Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Elder Race offers an extended meditation on Clarke’s Third Law, some thoughts on cultural contamination that are not new but are important to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s characters, all wrapped up in a fast-paced adventure of swords and sufficiently advanced technology. The novella is set on Sophos 4, a planet colonized by humans during the first interstellar flowering of Earth’s civilization, when generation ships were sent out into the cosmos. That effort proved unsustainable on humanity’s home planet and starfaring stopped, leaving the colonies to fend for themselves. Much later, a second wave of exploration began with the mastery of faster-than-light travel.

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Nyr, the first-person narrator of half of Elder Race was part of that second wave. As he puts it, “My name is Nyr Illim Tevitch, anthropologist second class of Earth’s Explorer Corps. I am centuries old and light years from home.” (p. 25) He was part of an expedition to Sophos 4 that observed the colonists’ descendants and sought to understand their cultures and developments without letting them know that they were being observed. The inhabitants of Sophos 4 had lost all of their advanced technology, retaining only myths of an origin from across the seas of night. Some of the colonists had been modified to breathe water as well as air, and these traits had become inheritable. Nyr’s expedition aimed to understand these changes, too, and what had happened in the generations since the first arrivals. At some point in the study, Nyr’s fellow scientists were recalled to Earth, and he was left to mind the store for what they thought would be a brief hiatus. Something happened, though, and they have not returned although centuries have passed. Even communications have stopped coming. Nyr is stranded, alone with the machines that were designed to study the planet, and which support him through many decades of stasis.

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Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Forbidden love between two princesses. Forbidden not because they are both women, but because they are princesses, and relations between their two states are tense and unequal. Thanh is a princess of Bình Hải, in the south, nominally superior to its northern neighbor but falling back in relative power because of the neighbor’s greater access to silver and guns. Eldris is a princess of Ephteria, the north country where Thanh had been sent by her mother the Empress to serve as a child hostage, and also to learn the ways of the barbarian neighbor, the better to contend with them when she was older and playing a role in statecraft.

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

They fell in love as teenagers while Thanh was in the foreign capital of Yosolis. Eldris had seemed aloof until the night a fire ravaged the royal palace. Nobody thought to look after Thanh, but she made it out on her own and even rescued a Bình Hải serving girl named Giang. That commanded the court’s attention, and Eldris’ more personal interest followed soon after. The affair ended, as it must, when Thanh returned home some years later. As Fireheart Tiger opens, Eldris has come to Bình Hải as part of a trade delegation, one that is pushing for greater privileges for Ephterian merchants and other concessions that will hem in Bình Hải’s independence.

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Once & Future, Vol. 2: Old English by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain & Ed Dukeshire

Old English indeed!

I decided I needed to pick this up to quickly read before getting into the Hugo-nominated Volume 3 of the series and oh, gosh, I’m glad I did! Besides using up some soon-to-be-expiring Kindle credits, this really filled in an important part that I knew I would have wondered about if I’d gone into Vol 3 without having read this first.

That said, how much to tell that isn’t spoiler? To recap the first volume, Duncan finds out that his feisty granny Bridgette is a monster hunter from way back, and that he’s more or less expected to go into the family business. Volume 1 not only set up that premise but also shocked and astonished with the remarkable amount of family drama it managed to pack into its pages, ending finally with Duncan wanting to call it quits with Gran but having enough of a sense of self-preservation and duty both to take up the mantle now that King Arthur has been resurrected. Arthur, you see, wants a land free of Anglo-Saxon invaders, which is played to hilarious effect — well, my idea of hilarious anyway — when certain Little Britainers find out that Arthur is not about their white power life.

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Hugo Awards 2022: Best Novelette

Myth, starfaring bots, near-future Nigeria, fell fae, artistic immortals and the magic of the mind all feature in the 2022 Hugo finalists in the category of Best Novelette.

Bots of the Lost Ark” by Suzanne Palmer sets its story on a large interstellar ship that just barely survived an encounter with hostile aliens and is trying to limp back to Earth while its human crew is in stasis. Unfortunately, certain things are not behaving as expected. Many of the small bots that take care of maintenance tasks have formed themselves into agglomerations that believe themselves to be the human crew. Nevermind that several agglomerations each claim to be the same crewmember. One “glom” believes itself the rightful commander, and is battling the ship’s own conscious systems for control of everything remaining. Moreover, different parts of the ship are damaged and offline, and some of those may harbor other things that are behaving unexpectedly. To top everything off, the ship’s sole course back to Earth takes it through the space of a lifeform that is implacably hostile to inorganic life. They have placed an ultimatum: submit to boarding and prove that organic life is in complete control, or be destroyed. Into this race against time comes Bot 9, original source of some of the shipboard anomalies, brought out of stasis in hopes that it can rectify the situation. Situations. I enjoyed this space adventure among non-human intelligences, even as I thought I had seen its elements used at least as well elsewhere: the servitor bots in Yoon Ha Lee‘s Machineries of Empire stories, conscious but uncertain ship intelligence by Ann Leckie, slightly lost self-aware machines by Becky Chambers, and chatty bot by Martha Wells.

Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer, magazine cover

John Wiswell mixes horror and recovery from abuse in “That Story Isn’t the Story.” Wiswell’s tale opens with Anton packing his stuff into a single black trash bag and escaping from the psychological clutches of Mr. Bird, who has kept him and several others in a New York townhouse. Grigorii, Anton’s friend from their school days, drives the getaway car. It’s a classic cult-like abuse situation, and the rest of the story shows Anton trying to build a semblance of a normal life while fighting his own self-doubting, self-destructive urges that tell him to return. Grigorii stick with him — Anton’s family saved him from an abusive situation when he was much younger — and gives him a mantra, the story’s title, that serves as protection against the efforts of other cultists to bully him into returning. Mr. Bird’s effects on the members are suitably creepy, and Anton’s struggle is sufficiently uncertain to make this a deeply felt tale.

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Magical History Tour Vol 9: The Titanic by Fabrice Erre & Sylvain Savoia

I, like millions of otherwise worldwide, thoroughly enjoyed James Cameron’s film Titanic (tho am in the probably far smaller subcategory of viewers who certainly didn’t expect to!) I cried my way through much of the last twenty or so minutes of the movie, as the scale of the tragedy unfolded on-screen. Of course, the romance in it isn’t for everyone, or every age. If you’d like a concise book version of events, with far less fiction and kissing, then you simply cannot pass up the latest installment of the Magical History Tour series, focusing on what happened to that allegedly unsinkable ship, why and the aftermath.

Nico is getting ready to zoom down a bike path on his roller blades when his big sister Annie reminds him that for all that he thinks he’s invulnerable, safety must always be his watchword. This was a hard lesson learned by everyone involved in the sinking of the Titanic, a cautionary tale that she imparts to him as they prepare for his run.

In simple, engaging language, Annie describes the construction of the ship and the composition of its passenger list as the Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage in 1912. She talks about the class stratification aboard, but emphasizes that for most if not all of the passengers, this was an overall positive journey for their first five days. But then disaster struck on the night of the fifth, as a series of unfortunate events — each harmless or merely inconvenient on their own — converge to doom over two thirds of the lives aboard.

Annie explains the scale of the disaster in a manner that is both matter-of-fact and empathetic: a tragedy of this scale doesn’t need further sensationalism, after all. She also discusses the aftermath of the sinking, including the way ship safety was tightened and improved across the industry, as well as the lingering cultural legacy of the wreck.

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Hugo Awards 2022: Best Short Story

In my fourth time as a Hugo voter, I can see that while I like formal experiments in fiction and am glad to find them as finalists on the ballot, they don’t rise to the very top of my preference list. I’m not sure if that’s because the attention needed — both author’s and mine — to deal with the formal aspects means there’s not enough left at the end for me to say, “Yes! This is the best story on this year’s ballot” or if there is something else going on.

Apex Magazine, Issue 121

I’ve been part of online discussions (threaded and otherwise) for more than a quarter century now, so I thought the premise of “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker was pretty neat. It’s an online discussion of a fictional folk song, with various people adding footnotes, comments, comments on the comments, and so forth. The discussion, as Wikipedia puts it, “gradually uncovers a dark secret.” I’ve been in online communities where actual dark secrets, though not about centuries-old ballads, have come to light — sometimes even things the commenters didn’t realize about themselves. In this case, though, my attention strayed during all of the recursion, and I found myself doing what most people do with extended footnotes.

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Lore Olympus: Volume One by Rachel Smythe

When this won a Goodreads Award a while back, I tried to give it a go on Webtoons where it was originally published, but found myself bouncing off of the format — or lack thereof, tbh. I like my visuals to fit a single consistent page so I’m not scrolling back and forth to try to fully capture each block, a necessity when reading this online that makes it pretty hard to immerse myself in the story and text. My husband and eldest kid occasionally read other Webtoons on their tablets, but my Kindle Fire gave up the ghost a while ago. And, frankly, it irritates me to have to find yet another device to be able to enjoy just the one story.

So thank goodness this came out in book form, where I could actually appreciate the art and story in a format that didn’t make my eyes glaze over with frustration! The copy I was sent in the Hugo voters’ packet doesn’t say if anyone besides original creator Rachel Smythe was responsible for the excellent layout of the graphic novel, but kudos to whomever reworked the Webtoons to fit so beautifully on the page.

My old-lady-eyes fussing aside, what did I think of the work? Tbh, I was pretty doubtful about another Greek mythology retelling. In theory, I like the idea of a deconstruction with modern sensibilities, but in practice, the reinterpretation of the Hades-Persephone myth as a cute love story doesn’t sit well with me. Ms Smythe does her darnedest, and in fairness, I really do enjoy what she’s done with Persephone, presenting her as a country girl with an overprotective mother who’s just ready to fall in love with the first guy who treats her like a grown-up. But that doesn’t make the premise of their relationship any less icky, especially if we’re supposed to be applying the afore-mentioned modern sensibilities to the tale. Perhaps the age gap is addressed in later installments of the series: it’s just not the kind of thing I was able to root for in this volume.

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Hugo Awards 2022: Best Short Story Nominee

Hugo packets are out, hurray, and I have till August to read everything! Having already consumed and voted for the nominees in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category and reviewed the first in the Graphic Story category, it’s time to look at the Short Stories, which I’ll discuss here alphabetically by title. Links are included to each story as available.

The first of these is Mr Death by Alix E Harrow, a writer I often find hit or miss. Mr Death starts out as a hit for me before slowly devolving into a sentimental miss. It’s essentially the tale of a man who gets recruited to become a Reaper, one of the guides that watches over the souls of those about to die and is on hand to immediately bring them over the river to a Nirvana-like eternity. His record is exemplary… till his latest assignment, which hits far too close to his own pre-afterlife. I mean, it’s fine, and were I in a different state of mind, perhaps I would have found the ending more hopeful than mawkish. As it was, the story did not land for me, tho I appreciated the attempt to grapple with grief.

Jose Pablo Iriarte’s Proof Of Induction is second on this list and second in my esteem. It’s a near-future sci-fi tale which also tackles grieving and the afterlife, but in a way that feels far more complex and human. It’s a bit of an academic’s Rogue Moon (by Algis Budrys, natch,) only instead of searching for a MacGuffin, the protagonist is searching for something even more impossible to attain. Plus, I have a hard time resisting stories where math is a central ornament.

The Sin Of America by Catherynne M Valente is extremely American, and for once I do not use the phrase to cast even the dimmest of aspersions. A young woman has been selected to eat a meal that represents the sins of our nation, in the process cleansing the rest of her fellow citizens of their guilt, in a sort of 21st century update of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery via the old practice of sin eating. The story unflinchingly looks at the crimes, past to present, of the United States and coolly extrapolates a horrific way of dealing with them, given the nature of the average American. On its own, it is very good — third on my list of favorites — but sometimes I worry about Ms Valente’s inclinations to punish her heroines.

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The Peacekeeper (The Good Lands #1) by B.L. Blanchard

This may easily be the most fascinating invented setting I’ve read for a murder mystery in ages, and that definitely includes the Anglo-Nordic nation Peter Spiegelman created for his excellent A Secret About A Secret. Imagine, if you will, a near-future world in which North America was never colonized by Europeans. Instead, the indigenous tribes were allowed to develop and war on their own, with the Anishinaabe culture eventually prevailing around the area we know in our reality as the Great Lakes.

Chibenashi is a Peacekeeper in the historic village of Baawitigong, in the Anishinaabe nation. It’s a relatively easy job: crime is low, ebbing and flowing with the influx of tourists, and most of his duties involve retrieving lost people and items. This suits him just fine, as his life otherwise is preoccupied with taking care of his needy younger sister Ashwiyaa, who has never really recovered from the one murder to afflict Baawitigong in the last twenty years: the slaying of their mother Neebin. Their father Ishkode confessed to the killing and was sent to prison in the nearest city, Shikaakwa, but the stain of his crime marks his offspring still, leaving them outsiders in the only home they’ve ever known. The siblings aren’t entirely friendless, but even the best efforts of their community falter in the face of Ashwiyaa’s instability. Only their immediate neighbors and their mother’s best friend Meoquanee insist on being there for them daily.

With the onset of the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s death, Chibenashi braces himself for the onslaught of memory and grief that accompany that date every year. What he does not expect is for another murder to shatter the peace and happiness of Baawitigong once more. Meoquanee has been slain in her own wigwam, and the evidence suggests that whomever killed Neebin all those years ago is responsible for her death too.

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Monstress Vol. 6: The Vow by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda

Wow, has this series grown on me! As with last year, I selected this title first of the Hugo nominees for Graphic Novel in hopes of getting it out of the way, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually does keep getting better from volume to volume. As always, an overwhelming amount happens with far too little of it explained, but dang it, I care about the characters now! Tuya still sucks, but I’ve come round to rooting for Maika and Zinn and especially dear, darling Kippa.

It helps a lot that this volume opens with a Kippa tale, detailing the gut punch that is her memory of the most delicious meal she’s ever had. The follow-up, Maika’s own memory of the last time she was truly happy and carefree as a child, was also poignant, as Maika and Kippa exchange stories while working in the kitchens of a besieged town. I think the town is Ravenna? Like I said, there is a lot going on in these books, and while I enjoy the story well enough, I do not, however, sufficiently care to keep track of who is betraying whom on whose behalf where and how, because it happens all the damn time in places that are mostly sketched at in a seemingly fungible spacetimeline. But at this point in the story, I’m invested enough that details are a mere curiosity, my subconscious mind doing the connecting work while I’m wholly absorbed in the plot as laid before me in each new book.

And this plot here is a doozy! It’s been six long volumes, but Maika finally discovers the identity of the Baroness, and it all goes about as well as expected. Even more importantly, Maika and Zinn come to a new… oh let’s say accord, as their ends increasingly align. Very interesting snippets are also revealed about the history of this planet and the origin of the Old Gods. It’s all thrilling stuff, beautifully depicted by Sana Takeda in her trademark horror manga style with punctuations of extreme cuteness. The two-page spread where Maika puts the pieces of the mask on again is particularly electrifying, with excellent use, too, of colors and lettering. And! It was easy for me to tell throughout who was who! I can be a bit faceblind, but in this volume I wasn’t constantly mistaking one character for another, tho I think that this book overall was also better about providing contextual hints than prior installments were.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/31/monstress-vol-6-the-vow-by-marjorie-m-liu-sana-takeda/