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Flowers for the Sea, by Zin E. Rocklyn

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This debut novella is listed as both epic and dark fantasy, and I would say it trends strongly toward the latter. Until we got to the ending, I was inclining toward calling it horror–there is a strong component of what I would describe as body horror here, subcategory pregnancy body horror. If that’s a theme you struggle with, you may want to leave this one for another day (or even another reader), because pregnancy (and nursing) body horror is a substantial portion of what we’re doing here.

This is a story of the outcast, and it is a story of the sea. I was wondering if there would be sharp twists, but no, it’s more like the tide, it’s inexorable like the tide. The razorfangs, the sea, the survivors and their treatment of each other including the ostracized other among them…the question of her humanity…it’s all there, you know this song, it’s a question of how vividly Rocklyn brings it to its conclusion, and the answer is, very vividly indeed.

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The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, by Nancy Marie Brown

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I found this book both interesting and frustrating.

Interesting, because there was a lot of good solid information about textiles and trading. Much archaeology, lots of reconstruction! If you want the details of what kinds of paint substrates were being used in the Viking era, Nancy Marie Brown has your back. I do in fact want that. I want that a lot. So this is very useful to me. I expect to some of you also.

Frustrating, because she is very much willing to make assumptions based on herself personally and go galloping forth with them. There is a little note after the main body of the book where she blithely tells the reader that Neil Price encouraged her to take a complex view of gender and she decided not to do so. Oh really, says this reviewer. Well, isn’t that a choice you made.

In Brown’s favor, she is willing to revisit previous positions when there is evidence that they are utter nonsense. Unfortunately this means that there are long sections of this book where the person she is arguing with is not me, not Neil Price, not any of a great number of other people who have been thinking thinky thoughts about the Viking era and gender for decades now (I have restrained myself from listing half a dozen personal friends in this location), but in fact…Previous Version Nancy Marie Brown. For example she says out loud! without prompting! that she personally did not used to believe in women wanting to fight with swords, which was so phenomenally stupid that I nearly shut the book and went off to go reread Neil Price instead. It’s always possible to consider other people having preferences unlike oneself, the more so when they are removed from oneself by an entire millennium, sort it out before you visit it upon the rest of us in several published volumes.

But really there’s quite a lot of useful stuff about dyes and paint substrates and that. Even if her “reconstructed” fiction sections demonstrate why she is not a fiction writer. If you’re thinking of a project in this era you might well want it just for what furs are common where and so on. If you take it all with a grain of salt about how willing this particular author is to generalize from the particular person she has closest to hand.

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Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares, by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Review copy provided by the publisher.

When I saw that there was a sequel to Paola Santiago and the River of Tears coming out, I couldn’t request it fast enough. Pao and her friends had exciting, fun adventures, and I was excited to rejoin them.

As often happens, the sequel goes to a somewhat darker, more grown-up place. In many cases when people discuss a fantasy novel and say “darker,” they mean that the fantasy tropes are more horror-tinged, scarier, but the first volume of this series was pretty dark for a kids’ fantasy–the titles are giving you accurate information that the fluffy bunny content here is fairly minimal. But for me, the thing that gets darker and more mature is not actually the fantasy element, which is pretty consistent. It’s the friendship element: Paola’s relationships with her best friends have grown rather fraught, and all is not well between them in ways that are more complicated than the spats of the first book.

Which makes me squirm. And this is very much a middle book: if you’re looking for clear resolution and absolute redemption, this is not the book for it. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for lots of growth and characters figuring out interesting things and the author getting to play with a larger scope than she started with–plenty of Arizona desert, now heading into California and up to Oregon, with the legends to accompany–this may be your jam. It was mine.

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Books read, early June

Zen Cho, Black Water Sister. An American woman goes to Malaysia with her parents and meets her grandmother. Who is dead. And learns a lot about her family, local gods, herself, and where she wants to be going with all this. This was delightful. Highly recommended.

Roshani Chokshi, A Crown of Wishes. Chokshi’s second novel and the last of hers I’ve gotten around to reading. There’s a darker feel here to the magical elements she’s brought to play in some of her other work, but two people still have to learn to trust each other and find their happy ending through tournaments and poisons and other stuff that’s much more fun to read about than to live.

Nino Cipri, Defekt. A sequel to Finna and along very similar lines: funny-horror-SF Ikea commentary. A quick good time at the edges of what I usually like in terms of its horror elements.

Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest. The title kind of tells you what he’s doing here: people are gonna get killed. And killed and killed, wow, so killed. There’s a reason his later novels are more famous, because the structure here is just wild, but the sentences are all very very Hammett.

Graci Kim, The Last Fallen Star. Charming middle-grade fantasy about an adoptee figuring out her powers and her place in the world. Very centered on Korean-American LA in a way that was interesting and fun. I continue to love what Rick Riordan is doing with this line of books and the different authors whose voices get highlighted here.

Arthur C. Parker, Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. Parker was telling these stories from his own memory and interactions with his own friends and family members, and it has a certain feel of…drawing you into the cultural assumptions along with him. It’s the kind of compilation you got a lot in the early twentieth century, so it has that kind of writing, but in a very matter-of-fact voice, like, of course the person turned into a porcupine then, that’s what would happen! I enjoyed this.

Sarah Prineas, Trouble in the Stars. A light tale of shapeshifting alien kid. Since I just drafted one of those, I wanted to see if it was anything like mine, and the answer is, wow, no, could not be more different. Yay! This one has all sorts of different spacefaring aliens, not all of whom get along even a little bit in the early part of the book. Good times.

Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. The twist ending did not feel very twisty to me because I think a lot about story structure, but I enjoyed the relationships and how they unfolded, particularly in the early part of the book, and if you like thinking about Old Hollywood vs. new journalism, this is an interesting one.

J. C. Rudkin, Cthulhu: A Love Story. Discussed elsewhere.

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Rereads. It’s striking to me, on this reread, how much it looks like Sayers no longer wanted to write about murder after introducing Harriet Vane to the series. She still did it–it’s a murder mystery series, and the pressure from her publisher was intense. But she also found ways to do other things, and to make even the books that were clearly about murder also about other things. I like all of these. These are some of my favorites of the series. (I still maintain that if you’re going to read only one, it should be Bellona Club. Several of my friends suggest Murder Must Advertise works fine that way, but I think a major part of its appeal is the contrast of who Peter is pretending to be–who he might have been–with who he really is.) But I do wonder what it might have been like if she had been encouraged to wander off and written whatever novels appealed to her, what their structure might have looked like. Or whether it would have looked like this after all, since this was the structure she knew best.

Robin R. Wang, Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period through the Song Dynasty. I don’t recommend this. Two reasons: one, this is the sort of book that goes with a particular course being taught by a particular professor, that they happen to have gotten published in book form. (It was a hand-me-down to me that was a gift to someone else.) There are loads of other things at least as good written about women in China over this two thousand year period; I can see the shape of the coursework around it, but even when it was published this was not a particularly special selection. But what’s worse is that this is an area in which fifteen years of scholarship have made a huge difference in how such a selection would be curated. Almost none of this work is by women, and its skew is very much in a particular direction. Several of the notes use identical language to that justifying basically every patriarchal culture–“oh but it’s fine that the women had huge restrictions because in this culture the family was valued“–check the literature, they literally say it about every single one, and what if…that kind of justification was not our job? what if we were observing rather than justifying? what if the role of this kind of book was to observe a diversity of thought (this book does not do that) and role in a gigantic empire over an immense span of time rather than to give a fairly narrowly curated view? Anyway you’ll want something else, this is not notably good commentary or selection.

Cynthia Zhang, After the Dragons. Discussed elsewhere.

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This was your plan, not mine

Today I have a new story out! Nature Futures has published Planned Obsolescence.

This story is for my friend Merc, who likes the stuff in it. It is also for my friend Mike. Most of my Nature shorts are for Mike. But Merc is still around to read it, and the Mike in question is John M. Ford. Sometimes half a conversation is better than none. This is me looping Merc into my conversation with Mike.

Anyway I hope you like it, even those of you who know neither of them. (But you can read both of their stuff when you’re done with this!)

This one has AIs and…what they do when they find out they’ve been made deliberately mortal.

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Cthulhu: A Love Story, by J. C. Rudkin

This review copy came to me as a result of the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter’s Contributors Do Your Bidding effort: a nonfiction piece on the topic of the donor’s choosing was one of the possible rewards, and they chose me and a review of this debut novel. I was a little curious about being chosen to review a crossover Lovecraftian love story, since I am not the natural audience for either of those. Frankly I hate the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But as a reviewer I’m able to go into a work looking for what other people value in it.

It looks to me like that’s what J.C. Rudkin (a writing team of two) did with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, too. They’re part of the new generation of writers, along with Ruthanna Emrys, Victor LaValle, Premee Mohamed, and more, who are fascinated with the squamous and rugose but actively reject the racism and xenophobia that ol’ Howie brought to the table. Very early in the book, Rudkin’s narrator tells us, “It felt like the whole world had gone mad in the last few years. Chaotic weather, chaotic governments, violence, and fear across the globe. Admittedly, this had been great for my book sales,” and I felt like I had a handle on why they might have chosen Cthulhu as the focus of their love story.

And then we got to the romantic lead.

“I met Cthulhu when I was in college. I was young, naïve, and excited to be away from home, the place I’d considered a prison for most of my life.
He was one of those things.”

Yeah. If you think you made some unfortunate dating choices in college, consider horror writer Amanda, who finds out that her college boyfriend Ryley actually meant to tell her that he was from R’lyeh. Because it turns out Amanda dated Cthulhu, trapped in human form by evil cultists bent on controlling his power. They were mostly successful–mostly–so that a lot of the worst of his power is endowed in a twisted nautilus (later bestowed upon young Amanda). What’s left is a sexy demigod with improbably sea-blue eyes, bending passers-by and waitstaff to his will and giving young Amanda a very decadent introduction to the world.

Very decadent. As in, full of decay, chaos, and despair, ia ia.

There were several points at which I said, “oh my GOD! The REAL villain here is–” Trust me, this actually is a horror novel, there is no shortage of “real villains here.” Let’s start with Amanda’s mother Caroline, a controlling, petulant horror show on a very human level–although the way that unfolds comes with a tinge of pathos for the person Caroline might have been.

There are two separate sets of Cthulhu cultists, definitely villainous enough all on their own. And Cthulhu himself? Well, this may be labeled a love story. But he is definitely not “a nice guy once you get to know him, deep down”–or even down in the deeps. Is Cthulhu a real villain here? Definitely yes. I think the thing I liked most, though, was the way that the narrative played with romance tropes of the domineering alpha male and showed that they are frankly horrifying. “THE ALL-POWERFUL ROMANTIC ALPHA MALE TROPE AND HOW IT TWISTS THE PEOPLE AROUND IT IS THE REAL VILLAIN HERE!” I crowed.

Which is not to say that all romance novels do this–most of them do not, any more than most fantasy novels reinforce blood-based racism–but every genre has to own its share of gross tropes and figure out what to do about them. Watching how different the lush banquet and picking out special jewelry look when the hero involved is Cthulhu and he is destroying bystanders’ minds was a warping I didn’t expect coming in, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Because this is a debut and I don’t know the authors personally, I wasn’t entirely sure which direction the ending was going to take Amanda, and I was genuinely worried for her mind and her soul at several points–which genre would win? Would the Elder God in the form of a sexy man with eyes of Caribbean blue break the strong-minded girl who fought her way from working-class Florida to publishing glory despite a staggering lack of family support? Would extremely well-organized cultists thwart them both? Where was the FBI in all this, and would they come in at the right–or dreadfully wrong–moment?

And when Amanda said she didn’t expect to live out her plans, was she right?

A lot of smaller press publications have pacing problems, but this one flew right by, even though I was deliberately slowing my reading speed for review purposes. You can still see some of the first-novel scaffolding in some of the sentence construction, but if the idea of a successful horror writer having to deal with her past as Cthulhu’s college girlfriend–for the sake of the universe and its sanity–tickles your fancy, Cthulhu: A Love Story executes on that premise with some charming grace notes along the way.

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Spring short story recommendations

Quintessence, Andrew Dykstal (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Kuemo of the Masks, Naomi Libicki (Giganotosaurus)

My Mother’s Hand, Dante Luiz (Constelacion)

Photolinguistics, Jennifer Mace (Reckoning)

The Badger’s Digestion; Or the First First-Hand Description of Deneskan Beastcraft by an Aouwan Researcher, Malka Older (Constelacion)

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny)

The Music of the Siphorophenes, C.L. Polk (F&SF)

All Worlds Left Behind, Iona Datt Sharma (Khoreo)

Thirteen of the Secrets in my Purse, Rachel Swirsky (Uncanny)

Comments on Your Provisional Patent Application for an Eternal Spirit Core, Wole Talabi (Clarkesworld)

Phases of the Moon, Alice Towey (Fireside)

Bathymetry, Lorraine Wilson (Strange Horizons)

Unseelie Brothers, Ltd., Fran Wilde (Uncanny)

For Lack of a Bed, John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots)

Gender Reveal Box, $16.95, John Wiswell (Fireside)

The Machine Is Experiencing Uncertainty, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Escape Pod)

When Your Being Here Is Gentler Than Your Absence Hard, Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

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After the Dragons, by Cynthia Zhang

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Immunology! Pollution! Diaspora Chinese experience! Tiny dragons! Prickly gay guys figuring out whether they want a relationship! Cynthia Zhang’s debut is so good that I am having a hard time writing this review because mostly I want to make high pitched squealing noises while pointing at it, and while that’s very expressive of my feelings, it may not be the most helpful–or at least not the only helpful–way to review a book.

Okay, so. Eli is a mixed-race American person, Black and Chinese American, and he has chosen to do some of his postgraduate medical studies in Beijing, in a world that is a great deal like–but not identical to–ours. His grandmother’s grave is there, but his (Chinese-American) mother is still a little confused and concerned at his choice, especially because the pollution levels in alternate-Beijing are dangerous. But Eli feels drawn to the place, the people who share some but not all of his heritage, and the dragons–little semi-aquatic flying reptiles of the right size to scrap with a house cat.

And once he’s there, he feels drawn to Kai, a young dragon lover, artist, and all-around fascinating guy with a lot of defense mechanisms. Eli and Kai circle each other more warily than dragons put in a fighting ring by human gamblers as they figure out how much to push each other and what parts of “not enough to fix everything but still worth trying” they can live with. There, that sounded coherent, right? Eeeeee this is lovely, go read it when you can.

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Travels With Friend Robot

I don’t know where I am.
It all looks like West Michigan to me.
But Friend Robot says:
Stay to the left, avoid the debris.
Here is a bell to remind you:
Your mother loves you.
Take the next exit.
Humans have been here before,
Though not you. I know the way.
This Dollar General is the proper one
To pass, though it looks like the others.
This bell means your friend wrote a poem.
Be at ease. You may hare off
Across the fields, but it will gain you nothing.
Stay steady. All will be well.
You have a compass, the sun, the lake,
Your notebook, two yellow apples.
And now you have me.
Your family waits there safe for your arrival.