Archive for Reading

Tea, Bodies and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype by Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is the author of the novels God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture a science-fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. She has won the Hugo Award and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her latest novel, The Mirror Empire, will be published by Angry Robot Books on August 26th, 2014.


Tea, Bodies and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype


Ok, I want you to stop right there.

Think about what image popped into your mind when you read “hero.” The first one.


What’s the first image your mind conjured on reading that word?


Who is it?

Who is… he?

These days, when I read “hero” the image that pops up is some superhero, because I’m inundated with Marvel movie images all day. Thor comes to mind. Maybe, if I haven’t been eating movies for awhile, it’s Conan.

Hero: a dude. Muscles. White. Butch.

Hero. First image. Every time.

It takes some additional thought, some re-training, for me to see anything but that archetype when I first think “hero.” I have the same trouble with nearly every term we say is gender-neutral or totally inclusive that… well… turns out isn’t. That’s because when we learned what words meant, we had certain types of images placed in front of us. We learned to associate those images with the word.

We ate what the stories and media fed us, and it’s why, to this day, we conjure them again and again when we see those words in text, when we hear them in conversations. We carry those expectations. It’s why, often, we get so upset or simply surprised when the hero we see on the page doesn’t conform to the image we learned.

Subverting expectations has become a hallmark of the gray, grimdark(er) fantasy tales now, and the even darker obsession in more general media of mythologizing serial killers (Bates Motel, Hannibal), elevating them to, if not heroes, then complex protagonists worthy of having their stories told; it’s cultivating compassion for killers. Yet still, there anti-hero heros are the same sorts of heroes: white, male, butch.

I can think of only two movies with women killers we’re meant to sympathize with, and both because they’d been sexually assaulted – Thelma and Louise and Monster. And to be honest, I don’t imagine anyone would call the women in these films heroes. Red Sonja is, perhaps, a proper hero, but is, once again, motivated by a sexual assault. Male heroes are heroic because of what’s been done to women in their lives, often – the dead child, the dead wife. Women heroes are also heroic for what’s been done to women… to them. (Continue Reading…)

Still Alive – Online SF for January

It appears that reports of science fiction’s death have been greatly exaggerated. There is a great deal of quality science fiction available online, even more than we can reasonably list. These new stories listed below are those that have appeared during January (so far) in ‘SFWA Qualifying’ online magazines.  Plenty of outstanding science fiction to read. Enjoy!

So Glad We Had This Time Together by Cat Rambo
Sweetheart Showdown by Sarah Dalton

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Calibrated Allies by Marissa Lingen
The Lady of the Lake by E. Catherine Tobler

Scattered Along the River of Heaven by Aliette de Bodard
What Everyone Remembers by Rahul Kanakia
All the Painted Stars by Gwendolyn Clare

Your Minute Starts Now by Jacob A. Boyd
Genocide Blonde by Dirk Flinthart

Daily Science Fiction
Sixty-one by Seventy by K.G. Jewell
And many other stories

On the Acquisition of Phoenix Eggs (Variant) by Marissa Lingen
How Many Miles to Babylon? by Megan Arkenberg
Blue Lace Agate by Sarah Monette

A Game of Self-Deceit by Clayton Locke
The Driver by Rahul Kanakia
1-9-4-blue-3-7-2-6-gamma-tetrahedron by Ian Randal Strock

Redstone Science Fiction
Ice in Our Veins by Rhiannon Held
Motherhood by Christopher Miller

Strange Horizons
Recognizing Gabe: un cuento de hadas, by Alberto Yáñez
In the Cold, by Kelly Jennings
MonitorBot and the King of Pop, by Jessica Barber

Water Can’t Be Nervous by Jonathan Carroll
The Least of the Deathly Arts by Kat Howard
Treasure Island: A Lucifer Jones Story by Mike Resnick
Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron

Spring Reading

Visit these web magazines. Read these stories. It is a moral imperative.

Otherwise you’ll miss out on something really good. A big percentage of the various “Year’s Best” anthologized stories this year came from online magazines like these. Don’t fall behind the curve.

Abyss & Apex
Bots D’Amor by Cat Rambo
Hail to the Victors by Philip Edward Kaldon
and several other stories in their Second Quarter Issue

Biba Jibun by Eugie Foster
The Eater by Michael J. DeLuca
The Speaking Bone by Kat Howard
The Dust and the Red by Darin Bradley

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu
Matchmaker by Erin M. Hartshorn
The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book) by Nnedi Okorafor
Perfect Lies by Gwendolyn Clare

Daily Science Fiction
Wings for Icarus by P. Djeli Clark
The Blue Room by Jason Sanford
and numerous other stories.

Maneki Neko by Bruce Sterling
All That Touches the Air by An Owomoyela
Woman Leaves Room by Robert Reed
Saying the Names by Maggie Clark
and yet more stories

Redstone Science Fiction
The Hubbard Continuum by Lavie Tidhar
Perfection by Jay Garmon
Brittlestar by Mike Barretta
First Light by Patrick Lundrigan
Time’s Arrow by J. Chant

Strange Horizons
Pataki by Nisi Shawl (Part 1 and Part 2)
Rising Lion — The Lion Bows by Zen Cho
Trouble by David M. deLeon
The Last Sophia by C.S.E. Cooney

Subterranean Magazine
Show Trial by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The Crane Method by Ian R MacLeod
The Crawling Sky by Joe R. Lansdale
The Fall of Alacan by Tobias S. Buckell
Water to Wine by Mary Robinette Kowal
Ragnarok by Paul Park
Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove
The Lunatics by Kim Stanley Robinson
Chicken Little by Cory Doctorow
Many more stories, excerpts, and reprints at

You can find Escape Pod’s fiction gathered together here.

There are many other stories and magazines out there. Give them all a chance. It would be great to see links to other stories in the comments.

The great Escape Pod Lovecraft readalong

I’m a fan of Howard Philips Lovecraft. In fact, he’s my favourite (deceased) author. Perhaps unusually for someone of my age, I didn’t actually come to him through the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which seems to have been the main route of discovery for most people. In fact, I was introduced to Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos through Doctor Who, specifically the Virgin New Adventures.

A couple of years after Doctor Who was originally cancelled in 1989, the Virgin publishing group acquired the rights to publish original, novel-length Doctor Who fiction. With no television revival on the cards, this was a godsend for fans. The New Adventures initially promised stories “too broad and too deep for the small screen”, and to start with this mainly meant a slightly disconcerting touch of nudity, sex and violence. But after a while the range settled down and produced some of the best Doctor Who stories in any form. It’s hard to believe the first volume, Timewyrm: Genesis came out twenty years ago this June. It’s even harder to believe that Paul Cornell’s first ever published novel, Timewyrm: Revelation came out twenty years ago this December. Paul wrote another five New Adventures novels, one of which – Human Nature – he adapted into one of most well-regarded episodes of the current TV series in 2007.

One of my favourite New Adventure novels was All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane. This novel is quite remarkable – not only is it a Sherlock Holmes crossover, but it’s also a story in the Cthulhu mythos. But more than just having the Doctor joining forces with Holmes and Watson to battle the Old Ones (and, let’s be honest here, doesn’t that sound like the most outrageously awesome story idea ever?), it went further by implying that a variety of creatures from the original television series – mostly the weird, nebulous sort like the Great Intelligence and the Animus – were actually part of Lovecraft’s pantheon, applying names familiar to Lovecraft fans to these TV monsters. All-Consuming Fire was just the start – from then onwards, various writers wove Doctor Who and Lovecraft together, further embedding the original TV series in the mythos. For such an extensive contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s amazing it is almost entirely overlooked by Lovecraft fans.

From there I was hooked on Lovecraft. This was 1994, before the internet, before Amazon, when things went by snail mail and everything was slow. Acquiring Lovecraft stories or books was difficult. They were out of print, or at least unavailable in New Zealand. I found a couple of ancient paperback anthologies in a used book store, but one was mostly material attributed to Lovecraft but really mostly written by others, including August Derleth, while the other was a strange collection of his, shall we say, crappy stories like The Cats of Ulthar and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

It’s all different now, of course. Lovecraft died in 1937 so all of his writings are in the public domain. I have a set of Arkham House hardcover anthologies, but you can download everything he wrote for free. Fifteen years on from when I was first introduced to Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and Yog-Sothoth, not only have I read everything he wrote several times over, but his name is spreading as a master of 20th century American horror.

Which is where the Escape Pod Lovecraft readalong comes in. All of Lovecraft’s material is available online, and most of it is pretty short. So, running in publication order (not chronological order of writing), I’ll be reviewing and commenting on his stories. All of them, the good and the bad, the short and the long. The excellent HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast have been running through Lovecraft’s canon for a while now – and they really are worth checking out – but I’ll be giving my take on the stories here.

But… Lovecraft on Escape Pod? Well, while he is often categorized as horror, Lovecraft is really a science fiction author. Cthulhu and his kin may all be monsters with god-like powers, but they’re also aliens. Some are from other planets, some are from other universes entirely. But science fiction it is. Well, let’s call it science fiction horror.

The first story up is The Alchemist, first published in The United Amateur in November 1916. It was also one of the first stories Lovecraft wrote, in 1908, and will be a fascinating place to start. Grab your copy and get reading!

Snow Day Reading

Quality science fiction short stories continued to accumulate online during the non-stop snow storms of the first few weeks of 2011. Even if you can’t make it out to a bookstore, as long as the power and net connections stay up, there are plenty of good stories to read. We’ve compiled a list of what some of the pro markets have published so far in 2011:

Abyss and Apex
Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy by J. Kathleen Cheney
A New Bridge Across the Lethe by Howard V. Hendrix
Mind-Diver by Vylar Kaftan
and more stories in their 1st Quarter Issue.

Close Your Eyes by Cat Rambo
Langknech and Tzi-Tzi in the Land of the Mad by Forrest Aguirre
The Itaewon Eschatology by Douglas F. Warrick
The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells by Seanan McGuire

Diving After the Moon by Rachel Swirsky
Three Oranges by D. Elizabeth Wasden
Ghostweight by Yoon Ha Lee
Tying Knots by Ken Liu

Daily Science Fiction
On Paper Wings by Victoria Sonata
And several other stories added weekly

Long Enough and Just So Long by Cat Rambo
The Elephants of Poznan by Orson Scott Card
Black Fire by Tanith Lee
Cucumber Gravy by Susan Palwick

Redstone Science Fiction
Like a Hawk in its Gyre by Philip Brewer
Fatherhood by Kristen Lee Knapp
Bloodtech by Rhiannon Held
Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? by Ken MacLeod

Strange Horizons
The Third Wish by Joan Aiken
Pinion by Stellan Thorne
The Space Between Stars by Cassandra Clarke
Source Decay by Charlie Jane Anders

A Long Walk Home by Jay Lake
The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft by Marc Laidlaw
And other stories in their Winter Issue.
Beauty Belongs to the Flowers by Matthew Sanborn Smith
Making My Entrance Again With My Usual Flair by Ken Scholes

And, of course, you can find EscapePod’s fiction gathered together here.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of science fiction stories that are freely available online. Support these sites, their editors, and most importantly these writers by visiting these sites, donating support to them, and checking out their advertisers. Access to quality new science fiction online is a relatively recent development, and we want to see more of it. All these stories are out there, right now, waiting for us. Enjoy.

Review: “Monster Hunter International” by Larry Correia

Monster Hunter InternationalI had a warm spot in my heart for Larry Correia after reading his HK rant. (“Because you suck. And we hate you.”) Unfortunately, I decided to read his novel, Monster Hunter International. This book was originally self-published, and owes its success to Mr. Correia’s marketing instincts. I don’t have space to cover all the flaws in this book, so I’ll just hit the highlights. Because it was self-published and only later picked up by Baen, Monster Hunter International shows no sign of an editor’s pen. The characters are flat. The prose is stale and repetitive. The plot reads like something intended for a weekend of tabletop gaming, complete with prophetic visions from the storyteller to keep the protagonists on track.

The company called Monster Hunter International was founded when a group of good Southern boys got a lynch mob together in order to drive some unsavory elements (read: vampires) out of their town. I wish I was kidding. In the years since, Monster Hunter has made its founder’s family rich by collecting government-sponsored bounties on supernatural creatures like werewolves, zombies, and vampires. These days, the only thing they fear is the EPA (and Fish and Wildlife, and OSHA, and…).

Our hero, Owen Pitt (brother of the heavy metal artist Mosh Pitt — not kidding about that one, either), gets involved in the monster hunting business when he defeats his evil-boss-turned-werewolf in single combat. Afterwards, he is visited at his home by Monster Hunter International’s recruitment team, including one Julie Shackleford, who tells him that not only is he the first man in history to kill a werewolf with his bare hands, but that his scores in various firearm competitions are even better than hers! Also, his college degree proves that he is a genius. Owen decides that he is in love (though whether with her or her handguns is sometimes an open question). He expresses his love by staring at her a lot, and when that doesn’t work, by pretending to be her friend.

I decided to read this book based on the strength of its action scenes, but to my dismay I found that the narrative is dominated by lectures. The hundred pages or so that pass between the werewolf fight and the first vampire fight are filled with Owen’s monster hunter training. We are introduced to some more monster hunters, whom the reader might be tempted to worry about if Mr. Correia had the fortitude to kill his characters. In training, Owen proves that he is the best at every possible thing (except running), earning the admiration of all the instructors. Multi-page monologues leave the reader with only one questions: Who will be beating our hero with the exposition bat this time?

When the book finally gets back to the action, it’s a mess of vampires on a cargo ship. Owen saves everyone from the cowardly French vampire, and is left for dead by Julie’s asshole boyfriend (and who didn’t see that one coming?). We learn the first rule of monster hunting: Any problem can be solved by getting a bigger gun. In Owen’s case, it’s a fully automatic cut-down combat shotgun with a spring-loaded bayonet and optional grenade launcher. (“How many gun laws does this break?” “All of them.”) The action scenes are precise and well-scripted, but I was willing to put this book down at any time up to the last fifty pages. The final battle is the most interesting one in the book, but suffers from overuse of the passive voice (see: the perils of self-publishing). Finally, it turns out that women are the source of all evil.

Owen is not the kind of character who thinks his way out of problems. Despite being introduced as a genius, he isn’t particularly bright. He has a magical dead Jew in his head who does his thinking for him (still not kidding). Instead of figuring out the bad guy’s plans, the magical Jew dumps Owen directly into the bad guy’s head and lets him see through his eyes, removing all suspense from their later encounters. People who learn things tend to go insane, like Julie’s father.

Monster Hunter International did not have to be seven hundred pages long. Its sequel, which I am told did benefit from the attentions of an editor, is much shorter. Not that it really matters, since I’m not going to spend any more time struggling through yet another lecture set to the sound of an entire Viking army’s worth of political axes grinding. Monster Hunter International is not a book for people who enjoy well-crafted prose or fast-paced action. It is not for people who don’t care about the difference between a Government .45 and a Glock. Larry Correia is writing for a specific audience, and it is clear that I am not one of them.

Apocalypse now

So, you like The Walking Dead, huh? It’s neat, right? An ongoing post-apocalyptic TV series about zombies, based on an award-winning comic. What’s not to love? And fortunately, they’ve done a mighty fine job on the adaptation. This viewer is pleased. Zombies are popular at the moment, cresting at the top of one of those unpredictable waves of fashion. The Walking Dead has come at exactly the right time, whether by design or accident, and all power to it.

But this series fits into another genre, that of the post-apocalyptic. And this is where I have a confession to make.

I don’t like post-apocalyptic. Post-apocalyptic is predictable, formulaic, and easy. There, I’ve said it.

This is, of course, not true. Post-apocalyptic is also hugely popular and always has been, not just with the general public but with discerning genre fans like you and I. It seems that wiping out humanity in some global catastrophe is something that, maybe, we all secretly wish for. I mean, if we were among the lucky survivors, it’d be free reign, right? No work, no more need for money. No more cruelty and tyranny, no more pollution, overpopulation or war.

And of course no people, no family, no friends, no loved ones, and the beginning of a huge struggle for survival against impossible odds in a situation likely to psychologically traumatise even the most hardened survivalist.

So okay, not so neat.

I said I don’t like post-apocalyptic, and that bit is true. Post-apocalyptic is formulaic, simply because the scale of the situation is such that any fiction set after the disaster must follow similar plot lines. The survivors are isolated, and then eventually find each other. Cities are empty or full of the dead (or the walking dead). There is no power, no medicine. Every manmade resource is suddenly very finite indeed. And so on, and so on. Plotwise, most post-apocalyptic stories are more or less the same.

I should point out here that I’m no expert. I have friends who are very dedicated followers of end-of-the-world stories, and no doubt about now they’re ready to put their keyboards through the computer screen in frustration. But hear me out. Post-apocalyptic may suck, plotwise, but where it really shines is in characterisation. Possibly more than any other genre, post-apocalyptic depends upon strong characterisation. Because if all the plots are the same, or similar (and I’m talking pure plot here, which is different to story and situation), then all you have left are the survivors. And it is how the survivors act in their new environment that makes the story. I’m not saying that characterisation is unique to the post-apocalypse, far from it, but I am saying that if you’re about to write an epic tale of an empty world, you’ve got to be prepared to engage the reader with some very, very powerful players.

With that in mind, and as a self-confessed post-apocalyptic skeptic, here’s my list of five tales that, to me, are among the best examples of the post-apocalyptic. I’m not just going to regurgitate a list from Wikipedia (and, my heavens, there is quite a list on there), these are personal choices that I think are either great examples of either characterisation or perhaps an unusual or uncommon take on the post-apocalyptic plot. Having just slated the genre for being formulaic, let’s see if there are any stories which break the mould.

Before I continue, there’s also an important distinction to make here between those stories which are genuinely post-apocalyptic, and those which are really apocalyptic. Post-apocalypse, by definition, implies that the menace, threat, disaster, alien invasion, plague, etc, have been and gone. What we are left with is the world and the people left afterwards. Stories like the recent film Skyline, or 2012, or great classics like The War of the Worlds take place while the disaster is unfolding. While the aftermath may be considered post-apocalyptic (although probably not in the case of The War of the Worlds), we don’t see that bit. I’ll admit here I’m going to cheat on one entry in my list below, but only because I think it’s a particularly fine and relatively unknown example.

The Quiet Earth

I’m really sure how well known New Zealand cinema of the early 80s is outside of that country, but The Quiet Earth is well worth tracking down. It tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find the world empty − whatever the apocalypse was (I shall reveal nothing), it actually physically removed the world’s population, so our hero (played by the wonderful Bruno Lawrence) finds himself genuinely alone. With a completely deserted Earth, not even a single corpse in sight, Lawrence carries the majority of the film on his own. It’s a remarkable performance as his character goes from confusion, to exhilaration (with nobody around the world is his oyster… if he wants to drive a giant earthmover through a gas station to see what happens, why not?) and finally to total paranoia and delusion. And after all, if you were the only human being left on the planet, wouldn’t you start to think you were special? The Quiet Earth is out on DVD and I’d recommend you grab it.

The Stand

The grand-daddy of all post-apocalyptic stories, Stephen King’s 1978 tale of the survivors of a super flu which wipes out most of the human population is rightly considered a classic. At an eye-watering 1300 pages, this book is a perfect example of character over plot. Of course, King is known for this, but while the concept of a superflu (one engineered by the military as a biological weapon that is released accidentally) was old hat when King wrote it, the journey of the survivors as they find each other and come to terms with their new world is brilliant. Although the central plot eventually reveals itself − that of the survivor’s journey to Las Vegas to make their stand against an evil that has arisen − how the characters react and cope is what makes this whopping tome a real page-turner. If you haven’t read any King, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Afficiandos think that this is his best work; while I personally prefer ‘Salem’s Lot, if you have any doubts about the post-apocalyptic genre, this will set your mind at rest, as it did mine.

Earth Abides

Twenty-nine years before The Stand was published, academic George R. Stewart wrote his single novel which might be called “genre”. Earth Abides is another that follows the standard post-apocalyptic formula − a super-sickness kills everyone, leaving only those immune to the disease alive − but you can forgive Stewart for this given that it was probably a newer story concept back in the 1940s. Earth Abides might be that one book that I’d take to a desert island, should I be so abandoned. It’s beautiful, moving and sad, and sticks in the mind not just because of the human characters and their journey but because of Stewart’s depiction of the world itself. In Earth Abides, the Earth itself is a character. Rid of destructive humans, it begins to regenerate, reclaiming itself and returning to an earlier pre-industrial (you might even say ‘default’) state. Stewart conveys this in a striking way, with a key motif being the silence of the world. Without humans and their cars, planes, factories and technology, the Earth is mostly silent, the loudest sound being that of a thunderclap. In this quiet Earth, the survivors gather and attempt to reconstruct society but ultimately they fail, instead regressing to a more primitive level of society. This only reinforces the central theme of the book. The Earth abides; humanity does not.

The Road

I’m cheating here. I’m not talking about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel, one which dominated the responses on Twitter when I put out a call for recommendations. I’m talking about Quatermass creator and master of British science fiction Nigel Kneale‘s one-off BBC television drama from 1963, now sadly lost from the archives and only surviving in script form plus, it seems, one manky photo. Also, it’s not really post-apocalyptic. In fact, it is really pre-apocalyptic. In the 18th century, the inhabitants of an English village shun the road that runs through the nearby woods, for the woods are haunted and people have heard terrible things. As the story reaches the climax, it is revealed that the manifestations on the road are the echo of people fleeing an atomic explosion in the present day, somehow riverberating back in time. The juxtaposition of modern − police sirens, recognisably modern people running in abject terror for their lives − with the old, with the 18th century characters cowering in terror, completely unable to comprehend the sound which we, the viewer, recognise all too well, must have been both brilliant and chilling when it was first shown.


I can’t make this list, self-confessed archive television nut that I am, without mentioning Terry Nation’s BBC TV series, Survivors. Again, the scenario is pure post-apocalypse cliche. Humanity is mostly wiped out by a plague, strongly implied to be deliberately engineered and released by accident. Over three seasons between 1975 and 1979, Survivors charted the journey of the survivors as they found each other and ultimately formed a community. Critics often bemoan the transformation from gritty science fiction survival story to “soap opera”, but I think they’re confusing soap opera with character-driven drama, and this is where Survivors shows its real strength (characterisation, see?). Survivors was remade for a modern audience over two seasons in 2008 and 2010, but here the tired nature of the premise was in full effect, rendering the remake flat and pointless. Survivors should be experienced in all its 70s glory.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

A sixth entry, mainly because Nigel Kneale’s The Road doesn’t quite count. The Dalek Invasion of Earth was the second appearance of the Daleks in Doctor Who, and was broadcast in six episodes from November 21 to December 26, 1964. Despite the title, this isn’t about an alien invasion. By the time the Doctor and company arrive in a deserted, dilapidated London, the Daleks have been the masters of the Earth for a decade or more. Here we discover that the Daleks first employed a virus to weaken society before arriving in force, and years late the surviving humans are either enslaved or gathered in disparate resistance groups.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is Doctor Who‘s first foray into alien invasion and one of the rare occasions it featured a genuinely post-apocalyptic story. Extensive location work around London makes this story something of a small-screen epic, and to this day it is regarded as one of the best stories of the show’s early years.

There are many more that are worth of this list − as already mentioned, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but also Wall-E, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (perhaps a rare example of post-apocalyptic confined to a very specific place, namely the walled city of Seattle). UK genre publisher Abaddon has a entire ongoing post-apocalyptic series, The Afterblight Chronicles, which are well worth checking out. Like I said I’m not post-apocalyptic scholar so please, nominate your own prime examples of the genre in the comments and teach me a lesson.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have the next episode of The Walking Dead to watch.

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

While I do not read romances, and I have not read a book by Jane Austen since high school, I nevertheless decided to pick up Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. She is a brilliant writer, and I trusted her to write something I could endure. As it turned out, enduring the book wasn’t a problem — the hard part was putting it down.

The choice of detail in Shades of Milk and Honey is exquisite. Everything is described in spare, precise language. I can still see the glass cherries, the nymph’s face hidden in the tree, the dark and stormy bedroom of a heartsick girl. There is not a single wasted word or padded scene. That makes Shades of Milk and Honey a quick read. There is very little action until the dramatic ending, but that does not slow the narrative down. The majority of the book is concerned with interactions between people — with word and gesture, thought and response. I found it enthralling.

I believe the plot will be familiar to readers of romance. Two sisters named Jane and Melody try to walk the narrow path that society has marked for them, with the threat of scandal and ruin pressing in on both sides. Mary Robinette Kowal does not pull her punches in her portrayal of traditional marriage as an economic arrangement between families. As the sisters cannot inherit, they must either marry well or fall into poverty when their father dies. Romance in this setting is a matter of survival. Melody, who is beautiful, has no shortage of suitors. Jane, on the other hand, is cursed with a big nose and brown hair, and believes that she will never find a husband.

The aspect of the book that has gotten the most attention is its magic. Mary Robinette Kowal has made her book’s magic small and subtle, to avoid breaking history. This was not an easy task, and she has spoken at length about it elsewhere. The magic is called Glamour. It is the art of folding the ether to produce small illusions — a dress on a mannequin, a piece of ambient music to liven a party, or an elaborate “glamural” that turns a room into a forest glade. Jane has a particular talent for glamour, which gets her into trouble before it gets her out of it.

Just as the magic has been carefully constructed so as to allow the Regency period to proceed more or less as it did in the real world, the language in Shades of Milk and Honey has been chosen to fit the period. Modern readers will notice obvious examples of archaic English, such as “shew,” but the overall effect is wonderfully subtle, making the book feel right without distracting the reader. Shades of Milk and Honey is a deceptively simple book resting on a foundation of solid research.

I am told that there are plans for another book, which will involve swashbuckling. I can’t wait. I had my doubts about this book at first, but I’m glad I gave it a chance, and I am looking forward to the sequel.

Review: The Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle

“For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien. Then when they ritually eat their first-born, or turn arthropod halfway through their life-cycle, it isn’t so much of a shock. You expect it. Humanoid aliens, they’re trouble.”

— Mary Gentle, The Golden Witchbreed

A few months ago, I finally picked up Mary Gentle’s science fiction duology, The Golden Witchbreed and its sequel, Ancient Light. The story that begins in The Golden Witchbreed is standard SF: A human ambassador arrives on an alien world to assist the first contact team, and finds herself snarled in local politics. The difference lies, first, in what those local politics turn out to be, and second, in Mary Gentle’s deft handling of character and interwoven plotlines.

The alien planet, Orthe, is inhabited by humanoid aliens who are just human enough to make the ambassador trip up — and the reader, too, if she’s not careful. The Ortheans are drawn with superb attention to detail. Most of the aliens that the reader meets in The Golden Witchbreed live in small holdings that answer to a larger, elected-as-needed assembly of representatives, and an elected monarch who rules by divine right. Mary Gentle does not make the mistake of having a One World Culture for her aliens, however, or even just a few variations on a theme.

As the ambassador travels away from the capital city, the reader gets to see one culture shade into another. I enjoyed watching the ambassador slowly adapt to Orthe. As her grasp of the language and social niceties moves from being trained, to being practiced, to being second nature, the vocabulary in her narration changes. The humans have classed the Ortheans as a pretech, but when a group of Barbarians arrive in the hollowed-out hull of an ancient flying machine, both the reader and the ambassador realize that something far stranger is going on.

The Golden Witchbreed is a good book, but it is not a complete story without Ancient Light. Ancient Light begins twenty years after the ambassador leaves Orthe. Political upheaval on Earth has left her without a government to represent — instead, she answers to the Company. Having discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization on Orthe, the Company wants to know whether any of the alien technology could be put to human use. Alien politics, human politics, alien religion, and the ambassador’s own shaky hold on her sanity raise the stakes in Ancient Light to the point where I finished this book standing up — because finding a chair would have meant looking away from the page.

Orthe is a world so finely balanced that mere observation by an outsider is enough to change the system. To me, these books read as a statement about invasion and colonization, though Mary Gentle never wields the message stick hard enough to make me confident that’s what she was trying to say. The Orthe duology is good science fiction, and has as much to say about our past as our future. I recommend these books without hesitation.

Review: Zero History by William Gibson

With the possible exception of the Very Ugly Shirt, I think I’ve seen all of the technology in William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, featured on BoingBoing. Zero History is a science fiction novel because a science fiction writer wrote it. If it had been written by someone other than William Gibson, it could have been shelved with the thrillers. On the other hand, Zero History does two things that science fiction is supposed to do: It examines the impact of technology on human beings; and if the science was taken out, the plot wouldn’t work.

Hubertus Bigend, the eccentric billionaire from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, once again recruits the former rock star, Hollis Henry. This time he’s tracking a fashion genius whose anti-advertising has created an underground sensation. With the former benzo addict Milgrim, would-be military contractors, and a surprisingly straightforward romantic subplot, William Gibson pulls together another intricate and enthralling novel.

I found this book to be more ambivalent than the other two. Fear drives the characters. I have not figured out what Hollis is running from, aside from her mysterious and frightening benefactor. Milgrim is remembering what fear is like without sedatives to insulate him from the world. The generalized paranoia that underlies modern military-worship keeps the nominal bad guys moving through a series of misunderstood signals that might have been comic if the stakes didn’t feel so high. At the end, despite the protagonists’ celebrations, I had the unsettling impression that the bad guys won.

Zero History is a continuation of the series that started with Pattern Recognition. It brings back both the style and many of the characters from those books, not his earlier work. Gibson’s precisely-machined writing is a pleasure to read, as always. He lets his plot drift, so it feels like all the characters are sliding slowly and inevitably towards towards a single point of crisis. While Zero History never reaches the frenzy I remember from other Gibson novels, it kept me engaged until the end. Also, I adored the bit with the penguin.

I will reread this book. Zero History is not a stand-alone novel, and I believe I will benefit from reading the whole series in order. Readers who are looking for a return to Neuromancer will be disappointed. Fans of the other Bigend books should pick this one up, too.

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