilers ahead.)

–SPOILERS–

The Half-Made World is the first half of a duology. As such, I didn’t expect a complete resolution of the overarching three-way conflict between Line, Gun, and First Folk. However, a single installment in a series should still end at a point of at least temporary resolution. This allows the reader to have a sense of completion or satisfaction when they reach the end of the book. The Half-Made World lacks that. While Liv has learned where the weapon is, she hasn’t actually laid hands on it, and we still don’t know the nature of it or what it does. This made it feel like the book was ending in the middle of a single story, rather than in a pause or gap between two linked stories.