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Present Writers: Ellen Kushner

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, and Laurie Marks.

The first several times I mentioned a book by Ellen Kushner, my mother would ask, is it that Ellen Kushner? It is, it is that Ellen Kushner–because my mother listened to NPR’s Sound and Spirit, and that was how she knew Ellen’s name.

But for me, Ellen Kushner meant Riverside, and still does. She’s written other things–Thomas the Rhymer, notably, although there have been others–but her masterwork in fantasy is the series of stories clustered around Riverside, starting with Swordspoint and blossoming into more, The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings and eventually the Tremontaine serial.

Though these settings have been shared with other writers, starting with her wife, writer Delia Sherman and going on to a bevy of other talents through the serial, a reread of Swordspoint makes it clear how many of the ideas were layered in from the very beginning. Other talents have brought their own strengths and richness to the stories–but only because Kushner built the space for them into it in the first place. Some of the references are tiny, astonishing in retrospect. Some anticipate current trends by decades. It is a marvel of concise implication, and it isn’t even my favorite of her works. (That would be The Fall of the Kings.) I think this is actually a case where taking up any thread will give you an edge of the tapestry, and I definitely recommend that you do so.

Every time certain other Kushners are referred to by their last name alone, I think, “WHAT? She would neve–oh, that guy,” and remain staunch in my conviction that if they don’t mean Ellen Kushner, they really should specify. Because we all know which is the original.

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This couch still open?

This morning you can read my latest essay in Uncanny, Save Me a Seat on the Couch: Spoiler Culture, Inclusion, and Disability. It’s about, among other things, not getting to see the new Star Wars movie yet.

I had to write it before other people could see The Rise of Skywalker, before I had any spoilers, and I knew it would look different once that was out in the world. It does. Welp.

Many of the earliest spoilers I heard were on the way to get my emergency appendectomy. I don’t remember those very well. I just asked Mark to talk to me about the movie he’d gone to see because it was better to have some kind of talk than no kind of talk, driving through the central Michigan night, and that was one where I could set him going and not be expected to have a lot of input, which is it turns out not my strong suit with appendicitis.

The world is full of all sorts of things we don’t expect, and less full of my appendix and Rose Tico than I would have wanted, is what I’m saying.

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Favorite short fiction of 2019

These are not sorted by anything but authorial last name. There are novellas, there are flash pieces. If you’re wondering why there’s a slight difference in formatting, the answer is that the ones I read early last year got formatted slightly differently, and I am too exhausted in the aftermath of my appendectomy + shingles to reformat everything to match each other, so as long as the link works I figured we could cope. I did try to find the places where autodefect had changed people’s names to adjectives or other charming alterations. Onward! Enjoy short fiction! I have already started compiling my 2020 list….

Morgan Al-Moor, The Beast Weeps With One Eye (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Elizabeth Bear, Deriving Life (

Elizabeth Bear, Erase, Erase, Erase (F&SF)

Elizabeth Bear, A Time To Reap (Uncanny)

M. E. Bronstein, Elegy of a Lanthornist (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Octavia Cade, The Feather Wall (Reckoning)

Chen Qiufan, Coming of the Light (Broken Stars)

John Chu, Beyond the El (

John Chu, Probabilitea (Uncanny)

Deborah Coates, Girls Who Never Stood a Chance (F&SF)

Tina Connolly, A Sharp Breath of Birds (Uncanny)

Nicky Drayden, The Rat King of Spanish Harlem (Fiyah Issue 9)

Meg Elison, Hey Alexa (Do Not Go Quietly)

Ruthanna Emrys, Cassandra Draws the Four of Cups (Strange Horizons)

Theodora Goss, The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly (Uncanny)

A. T. Greenblatt, Give the Family my Love (Clarkesworld)

Gregory Neil Harris, “The Midnight Host” (Fiyah Issue #12)

Alix E. Harrow, Do Not Look Back, My Lion (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Amanda Hollander, Madness Afoot (F&SF)

Osahon Ize-Iyamu, More Sea Than Tar (Reckoning)

Rachael K. Jones, Oil Under Her Tongue (Do Not Go Quietly)

Cassandra Khaw, What We Have Chosen to Love (Do Not Go Quietly)

Jonathan Kincaid, The Ishologu (Fiyah Issue 9)

Carrie Laben, Postcards from Natalie (The Dark)

Jon Mayo, A House With a Home (Anathema)

Jo Miles, Your Guide to the Ever-Shrinking Solitude on Planet Earth (Nature)

Mimi Mondal, His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light (

Ada Nnadi, Tiny Bravery (Omenana)

Karen Osborne, The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power (Uncanny)

Charles Payseur, Undercurrents (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Aimee Picchi, Search History for Elspeth Adair, Age 11 (Daily Science Fiction)

Rivqa Rafael, Whom My Soul Loves (Strange Horizons)

Jenn Reese, A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy (Uncanny)

Karlo Yeager Rodriguez, This Is Not My Adventure (Uncanny)

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor writing as A. Merc Rustad, With Teeth Unmake the Sun (Lightspeed)

Nibedita Sen, Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island (Nightmare)

D. A. Xiaolin Spires, Nutrition Facts (Uncanny)

Rachel Swirsky & P.H. Lee, Compassionate Simulation (Uncanny)

Lavie Tidhar, Venus in Bloom (Clarkesworld)

Eugenia Triantafyllou, We Are Here to Be Held (Strange Horizons)

Greg van Eekhout, Big Box (Uncanny)

Nghi Vo, Boiled Bones and Black Eggs (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Ginger Weil, The Day Our Ships Came In (Daily SF)

David Wellington, “Mummy Fever” (Spirits Unwrapped)

Kathryn Weaver, Darling (Metaphorosis)

John Wiswell, The Lie Misses You (Cast of Wonders)

John Wiswell, The Tentacle and You (Nature Futures)

Fran Wilde, A Catalog of Storms (Uncanny)

Fran Wilde, The Unseen (Fireside)

Xia Jia, Goodnight Melancholy (Broken Stars)

Caroline Yoachim, Just Coffee, Every Morning (Daily Science Fiction)

Caroline Yoachim, A Wedding Gown of Autumn Leaves (Daily Science Fiction)

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City of Stone and Silence, by Django Wexler

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also Django and I have taught workshops together and generally hung out at cons etc. I have his and his wife’s Christmas card right here.

This is the sequel to Ship of Smoke and Steel, and while I think it would stand alone fairly well practically, a lot of what’s missing here that was there in the previous volume is…the monsters and the magic. A lot of those things are in this book by implication, brought in by their more extensive presence in the previous book, so this one can focus more on character relationships and further development of the worldbuilding.

I would hope it would go without saying that this is no bad thing? But what it is, to my way of thinking, is a reason to read the first book first, to not attempt to pick up mid-series and hope to have the relationships and stakes handed to you on the fly, when the first book actually takes the time to lay them out for you and give you that arc.

Some of the late-book twist is…a known trope, which is not inappropriately deployed here, which remains nevertheless not my favorite trope, but I know some people love it. It’s a genre-crossing fave for a great many people, and I don’t want to be too spoilerific about it, but if there’s a particular SF/fantasy bender that bugs you more than spoilers bug you, message me and I’ll talk about it. I don’t think Django does it badly, I hasten to add, it’s just a thing that doesn’t excite me nearly as much as the character relationships do. I’m really glad that this is a book with the strong motivations it has, the focus on how and why these people care about each other turned up to basically eleven on every page. That’s worth far more to me than more giant crab fights. Even if I missed the giant crab fights a little.

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Books read, late December

Eleanor Arnason, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. Kindle. The artist aliens worked better for me than some of the others. This feels to me like the sort of science fiction about gender that works better as a stepping stone than as an edifice–but I’d rather that we think of a lot more things that way, that we value where it gets us than try to treat it as eternal. And I do like the ongoing attempt at alien perspective here.

Janice Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. This is an ongoing anthropological study of the social forms and services of possession in a particular Sudanese village. The author goes into some detail on genital mutilation practice and how it relates, so that’s a hard chapter to read, but necessary for context, and the rest of how religion interrelates with both local and nonlocal culture is fascinating here.

Stephanie Burgis, The Princess Who Flew With Dragons. The last in its trilogy, young philosophers of multiple species arguing about power in ways that should be accessible to 10-year-olds, while running around caverns and soaring through the skies. Great fun, just what I needed, hurrah.

Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, eds., Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries. This is a very unwieldy physical object, because its conceit is that it has the original poem, then three translations, all side by side, so it is basically double-wide, one two spine three four. And then there is commentary after. The editors have gone to some trouble to get three different translations, rather than just three translators of similar ideas, demographics, time frames; the poems are from all different languages, so the commentary is from different people, and if one set of commentary makes you hrmmm skeptically (probably at least one will), there will be another set for the next poem. I love this sort of thing, and I love this thing, but you definitely want to read it at home on a dry surface, not on the bus or in the bath or on a boat or with a goat or…yeah. It’s a very cool weird thing to do.

Terrell F. Dixon, ed., City Wilds: Essays and Stories About Urban Nature. This is an extremely mixed bag, not just in format but in content. I sometimes marvel at what kind of editor wants bell hooks and someone incredibly sexist in the same volume. Why? But editors are mysterious, and there were some lovely passages about different kinds of small nature particularly, tiny animals neatly observed, very personal.

Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint. Reread. I think the thing that hit me very hard on this reread was Alec as stifled scientist. How that is very clearly in the text and almost all of it offstage–and the entire Mad Duke persona proceeds thereby. He has been thwarted in his pursuit of knowledge, all his misbehavior, everything, the entire Tremontaine saga comes from the powers that be taking scientists and grinding them under their heels–almost completely offstage. This was not the first I read of its series, so I didn’t come to it with that perspective initially, and it hit me like a ton of bricks this time. Dramatic and picturesque sad boys are much more effective on me when they’re for science.

Rose Macaulay, The Making of a Bigot. Kindle. Yet another example of Rose Macaulay not doing the same thing everyone else is doing. This is a book about an earnest young man who can honestly see the good points in everyone’s point of view and how he is closed into not doing that. It is, like many of her other works, a quite funny tragedy. Like several others, it makes me want to introduce her to my friends and protect her rather fiercely from the world she lived in. (We’re just over the ridge, Rose, you can almost make it….) Her mimetic universe is like watching someone die of an infected cut knowing that there’s a usefully moldy sandwich in the next room. Lordy. I will flag that I am removed enough from her context that I cannot entirely tell what is meant by the very brief sections of interracial relation, whether the characters are meant to be satirized for being patronizing or for trying to have friends of different races at all; if the latter, ew, Rose, cut it out, and this ambiguity may not be worth sitting through for you depending on your own context.

Laurie Marks, Water Logic. The elements flow on, and I have gotten as far as water, which is as nonlinear as one might expect. I knew that I didn’t know where this one was going, and I was satisfied with that. I feel very restrained that I didn’t dive on air the minute this one was done. Soon.

Hilary McKay, The Time of Green Magic. I am startled to say that I really like Hilary McKay’s mimetic work better. This was fine, even moderately entertaining, but the fantastical element took a very clear backseat to the mimetic elements and yet stood in for a lot of the McKay wry humor, in my estimation. And I would like both please. Or if not both, I would keep the humor; I can write fantasy myself, and read it lots of places. Ah well.

Lydia Millet, The Fires Beneath the Sea. I am not entirely convinced that Millet has read any middle-grade other than Madeleine L’Engle before she wrote this. No, that’s not fair, there’s probably Susan Cooper or somebody for the bad prophetic poem element. I hasten to add that this did not make for a bad reading experience in the slightest, that “it is 2010 and I want another Madeleine L’Engle novel, this time with environmental themes, so I guess I’ll have to write one myself” worked out reasonably well for me in this case. Better, in fact, than you’d predict. Even with the extremely jarring otter in the first chapter (look, otters were my dad’s thing, it was…a lot for me). It’s just…mostly you expect a professionally published novel not to be quite so much I Read Madeleine And Here’s What I Learned, and yet here we are, and I’m good with it.

Lina Rather, Sisters of the Vast Black. Nuns in a living spaceship–the spaceship reminded me a bit of Nicky Drayden’s in Escaping Exodus but had to have been a matter of convergent ideas–and dealing with personal faith, imperialism, and science. This was right up my alley. Novella, so it won’t take you too long.

Elif Shafak, The Architect’s Apprentice. This is a lovely historical Turkish novel about architecture and elephants and love and politics. I will be interested in reading more by Shafak, who’s new to me but not to the literary world–I love having back catalog to explore. Caveat: while the Romany people are treated generally positively, I don’t know how culturally accurate the portrayal is of Turkish Romany of the period, honestly do not know as this is not my field of expertise. But they’re not the main focus of the book, and in the rest there is some interesting borderline fabulism and a lot of historical flutter, which I enjoy.