Reviews, March 2016

The way to a man’s heart is through the rib-cage

The Summer Prince — Alaya Dawn Johnson

The title of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 2013 The Summer Prince mirrors Vinge’s The Snow Queen. A tip of the hat to Vinge, whether coincidental or deliberate, is appropriate: both the Snow Queen of Tiamat and the Summer King of Palmares Tres have the same retirement package. They get to be the human sacrifice in a succession rite.

Both novels concern themselves with romantic triangles, but the relationships involved are very different. The triangle in The Snow Queen is toxic; that in The Summer Prince (the triangle between June Costa, her old friend Gil, and Enki) may be complicated and stressful, but in the end all three participants love and support each other. It’s just too bad that Enki’s ambition to be the next summer king seems likely to be fulfilled … because that means that Enki’s life is going to be very, very short1.

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Yesterday’s Tomorrows: the Symposium!

Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow: A Discursive Symposium — Reginald Bretnor

Judging by the poll on my Livejournal, poor Reginald Bretnor is well on his way to the obscurity that awaits most of us. I remember him, not for his fiction or for the Future at War MilSF anthologies he edited (although, hrm, I do own them), but for non-fiction books like this one: 1974’s Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow: A Discursive Symposium. He also compiled Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future (1953)and The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy (1976)1.

Parts of this collection provide an interesting snapshot of science fiction forty-odd years ago. Other parts, um, well ….

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Enter Morgaine

The Gate of Ivrel — C.J. Cherryh
Morgaine, book 1

C. J. Cherryh’s 1976 novel Gate of Ivrel wasn’t the first Cherryh novel that I read, but it was the first one I read that I liked.

Exiled for killing one brother and maiming the other, Vanye can expect a short and brutal life as an outcast. What he does not expect is that he will inadvertently free Morgaine Frosthair from the mysterious qujalin mound known to the backward locals as Morgaine’s Tomb. This was no tomb, but temporal trap. The artifact has held Morgaine suspended in time for an entire century, ever since her last grand adventure ended in disaster and rout.

Vanye’s reward is obligatory servitude to Morgaine. Decades may have passed since Morgaine last walked this world. but her task is not yet done.

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Why I have the munchies

Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology — Charles Tan

Perhaps I never heard of Charles A. Tan’s 2012 anthology Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology; perhaps I read about it somewhere andforgot about it. Thanks to Melita Kennedy’s generosity and Lethe Press’ recent sale, I have received and read this book … much to my delight.

I could add a something here about the history of the Filipino-Chinese community, but even a little research suggests that this cannot be done (properly) in one paragraph.

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The Remotely Piloted Woman

Electric Forest — Tanith Lee

The Tanith Lee 1979 standalone Electric Forest is one of her straightforward SF stories.

Magdala was clearly an exceptional child, but, sadly enough, not in any good way:

On any planet of the Earth Conclave, fetal conception was the controlled result of selective, artificial impregnation. This ensured that all children born were healthy. Occasionally, however, mistakes occurred in the area of contraception, and a fetus was conceived biologically. Sometimes, such children were less than perfect. It had happened that Magdala Cled was one of these.

which is why her mother surrendered her to State Orphanage C; why her fellow orphans tormented her; why despite her natural intelligence she was consigned to a menial job; and why the name everyone called her was not her legal name but rather “Ugly.”

When Claudio Loro offers her beauty, how can Magdala resist?


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Memento Mori

Letters to Tiptree — Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein

Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein’s 2015’s Letters to Tiptree delivers exactly what it promises in the title … and more!

While women have always written science fiction, their presence in the field grew phenomenally in the 1960s and 1970s. And many of these new writers were very talented. I remember looking at a stack of new SF novels I had just purchased and realizing that none of them had been written by men.

But there was one major talent to whom the men could point, a male talent who proved that men were still players in the top leagues. To quote Ted Sturgeon1

“nearly all of the top newer writers, with the exception of James Tiptree, Jr., were women.”

For those of you tuning in late, James Tiptree, Jr. was the pen-name of Alice Bradley Sheldon. But this book isn’t so much about Tiptree, exactly2. It’s about how she affected her friends and readers … which includes the readers who might have been her friends had she not shot herself on May 19, 1987.

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Don’t Fear the Reaper

The Terracotta Bride — Zen Cho

My main complaint about Zen Cho is that she doesn’t publish as much and as often as I would like1. Still, not only can I gleefully anticipate the second Sorcerer Royal book, but 2016’s The Terracotta Bride has just been released. And just purchased by me.

You might think death is the end to all of life’s problems. If you do, then some day you will discover, as did the unfortunate Siew Tsin, that this is not at all true.

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Why is there no The Complete Collected Works of Joan D. Vinge?

Eyes of Amber — Joan D. Vinge

I hope to review all of the essential short story, novelette, and novella collections published by Joan D. Vinge. You may ask what subset of existing Vinge collections are on that list; the answer would be “all three of them.” It would be easier if such a book as The Complete Collected Short Works of Joan D. Vinge were to exist … but it does not. Alas.

I will begin with 1979’s Eyes of Amber and Other Stories, which contains, not only the novelette Eyes of Amber, but several other stories. As advertised.

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We All Must Go Down Into Darkness

Master of the House of Darts — Aliette de Bodard
Obsidian and Blood, book 3

2011’s Master of the House of Darts is the third and to date final volume in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series. In the previous volume, Harbinger of the Storm, High Priest of the Dead Acatl and his allies resorted to some rather extreme measures to keep the Fifth World functioning (for the moment). This volume explores the consequences of that bold gambit.

The Empire now has a Revered Speaker and all should be well with the world. Should. In fact, Revered Speaker Tizoc-tzin’s first holy war gained a merely marginal victory and produced only a handful of prisoners for sacrifice. The gods may have spared the world, for now, but they certainly do not seem to be happy.

When a warrior collapses and dies during a holy rite, it falls to Acatl to investigate.


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A Matryoshka Novel

The Book of the Beast — Tanith Lee
The Secret Books of Paradys, book 2

1988’s The Book of the Beast is the second of Tanith Lee’s The Secret Books of Paradys. The Book of the Damned was a collection; The Book of the Beast is a novel. Made out of short stories! Mysterious are the ways of authors … or perhaps publishers.

Young scholar Rauolin had no inkling of the dark history of the D’Uscaret clan when he took a lodging in their ancient home. Others are better informed—the name alone is enough to reduce one prostitute to hysterics—but poor Rauolin doesn’t begin to grasp the trouble he has invited until after his assignation with the enchanting and quite dead Helise D’Uscaret.


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“I think from now on, I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry.”

How to Suppress Women’s Writing — Joanna Russ


I owe my awareness of this book Joanna Russ’ 1983 work How to Suppress Women’s Writing to the ancient Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf-lovers. I am shockingly under-read in Russ’ works1, but this one I made a point of hunting down, because then, even mentioning the title could be reliably counted upon to start a flame war. Combustible = interesting. I suspect the main reason this work is no longer flame war fodder is because it is annoyingly difficult to acquire. It has been, what’s the right word? Oh, right. Suppressed.

As I will show, it’s not enough to have good will towards women’s writing. One also has to be continually on guard against tendencies one may not be aware of having. Tendencies one may have convinced oneself one does not have.


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The Tortoise and the Hare

Saturn Run — John Sandford & Ctein

Ctein and John Sandford’s Saturn Run came out to great acclaim in 2015. I am a big fan of hard SF set in our solar system, so I was very interested. At the same time I am incredibly cheap, so I didn’t run out and buy it. Instead, I put a hold on it at my local library1. My decision to seek it out via my local library gave me a useful measure of just how popular it is, because I had to renew my reserve request twice and it still took six months for the book to show up in my spot on Kitchener Public Library’s hold shelf.

Having read it, I am very curious as to how certain plot elements have been received both inside the US and outside it.

Six decades into the 21st century, one unmotivated but very lucky grad student is in the right place at the right time to witness the detection of an alien starship. The aliens seemingly have no interest in Earth. Instead they go into orbit around Saturn, rendezvousing with … something.

By the time China and America can dispatch expeditions to Saturn, the aliens are gone. But whatever it was that they visited is still orbiting Saturn. It might offer untold treasure to whoever can reach it first! (Or perhaps a devastating plague, but who could imagine a downer like that?)


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Marge Menninger’s Brave New World

Jem — Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl’s 1979 standalone novel Jem was one of my favourite Pohl books. I think it still has its strengths. “Aging gracefully” is not one of them, but perhaps the thick drifts of zeerust that festoon the novel can serve as a warning to modern writers.

It’s … well, the year isn’t exactly clear but

Handsome, hoary old Carl Sagan [looked] like a spry octogenarian instead of whatever incredible age he really was

so it’s at least set in 2024, possibly later1.

In some ways the 21st century is surprisingly familiar. It is plagued with the same energy and population concerns as the 1970s, albeit on a much larger scale—enough to have forced the world to abandon ideological alliances in favour of resource-based blocs. In other ways it is dramatically different: this is a world with functioning, if extremely expensive, faster than light travel.

It is also a world where nuclear proliferation has continued without check, which is good, because the possibility of nuclear Armageddon means there is a limit to international aggression (despite the pressures of population bomb and resource depletion). Petty harassment like sabotage and assassinations is OK, but nobody is stupid enough to push past the limits of the endless cold war because to do so is to risk the end of everything.

At least, that’s the theory.


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Paradys is no paradise

The Book of the Damned — Tanith Lee
The Secret Books of Paradys, book 1

1988’s The Book of the Damned is the first volume in Tanith Lee’s four volume series, The Secret Books of Paradys.

“Paradys” is an example of what our pals Kœssler and Derocquigny called “faux amis du traducteur” or “false friends.” That is also a good term for the boon companions someone might find in Paradys. Paradys, this fantasy world’s answer to Paris, may sound like Paradise, but anyone seeking a lost Eden or even a walled garden in Paradys is a fool.

There are quite a lot of fools, as it turns out.


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Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht

Ariah — B.R. Sanders

I get to pick more of what I read these days than I did two years ago … but I don’t begrudge the time spent reading what other people select for me. From time to time they pick something interesting, something that would have otherwise flown under my radar. Case in point: B. R. Sanders’ 2015 novel Ariah.

Planning his life seemed so straightforward to young Ariah: apprentice himself to Dirva, master his skills as a mimic and empathic shaper, then find some conventional niche to fill for the rest of his life. But, just as moving from his backwater hometown Ardijan to the big city of Rabatha brings a rude awakening about the true place of elves in the Empire, so too will life with Dirva educate Ariah in ways he never expected.


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Genki Girl Superhero

Tales of the Starbuck Avenger! — Jeffrey Wells

Tales of The Starbuck Avenger! by Jeffrey “Channing” Wells is a 2011 fix-up of material first published on his Livejournal. (Remember LiveJournal? It’s a social media platform, like MySpace or Ello, still used by several people. More than two or three, outside Russia.) Fix-ups, novels created from shorter works, have a long history in speculative fiction and I am genuinely happy to see this tradition continue.

Tricia “Trish” Hocking’s life as an unremarkable barista was doomed the moment an excited man forced his way into the Gorham Street Starbucks where Trish worked. Demanding a “venti sulawesi double-shot dulce de leche espresso within the next three minutes,” the agitated customer insisted that it was a matter of life or death. Well, some people take their coffee very seriously.

But Trish’s old life really ended when on a whim she went out one night to scale buildings and lurk on rooftops. Given the time of night and the icy conditions, her multi-story plummet was likely inevitable. The fact that she did not. on reaching the sidewalk, explode like a tripe-filled balloon was more than a little odd.

There are superhumans walking Trish’s world and Trish is one of them.


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Cruel Cosplay

Lord of Light — Roger Zelazny

I am afflicted with Zelazny-memory-loss syndrome: I have read many books written by the late Roger Zelazny, but for some reason retain little memory of them. It’s not because they are bad books, or even boring books; they’ve been lauded by fans and pros alike. For example, Roger Zelazny’s 1967 standalone novel Lord of Light won the Hugo and was nominated for the Nebula (losing to Delany’s The Einstein Intersection)1. Did I remember anything about it before I picked it up for a reread? Not really.

Well, that’s not completely true. There’s a truly wretched pun in the book: that I remembered, because apparently my brain hates me. And the beginning has always stuck in my mind.

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

Sam’s former friends and allies, on the other hand, have been positively eager to claim divine status.


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A side trip into radio

The Silver Sky — Tanith Lee

Although she may be best known for her novels and short-form collections, Tanith Lee worked in media other than print. For example, fans of the television show Blake’s 7 may know her as the author of the episodes “Sarcophagus” and “Sand.” Lee also wrote for radio. People familiar with my Livejournal More Words, Deeper Hole know that I have a long-standing interest in science fiction audio dramas. When I discovered that Daughter of the Night provided access to Lee’s The Silver Sky, which was broadcast on Saturday Night Theatre on 9 August 1980, I couldn’t resist downloading and listening to it.

Scientists have come up with a theory suggesting that an actual time machines might be possible. Solid British engineering of the sort that made the Comet and the R101 household names turned that theory into operational reality! Alas, good old British politics may cut off the funding for the project before it can send its first manned capsule into the depths of time.

Lead researcher Paul is having none of that political nonsense! And so with the same cool intellect that has left his marriage in ruins, he quietly alters the schedule so that the next test flight will also be a manned one. What could possibly go wrong?


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Back to Bilalistan

Zulu Heart — Steven Barnes
Bilalistan, book 2

Steven Barnes’ Zulu Heart is a follow-up to 2002’s Lion’s Blood. It is also the final volume (to date) in Barnes’ Bilalistan alternate history.

Four years after the events of Lion’s Blood, Walid Kai’s long-delayed marriage to his Zulu fiancée, Nandi, is finally at hand. This could become complicated … and not just due to Kai’s conflicted relationship with Nandi’s Zulu nation. Kai is already married to Lamiya. Will Nandi and Lamiya will cooperate … or quarrel?1. As if that weren’t enough drama, Kai’s position as Walid, or leader, is going to pose even greater challenges.


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Cosmic Caper!

Lamarchos — Jo Clayton
Diadem, book 2

1978’s Lamarchos is the second installment in Jo Clayton’s Diadem series; my review of the first book is here. I plan to slowly work my way through the rest of the series (especially if people keep tossing money at me to do so); I’m hoping that I like the later installments more than I liked this one.

Our heroine, Aleytys, has several long-term goals: find her mother’s people, and find some way to master, if not remove, the alien artifact currently meshed to her nervous system. She also has a short-term goal: earn enough money to sustain herself and her baby. For the moment, the short-term goal (survival) takes precedence. That’s why Aleytys and her lover Stavver have made an uncomfortable alliance with the questionably sane criminal mastermind, Maissa.

They have been tasked to help out with what seems a straight-forward con job: bilk some low-tech rubes on backwater Lamarchos out of valuable gems. Aleytys’ psychic talents and Stavver’s criminal expertise should make that easy-peasy.

If only Lamarchos’ gods weren’t real. And very interested in what Aleytys can do for them …


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Who Psychoanalyses the Watchmen?

From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain — Minister Faust

Minister Faust has one of the cooler names in science fiction and I will admit that alone was enough to get me to give his 2007 standalone novel From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain a try. The novel examines a question that arises all too infrequently in superhero universes: having finally taken the initiative, defeated their super-villainous enemies, and consigned their former foes to eternal prison, what the superheroes do next?

Therapy!


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