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The strange planet known as Tanegawa’s World is owned by TransRifts Inc, the company with the absolute monopoly on interstellar travel. Hob landed there ten years ago, a penniless orphan left behind by a rift ship. She was taken in by Nick Ravani and quickly became a member of his mercenary biker troop, the Ghost Wolves.
Ten years later, she discovers that the body of Nick’s brother out in the dunes. Worse, his daughter is missing, taken by shady beings called the Weathermen. But there are greater mysteries to be discovered – both about Hob and the strange planet she calls home.
I was sold this novel as being Mad Max: Fury Road-reminiscent biker gangs in space with added union politics, written by an enby author. That’s so very far, obviously, up my street, both politically and aesthetically, so I have been waiting for this book for some time.
Turns out, Wells does not disappoint. Hunger Makes The Wolf is a combination of elements that should not work: parallel plotlines of a kind of quasi-mystical Gaia-esque planetary symbiosis, a mercenary biker gang rebelling against uncaring, profit-driven corporate overlords of the most awful capitalist kind, union organising activities, and international-corporate espionage shouldn’t all come together with the force and potency that they are achieved with. Each one is inextricably tied to the other two by emotional, political and human connections, so that the three run together, developing different aspects of the same storyline out, rather than separating out into disparate tales that don’t connect, giving the book a serious drive and punch (I stayed up until 5 in the morning to finish it, I couldn’t put it down). Wells writes action scenes with a fast paced breathlessness and mess that really puts the reader in the middle, and their control of the quieter, emotional or tense scenes is absolute: they really move the reader.
None of that would be possible without the characters of Hunger Makes The Wolf, though. This is a novel centred on two women, Hob and Mag, who each take charge of their own destinies in different ways; the former by embracing her mercenary biker life, the latter by becoming a passionate union organiser. The way Wells draws out the contrasts between the two, it’s clear they are very carefully showing two different, equally valid, equally fascinating models of resistance; within the law, technically, and nonviolent but disruptive, and totally outside it. The two characters are strong and fascinating and well-written, and Mag’s quiet queerness is absolutely wonderful: not something made a huge deal out of, just a subtly done little line or two threaded through the novel.
That’s not to say they’re the only two characters Wells gives any flesh to; Hunger Makes The Wolf practically overflows with characters, a true ensemble cast, and well used, to boot. From Nick, boss of the Ghost Wolves biker gang, to the Bone Collector, the strange, alien being who seems to know a lot more about what’s going on than he lets on, through the rest of the gang, the miners, and even the company employees who we meet and see as interesting humans in their own right, warped by capitalism and wilful ignorance of the deprivations of those around them, Well doesn’t let anyone they give a name to get away without a character, even if they only appear once or twice; those appearances are impressively characterising, the way cameos in a film can be.
If Hunger Makes The Wolf has a flaw, it’s in worldbuilding. We keep being teased with glimpses of a much broader universe, especially once Meetchim and Rollins enter the picture, and of something strange going on on Tanegawa’s World; but these are glimpses, frustrating hints that there’s a bigger picture that some of the characters know and won’t let us in on. Tanegawa’s World is itself fantastically portrayed and built, with the economics and ecology actually paid attention to, and the way the whole world is distorted by TransRift is eloquently displayed; it just would have been better to have either a clearer picture of the wider world we’re given glimpses of.
Hunger Makes The Wolf can perhaps best be described in musical terms: imagine the powerful, punchy, awesome death’n’roll of latter-day Satyricon married to the lyrical sensibilities of Billy Bragg in his most pro-trade union and leftist moments. Alex Wells managed to write a 400 page book with that kind of power and political urgency and heart, and I am so very much hoping for a sequel.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon. (As an added incentive, last week, patrons got this review with a bonus: a small selection of tracks to contextualise the musical comparisons in the closing paragraph)
Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.
S. L. Huang’s The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist is a novelette put out by one of my favourite blogger-fanzine-publishers (they keep expanding! Where do they find the time?), the Book Smugglers. I bought one of their limited run of print copies, of which I believe a small number of the run are still available, because it’s rather a pretty little edition.
Huang’s novelette is a strange little piece, narrated in first person, some present, some past tense. The narrator is The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist of the title, and has the voice to match; precise, at times frustrated with popular thinking and approach to her field and discipline, but with a combination of cold logical admiration and loving feelings towards her subjects. This book really is about the scientific process from her point of view; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge, how we go about fundamentally anthropological pursuits, how we attempt to communicate with and understand other cultures. It’s a brilliant approach to an inverted Little Mermaid retelling, because it stops it being a Little Mermaid retelling – that is, one doesn’t realise until the end that that is what is happening (especially given the resistance of the narrator to the terms “mermaid” and “siren”).
The plot, as the end of that paragraph gives away, is conventional; or rather, a twist on convention, and then another twist. The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist plays with the Little Mermaid story, changes and alters it in interesting ways to provoke more thoughtful, interesting ethical questions, twists it on its head; Huang neatly uses the viewpoint of an increasingly undisinterested scientist struggling to come to terms with the loss of her objectivity to ask the reader questions about love, about sexuality, about humanity, about what one would and should give up. It’s a neatly done trick, and the use of the varying tenses gives a real sense of immediacy to the present tense, since it so readily distinguishes “real-time” narration from retrospective thoughts.
This is also a deliciously queer novelette. The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist has a lesbian protagonist and one of the main secondary characters is nonbinary in some sense, using the pronoun ze/hir; while the homosexuality of the protagonist provided a faultline with her family in the past, the enby scientist is presented as having a happy home life, being a competent scientist, and hir gender has no bearing on hir approach to science, except for a rejection of simplistic presentations of sex and gender when communicating how human society works. The way Huang works in the queerness is subtle and beautifully affirming and brings warmth to the heart of this enby.
All in all, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist is an excellent example of what a novelette can do that a novel perhaps might not so well; S. L. Huang has here produced a brilliant science fictional reworking of The Little Mermaid that is the perfect length for what she wished to convey.
DISCLOSURE: I am friends with the Book Smugglers, and have met them in person and drunk with them on multiple occasions. This book was purchased at full price.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
Laura Lam first crossed my radar when her debut novel, Pantomime, came out in 2013; notable for being a YA novel with an intersex bisexual protagonist, I was not a fan. Since then, the publisher, Strange Chemistry, has gone under, leaving a number of horror-stories in their wake about author treatment and editorial standards; but Pan MacMillan picked up the Micah Grey trilogy and republished the first two books last year, with Masquerade, the last book, out for the first time ever this week!
SPOILERS follow for the Micah Grey trilogy
The first two books of the trilogy (I have my copy of Masquerade, of course, but haven’t read it yet!) follow Micah Grey as he tries to escape from his noble family, first by joining a circus (in Pantomime, which also recaps his life to the point of running away, and why he did so) and then as part of a magic show (in Shadowplay, which draws on some of the themes of Pantomime and fleshes out Micah’s past). Micah is an intersex person who usually identifies as a man and uses “he/him” profiles; due to the prejudices of his society, he is in the closet, and when he comes out to some of the other key characters, there are a variety of reactions. Some are, of course, painful queerphobic rejections, which are rather distressing to read but are portrayed without much sympathy for the person rejecting Micah; but there are also reactions which are completely accepting of Micah, and those are portrayed well and beautifully. Similarly, bisexuality seems to be largely a fact of life in the circles Micah moves in; he has some internalised queerphobia from his noble upbringing, but there doesn’t seem to be any biphobia or homophobia amongst the characters we meet in his adult life.
Laura Lam has since also gone on to write some fascinating near-future science fiction, in the Pacifica series; the first of these, False Hearts, came out last year, with Shattered Minds to follow in May.
False Hearts is one of the best books about an investigation into a crime involving a cult in a near-future setting to have come out in the last year (there were enough to say that, yes); it’s a fun fast-paced and thoughtful story that really digs into some cyberpunk ideas and stylings, including the use of neurohacking. But it’s mentioned here because the protagonist is queer, very openly and happily bisexual, in a society where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an axis of oppression; this is a book that is very willing to engage with a variety of sexualities and, indeed, gender identities, although that latter category is far less foregrounded. The semi-sequel (set in the same world, but with different characters), Shattered Minds, looks set to be equally exciting!
Finally, as mentioned yesterday, Laura Lam is one of the essayists included in the Nasty Women collection, which also features a variety of takes on feminism – including some explicitly about queerness!
But now that I’ve told you about why you should be reading Laura Lam’s work, here’s a chance to win one! I have TWO copies of the new paperback edition of Pantomime to give away, anywhere in the world; see the link below to enter! This giveaway will be open until 00:00 GMT on March 16th!
Trouble is brewing between the Council of the Dead and the ghostly, half-dead, spiritual, and supernatural community they claim to represent. One too many shady deals have gone down in New York City’s streets, and those caught in the crossfire have had enough. It’s time for the Council to be brought down—this time for good.
Carlos Delacruz is used to being caught in the middle of things: both as an inbetweener, trapped somewhere between life and death, and as a double agent for the Council. But as his friends begin preparing for an unnatural war against the ghouls in charge, he realizes that more is on the line than ever before—not only for the people he cares about, but for every single soul in Brooklyn, alive or otherwise…
It’s no secret that I really enjoyed Half-Resurrection Blues back when I read it in 2015; Daniel José Older’s novels between then and now, Shadowshaper and (in the Bone Street Rumba series) Midnight Taxi Tango, showed a writer stepping up his game each time, so cracking the spine on Battle Hill Bolero, I went in with high expectations.
Taking high expectations to a Daniel José Older novel is a fool’s game, though, because they’re never the right expectations. Urban fantasy is a broad genre, and although the Bone Street Rumba fits perfectly into it, every novel has a very different feel; where the first was a detective novel, and the second more a crime and horror novel, this third is a war story, straight and simple. Only, as with all Older’s writing, it isn’t that simple. Battle Hill Bolero draws the threads of the previous two books together beautifully, with a real ensemble cast; it’s a testament to Older’s skill that the different voices are all still incredibly distinct, with not just attitudes but linguistic ticks all their own, even as they blend those linguistic ticks as they grow together (a really subtle touch). Character development for our pre-existing cast isn’t a huge feature of this novel, although Carlos and Sasha both come to terms with the events that lie between them; but for Krys, our new viewpoint character, we really see some development through the parts of the novel we get, well handled and beautifully written.
I also want to give Older a shout out for including multiple queer characters. Not only bisexual and homosexual characters, but also trans ones – in the background to the novel is Wendy, a nonbinary kid, and one of the secondary characters is a ghost called Redd, a trans man who was alive in the 18th century; the character in Battle Hill Bolero who questions it is a modern kid who gets shut down fast, and everyone else just accepts Redd, and it isn’t brought up again, and that’s a far-too-rare thing, especially in urban fantasy. This is a book in which the only white characters are on the wrong side, and all the queer ones are on the right side, and the trans man survives, and that warms my heart so much.
The only thing that remains to talk about is the plot, which is perhaps where Battle Hill Bolero isn’t strongest, but is by no means weak. The whole novel builds from its opening to its climax inexorably, with a kind of building fury preceding the storm that Older constantly harnesses in all the side-threads; there are a few elements that aren’t as well worked in, including the personal lives of some of our principals, but the whole thing ties into the central conflict that the series, and novel, build towards beautifully. Older continues to handle his action scenes fantastically and with a real viscerality, getting us up close and person and really letting the physicality move us, and his emotional scenes have a similar kind of strength, helping the slightly less smooth parts of the plot get past their bumps easily.
Battle Hill Bolero, then, is a fantastic, brilliantly written capstone to one of the best urban fantasy series of the 21st century, and one of the most aware of what that century looks like: not straight, white, or male, but more like Daniel José Older’s queer, colourful New York.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.
Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation.
I’m a big fan of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha and enjoyed Mirror Empire, so when I heard that she had written a new, stand-alone piece of feminist science fiction, I was inevitably very ready to jump on board; thanks to the kind generosity of Penny Reeve at Angry Robot Books, I got to do that a little earlier than most of you…
The Stars Are Legion is in many ways the archetypical Kameron Hurley novel; angrily and unapologetically feminist, grimdark and brutal, and with some very odd biopunk things going on in the worldbuilding. We go in expecting those now, though, so their presence per se is almost not worth commenting on; instead, their specific manifestations are relevant.
The novel as a whole is quite a fast-paced read, powering through a lot of plot very quickly; at times this makes it very choppy, as time is disjointed and unclear (if this was intentional, it isn’t clear that was the case, rather than something approaching carelessness), and at times it founders on repetition of things that were covered earlier being driven home, especially if those things are relevant to the thematic underpinnings. That’s something of a habit for Hurley; this is less choppy in many ways than previous novels, and has a much better approach to concealed information, with Zan’s lost memory and the way Jayn, our other viewpoint character, talks about things feeling naturally avoidant rather than forced for plot reasons. The eventual resolution feels forced though, and doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the novel; whether Hurley or her editors wanted it, The Stars Are Legion wraps up in a way that grinds harshly against what came before.
In terms of character, though, the tight focus of The Stars Are Legion means it’s one of Hurley’s most accomplished books so far. Having only Zan and Jayn as viewpoint characters means we really get into their heads very deeply, and having quite a small ancillary cast to those protagonists allows Hurley to paint them vividly through both interactions with the principals and with each other; across the novel we see a variety of different expressions of personhood accompanied by different responses to the weird world Hurley has constructed. It’s an impressive feat to achieve that kind of variety, and to draw out the characters so powerfully and individually; although Zan’s characterisation seems to falter at the end and her decisions come out of left field, rather than reading as a natural extension of her development up until that moment.
This is a dark novel; The Stars Are Legion, as mentioned above, is hardly out of line with the place in the grimdark movement that Hurley has carved for herself. The worldbuilding is incredibly biopunk-centred, and that means that not only do the sections involving violence towards other people have viscera and gore, but much of the travel does; this is also a book in which we see multiple births, although those are almost sanitised compared to much of the rest of the viscera Hurley provides. It’s an interesting contrast, then, to look at the birthing scenes in contrast with, say, violence done against other people; there’s much more focus on bodily fluids in the latter, much more on noises in the former.
The Stars Are Legion is an all-female novel, set in an all-female world; that leads Hurley to make some decisions which are… arguably problematic, especially for trans people. For a start, no trans people exist in this world; every human is a cis female born with a working womb, for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, but they still all identify as women, as if there’s some other thing they’re identifying against, despite that clearly not being the case. Furthermore, in this world shorn of trans people, a sincere and deep wish of many trans women, for working womb transplants, is not only possible, but something that happens on multiple occasions; it’s not regular, but it’s clearly doable, which feels a little painful to this queer. However, the feminism of the novel is otherwise very strong, with the cast being clearly marked as not white (and whiteness being noted as an exceptional state in one character) and the approach to culture being to create it virtually wholesale.
In the end, then, while The Stars Are Legion isn’t a perfect novel on either aesthetic or political grounds, I think it is probably Hurley’s best work yet, and a brilliant piece of feminist science fiction.
DISCLAIMER: I am friends with Kameron Hurley and support her writing on Patreon. She has previously contributed two guest posts to this blog. I am also friends with Penny Reeve, publicist at Angry Robot Books, UK publishers of The Stars Are Legion. This review is based on a finished copy sent to me by the publisher.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary’s mission to Winter, an unknown alien world whose inhabitants can choose—and change—their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Exploring questions of psychology, society, and human emotion in an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of science fiction.
Some books age well, relatively timeless in their concerns, approach, and writing. Some age poorly, speaking only to a very specific time and place. Most books age somewhere in between, aspects dating badly but others still having a resonance. The Left Hand of Darkness is often considered to be one of the first kind; but on this reread, I wanted to see if that really was the case.
The fact is plainly that it is not. In the introduction, Le Guin explicitly describes The Left Hand of Darkness not as a prediction of where humanity will in future go, but as a reflection of gender and society at the time it was written; given that it was written in 1969, and both our understanding of gender and of society have changed a lot in the intervening four and a half decades, that it has dated isn’t a surprise. But some of the ways in which it has dated are significant, given that (unlike, say, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) it is still very widely praised for its portrayal of a nonbinary approach to genders. Part of the problem is that the narrator of most of the book is trapped in a very 1960s approach to gender; a very binarist model, with masculine/male superior and feminine/female inferior; public/domestic, forceful/submissive, strong/weak, violent/peaceful, straightforward/dissembling are all read through a male/female binary that reads as singularly outdated to the modern reader. Even those parts of the book narrated by a Gethen native, an “hermaphroditic neuter” as Le Guin describes them, is affected by these things.
A further problem is that these “hermaphroditic neuters” (who enter kemmer, or heat, about four days in twenty-six and only have a dominant binary sex then) are referred to, consistently, as “he”, “him”, “man”, etc; they are gendered, both by Genly Ai and by Estraven, our native narrator, who surely ought to have to hand a gender-neutral pronoun, whether neo or otherwise. As it is, the times they enter kemmer as female become slightly strange, as if there is far more change; this is inconsistent with the actual words on the page, but the implication of the defaulting all characters to male by all the narratorial voices.
The biggest problem from a queer point of view, though, is that queerness is completely erased from The Left Hand of Darkness. Homosexuality is implied as a strange minority act in the Ekumen, and nonexistent on Gethen, the setting of The Left Hand of Darkness, as if given the choice everyone would have heterosexual pairings; sex arises from oppositional sex to the person one is pairing with in kemmer, hence all sexual pairings are heterosexual, even though people are clearly referred to as having preferred sexual characteristics in kemmer. Furthermore, Genly Ai has no experience with anything but an incredibly simple from-birth binary; the only breach of that binary is on Gethen, meaning trans people, nonbinary people, third gender people, agender people, intersex people, etc? None of these people exist in the world of the Ekumen; Le Guin addresses the questions of sex and gender as utterly inseparable except by a subspecies of humanity, and The Left Hand of Darkness makes, of anyone outside the simple binary, an Othered alien. We are not, in the world of The Left Hand of Darkness, people; we are Other, fundamentally alien, fundamentally estranged from humanity, and indeed fundamentally lesser because of it. This is, from that point of view, an incredibly uncomfortable book to read.
As far as a broader review goes, the book has suffered less from the ravages of time. The Left Hand of Darkness includes a look at a something-like-Soviet Communist state and a semi-feudal, semi-anarchist collective state, noting the shortcoming and drawbacks of each; it features a fantastic amount of both politicking and what might be referred to as fantasy-mountaineering, brilliantly balanced with a consistency of characterisation that really works well; and a philosophical strain, drawing on various non-Western philosophies, that requires real engagement with. Indeed, it’s the balance of these elements that works best, but is fundamentally a minority of the book; the mountaineering section is fantastically evocative and by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic, but still essentially concerned with the questions of gender noted above, which the book is ill-prepared to deal with. The best writing in the book is environmental, evoking the cold, stark beauty of an ice sheet or the strange mixture of slush and ash around a frozen volcano; Le Guin excels at these descriptions, undoubtedly.
The Left Hand of Darkness, then, is a book that challenged views of gender in 1970, undoubtedly, although even then not so radically as one might imagine; in 2016, it is hopelessly dated, and even, for those of us for whom the binary is a poor, uncomfortable, damaging fit, actively destructive.
This review is dedicated to Corey Alexander, who was asking for more reviews of The Left Hand of Darkness by trans and enby reviewers!
The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.
But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment.
Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?
DCI Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.
Regeneration is the final novel in Stephanie Saulter’s ®Evolution trilogy, preceded by Gemsign & Binary; it moves the Gems to the point where they are building infrastructure that is vitally important to the future of norm and gem society, where norm political parties are trying to integrate – or at any rate co-opt – gems and their movements, and where gems are deciding what to do with their political and economic voice. In short, the liberation struggle is legally won; the question is where one goes from winning…?
Regeneration isn’t particularly interested in answering the question, so much as in thinking about different possible answers; different characters have different ideas of how to deal with the changing society they live in and the changing status of gems in society, and none of these are clearly the right or wrong answer, although Saulter largely comes down from the start in favour of integration into existing sociopolitical structures. The questions the novel asks are intelligent ones, about marginalised communities and how they can deal with the society that marginalises them; but they’re also threaded through with questions about how one deals with continuing bigotry even when it’s not the societal norm so strongly, and with some discussion of how one deals with internet trolls. Regeneration doesn’t shy away from its questions, even when it can’t necessarily answer them – perhaps especially then.
The strongest part of Regeneration, though, is driven home forcefully by its last section, and is nearly impossible to talk about; Saulter’s extension of humanity to all her characters, her empathy for all of them and willingness to see the possibility of redemption – at least a limited redemption – for anyone has been a strong theme through the ®Evolution series, and Regeneration really capitalises on that, in ways we see coming throughout the novel but that are, when actually executed, pulled off so much more beautifully and brilliantly than the reader could possibly expect. The writing at the end of the book feels like it’s levelled up from even the rest of the book, in terms of humanity, empathy and skill; it couldn’t have been showcased throughout the novel for various reasons but the extent to which it’s put to excellent use in the close is truly amazing.
So far, we’ve not actually talked about the plot. That’s in part because it’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in part because it isn’t the best part of the book; indeed, in some respects, it’s actually quite weak. Regeneration repeated relies on characters not putting two and two together, failing to share information, or, most egregiously, outright being stupid; there are some key elements that would not make sense, that are integral to the tragedy of the ending, if the characters involved didn’t have a huge momentary lapse of common sense suddenly that they simply ignore for the sake of plot. A conspiracy thriller, which this very much is, only works if the conspiracy isn’t obvious; and while the reader knows almost exactly what the conspiracy will do at any given time (from information available to the characters), the characters of the novel, who over the series we’ve grown to like and respect, appear oblivious, in a truly frustrating way.
Regeneration, then, is a novel to be read for its excellent characters and its truly stunning close, rather than for the political-thriller plot that the rest of the series achieved so seemingly effortlessly; Saulter has given us an excellent end for her ®Evolution trilogy, which I highly commend to you, especially with the capstone this gives it.