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The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Why would you want a volume of the year’s best short science fiction? Well, several reasons. If you don’t keep up with short fiction but like it, a one-volume summary from an editor whose taste aligns well with yours can give you a glimpse, at least, of the gigantic world beyond. If you do, you might want some of your favorite stories conveniently in one place, with some perspective that will let you say in 2029, oh yes, that’s what 2019 was like in short fiction, those stories were published at basically the same time. Or you might enjoy having someone hit a few highlights that you didn’t manage to get to yourself.

Because unless someone is directly paying you to read all the short SFF, you will miss some things. I sure do. (I suspect that even the people who are directly paid miss things too. There’s a lot.)

So how does this volume do with that? Pretty well, I think. There are several stories I enjoyed the first time around and am glad to see again collected–notably Fran Wilde’s “A Catalog of Storms” but also Ken Liu’s “Thoughts and Prayers,” Fonda Lee’s “I (28M) Created A Deepfake Girlfriend and Now My Parents Think We’re Getting Married,” and Indrapramit Das’s “Kali_Na.” I would not have made the same choice as Strahan for Best Elizabeth Bear Story of the Year, but “Soft Edges” is a good story, it’s just that there’s tough competition for that position.

Of course I definitely want a YB volume to introduce me to great stories I’ve missed, and this one delivers. There aren’t any I’d consider duds–all have solid reasons to be included (please note that this has not always been the case for me with YB volumes)–and several new stories would have made my favorites list if I’d read them in time. Stand-outs for me in this category included Suzanne Palmer’s “The Painter of Trees,” Karin Tidbeck’s “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir,” Malka Older’s “Sturdy Ladders and Lanterns,” and Alec Nevala-Lee’s “At the Fall”–all very different and very compelling.

Strahan didn’t hit even remotely all of my favorites for 2019, but that would have been impossible and should not be expected. His taste leans toward more exposition than implication in some of these stories, but it’s quality exposition. He also limits his remit to science fiction as distinct from fantasy, which is a distinction I often find counter-productive…except when it’s a matter of fitting vast available material into a book of usable size, in which case it becomes pretty understandable. You could do a lot worse than this one if you tried to pick good stories from 2019.

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A pretty high water mark

New story again today! (Some weeks are like that.) The Past, Like a River In Flood is up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

This is a weird time for stories turning out to be more topical than intended. This one is not a plague story, I hasten to add. It’s just got…college administrators having dubious priorities that affect the safely of faculty, staff, and students. Oh. Just that.

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More monsters, more friends

Remember how I said that I was writing a series of stories about monsters and friendship for my friend John Wiswell? And another of them was coming out soon? Today is soon. After the Monster is up at Daily Science Fiction.

This is a harder one, friends. They gave me the chance to make author story comments (expand in a little link under the story!), so I did that, a little more of where this story is coming from. If you’re struggling and you think I might have written this story for you–yeah, I probably did.

Hug your friends (virtually if you gotta), tip the pizza girl. And hang in there.

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Present Writers: C.J. Cherryh

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary Kirstein, Karen Joy Fowler, Susan Cooper, Ellen Klages, and Lisa Goldstein.

When I heard that C.J. Cherryh had been named SFWA Grand Master, I half-shouted, “well, it’s about time!” Cherryh has been incredibly prolific for literally longer than I’ve been alive. She has over eighty novels and loads of short stories. She’s won all the major awards. If Cherryh is not a Grand Master, the term has no meaning.

So with all that gigantic body of speculative fiction work to consider, there’s always the question: where do you even start? I have several answers.

  1. The Pride of Chanur. The first of the Chanur series, this has strong family themes, interesting aliens, lots of derring-do…basically all the things you might want in a Cherryh novel. For those of you who love cats, the fact that the protagonist’s species is similar to felines may be a bonus, but if you’re not a starry-eyed cat person, it’s not the kind of cat content that gets annoying.
  2. Finity’s End. Did somebody say strong family themes? The Alliance-Union books are full of families having family drama at FTL speeds. This one happens to be a favorite for me, just because of the shape of the characters or maybe because I read it at just the right time. It’s sharper and less murky than some of the others, and the sense of space is amazing in it.
  3. Foreigner. This is the beginning of a series that is still ongoing; book 21 is due out later this year. Don’t worry, you can stop at any time! Seriously, it’s divided into trilogies, each of which is doing its own thoughtful and related thing. There’s a lot of science fiction that posits that what humanity has over other species and/or robots is our capacity to love. The Foreigner series actually considers that: what would it look like if an alien species had similar but different primary emotional wiring, what if it was not just “aliens are broken, those poor aliens who Know Not Love,” but rather “here’s how they work that’s related, here are the places they and humans could trip over the differences.” I find it fascinating, and I love watching the relationships that work in their own weird ways.

There are plenty of other good places to start if you have an interest in Cherryh’s considerations of love, loyalty, humanity and the other, but those are my recommendations. I’m really glad that she’s still around giving us more ideas every year.

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The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I have read a lot of books about cloning, and how they deal with memory and identity varies a lot within their space, and this is one of those, this is within that space. I have also read a lot of thrillers about misogyny, and this is extremely different from the most of the rest of them. Genre overlap is wild.

Evelyn researches cloning and associated human development projects. Most of her work has been in making clones who are as like their originals as possible. Then she discovers that her husband–soon to be ex-husband–has been making a copy of her that only looks like her. The new version, Martine, is docile, agreeable, and very dependent.

And pretty quickly, Martine is in a heap of trouble. One of the things that The Echo Wife understands, that is incredibly real and yet I don’t see it in genre books very much if at all, is that sometimes people suffer consequences professionally because of someone else’s behavior. Sometimes you didn’t do anything wrong and you still have to manage fallout, because you’re in the shape of relationship where people will blame you for the other person. Evelyn is in just that situation, and the consequences ramify fast. Things get bloody. Things get urgent. Things get personal. Very, very personal. This book hits the notes of both thriller and SF and walks the line between them adeptly.

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Books read, early August

Claire Beams, We Show What We Have Learned and Other Stories. Weird literary stories, a bit like a further-north Karen Russell. I enjoyed this and am glad that I have more Beams on request at the library.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Physicians of Vilnoc. Kindle. So this is another Penric and Desdemona novella, hooray!…except this one is a plague story. Really really a plague story. So, uh. Maybe save that for a day when you’re up for it, if you’re reading this series.

Neil Clarke, ed., Galactic Empires. This table of contents confuses me. It reads like someone took a 20-year-old table of contents edited by someone entirely other than Neil Clarke and tacked a few new stars on it, and that’s how the stories themselves tend to read too. Happy to see Aliette de Bodard and Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee in here, but most of the rest of the volume did not excite me.

Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Science! It is frequently interestingly wrong! Even more so before people had very clear ideas about what it was and what they should want it for! I like books about the social consequences of wrong science, and this is a good one of those.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. This is the story of a woman who wants to run a bookshop in a small town that does not particularly want a bookshop. It’s not very long, novella length I’d guess, and…I don’t know, it just left me cold. I didn’t feel like either the protag or her neighbors were particularly sharply characterized, so the Perfidy Of Human Nature plot just sort of sat there for me.

Kathleen Jennings, Flyaway. Australian Gothic? Modern fairy tale? Whatever you’re labeling this genre, its mix of magic, memory, and control is extremely compelling.

Vylar Kaftan, Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water. I haven’t seen a lot of telepath liberation stories in the last few years, but I think Kaftan must have grown up enjoying many of the same ones as I did. The twist in this one was not particularly twisty for me, but the characters were strong.

T. Kingfisher, Bryony and Roses and Summer in Orcus and The Hollow Places. (The last discussed elsewhere.) The first is a Beauty and the Beast story, the second a children’s quest fantasy grown up a bit, and I devoured them both. Lots of elements not seen all the time in fantasy, very engaging voice. Yay.

Nilah Magruder, MFK. Interesting first volume of a graphic novel that…I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m interested in the setting and characters, and sometimes being unsure is good.

Tehlor Kay Mejia, We Set the Dark On Fire. This is a shape of dystopia I often dislike, and yet I liked this one. Strict categories of women, literal walls enforcing the figurative ones, frenemies thrown together…not really my sort of thing. Except: revolution and friendship and warmth, yes, okay, definitely my sort of thing.

Naomi Mitchison, The Conquered. Historical novel of the Gauls in the time of Vercingetorix, coming under Roman rule. The chapter headings make it clear that she’s also talking about English-colonized Ireland. Her earliest novel and not where I would start with Mitchison but still a good read, a reasonable place to continue.

Abir Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes. Another colonial Calcutta mystery. At the end there is a hint that Mukherjee will not be content to wallow in his protagonist’s addictions, which is a relief to me, since I have always been more interested in the politics of the setting, and also I like mystery series where the detectives are not completely stagnant throughout. So I will likely keep on with this when the new one comes in at the library. Colonial Calcutta politics! Just the sort of thing I like in a murder mystery.

H.G. Parry, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. Okay, how bothered are you when a fantasy alternate history is basically identical to our history even with major well-known magic changes in the timeline? If the answer is that you are quite bothered, you would like magic to matter even a little if the author is going to put it in a book, this is not the book for you. If you’re happy to run along the surface of a story with magic and vampires and the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution and also Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce, this is exactly that book. I spent a lot of it wishing to see more of the Haitian characters. Ah well.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House. Another family novel, this one around a beautiful house and making one’s way in the world and the dislocation that can come of remarriage/stepfamily. That last bit had several uncomfortable pieces for me given my own family history, but still a compulsively readable book.

Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members. A satirical epistolary about campus life, with a dark bite at the end. The protagonist is not cursed with the burden of self-awareness, and the entire book (again, I’d estimate novella length?) is his letters and emails and…attempts to fill out a few forms. There are some quite funny bits here.

Mariko Tamaki and Brooklyn Allen, The Lumberjanes BEASTiary. I am not the target audience for this. I found it when I was looking to see what Lumberjanes I had missed out on (see below), and, well, now I have not missed out on it. But it’s the kind of supplemental unplotty book that they put out for kids that doesn’t add much to a series unless you are 10 years old and wildly desperate for Lumberjanes content, which, yes, definitely a valid group, just not my current group.

Tade Thompson, The Survival of Molly Southbourne. Very definitely a sequel and not really a stand-alone one, about the fate of a formerly murderous clone. Interesting and in some weird ways hopeful, but read the very bloody first volume first. (Not that this is without its gore.)

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin. A collection of short stories from a fey and self-contained sense of the magical. Should be much more available and canonical (if anything is) than it has been.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Ayme Sotuyo, Dozerdraws, et al, Lumberjanes: Jackalope Springs Eternal, Lumberjanes: Time After Crime, Lumberjanes: Indoor Recess, and Lumberjanes: X Marks the Spot. I began to sympathize with the people who are dedicated enough to comics to have a pull list, because apparently four actual volumes of Lumberjanes came out while I wasn’t looking, plus two more that are on their way. Oops. Unfortunately, reading them all in a group makes it clear how glacially the arc plot is moving. Fortunately, they’re still charming and focused on friendship to the max.

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows. I knew within the first few pages that this was just the thing I wanted to read at that moment, and it was. It’s an early twentieth century family story where the children and parents are extremely themselves and it’s funny in parts and compelling throughout and full of places where the reader can see things the narrator can’t and oh I loved this.

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The start of the swarm

For the last year I’ve been working on a series of stories about monsters and friendship. They’re dedicated to my friend John Wiswell, because John is a good friend and I love his entire face off. At some point–ideally 10/31/21 will be that point–I will put together a chapbook. I have already been talking to another friend about cover illustration. It’s gonna be great.

But in the meantime, here’s the first of the stories, out from Translunar Travelers’ Lounge: The Swarm of Giant Gnats I Sent After Kent, My Assistant Manager. This one is also dedicated to Stella Evans, another friend I love fiercely. I hope you enjoy it!

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The Hollow Places, by T. Kingfisher

Review copy provided by the publisher.


Aaaaaaaaaah yikes yikes yikes this book.

Okay, so it said on the label that it is horror, and I know I am not a big horror reader. But I have been enjoying T. Kingfisher’s other books so much, and sometimes when people say horror they really mean dark fantasy, and so I thought, okay, yes, I will read this one!

Friends, it is not dark fantasy. It is horrory horrory horror. It is “I made sure I finished this book with enough time to go read a nice short story about nice things before I had to go to bed” horror. It has Kingfisher’s (Ursula Vernon’s) engaging, entirely readable voice, and it uses that voice to take the reader to some terrifying and unpleasant places.

The taxidermy is mostly not the creepy part, is a good gauge for this book. It is full of taxidermied animals, and they are mostly okay. But there are dimensional problems in this book, not just issues but problems, and there are willows, or willow-like entities, and it all adds up to quite a bit of aaaaaah.

Kara–known to her immediate circle as Carrot–is living with her uncle Earl in the aftermath of her divorce. He’s trying to take care of her. She’s trying to take care of him–and when things go pear-shaped, Uncle Earl makes for extremely effective stakes in the story. Must protect Uncle Earl from interdimensional peril is something I was very sold on, yes, we are here for Uncle Earl, Carrot, do the thing. Her relationship with her friend Simon is also extremely well-drawn, and it was exactly these elements that kept me reading a horror novel that does extremely horrory things that aaaaaaaah.

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Books read, late July

Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, eds., In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. It’s possible that somewhere out there is a terrible book on translation that is poorly written and no fun to read. I have not found it yet. This isn’t it. This is a collection of essays that range from ethics to misfires to any number of other issues in the field of translation, and even when there were spots when I wanted to argue with somebody, it was generally in a thoughtful and productive way.

Patrice Caldwell, ed., A Phoenix First Must Burn. This is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in recent years. There were stand-out stories but the entire thing was fun and exciting to read. My favorites included “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo, “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life” Rebecca Roanhorse, and “All the Time in the World” by Charlotte Nicole Davis. But really I just generally recommend this book.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. This is Malaysian-inflected, wuxia-inflected fantasy, and I am 100% here for it. I think one of the things I love most is that Cho is so well grounded in wuxia that she would never mistake its beats and pacing for fights-only–the character and relationship stuff is done beautifully here too. You love to see it. Well, I do.

Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem. One of my favorite collections of poetry I’ve read, searingly personal and staggeringly erudite in its range of references. Highly, highly recommended.

Diane Glancy and Mark Nowak, eds., Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings After the Detours. This is probably a good collection to start with if you don’t have very much exposure to Native writing. I still have some issues with some of its choices–I get that song is an important art form, but there are some kinds of song where the lyrics are repetitive for a reason, and transcribing them as sung doesn’t necessarily give a good sense of the song itself. But this work varies from highly traditional to extremely avant garde, so that’s a useful range.

June Hur, The Silence of Bones. A murder mystery set in Joseon Dynasty Korea (early 1800s Gregorian calendar), where the protagonist is a young girl who is a police servant. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the relationship between traditional Korean society and converts to Roman Catholicism in this period, and the protagonist is engaging.

Kathleen Jamie, Waterlight. Another lovely poetry collection, this one by a Scottish nature poet. Also highly recommended. What a good fortnight for poetry.

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne. Reread. It had been twenty years since I’d gotten back to this one, and I still enjoyed the faux-Provence setting and the extremely stubborn characters. I notice, with this distance, that Arbonne was repeatedly said to be woman-centered but this book is entirely not. I’m not even sure that that’s a shift in Kay, I’d have to reread some other things to be sure, but it’s more noticeable to me now than it was in 2000.

T. Kingfisher, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. Dough, dough, dough and wicked evil plots. This is a fun one, especially if you’re a baker yourself. I like that Mona’s baking-focused abilities are portrayed as an interesting challenge rather than a weakness. Yay.

Abir Mukherjee, A Necessary Evil. Second in a mystery series set in Calcutta in the early ’20s, although this one involves a road trip to a fictional province. The setting is very well drawn and the main appeal for me.

Emma Newman, Brother’s Ruin. I have really liked other things by Emma Newman, but this one left me cold, I’m afraid. I’m sure that there are some people who would be as screeblingly irrational as the protagonist in their outsized emotional reactions to things, but I didn’t find it fun to read about. Also some of the plot “twists” were incredibly thoroughly telegraphed, leaving me impatient with the characters not figuring things out. Also this is another of the novellas that is not actually a complete novella, it’s a novella-sized origin story–which I will put up with when I’m enjoying the thing, but less so when it’s on shaky ground otherwise. Ah well; I’m still eager to read more of Newman’s work, just this one wasn’t for me.

Karen Osborne, Architects of Memory. Discussed elsewhere.

Pat O’Shea, The Hounds of the Morrigan. Reread. I had not read this since I was…14 at the oldest, maybe younger. So I was deeply relieved to find it kind and charming. It’s an old enough work that “hey modern setting but Irish mythology” is a thing that happens partly because people read O’Shea doing it–and having a great deal of fun along the way.

C.L. Polk, The Midnight Bargain. Discussed elsewhere.

Jan Jarboe Russell, The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II. This is one of the books that’s better to have read than to read. It’s reasonably fluid prose, it’s just…well, it does what it says on the tin, and that’s not going to be happy fun times. It’s good to know about this stuff, though.

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift. A Zambian magic realist generational novel, wryly and beautifully done. Different races and classes of Zambian lives through the twentieth century into the twenty-first, including some future stuff, not giving a darn what other people’s genre boundaries might be. Recommended.

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Reread. Yes, we have reached the “rereading the Heimskringla” stage of the pandemic here. Welp. It sure is what it is, and I marked it up for my gigantic research project and consider it time well spent. But I had to take breaks in the middle, because there is only so much of St. Olaf one can bear at a time.

K. M. Szpara, ed., Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. Some beautiful stuff in here, but I think that Nino Cipri’s opening story was just such a staggeringly lovely thing. Would have been worth doing the whole volume just for that story–and there’s more.

Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife. Kindle. Tales of immigration, sexuality, and more. Quite well done, very much in the slice-of-life mimetic fiction mode in case that’s what you’re looking for.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Chimedum Ohaegbu, et al, Uncanny Magazine Issue 35. Kindle. Another strong issue. My favorites were Aliette de Bodard’s story and Jennifer Mace’s poem.

Ovidia Yu, The Frangipani Tree Mystery. 1930s Singapore setting, young woman starting out in her career/life as the detective. I had fun with this and will want to read more. Yu walks an interestingly difficult line with a developmentally delayed character: being period-appropriate but also respectful. She does this by having a heroine who is convinced of the supporting character’s capabilities, beyond the assumptions of some fairly nasty people around her. I think it works pretty well, but if having anybody scornful/less than respectful of a developmentally delayed character is going to be a problem for you, you might want to give this one a miss.

Muhammad H. Zaman, Biography of Resistance: The Epic Battle Between People and Pathogens. This is another knee-slapper, wooooo. Antibiotic resistance! Hooray! Seriously, good to know more about, not cheerful. Especially since it’s a quite-recent book that was obviously written before the pandemic (as it would have to be!), so Zaman is talking about things that could go wrong in terms of “another pandemic”–and the stuff he’s talking about didn’t disappear just because we got this pandemic. Welp.