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Kinning, by Nisi Shawl

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The alternate history of Everfair was a creative work not quite like any seen before in the genre, bringing a steampunk story to a fictional African realm and peopling it with vivid and beautifully drawn characters. With Kinning Nisi Shawl returns us to Everfair in a direct sequel that takes it in a new direction.

Now siblings Tink and Bee-Lung have developed a fungus that bonds people into telepathic super-organisms, and Queen Josina is working behind the scenes to determine which of her children should inherit the throne of Everfair, who should be fungally bonded in which groups, and how else the fungus can be used for the benefit of Everfair and the world.

If this sounds like a major departure, it sure is. Everfair read like alternate history steampunk. Kinning, on the other hand, falls more into a trend I’ve noticed where contemporary authors take on tropes of the ’70s and redo them without the racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that plagued the works of that era. So why not, the people who didn’t get to play with the toys the first time around should get to play with the toys, everybody gets a turn, this time someone’s actually thinking about not being gross about incest in addition to all the above-listed improvements. If you want “more of the same, only slightly different,” Shawl isn’t interested in doing that. If you want to see what she wanted to do next, here you go, this is it.

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The City of Stardust, by Georgia Summers

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Violet Everly has been under a curse she doesn’t understand her whole life. Her mother disappeared when she was ten, and she never knew her father. Her uncles have been raising her, but they aren’t very forthcoming about the bits of strangeness she’s seen at the edges of the world. She’s scrambling for clues not just about where her mother might be but why–and what else might be going on.

There’s a young man about her own age she’s only met a few times, Aleksander, who has a different set of clues than she does, but he’s still fumbling around the edges of a greater truth, in the face of older, more powerful people keeping him on the periphery. Violet and Aleksander have to determine whether they can be friends–allies–even more–or whether they will be forever at cross-purposes.

The title is, alas, only slightly apropos. This book has a lot in common with the subgenre known as dark academia, although the existence of people known as scholars doesn’t mean that the academy is playing a significant part. There is a dark glittering vividness to it, and yet the periphery is very vague, this is not a deeply worldbuilt book. There’s a lot of our own world, and only as much fantasy as the plot requires. It was a fast and entertaining read but didn’t leave me thinking of it much after.

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Books read, late December

Casey Blair, The Sorceress Transcendent. Kindle. Very much a romance, but with very much epic fantasy level consequences–there are characters killing the heck out of other people right after they’ve been bantering and doing cozy things with each other. If either of those things is not for you, this shorter work will not be for you.

A.S. Byatt, Possession and Sugar and Other Stories. Rereads. The first half of Sugar and Other Stories made me think, oh, oh lovely, why don’t I rank this higher in my mind, and the second half reminded me why not, because it’s a bit Orientalist and exoticizing and I hope I remember to skip it in future. As for Possession, it was very much in the category of “this is exactly what I want to be reading the minute I start rereading it.” I love the different styles of poem and letter and how those fit together, and this is the first I’m reading it since reading the letters of the Brownings, which gives it more resonance.

Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising. Reread. One of my online book clubs read this as a cozy late-December discussion that was a reread for most of us, including me. Among the small points I picked up fresh on this reread, I noticed this time how careful Cooper was to make sure that she was not setting her work up to be coopted by xenophobes, which I appreciated.

Seth Dickinson, Exordia. Discussed elsewhere.

Christina Estes, Off the Air. Discussed elsewhere.

Linda Gregerson, Waterborne. Probably my least favorite volume of her poetry so far, the one that feels least characteristic of her voice, although she could of course disagree on that. It was entirely readable, just did not feel as special or vivid.

Derek Heng, Southeast Asian Interconnections: Geography, Networks, and Trade. Kindle. This is another monograph in the series about the Global Middle Ages, so it’s an examination of what these networks looked like in that era, which is a useful stone in the wall of knowledge one can build about the period, the region, or both.

Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. A relief, in some ways, to read in holiday time, a poetry examination of the philosophical concept of ordinary time.

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Faith. Kindle. Another satisfying entry in this series, with a disturbing ending that leaves the door open for much more. I wouldn’t start here, as there are references to earlier events and characters, but there’s the kind of love story and creepy fantasy villainy and everything you’ve come to expect of Kingfisher/Vernon’s work.

Rose Macaulay, Keeping Up Appearances. The story of a woman trying to make a living writing and make a life for herself in her father’s class, not her mother’s, with all the omissions and sometimes lies that involves. There’s a structural trick in it that you might find clever or you might find frustrating; I sighed at it a little. The end was a typical frustrated (but not, for me, frustrating) Rose Macaulay ending. Her works stand alone, and this one is very much of its period, but not in a bad way per se.

Ryan North and Chris Fenoglio, Star Trek Lower Decks: Rarely Going Where No One Has Gone Before. A holodeck episode in graphic novel form. It turns out that some of the forms of joke in Squirrel Girl were not something special Ryan North was doing for Squirrel Girl, they were just…his shtick. Which makes it frustratingly less appealing in both works, unfortunately. It was fine; it was in the house because someone else wanted it, and it didn’t take me any amount of time to read. Would not have been among my favorite episodes of the show if filmed.

Hanna Pylväinen, The End of Drum-Time. This book was so good, and it made me just ache in spots. It had more sensible interest in reindeer herding, what was going to happen to various herds at various times of the year, than any other novel I’ve ever read. Its depiction of how it feels to have disappointed a Swedish parent were so intense I could hardly bear it. Historical novel about the period of Laestadius, and I loved it so much.

Shivanee Ramlochan, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting. It took me about half this volume of poetry to really get into Ramlochan’s poetic rhythm, which in some ways is good, if I’m only reading things I immediately get into it means I’m not reaching far enough. A lot of the poems deal graphically with sexual violence, some of them with interesting mythic resonances. They are quite good, but you should have that content warning going in.

Margery Sharp, Martha, Eric, and George. Kindle. The last in its series of short novels, and actually my least favorite, because it spends the least time on Martha’s art, which is the part that most interests me. Martha sees the world differently; how will this be accommodated or not, how will she make others around her bend to her vision, or not. The existence of Eric and George in their own ways complicates this problem interestingly, but for me as for Martha the central question remains Martha’s art, and for this book it does not. Ah well.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Lords of Uncreation. The end of its smash bang space opera trilogy full of interdimensional weird godhelpus, and for heaven’s sake don’t start here, you’ll be lost, but if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series, this sure is more of it.

Diane Wilson, The Seed Keeper. A gentle and straightforward novel about the land and Dakota identity in the Minnesota River Valley, the far eastern end of which I live in. The construction of mixed race identity as a CHOICE made me wince a little but there was some really good vivid writing as well.

John Wiswell, Someone You Can Build a Nest In. Discussed elsewhere.

Ann Wroe, The Perfect Prince: Truth and Deception in Renaissance Europe. Wroe does an amazing job of discussing the person who was known as various names including Piers Osbeck, Perkin Warbeck, and Richard Plantagenet; she is really great at not putting her thumb on the scales about what we know about him at any given time. It’s a really good book about how we construct people’s identities and what we know about them in any given era.

Lisa Yaszek, The Future Is Female! Volume Two: The 1970s. This was for my other online book club, a gradual read as we discussed about four stories per session. Some familiar stories, including both loved and hated, and some new. A real mix, including some that provoked a lot of discussion and some where the main discussion was “why is this here.” It’s really good to have a book club where you can have big (good) feelings about Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Day Before the Revolution” together.

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Someone You Can Build a Nest In, by John Wiswell

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a dear friend and I read an earlier draft of this.

I am so excited that the rest of you are going to get to read this in only a few months, because John and I have been making jokes based on the protagonist for the entire time since he wrote it, and soon you can too. Shesheshen is a shapeshifting slime monster! She is a blob! She is my favorite blob ever! She is grumpy and eats people! And this is endearing as only John can do it. She has a pet bear named Blueberry, and rosemary is poison to her, and humans are a lot of trouble but sometimes good for parts.

And sometimes interesting.

So that’s a surprise, really, because who would have thought that humans would be interesting. But don’t worry, it’s definitely not all of them. Some of them are interested almost exclusively in hunting monsters, which in addition to being single-minded and unpleasant, is bad for Shesheshen and Blueberry. But maybe…just maybe…there’s a human out there who’s different. A human who’s worth more than the use Shesheshen can make of her bones and pancreas.

Worth more than bones and a pancreas? Seems like you’re gonna have suspension of disbelief issues with that one, huh? Seriously, John gives us monster perspective with all the warmth and humor he’s always brought to short stories, but this time he’s got room to really get comfortable in the voice and let Shesheshen’s revelations develop and her choices ramify. You’ll be rooting for this monster all the way through. I know I was. This book hooks you like a pair of borrowed steel jaws and pulls you in like a persistent tentacle. You won’t be sorry you formed eyeballs to read this one–or ears to listen to someone read it to you if that’s your thing. Highly recommended.

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The (not very) old and the new

Earlier this year Sunday Morning Transport published my story Exiled to Gravity. Now as part of their Storyflod event, it’s free for everyone to read! I hope you do, and I hope you enjoy it! It’s got a young woman discovering that the truth about her relationship with her mother–and herself–is not what she thought it might be. (What’s a storyflod? It’s like the Icelandic Christmas tradition of Julabokaflod, where we all wallow in words for the dark of the year. What a great tradition! Yay!)

And speaking of wallowing in words–I’ve got my first 2024 byline available for order! “Lost on a World Tree” is in the January Issue of Not One of Us, officially issue #77. You can order a copy here!

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Off the Air, by Christina Estes

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a cozy mystery about a TV journalist investigating the murder of Rush Limbaugh.

He’s not called Rush Limbaugh, of course; enough of the details are changed that it’s a different shape of story. But this is very much a “right-wing blowhard gets poisoned; plucky TV journalist pursues the story and also tries to promote her own career.” Estes is definitely getting some mileage out of how satisfying it is to watch the loathsome people who gather around such a horror show snap at each other over the corpse.

In the interest of making the protagonist not too saintly to be real, she comes out a bit the other side, whining about how hard it is to do her job and seething with jealousy for a local rival. Estes’s enthusiasm for the Phoenix setting comes through positively, but I didn’t actually like her detective as much as I wanted to. I felt she was supposed to come off beleaguered and instead read self-pitying to me, and on the whole I don’t really want to spend as much time with loathsome people as this book required me to do.

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Exordia, by Seth Dickinson

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I can’t actually decide which thing to tell you first, that this is funny or that it’s toward the gory and horrifying end of science fictional examinations of human nature and the nature of the universe.

Because both turn out to be critically important to what kind of book this is. It’s not a slapstick, it’s not a “skidding in the pool of blood” kind of funny. The humor is wryer and better done than that, deeper than that. But also the gore is deeper, it’s not an incidental “and then one of the sidekicks was shot but you won’t have to think about it, you won’t have to think about them as a person or what shooting them really means, how it might affect the protagonist to do it.” It’s entwined like a nest of snakes.

Anna Sinjari is a young Kurdish-American whose past has left her not particularly engaged with her life as an office worker. An encounter with a disturbing alien no one else seems to see quite as she does tips a series of dominoes that puts Anna in line to try to save humanity–because her alien is not only not entirely pleasant, she is not the only alien with an eye on the planet earth and its inhabitants. And, apparently, their souls.

Because yeah, there’s a lot of guns-and-shooting SF here, there’s a lot of different-mentalities-aliens SF here…but we’re also doing shape-of-the-universe-itself-and-sentient-soul SF. It’s a big book. There’s a lot going on. Most of the SF that gets described as breathless is a bit dewy-eyed, a bit young, and this is the opposite, this is breathless because it has been running an obstacle course of varied human bullshit to get here and you will have to excuse it if that’s a *little* much sometimes. There’s a lot to juggle, but Dickinson manages the flaming torches, the chainsaws, and the bowling balls with aplomb.

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Favorite short work of 2023

As always I do not limit my favorites to five–I’m not a nominating slate, you can make your own nominations. I’m just telling you what I’ve liked. I’m happy to say I’ve liked a lot! I’m thrilled that there are names here that were on last year’s list and names here that were not on last year’s list! I’m thrilled that there are new places to find stories and that some of the places I found stories last year are still good! And yeah, I have to say that I’m sad that there are people whose stories are their last and magazines whose stories are their last. But this is a post about the good–short stories, novelettes, and some poems. I hope you find something to love here. I know I did.

Our Grandmother’s Words, M.H. Ayinde (BCS)

Notable Escapes, Leah Bobet (Strange Horizons)

“At the Heart of Each Pearl Lies a Grain of Sand,” Marie Brennan (Sunday Morning Transport)

Yours, Wickedly: A Story in Thirteen Letters, Stephanie Burgis (Sunday Morning Transport)

flood fish/pumpkin moon, Grace Cahill (The Deadlands)

The Naming of Knots, M. A. Carrick (BCS)

The Sand Knows Its Way Home, L. Chan (Reckoning)

Merciful Even to Scorpions, Kay Chronister (BCS)

“Equal Forces Opposed in Exquisite Tension,” John Chu (New Suns 2)

“What I Remember of Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata,” P Djeli Clark (The Book of Witches)

Held at the Roots, Jennifer Crow (Kaleidotrope)

Perhaps in Understanding, Anamaria Curtis (Uncanny)

Five Easy Hairstyles for Snake-Haired Girls, Jelena Dunato (Small Wonders)

“John Hollowback and the Witch,” Amal El-Mohtar (The Book of Witches)

After encountering the grey whales in El Burbujon, Laguna Ojo de Libre, Naila Francis (Reckoning)

“Forever the Forest,” Simone Heller (Life Beyond Us)

Junebug, Sarah Hollowell (Apex)

The State Street Robot Factory, Claire Humphrey (Apex)

“Between Truth and Death on the Murmansk-Saint Petersburg Line,” Zohar Jacobs (Sunday Morning Transport)

“The Corruption of Malik the Unsmiling,” Naseem Jamnia (Sunday Morning Transport)

“Catechism for Those Who Would Find Witches,” Kathleen Jennings (The Book of Witches)

“The Five Lazy Sisters,” Kathleen Jennings (F&SF Mar/Apr)

My Bonsai Lover in Winter, Rachael K. Jones (The Deadlands)

The Sound of Children Screaming, Rachael K. Jones (Nightmare)

The Big Glass Box and the Boys Inside, Isabel J. Kim (Apex)

Better Living Through Algorithms, Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld)

The Year Without Sunshine, Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny)

Still Life With Slain God and Lemon, Anne Leonard (Translunar Travelers Lounge)

“Juan,” Darcie Little Badger (New Suns 2)

“Dragons of Yuta,” Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (New Suns 2)

Steve Irwin and the Unicorn, Theo Nicole Lorenz (Strange Horizons)

“Bayanihan,” Maricar Macario (F&SF Sept/Oct 23)

A Princess With a Nose Three Ells Long, Malda Marlys (Fantasy)

His Guns Could Not Protect Him, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed)

“The Far Side of the Door,” Premee Mohamed (Life Beyond Us)

Imagine Yourself Happy, Premee Mohamed (Small Wonders)

“So Spake the Mirrorwitch,” Premee Mohamed (The Book of Witches)

The Kingdom of Darkness, Sarah Monette (Uncanny)

The Spoil Heap, Fiona Moore (Clarkesworld)

Discreet Services Offered for Women Ridden by Hags, Stephanie Malia Morris (BCS)

Somewhere, It’s About to Be Spring, Samantha Murray (Clarkesworld)

Enchanted Mirrors Are Making a Comeback. That’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing., Mari Ness (Fantasy)

A Chronicle of the Mole-Year, Christi Nogle (Strange Horizons)

To Dust Returned, Rita Oakes (BCS)

To Whomsoever Remains, Brandon O’Brien (Uncanny)

“The Dangers We Choose,” Malka Older (Life Beyond Us)

“The Plant and the Purist,” Malka Older (New Suns 2)

Little Apocalypses, Aparna Paul (Reckoning)

The Changeling and the Child, Pooja Peravali (BCS)

There’s a Door to the Land of the Dead in the Land of the Dead, Sarah Pinsker (The Deadlands)

Ivy, Angelica, Bay, C.L. Polk (Tor.com)

What Will Bring You Home, Jenny Rae Rappaport (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

SQUAWKER AND DOLPHIN SWIMMING TOGETHER, T.K. Rex (Reckoning)

Till the Greenteeth Draw Us Down, Josh Rountree (The Deadlands)

“Amrit,” Kiran Kaur Saini (F&SF May/Jun)

Blooms, Grace Seybold (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Always and Forever, Only You, Iona Datt Sharma (Strange Horizons)

“Cowboy Ghost Dads Always Break Your Heart,” Stefan Slater (F&SF Jan/Feb)

Drained,” Sonya Taaffe (Not One Of Us #74)

Construction Sacrifice, Bogi Takács (Lightspeed)

“Cyclic Amplification, Meaning Family,” Bogi Takacs (Life Beyond Us)

To Carry You Inside You, Tia Tashiro (Clarkesworld)

“Approved Methods of Love Divination in the First-Rate City of Dushagorod,” Kristina Ten (F&SF Jul/Aug 23)

“The Cost of Doing Business,” Emily Y Teng (The Book of Witches)

I Should Have Been a Pair of Ragged Claws, Alice Towey (Fantasy)

Five of Cups, Ali Trotta (The Deadlands)

What It Means to Love a City, Mo Usavage (Reckoning)

“Silk and Cotton and Linen and Blood,” Nghi Vo (New Suns 2)

She Blooms and the World Is Changed, Izzy Wasserstein (Lightspeed)

“Defective,” Peter Watts (Life Beyond Us)

“Manic Pixie Girl,” AC Wise (The Other Side of Never)

Bad Doors, John Wiswell (Uncanny)

The Three O’Clock Dragon, John Wiswell (Tor.com)

The Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium, E. Lily Yu (Uncanny)

In Memories We Drown, Kelsea Yu (Clarkesworld)

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Favorite short work from the end of 2023

This is not my year-end round-up of short pieces! That will come soon! This is just my late fall/early winter faves!

Held at the Roots, Jennifer Crow (Kaleidotrope)

Five Easy Hairstyles for Snake-Haired Girls, Jelena Dunato (Small Wonders)

Junebug, Sarah Hollowell (Apex)

“The Corruption of Malik the Unsmiling,” Naseem Jamnia (Sunday Morning Transport)

My Bonsai Lover in Winter, Rachael K. Jones (The Deadlands)

The Sound of Children Screaming, Rachael K. Jones (Nightmare)

The Year Without Sunshine, Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny)

Imagine Yourself Happy, Premee Mohamed (Small Wonders)

Ivy, Angelica, Bay, C.L. Polk (Tor.com)

What Will Bring You Home, Jenny Rae Rappaport (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

To Carry You Inside You, Tia Tashiro (Clarkesworld)

Five of Cups, Ali Trotta (The Deadlands)

In Memories We Drown, Kelsea Yu (Clarkesworld)

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2023: year in review

Whew, another year? are we sure? yeah, I guess that’s what that adds up to, and it sure adds up to a lot. I signed contracts on another story sale today, I’m putting the finishing touches on a revision to send to my agent, and there’s a lot more stuff in the pipeline, so once again it’s probably good for me to take a moment to stop and breathe and review what I did this year.

I had the following stories come out, and they were a very mixed group in terms of theme and genre. There’s cranky dolphins, reluctant revolutionaries, aliens doing improv, :

Exiled to Gravity, Sunday Morning Transport (February)

Tourist Season, Nature Futures (April)

Monster of the Month Club, Haven Spec (August)

Spark of Change, Translunar Travelers Lounge (August)

Yes And, Nature Futures (August)

A Piece of the Continent, Uncanny (December)

I kept going with poetry, too, with a small clutch of poems. They’re just as varied as the fiction, ranging from a response to a beloved childhood series to science fictional feelings about the world we’re in right now to grief for nerds to fairy tale commentary:

Elegy for Another Hollow Girl, Not One of Us (April)

The Plural of Apocalypse, Strange Horizons (April)

Object Permanence, Analog (Sept/Oct)

Like Other Girls, F&SF (Nov/Dec)

Just the one essay this year, and I hope it encourages you to do things you enjoy:

Failing the Marshmallow Test: On Not Saving Books for Later, Uncanny (December)

I also had some fun reprints! “A Worm to the Wise” came out in Afterglow, and The Deadlands Year One featured both my poem “Oppenheimer in Valhalla” and my short story “Roots of Lamentation.”

That’s the year in publishing, though, which is not exactly the same as the year in writing. In the later part of the year I was more focused than usual on longer-form work, so taking a moment to write some poems and a short story in the last month has been a bit of a breath of fresh air, and I’ll want to do a bit more of that again early in the year. On the other hand I’ve liked doing two novellas and some novel work. Balance in all things? We know that’s not my strong suit. But looking for where balance might hypothetically be if I was another person completely? Sure, let’s go for that. Stranger things have happened at sea. And probably will happen on land in 2024, if the work I have coming out so far is any indication.