Category Archives: Is Our Writers Learning?

R’Lyeh vs. New York City: NK Jemisin’s “The City We Became.”

THE CITY WE BECAME by NK Jemisin opens with a hot-tempered street artist, homeless, black and gay. The avatar of the city of Så0 Paolo contacts him to explain he’s the avatar of New York City, which is now becoming sentient, and that the Enemy will object, so the avatar has to prepare for battle.

After the opening scene, we cut to an amnesiac, newly arrived in Manhattan, who winds up fighting off an incursion by a Lovecraftian horror; the amnesiac, it turns out is the avatar of Manhattan. A short while later, he and his new roommate are attacked by the Women in White, an avatar of the same horror. Only not physically — she pulls the trick of reporting them as men of color (and gay men no less) threatening her! The Enemy has more than one method of waging war.

In subsequent chapters we meet the avatars of Brooklyn (woman rapper turned politician), the Bronx (sixtysomething lesbian and street artist), Queens (Indian-American math whiz) and Staten Island (racist white woman who hates living with her abusive dad but can’t bring herself to face the imagined horrors of the rest of New York). The amnesiac is Manhattan. It turns out that because NYC is NYC, one avatar wasn’t enough; the different boroughs have their own manifestations, but if they can’t learn to work together and revive the initial avatar, they’re doomed. The Woman in White is the avatar of R’lyeh, and because human cities achieving sentience wreaks havoc in other dimensions, she’s determined New York’s new avatars must die Which would be extremely bad. As in Atlantis bad.

I read this as part of my ongoing research in response to that Southern Discomfort feedback, but it’s an excellent book in its own right. My only complaints are a)the Woman in White’s dialogue is sometimes creepy as hell (the early scene I mentioned) but other times it’s generic power-mad supervillain (we humans are nothing but amoebas compared to her!). And while I don’t dispute that New York is more multiple cities than a single one, I wonder if it’s that unique — would people from Sao Paolo roll their eyes at being told they can be represented by one avatar? Heck, even the part of the Florida Panhandle where I used to live sees plenty of differences between communities (Destin’s for rich snobs and retirees, DeFuniak Springs is for the rednecks, etc.). But those are minor quibbles.

Like Southern Discomfort this is very much a setting story. As you’ve probably gathered, it’s all about the Big Apple and what makes the Bronx the Bronx and Staten Island Staten Island, and the tensions within the communities. Braca, the Bronx avatar, has to deal with a bunch of smirking white male artists who deliberately troll her gallery with racist-themed art, then go online to rant about how they’re oppressed because Braca wouldn’t accept their work (leading the woman’s sidekick to describe them as “Cthulhu’s tentacled fuckbois.”).

It’s also interesting to see how Jemisin makes the opening compelling even when not a lot is happening. She still makes the scene tense because the avatar is tense. He’s sitting in a fancyrestaurant, conscious that he’s the only black man there, that everyone’s checking him out, that his clothes are threadbare. There’s a lot of internal monologue but Jemisin can even make that interesting.

Like Southern Discomfort this also has multiple narrators, though nowhere near as many as I go through.

Overall I don’t know that I learned anything useful, but it was a terrific book I’d have read anyway.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder; jacket art by arcangel

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Is Our Writers Learning? Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho (with spoilers)

Continuing to study urban fantasy in response to that feedback … I enjoyed Zen Cho’s BLACK WATER SISTER (cover by Tiffany Estreicher) but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it (and didn’t like it as much as Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen). Part of that is that it’s a New Adult book: Chinese-American protagonist Jessamyn is an Ivy League graduate whose career dreams have crashed and burned (I never quite got why) so she’s moved back in with her parents. She’s also a lesbian with a girlfriend bit hasn’t come out to her folks yet. Now she’s heading back home with them to Penang in Malaysia where her father, recently recovered from cancer, is getting a job with his Chinese-Malaysian family.

Much like coming-of-age novels, the mid-twenties crisis is a turnoff for me. Things pick up as it turns out Jess is haunted by Ah Ma, the ghost of her maternal grandmother whom she never met. Ah Ma was a medium and servant of a local deity, Black Water Sister. A local big-shot developer with mob ties is planning to pave over the temple where the goddess’s altar sits; Ah Ma wants Jess to help derail this.

This, of course, proves much harder and more dangerous than it looks. The developer has no qualms about having obstacles like Jess rubbed out. Ah Ma is a nasty piece of work, a criminal in life herself, with no qualms about using her granddaughter. Jess has medium abilities herself and Black Water Sister wants Jess as her new high priestess (not how they phrase it in Malaysia, but that’s the concept).  And Jess’s girlfriend is convinced by Jess’s sudden lack of communication and reluctance to leave her parents that it’s all over.

The Malaysian elements are absolutely fascinating, particularly the rhythm of people’s speech. I really like Jess’s parents as characters: a lot of first-generation Americans get stock types for parents (traditionalist mother, affable father) but this couple feel like individuals, not generic. The developer’s son is a good character too, a seemingly nice guy but not strong enough to be genuinely nice when Daddy needs him.

On the negative side, Jess’s girlfriend is virtually a cipher, much less fleshed out than the parents. Jess herself is too passive, either threatened by the bad guys or used as a tool of Ah Ma and Black Water Sister. There’s one point where she forces a meeting with the developer that she shows some drive to control her own fate, otherwise she just keeps telling Ah Ma “no” while slowly wearing down. Black Water Sister’s fate — free her from the trauma she carried over from when she was a mortal — is a stock ghost-story trope and it left me unsatisfied. So did the ending in which Jess finally decides to out herself to her parents, but we don’t see their reaction. I get the point — the book starts with Jess completely adrift and ends with her finding direction — but I really hoped her parents would be able to deal and I’m disappointed not to know.

What I learned: This novel doesn’t start with much at stake, but it makes up for it by Jess’s emotional state. She’s frustrated, full of doubt, thrown into a culture she doesn’t know (her parents left Malaysia when she was very small) and generally miserable. Which is certainly true of Maria in Southern Discomfort (she’s also pushed around but tries harder than Jess to get away), but she doesn’t come in until Chapter Two. I’ve considered making that the start, but I’m not sure the novel would work without the backstory and the relationships established in Chapter One. I’ll think about it again, though.

Then there’s Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The opening has some life-and-death stuff going on, but then it slows down quite a bit, as some of my writing group have pointed out when I read parts of it. As it isn’t finished yet, this may be easier to fix than to rewrite Southern Discomfort.

So a useful read, and, overall, a good one despite the bits I didn’t like.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Two books

Continuing to read fantasy with an eye to that feedback on Southern Discomfort I got a while ago.

BLACK SUN: Between Earth and Sky Book One by Rebecca Roanhorse worked for me even though I don’t normally like epic fantasy. Part of that is the strong characters, par the setting (based on pre-Columbian North America). Also, unlike a lot of epic fantasy, sharing info about the worldbuilding didn’t become tedious as I often find it.

The book opens with a woman, over the opposition of her husband, performing some kind of magic ritual on her son, including sewing his eyes shut. We then jump forward some years to start with Xiala, a female smuggler of a matriarchal society widely feared for their sea magic. She’s recruited to carry a mysterious passenger to Tova, one of the world’s great cities, using her powers to control the weather and get the boat across the open sea (like many sailors in ancient times, sticking close to the coast is preferred).

Meanwhile, in Tova, we meet Naranpa, current high priest of the sun. She’s risen from the bottom dregs of society to lead a priesthood much less powerful than it used to be. Some think she doesn’t deserve the gig …

The book is third-person POV, usually close up and that’s how we get our exposition: people reflecting on their past, current politics, their relationships. This can easily turn heavy handed but Roanhorse makes it work. And when it works it’s much less tedious than working into conversations (as in Black Wolves which I found insufferable).  That I liked it gives me confidence in Southern Discomfort‘s exposition, as I went much the same way (which is not to say I’ll do it as well, of course).

While the feedback on my book mentioned epic fantasy having a slower pace and starting with lower stakes, I don’t find Black Sun‘s pace slow: the tension is high from the first. However it is much more personal stakes — Naranpa’s political struggles, Xiala dealing with her crew — even though it’s clear as we go along that the stakes are rising.

DIE AND STAY DEAD by Nicholas Kaufmann, by contrast, ups the stakes very quickly. This sequel to Dying Is My Business opens with the amnesiac thief Trent and his friends saving a woman from a mage/serial killer sacrificing them to his kid. The killer knows something bad is coming and he hopes his demon-deity will save him. It’s action packed, then after Trent gets the woman home, we get some mystery (she’s worried about someone else stalking her). When Trent goes back to see her the next day, she’s been killed, cruelly.

We learn early on the stakes are high. Twenty years ago a cult tried to summon a demon prince to destroy the world. They botched the job and died instead … except one. Now he’s putting together the mystic McGuffin that will enable him to complete the work. Trent & Co. have to beat the villain to the McGuffin, but Trent’s distracted by a beautiful woman who recognizes him — is this his chance to get a life back?

The book is enjoyable and I’m sorry V3 isn’t in the pipeline (Kaufmann says sales were to low for his publisher). It’s biggest flaw is that there are two big reveals, both of which were obvious well in advance. That may have been intentional (one of them is so very, very obvious) but it didn’t work for me.

There’s a lot of exposition here too, even in the slam-bang opening chapter. However it is slam-bang, where Southern Discomfort is a political strategy session (and an unrelated personal discussion) interrupted by murder. Not slam-bang.

The Impossible Takes a Little Longer is better in that respect as the opening chapter involves KC preventing a ritual sacrifice. It’s tense (I hope). However things in the current draft slow down considerably for the next couple of chapters, something I’ll have to think about when I go back to the book (probably not until after Alien Visitors is done).

Another thing that occurs to me is that urban fantasy tends to go considerably wilder than Southern Discomfort does. Kaufmann’s book has mages, demons, Trent, vampires, zombies and necromancers. The world has a hidden, magical history. Southern Discomfort is closer in some ways to intrusion fantasy — one piece of magic intruding into a nonmagical reality (Impossible is a good deal more colorful).

So the reading was useful. And fun to boot.

#SFWApro. Cover illustrations by John Picasio (top) and Chris McGrath (bottom)

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Is Our Writers Learning? Pax Demonica by Julie Kenner

As I mentioned a while back, the editor who rejected Southern Discomfort suggested I read more urban fantasy. Perhaps she has a point because reading Julie Kenner’s PAX DEMONICA I discovered it shows exactly the kind of pacing problems she said I had (and in discussing them, there will be lots of spoilers. Be warned).

I didn’t expect that when I ordered the book because I love the Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series. Kate Conner is Buffy with the serial numbers filed off, an orphan trained by the Catholic Church for Forza, the demon-hunting fellowship. By the start of the first book, she’s retired, married with a kid and her adventuring days are long behind her. Then the demons start returning … but after V5, Demon Ex Machina, her published killed the series. Kenner went on to other stuff but realized a few years ago that self-publishing was an option.

At the end of the previous book, Kate had a number of questions about Forza, such as how Eric, her dead first love and father of her daughter Allie wound up alive and possessed by a demon. They’re off to Forza’s Rome headquarters to get some answers. It’s a tense trip as Stuart, Kate’s husband, briefly walked out on Kate when he got the whole story about her side hustle.

Adding to the tension: demons attacking Kate demanding a McGuffin of some sort. A girl showing up who claims to be Kate’s cousin (Kate’s an orphan with no knowledge of her birth family).  Kate discovering she comes from a long lineage of Forza demon slayers. Eric’s warning that she shouldn’t trust anyone in Rome.

It turns out the McGuffin is a key that can bring on the apocalypse, literally bringing hell to Earth. Some of the demons are on humanity’s side in wanting to stop it: they like possessing mortal forms so they’re opposed to their fellows who simply want to destroy the world. Despite their assistance, the destruction demons get the key and open the gate to Hell. Kate and Co. figure out the gate’s location, rush to it, and discover that Allie has inherited some of Eric’s demon side — enough that her human/demon blood can close the gate. The world is saved!

It’s a solid plot, but the execution is imbalanced. Despite the demon attacks, the first three-quarters of the book spend way too much time on personal stuff: Kate rejoicing in being back in Rome, Allie pushing against her parents to go off and explore, sightseeing (a running gag is that they never actually make it to the tourist destinations. It should have been funnier than it was), Kate and Stuart rebuilding their relationship. All of which is typical for this series, but normally the threat level is high enough to balance it out. Not this time.

Instead we get the threat jumping to omega level in the last quarter. Backed up by a lot of exposition to rationalize how the Conners, Kate’s cousin and the McGuffin all showed up in Rome at the same time. It was too much exposition for such a small portion of the book, and Eric’s warning never pays off. Even the Forza priests who put a demon in him were doing so with an eye to his future child sealing the gates.

Which is a minor complaint: the book’s rosy view of the Catholic Church feels like the equivalent of “copaganda.” Not that every story with a Catholic priest has to make him a pedophile (Southern Discomfort has a perfectly decent priest) or that every nun runs one of the Magdalene laundries. It’s nowhere near as bad as Tarn Richardson whitewashing the Inquisition in The Fallen but it still feels like Forza should have had a little bit of a dark side.

I must admit, if Southern Discomfort made the editor feel as disappointed as Pax Demonica made me, I’m not surprised she rejected it.

#SFWApro. Cover by the Killion Group, all rights remain with current holder.

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Books read from various series

PEACE TALKS: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is a disappointing return to the series after six years away. Part of the disappointment is that there’s no warning this and the upcoming Battle Ground are one large story in two volumes, which makes the Big Menace showing up midbook and the abrupt, unresolved ending unsatisfying (it doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger as much as just chopping the book in two at the middle).

The novel starts out great as everything goes wrong for Harry (except his love life, because he and Murph are finally getting it on). Lovecraftian entities are hunting him. The White Council wants to expel Harry, leaving him vulnerable to anyone with scores to settle. Cops are investigating some of Harry’s past actions. The Fae Mab has ordered Harry, as her Winter Knight, to provide three services to a vampire queen, no matter what she asks. And all this while Harry’s working security for a conference of the supernatural world’s powers, none of whom get along well. And then Harry’s vampire brother Thomas suddenly attacks and almost kills a leader of the svartalfar.

As Thomas has no rational reason to do this, I’d expect the plot to be exposing whoever manipulated/pressured him into the attack. Instead we veer into a caper story like the previous novel Skin Game, with Harry and Thomas’ sister carrying out an elaborate plan to rescue Thomas from magical jail without collapsing the peace conference. I lost interest.

Oh, and the gimmick of Harry having “conjuritis,” where he constantly sneezes up random materializations, feels like something from a Bewitched episode.

By contrast JENNING’S LITTLE HUT by Anthony Buckeridge actually improves on the previous book in the series. Jennings and his friends have taken up building huts on a stretch of school property dominated by a pond and a lot of mud — but it’s conditional on them not getting too messy or into too much trouble. Needless to say, Jennings and Darbishire have problems with those conditions …. Will Mr. Carter notice Jennings walking around all day with a pane of glass? Will Sir Richard Grenville stop the Spanish Armada? Will Atkinson figure out why one Old Boy thinks it’s 1895? I enjoyed this.

ADVENTUREMAN: The End and Everything After by Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson (who provided the cover above) is the start of a series, and on paper sounds like something that would work for me: a Doc Savage pastiche (though with a more diverse team of aids) plunged into an adventure straight out of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run. Claire Fallon and her son Tommy are fans of the old Adventureman pulp stories, which appear to end with Adventureman and his team defeated. After a woman drops off a mysterious never-before-seen volume about Adventureman (equivalent to Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life), Claire suddenly notices Adventureman’s legendary skyscraper HQ standing where an undistinguished tenement should be. And she seems to be growing bigger and stronger and smarter …

The art on this is great, but the story is lacking. It has all the right pieces for a great yarn, but the magic is just lacking, as if there’s no sincerity to the story (that’s a subjective interpretation, not an assessment of Fraction and Dodson’s state of mind). Still, I’ll check out V2 just to see if it improves.

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Grimdark with a smile: Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld

Grimdark fantasy existed long before the term; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword is as grimdark as you can get and it’s decades old. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD, Jack Vance’s sequel to The Dying Earth, doesn’t initially read grimdark — it’s stylish, elegant and humorous — but it has a view of the world just as grim as Game of Thrones. The protagonist, Cugel the Clever, is an amoral antihero and rapist (I’ll come back to that last point) but most of the people he encounters are as greedy, corrupt and selfish as he is. Despite his nickname, Cugel isn’t all that clever;  when he thinks he’s scamming someone, his confidence in his own cunning blinds him that he’s the one being snared.

Like the first book, this is a collection of short stories, here linked by Cugel’s quest. In the opening, someone talkes Cugel into robbing Incounou, the Laughing Magician (if he’s laughing at you, you’re in for it) which doesn’t go well. Incounou extracts a promise from Cugel to hunt for one of the eponymous eyes, contact lenses that transform whatever you’re looking at into a world of beauty. Not being an idiot, the mage puts a tiny creature inside Cugel to gnaw his vitals if the thief runs off or in some fashion tries to double-deal. Then off we and Cugel go on a picaresque, black-humored journey across the dying future Earth.

This came out 16 years after the first book and Vance’s style has improved considerably. At one point a sorcerer says he can foretell Cugel’s future but it will require wrapping Cugel in the intestines of freshly killed owls, burning his little toe and dilating his nostrils to let an explorer beetle enter his body. Cugel passes. And Vance is very good on imaginary names: “The great cities Impergos, Tharuwe, Rhaverjand — all unheard of? What of the illustrious Sembers?” Exotic names, but believable ones, I think; they sound right.

The story is cynical as hell. Cugel lies, cheats and steals, and cons people with this voice of injured reason (under the circumstances, surely you can’t suggest that I pay for this meal!); his intended marks abuse him just as much. In one story he’s marked out as the sacrifice to the local bat-creatures; in another he’s tricked into serving as the town watchman (an important post) by being promised luxury, food and the woman of his choice; instead he ends up trapped in the watchtower with no luxury, crappy food and no sex. While I’m not a big fan of antiheroes — and Cugel’s the least heroic antihero I’ve read since Flashman — the results are entertaining and often funny. But then there’s the rapey stuff.

Dying Earth was sexist, but Eyes is a lot worse. In the watchman story, Cugel picks out one of the local women to be his mistress, then slowly (very slowly) realizes she’s just part of the con the town is playing on him. When he escapes, he takes her with him, rapes her and then she’s killed by a monster at the climax. In another story, Cugel’s bid to pass himself off as a rightful king fails spectacularly and he has to flee the city alongside Derwe Coreme, the former ruler. They become lovers but when Cugel needs help from a family of vagabonds they ask for his woman in return; he hands her over to be their sex slave without hesitation, then forgets about her. He has no qualms and neither does Vance seem to care about the women.

I don’t mean that this makes Vance pro-rape; he’s writing a dark, cynical story in a corrupt world so it’s not like the rape doesn’t fit the setting. Nor does Cugel show remorse about anything else. But nothing else he does is comparably vicious; okay, his revenge on Incounou might be, but that’s revenge, where his treatment of Derwe is gratuitous cruelty. And Vance treats it as no more consequential than stealing a character’s dinner in another chapter. Much as I liked the rest of the book, I don’t think I’d recommend it.

#SFWApro. Top cover by George Barr, bottom by Jack Gaughan; all rights to covers remain with current holder.

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So that’s what the fuss was about: Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

So last year Amelie Wen Zhao announced she was pulling her debut novel, Blood Heir because of criticism that it was racist and presented a distorted version of American slavery. After reading about the controversy, I had a feeling the critiques might have been unfair and resolved to read it.

The book is set in the Cyrilian Empire (alt.Russia), where mutants — oh, sorry, Affinites, but it’s an easy mistake to make — are demonized for their supernatural powers. Each Affinite has an affinity they’re able to control: flesh, marble, water, wind, fear, though the ordinary humans have ways to neutralize their powers. Demonized or not, Affinites are useful: the Empire has a massive human trafficking problem, mostly desperate people coerced or tricked into signing labor contracts that reduce them to slaves. Affinites, including those from other nations, are popular victims since their powers make them so useful.

Princess Anastacya never thought much about this, even though she’s an Affinite with the power over blood: she can make you bleed, move your body, torture you or simply TK your blood (and your body with it) across the room. Prior to the start of the book, she was framed for the murder of her father and imprisoned. Now she’s out, hunting the real killer. In the opening scenes, she has to penetrate one prison (reinforced with anti-Affinite shielding) to get information from Ramson Quicktongue, a mid-level crime boss. Ramson’s a tricky bastard and uses her to escape, but circumstances keep bringing them together. When Ramson realizes how powerful Ana is, he figures he can turn her over to Kerlan, the boss of bosses in the Empire underworld, and thereby get back into his good graces.

Zhao has said the novel drew on modern-day Asian human trafficking rather than antebellum slavery, and that’s how it comes across. I think she got a bum rap (YMMV obviously). Ditto the charges of plagiarism: even if she did lift one line “Don’t go where I can’t follow” from Tolkien (as note in the link above, it dates back to the Bible) that’s so minor it’s impossible to care.

I also think it avoids the “repentant racist” trope that got another Y/A fantasy, The Black Witch so much criticism (I haven’t read that book, so I don’t know if it was deserved or not). Neither Ana nor Ramson has any bigotry toward Affinites, but Ana is blind to how badly they’re treated and Ramson’s initially ruthless enough he doesn’t care. By the end of the book, they’re both committed to changing things, and even the possibility that systemic change has to go beyond replacing the Emperor with someone better (a lot of fantasies don’t push rebellion to that conclusion).

So aside from controversy, is the book actually good? I think so. It’s well-written, fast-paced, tense where it needs to be, and I like the characters. While I generally hate this kind of X-Men mages-as-persecuted-mutants set-up, I didn’t hate it here, which says a lot. Though given the big bad for the trilogy is a Magneto-style villain dedicated to Affinite supremacy, I’m less enthused about getting book two than I might have been. But I’ll at least check it out of the library and see.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Ruben Ireland, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Is our Writers Learning: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

ZERO SUM GAME by S.L. Huang is the first in an urban fantasy super-hero series — okay, reviews call it SF noir, but protagonist Cass Russell is just as much a metahuman as the cast of Heroine Complex, though with a pretense of being more realistic (a good pretense — this one worked for me). And yes, here there be smaller.

Cass is a precog who reminds me a lot of Marvel’s Mad Thinker. Just as he predicts events with his computer so as to manipulate and take down his enemies, so does Cass, though on a more limited level. She has a metahuman mathematical ability to calculate angles, vectors and force enables her to know where a bullet will go before it leaves the gun (Huang makes this believable enough to work). She also knows how to fire bullets or apply her own strength to gain maximum, John Woo-type physical effects.

Her friend Rio, a DEXTER-type serial killer/sadist (he’s got religion so he channels his lust for cruelty into targeting Bad People) acts as go-between for a woman named Dawna, hiring Cass to retrieve Dawna’s sister from her life as a drug mule. This, of course, proves much more complicated than expected. First, Rio didn’t send the message. Then there’s a PI, Arthur, who’s on the same case and doesn’t trust Cass (and justifiably despises Cass’s attitude toward collateral damage). Then it turns out Dawna isn’t the young woman’s sister after all.

She is, instead, the bad guy. A secret conspiracy has given her pseudo-realistic telepathy to match Cass’s pseudo-realistic precognition: Dawna can micro-analyze every twitch and expression you make, know exactly what you’re thinking and figure out exactly what to say to manipulate you. Even as Cass, Rio and Arthur start working against the conspiracy, they have to wonder if Dawna’s implanted them with commands to turn them into sleeper agents.

I almost gave up on this one early on because of the hard-boiled voice. Don’t get me wrong, I like that voice, and I’ve used it myself (here, for instance) but it’s used so much in urban fantasy it’s kind of a turnoff. Everyone from Harry Dresden and Anita Blake onwards sounds world-weary, snarky and cynical. It’s one reason I went out of my way to make the protagonist of No One Can Slay Her non-hard-boiled, and why I resisted writing Impossible Takes a Little Longer in first person, for fear I’d adopt the same voice (but KC starts out the book upbeat and optimistic, which makes a surprising difference). I’m glad I stuck with it, because I enjoyed it. As I’ve said before, offbeat superhero stories are a weakness of mine, and Zero Sum Game fits the bill.

That said, I think the book really fell apart at the end. The final psi-battle with Dawna in Cass’s mind doesn’t make any sense given Dawna’s power set: I can’t see any way it works without Dawna having real telepathy, and she doesn’t.

And then there’s the morality. The big dilemma for the book is that Dawna’s employers are good guys, or at least antiheroes. They’re manipulating politicians to create a better world (no hunger, no poverty!), they’re eliminating drug cartels; in opposing them, is Cass on the right side? The possibility she isn’t really gnaws at her, especially when she learns the conspiracy funds itself by leaching money from crime syndicates and other bad guys. In crippling the conspiracy (I’d name it, but my mind’s gone completely blank), aren’t Cass and her crew making the world a worse place?

I suppose it’s possible that all these moral qualms are because Dawna’s still got a hook in Cass’s mind, but I think we’re supposed to take them seriously. I didn’t: much like Dawna’s powers in that final fight, Huang’s straining to keep the moral balls in the air. The conspiracy, whatever its goals, kills innocent people, which is kind of a huge red flag for me. Heck, it appears to be for Huang: a government official who had a couple of Cass’s friends killed in the name of the greater good dies in short order. Yeah, he’s a rat, by why is the conspiracy any better? At one point Dawna brags that a woman she mindwiped and reprogrammed is now completely free of the trauma she used to bear. Surely she could treat trauma without erasing her (a point nobody makes).

It would help, I think, if we knew more detail about the good deeds. What exactly is their political endgame? When Dawna manipulates politicians, what are they rewired to do? I don’t blame Huang for not getting too specific about politics — these days, things are changing at the drop of a hat — but something a little more specific (what if they got cops to drop the “blue wall of silence” about police misdeeds?) would have helped sellme.

Of course, as Arthur points out, Cass is pretty coldblooded about people. I’ll see what happens when I get to the second book in the series.

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Is our writers learning? The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz is very much a curate’s egg for me: parts of it are awesome, but I skimmed about half of it. Though that’s more from personal taste than finding flaws (caution: spoilers follow).

The setting is the present, but in a world where ginormous ancient time machines have been found around the world. For centuries people have been popping back and forth through time which has led to some changes: women got the vote in the 1800s, Harriet Tubman became a senator but thanks to the odious anti-sex activist Anthony Comstock, abortion has never been legal in the United States.

The protagonists, Tess, is one of the self-proclaimed Daughters of Harriet working to edit the timeline for women’s good. Early on they discover a group of men’s rights activists and Comstock admirers pushing in the other direction: they want to establish male supremacy (I don’t know if “Full reproductive access!” is actually an online misogynist phrase but it fits perfectly), then smash the machines so that their edits can’t be undone.

As you can tell, this book is decidedly political, which is its great strength. It’s what I thought Weighing Shadows would be and wasn’t. And I find the alternate timeline tends to be more complex than Naomi Alderman’s The Power. It’s an improvement in lots of ways, but not utopian, even for women (no abortion), nor are all the women on the side of good. And as they note at the end it’s always possible someone could edit their gains away (their win over the Comstockers is more muted than I’d have liked, though given our current politics I can understand the feeling). I do think a world where people are constantly making edits would be a lot weirder and more confused (much like R.A. Lafferty’s short story Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne), but that would probably get in the way of the story.

And I really like the academic dickering over just how much change is possible: is the great man theory of history just a myth (you kill Genghis Khan or Comstock and nothing changes)? Is gradual social change the only option? One character notes that these academic theories seem to go in and out of fashion in cycles. Newitz herself seems to be advocating for both individual action and collective movements; happily the politics never feels like it’s turning the book into a Western Union.

So what didn’t I like? Well, the sections set back in the 19th century dragged for me; I’m not much of a fan of historical fiction and this got much more into that vein than “time traveler in the past” (possibly I’m parsing too finely but that’s how my taste runs). And then there was … Beth.

Beth is the other half of the book, a rebellious 1990s teen with a psycho best friend, Lizzy, who kills people (which felt like a bad knockoff of the film River’s Edge). Tess shows up and tries to walk Beth away from the madness but Beth doesn’t want to give up her friends. It looks like Tess is Future Beth but it turns out she’s Future Lizzy: Beth killed herself after getting an abortion which radically changed Lizzy’s perspective on everything. Tess came back to steer her away from suicide and succeeds, but as a consequence finds her mind snapping under the weight of new, radically different memories (something handled better here than in most time-travel films).

This bored me silly. I was in my thirties in the 1990s; I have no nostalgia for the era’s teen life and teen life is something I get less interested in as I get older. So it may just be a mismatch with my personal taste — I don’t think a 1990s teen setting is any worse an idea than me putting Southern Discomfort in the 1970s for instance. Though that said, I pegged that Beth’s father molested her at least 100 pages before the big reveal (any time someone refers to that Terrible Unstated Thing Daddy Did, it’s a safe bet).

Despite my lack of interest in Beth, the good stuff made this a satisfying read.

#SFWApro. Cover design Will Staehle, all rights to image remain with current holders.

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Is Our Writer’s Learning? The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

As I’ve mentioned before, I love introducing one change and watching how it ripples through society. So THE PHILOSOPHER’S FLIGHT by Tom Miller was a great pleasure to read.

The premise is that “natural philos0phy” (magic, but it’s implied to have some kind of quantum physics rationale) took major strides in the 19th century, becoming a weapon in the war until one philosopher ended it by the equivalent of a magical Hiroshima strike on Vicksburg. As the average woman is way more qualified than the average man, and the best women are far above the best men, women played a role on the front lines in the war using magic; Abraham Lincoln gave them the suffrage in ’64; and by the time the book starts (1917) we’ve had had a century of women in combat roles (though after Vicksburg, everyone’s agreed not to use direct philosophical attacks on their enemies) and at the cutting edge of philosophical research. It’s a woman’s field.

Other changes include the death of the transcontinental railroad (teleportation, while it has risks, is much more cost effective) and easy availability of birth-control magic. And of course there’s an opposition movement, the Trenchers, combined of a mix of religious anti-magic zeal and sexist backlash against women getting above their place. There’s also a backlash to the backlash — a lot of philosophers are willing to retaliate against violent Trencher attacks with equal violence.

Protagonist Robert Weekes grew up in Montana with an army veteran mother (Hawaiian Uprising, Spanish-American War) who knows handles the various rescue and other missions needed in the county. He’s trained by her, he’s good, and he wants to follow in her footsteps working as a Rescue and Evac philosopher for the military in Europe. The trouble is, R&E doesn’t take women. Nobody would even think he has the right stuff. Eventually, though, he’s able to attend Radcliffe as a natural philosophy student to train himself further. He finds friendship, and love, among the female students, but a lot of skepticism he’s good enough as a philosopher, and a lot of resentment he’s entering woman’s domain.

This kind of gender-flip could easily have gone horribly wrong — if say, Robert turned out to be the best of the best, that would come off ultra-sexist. But Miller threads the needle: Tom’s very good, but he’s not the best. Plus there are many varieties of philosophy, and he’s specializing primarily in flight. It’s not like he’s instantly mastering teleportation and smokecarving (magic with gases) as well.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of witch/mutant hunters, and at times I did get more than I wanted of the Trenchers. But it works here overall, for the same reason it works in Black Lightning: it plays right into pre-existing prejudices, in this case sexism. It wouldn’t be such a big movement if philosophers were predominantly male. And showing some philosophers are willing to be just as militant fighting back makes them more believable than Marvel’s nobly suffering mutants.

One thing I didn’t like was the use of little reference paragraphs at the start of each chapter. Not that I object on principle, but as I went through the book, I started to wish there was a connection between paragraph and chapter (if there was, I didn’t see it). And the ones set in the future (showing what looks like a rising tide of sexism/anti-philosophy) felt annoying (even given the book is Robert’s memoir from around 1940.

Overall, though a really great job. I look forward to Philosopher’s War which just came out.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jim Tierney, all rights remain with current holder.

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