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Barbary Station by R. E. Stearns

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Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates — only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew — and survive long enough to enjoy it.

Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury — they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave — so there’s no way out.
~~~~~
I’ve been excited for this one ever since Navah Wolfe first started talking about it, describing it as “lesbian women of color space pirates vs a murderous AI” on Twitter. I’ve been waiting since then with bated breath to get my hands on Stearns’ debut, and Barbary Station is finally here!

Barbary Station is primarily a fun novel about swashbuckling pirates, even with the darker concerns at its heart. The whole book is focused on a rather simple premise, of a kind perhaps familiar to players of Portal: the need to use intelligence and brute force in combination to escape a murderous situation in which the clock is ticking down to inevitable death. Stearns plays with the concept a little by expanding the group who need rescuing – not just the protagonist, or her and her lover, but a whole merc group cum pirate crew and a group of refugees trapped on the space station too.

The writing is, on the whole, the breeziness that this kind of plot needs; Barbary Station is tense and dramatic, but those things meant to raise the stakes don’t land with quite the emotional force Stearns needed. While no one is safe, and child death is used on multiple occasions as an emblem of ruthlessness on the part of those opposing our protagonists, these deaths are little felt, in part because we don’t tend to know the characters well; even to the rest of the cast, they feel passing, as the impacts wear off too quickly. The action scenes are where Stearns is at her best; fast-paced and slightly chaotic, they don’t feel choreographed, and that makes those parts of Barbary Station the best by a distance.

Stearns’ other strength is the relationship between three of her characters, the two viewpoint protagonists and one secondary; that is, Iridian, Adda, and Adda’s brother Pel. Barbary Station is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Adda and Iridian, and their love is touching and beautifully written; the way each is deeply concerned with the safety of others and knows their own, and each other’s, strengths is movingly told. They are the central star around which the other orbits, and Stearns gets that emotional payload across without it feeling forced or meaningless. Barbary Station‘s only other emotional weight is that between Adda and Iridian, as newcomers to the station, and Pel, Adda’s brother but who brought them to the station with promises of wealth; it’s a well written developing relationship that really does help to ground everything.

Unfortunately, the relationships within the rest of the crew, and between crew and Adda and Iridian, are much less solid. Barbary Station tends towards light characterisation, and lightly worn emotion; things that should have extremely heavy emotional impact might have that briefly, but then it rapidly wears off – just as Stearns has physical impacts surprisingly rapidly vanish from the characters. This gives a sense of superficiality to the book; nothing particularly matters to the characters for long, and where Stearns is trying to invest us in them, that really falls down.

A final problem for Barbary Station is how contrived it becomes as the action ramps up to the climax. Stearns introduces not only multiple additional vectors of problems, but also a whole new faction, to the station as she brings things to their head; the split in reader attention is frustrating and the attempt to heighten all the stakes at once actually just serves to undercut all the stakes before, as if Stearns hadn’t felt like there was any danger until this moment so had to add more. Barbary Station comes to a head less with a bang than a bit of a chaotic whimper, sadly.

In the end, I’m judging Barbary Station by the wrong standards, though. Stearns doesn’t appear to be writing high literature; she’s writing a fun, swashbuckling novel, with action and (well-written lesbians). On that front, at least, she unequivocally succeeds; just don’t look too deep.

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An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

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Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.

Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.
~~~~~
When a book comes with a blurb from a thriller-writing sensation like Lee Child, and a stellar review from the wonderful Amal El-Mohtar, that’s already a fascinating pitch to me. When the author is themselves an agender person, and writing about queer characters? Well, finally, An Unkindness of Ghosts came out, and I got a copy…

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a generation ship novel, and in many ways, partakes of the standard tropes of that subgenre of science fiction novel; including a dystopian social structure evolved over the generations, myths of a long-ago Earth, and something going wrong that means the journey is, apparently, to those on the ship, now endless. Solomon’s innovations are on the more specific, than the abstract, level; what they do with these tropes is where their genius comes in, how they execute this standard model.

The key influence in the worldbuilding of An Unkindness of Ghosts is plantation slavery as practiced in the United States of America. Solomon has taken that social model and transposed it, almost without alteration, to a spaceship, the HSS Matilda. The way the whole social life of the ship works is based on slavery and racism, and Solomon doesn’t shy away from the brutality of plantation slavery; the opulence of the white rich is contrasted sharply with the abject poverty and abuse of the black slave-classes.

Regular, gendered violence is part of An Unkindness of Ghosts, something Solomon’s characters recognise as both appalling and inevitable (Aster, our protagonist, takes daily precautions to reduce the physical harm rape would do; but the characters are scarred and hurt by their experiences). Similarly, racist language and thought permeates An Unkindness of Ghosts, the way it permeates a good novel about the 19th century Southern United States of America: presented and represented as part of life, as something to be struggled with, but also absolutely unacceptable and wrong.

One of the joys of the novel is how queer Solomon has made it. Aster, our main viewpoint character in An Unkindness of Ghosts, is intersex and bisexual; it’s not one of the defining features of her character. More key to her character is that she is what we would refer to as autistic, and that is portrayed beautifully and sensitively by Solomon; they don’t go in for stereotypes, like making Aster unfeeling or unempathetic, but think about what lies under behaviours such as an apparent lack of sense of humour or excessive literalism. Aint Melusine, who brought Aster up, is asexual and aromantic; the chapter from her viewpoint is absolutely beautiful, and while centring her asexuality also expands on things like her feelings about being a nanny for the white upper classes of the ship. Theo, the Surgeon, is trans and possibly homosexual; he doesn’t seem wholly clear himself about his gender, but clearly he feels uncomfortable with the cis male role he is socially forced in to as part of the ship’s heirarchy. And so on; there are various queer characters in the novel, and Solomon portrays them honestly and humanly, as imperfect and not defined by their queerness.

An Unkindness of Ghosts faces them with a homophobic, queerphobic society, driven by a twisted set of religious beliefs very recognisable as evangelical Christianity with a pinch more Calvinism thrown in for good measure. Solomon, in their unflinching look at prejudice, doesn’t have much interest in showing the caring face the prejudiced man shows to those he believes his equal; instead, they are solely focused on the impacts of prejudice on those who suffer it, and the novel is stronger for that focus. As a result, the white characters tend to be less fully fleshed out than the black ones, but also rather more infrequent and minor, too; and it’s a refreshing change to not be asked to empathise with the enforcers of an appalling social order.

An Unkindness of Ghosts isn’t solely an exploration of the brutality of plantation life, of racism, of queerphobia; it’s also a novel about curiosity and discovery. Aster’s story is about learning, and about finding out what underlies much of the ship; each discovery leads her further into future discoveries, and Solomon makes them all link beautifully. Each discovery also brings her further into conflict with the heirarchy of the ship, and Solomon doesn’t flinch from inflicting tragedy on both Aster and the reader as a result; the raising stakes are deftly done, and darkly honest. This gives the climax of the novel incredible power; it is a perfect culmination for both the plot of the novel and its emotional stakes, while being very open for the reader to imagine what comes next.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is one of those novels that just changes what the reader thinks of as possible with the genre it partakes of, by proving just how much excellence is possible; it’s also a brutal, powerful, gut-wrenching read. This is Rivers Solomon’s debut, so where they go next, and how they find space to level up, is anyone’s guess…!

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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

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America, 1920s. A plague is spreading, and it’s spreading fast, from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.

It’s an epidemic of freedom, joy and self-expression, being spread by Black artists, that makes anyone who catches it desperate to dance, sing, laugh and jive. It’s the outbreak of Jazz, Ragtime and Blues onto the world scene; the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world. And it’s threatening to dismantle the whole social order.

Working to root out the plague by any means possible – even murder – are the members of The Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to puritanism and control. But, deep in the heart of Harlem, private eye and Vodun priest Papa LaBas is determined to defend his flourishing ancient culture against their insidious plans. And so, he finds himself locked in a race against the Order to find an ancient Egyptian text which might just be the key to keeping the virus of freedom alive.
~~~~~
I first heard of Mumbo Jumbo through Tor.com, specifically this essay in Nisi Shawl’s fantastic History of Black Science Fiction series. Given Shawl’s recommendation, I picked it up – from the general fiction, not SFF, section – as soon as I saw the new Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Mumbo Jumbo is an odd book; there is a single narrative strain to it, a single plot, but the way Reed tells his story, it feels rather more disjointed, more confused, less cohesive as a single thing. This is clearly an intentional choice, and lends a fascinating kind of puzzle quality to the book; working out how different things, different characters, and different aspects of the novel fit together with each other becomes a harder task, but also a more rewarding one, than in a more traditional Western narrative. Reed rejects these models to combine different forms into a single work, creating a modernist experimental novel.

That novel follows the phenomenon of Jes Grew, a kind of socio-spiritual movement which combines dance, religion, and free decolonised thought; Mumbo Jumbo can be read as (relatively) mimetic if the reader chooses, though Reed’s inclusion of supernatural elements, and a consciousness and intention behind Jes Grew, suggests such a reading would lose something key. The different things Reed draws into the story of Jes Grew include Western global colonialism, Black cultural development and radical Black thought in 1920s America, an internationalist tendency, a resistance to Western patronisation of other cultures, and more.

One of the ways Reed takes on imperialism in Mumbo Jumbo is through the Mu’tafikah, an internationalist and multiracial group dedicated to taking non-Western artifacts from Western museums and returning them to the cultures from which they were plundered. Reed is unabashedly on the side of these liberators, and the novel has, in its occasional moments of focus on them, an absolutely brilliant heist quality and sense of lightness. The characters of the Mu’tafikah are some of the most oddball of the novel, and absolutely wonderfully characterised, with their own prejudices but working together through them against a common enemy.

The other, more central plot of the novel follows the attempts of the Wallflower Order to suppress Jes Grew. Mumbo Jumbo posits an ideological system called Atonism that is upheld across the West, and seems to have its roots in Judaism; there is a somewhat antisemitic undercurrent in the way that Judaism is treated as a (part of) a shadowy force that has constantly attempted to suppress Black thought and art down history. The different ways the Atonists try to control power, and the different Atonist organisations – including the Knights Templar, and the Masons, naturally – are unsurprising and typical of this kind of conspiracy, but the way Reed writes them as barely competent and always on the edge of exposure and total failure is refreshing. Similarly, so is the opposition to the conspiracy; Reed gives us different individuals working at cross-purposes to the same ends of Black liberation, and Mumbo Jumbo draws both comic and tragic power from the factionalism of the resistance to White supremacy and the Wallflower Order.

The actual characters of Mumbo Jumbo are, given how intellectual the underpinnings of the novel are, actually fully fleshed out and interesting characters, far more than just authorial constructs. Reed gives us a broad cast, including Black gangsters and hustlers, White newsmen and bigots, a VouDou priest who also has a sideline in private detection, a Nation of Islam forerunner, and more. They’ve all got pasts, and perspectives on the Jes Grew phenomenon and the state of America; they’ve all got different interests outside the focus of the novel which they attend to from time to time, taking time away from the plot only to appear again, or even being followed while doing something of little immediate bearing. Mumbo Jumbo‘s pages are peopled by characters who are not only fully fleshed out but also familiar; not as tropes, but as people one might know, might have encountered in life, and Reed makes them all feel like old friends.

Mumbo Jumbo is a bit of a jumble of a novel, but it’s also a work of genius; a modernist masterpiece, a patchwork of different elements that arguably ought not to work together, but that Reed brings together with a confidence and style that makes it look almost easy. This is a strange, mind-bending read, like little else I’ve read.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
~~~~~
Jesmyn Ward is a previous winner of the National Book Award, a recipient this year of a MacArthur genius grant, drawing parallels with fellow NBA winner and MacArthur grant awardee Ta-Nehisi Coates; whereas Coates’ work on America is largely in the medium of nonfiction, Ward’s meditations on the country are through the medium of fiction.

Ward’s latest, Sing, Unburied, Sing, takes the American roadtrip, and twists it ever so slightly. Not only is this a roadtrip of a mixed-race family to meet their father on his release from the state penitentiary, there are also ghosts and supernatural forces mixed up in things, as well as drugs and intergenerational familial relations and resentments. Ward doesn’t resist complexity here; the whole book is centred on the tangled morality and reality created by the white supremacist, patriarchal state. Sing, Unburied, Sing doesn’t provide a simple moral solution, or any solutions at all, to the various problems which lie at its heart. Ward doesn’t seem interested in that so much as in using her art to lay out the problems, letting others look for solutions.

Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a political manifesto of a novel, though. Ward has a lot of heart in here; the characters are absolutely brilliant. Leonie’s tangled relationship with her children, with her boyfriend, with her parents, with the parents of her boyfriend, and with her past, make her a complex and difficult character. The tensions she feels are beautifully conveyed, even when the reader doesn’t wholly empathise with her reactions. Similarly, Jojo’s maturation coinciding with his resistance to Leonie’s attempts to be a mother are beautifully conveyed; Ward somehow manages to get inside the psychology of a teenage boy fantastically, and really brings him to life, making his strands of Sing, Unburied, Sing incredibly powerful. The contrast between the way the two characters see the same events, especially at key emotional moments, is absolutely brilliant, and the alternating viewpoints really bring that out.

The rest of the cast are a little thin; this is especially true of Misty and Michael, Leonie’s friend and her boyfriend, but also of Mam and Pop, Leonie’s parents with whom she and her children live. Sing, Unburied, Sing gets into their heads a bit, especially in the case of Pop, whose past in the same pentitentiary Michael is being released from forms a key lynchpin of the novel, but not enough to really make them characters. Ward does this even more so with Michaela, or Kayla, Leonie’s daughter; while a toddler has limited interiority, the level displayed by Michaela seems to shift repeatedly across the course of the novel.

So far, this review has not touched on the plot. Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a plot-driven novel; in some ways, Ward has written a kind of partial biography of these characters, and as such, there is less a plot than a series of connected events that form a life. These moments are powerfully written and joined by some beautiful, elegaic writing; both the darkness and light of family are exposed, and some of the absurdities of road trips, as well as their dangers, are made clear by Ward. This is at times a very visceral novel, both emotionally and physically, and it is in these moments that it really grips the reader.

There are two mysteries threaded through Sing, Unburied, Sing; one, which has an obvious conclusion to the reader far before it is revealed to the characters, is entangled with Pop’s incarceration at Larchman, and his attempts to protect a fellow inmate, Ritchie. The other is the murder of Given, Leonie’s older brother, by Michael’s cousin; this gives rise to a complex relationship between Michael and Leonie, as well as Leonie’s family. Both are founded on American white supremacy, and Ward doesn’t shy away from the manifestations of that in personal interactions or the state itself; the long shadow of slavery and Jim Crow are never far from sight in the novel.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward has given us an artistic reaction to American white supremacy; and it is a beautiful, powerful, and intelligent, damning reaction. I highly recommend it, and afterwards, her Guardian essay about raising a black son in America. Vital reading.

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The Fisher of Bones by Sarah Gailey

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The Prophet is dead.

The eyes of the Gods have turned to his daughter. But she isn’t ready. Not for the whispers in her ear, for the divinations… for the blood. Her people’s history and their future, carved by ancients into the bones of long dead behemoths, are now her burden. Only she can read them, interpret the instructions, and guide them to the Promised Land.

Their journey is almost at an end, but now, without the Prophet, she must find a way to guide them to the place they will call Home. Through blood and through sand, against the will of her own flock, against the horrors that haunt the darkness, only she can bring her people Home.

The Prophet is dead. Long live the Prophetess.
~~~~~
I’ve already reviewed Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo duology on the blog, so the author needs no real introduction; The Fisher of Bones was published for free in serialised form at the fantastic Fireside Fiction, as well as in a collected edition that came out halfway through the serialisation; this review is of the collected volume.

The Fisher of Bones is essentially a religious novella; it is about Fisher, who has taken the place of her father, Fisher, as the prophet of the Children of the Gods leading them from a secular land which has banished its divinities to a Promised Land described in revealed scriptures on the bones of extinct creatures. The plot describes the journey from the point at which Fisher’s father dies to the arrival at the Promised Land; along the way, the pilgrims meet and bring into their ranks outsiders, lose members, and have to deal with logistical problems. And then, of course, they arrive.

The simplicity of the plot is a strength, given what Gailey is really concerned with in The Fisher of Bones: faith and authority. Fisher is, after all, a new prophet to her flock, and Gailey deals with some of the consequences of that, such as the mistrust attendant upon her among some and the lack of faith in her ability to lead. The different manifestations of religious faith are also brilliantly handled; Fisher’s essentially nonhierarchical faith running up against the increasing idea of a hierarchy among some of her flock, for instance, or the way Fisher’s attitudes, and those of others, are permeated by the sense that everything the gods give is a positive gift, even if it is not always immediately apparent as such. The handling of faith is very sensitive and intelligent, and Gailey really embraces the centrality of it to her characters and plot.

The other big theme Gailey deals with is fertility and blood. The Fisher of Bones is one of the few stories centring a woman where periods play pivotal roles in the plot and emotional development of the story; in different ways, and at different times, characters’ periods or lack thereof is key. Similarly, Fisher’s pregnancy is brilliantly described, although the mysticism around her giving birth is a little frustrating; the physicality of the fertile womb is wholly embraced in Gailey’s writing and shown with a rare bluntness.

That isn’t to say The Fisher of Bones is simply a dry exploration of big themes. Fisher is a fascinating character, as is her friend Naomi; both are practical women with faith, whose practicality, faith and friendship can put them at odds or in alliance. The way the two are developed and written across the course of the novella is fascinating and beautiful. Unfortunately, they’re the only two particularly solid characters; the closest to another we see is Marc, the husband of Fisher, whose character is rather two dimensional and undergoes a dramatic revelation part way through to become a very different, equally two dimensional character, with little discussion of the effect of that on the relationship between the two characters.

The Fisher of Bones packs perhaps its best punch at the very close of the novella; Gailey fantastically turns everything upside down in a wholly unexpected way, and reconfigures everything that has come before. To say too much would be to spoil the impact of a brilliant close, though, to a novella that, while not as good as some of her other work, is still a brilliant piece of writing from an excellent author.

Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey and Pablo Defendi, publisher of Fireside Fiction which published Fisher of Bones in both serialised and collected forms, are both friends of the reviewer.

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The Stone In The Skull by Elizabeth Bear

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The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.

They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered pieces of a once great Empire.
~~~~~
Returning to the world of completed series seems to be popular in fantasy at present; Tad Williams has returned to Osten Ard, K. W. Jeter has returned to steampunk London, and Elizabeth Bear has returned to the world of the Eternal Sky once more, and to characters from her story ‘The Ghost Makers’ in Fearsome Journey

The Stone in the Skull takes place in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, but in a different part of that world; we’ve moved south from the events of the earlier trilogy, and later, to the Lotus Kingdoms, some years after the fall of the Uthman Caliphate in Shattered Pillars. Bear takes us from one place to the other with a certain knowingness; the start of the novel sees the Dead Man and the Gage travelling south from Messaline to the Lotus Kingdoms bearing a message, and that journey is also, of course, the journey the reader is taking. It’s a very well done transition, and the journey itself, as well as being a cliche of the genre, also allows the reader to get a different view of the Lotus Kingdoms than is presented from the monarchs’ viewpoints.

If there’s a problem of the worldbuilding, it’s the timeline. The Stone in the Skull, especially in combination with ‘The Ghost Makers’, reads as if it has a very inconsistent historical chronology; timescales shift and blur, relations and family trees compress and expand in strange ways, and the novel seems to have a chronology that feels mythical in its blurriness rather than the more historical feel the rest of the novel gives its history.

The Stone in the Skull has four main viewpoint characters; the Dead Man and the Gage alternate chapters with two of the rajnis of the the Lotus Kingdoms: Mrithuri, the unmarried young rajni of Sarathi-lae, the richest kingdom, surrounded by the others; and Sayeh, mother, widower, and shandha (essentially, a trans woman), rajni of Ansh-Sahal, the poorest of the kingdoms. The four different perspectives on the Lotus Kingdoms and the world more broadly allow for a wider understanding of things, especially as the different religious approaches of the Dead Man and the native inhabitants of the Lotus Kingdoms are so variant.

The other strength this central cast gives to The Stone in the Skull is the diversity of voices. Bear has always been excellent at characterisation, and this novel is no exception; from the cynical worldweariness of the Gage through to the blunted youth of Mrithuri, from the emptiness and faith of the Dead Man to the absolute maternal devotion of Sayeh, these four characters have different but in some ways similar drives, and different voices and personalities. They’re easily distinguished, and their different views on the same events are fascinating.

The Stone in the Skull‘s brilliant cast goes beyond its four viewpoint characters; the servants of the various monarchs we encounter, the caravan members Gage and the Dead Man guard on their journey to the Lotus Kingdoms, all are human characters with a good deal of interiority we see hinted at, and their own agendas. Some of the characters’ hidden agendas feel like they’re hinted at very strongly only to be subverted, whereas others have agendas that are much more straightforwardly open, but none are without agenda.

Bear has very few straightforwardly evil characters; unfortunately, both of those who are are the two people with disabilities in The Stone in the Skull, the two rajas of the other Lotus Kingdoms vying to reunify them. Both are caricatured, and their representation is singularly unsympathetic; they may gain interiority later in the series, but at this point both are simply evil, from the points of view from which we have seen them, in one case to the point of cartoonish.

Finally, The Stone in the Skull is another showcase for Bear’s continuing excellence with prose. From the boredom and excitement of the start of the novel, through the rising tensions and complex politics of the body of the book, to the climactic moments of the end, the pacing is fantastic, and the flow of the prose fits the shape of events and the reactions of our viewpoint characters to them perfectly. This book draws the reader in deeply and hard.

I’m hoping later books in the series make the villains less two dimensional and less frustratingly caricatured, but even with that criticism, The Stone in the Skull is an absolutely fantastic epic fantasy from a master of the genre.

Disclaimer: Elizabeth Bear is a friend. I am one of her Patreon patrons.

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When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

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To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
~~~~~
When The Moon Was Ours had come to my attention even before it won the 2016 Tiptree Award, given that Anna-Marie McLemore’s novel features trans characters, immigrant characters, and magical realism; the Tip win just raised its profile for me, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it…

When The Moon Was Ours is one of those books that really speaks to me as a trans reader. McLemore’s narrative isn’t solely concerned with trans narratives, though one of the central characters is an immigrant mixed-race trans boy (a kind of character we see all too rarely in fiction generally and speculative fiction particularly); but it’s the narrative of transness that really spoke to me, so it’s where we’ll start. McLemore threads throughout the novel the way Samir feels about his body, and about his gender; When The Moon Was Ours talks about gender dysphoria and the disconnect trans people can feel from their bodies, as well as the way some embrace theirs. It talks about the social stigma towards trans people, and how we internalise that, and how that shame manifests in our self-image. It talks about trans people’s sexuality, about the conflict or congruence between anatomy and emotion. McLemore really cuts through the normal cliches of a trans story, and instead tells something true, recognisable, and because of it, heartbreaking.

This is a book that is about much more than its trans protagonist, though. When The Moon Was Ours also has a cis female protagonist, marked as different from her community by her origin (falling out of a water tower) and by the roses that grow from her wrist. Miel has a tragic backstory, which is slowly revealed over the course of the book; as well as a present which has both its beauties, like her mother-figure Aracely, and her romance with Samir, and its threats, like the Bonner sisters. These aren’t contradictory, although they are in tension at times; it’s the tension that gives rise to the story, and McLemore plays it perfectly, with the teenage emotionality given free rein to really be extreme and powerful.

Every character in When The Moon Was Ours has their struggle; there are only really eight major characters – Samir, Miel, Samir’s mother, Aracely, and the Bonner sisters – but most of the minor characters, such as the Bonner parents and Miel’s own parents, are fleshed out as well. Those we encounter once tend to be a little more one-dimensional and simplistic, but they are really props for the eight core members of the cast to interact with and around; those eight members are intensely real and human, each with secrets of their own, and with their own different, difficult pasts and mysteries.

If When The Moon Was Ours has a flaw, it’s in the way it deals with its magical realism. While some aspects – the rose, for instance – are beautiful and powerful, others seem more laboured, and drawn out; the glass pumpkins of the Bonner farm are strange and beautiful, but little more than a pretty symbol, and a metaphor that really wasn’t necessary and didn’t add anything – or get meaningfully addressed, leaving McLemore’s idea a little half-baked. This is a tendency throughout the book, where symbolism trumps anything else, just layering it on without consideration for what that would actually mean for the characters, or anything else.

This is slightly undercut by the prose of the novel. McLemore’s style is very poetic and flowing; When The Moon Was Ours isn’t told as mimetic fiction, which means some of the disjoints, and some of the excessively-heavy, underbaked symbolism isn’t too jarring, because the novel as a whole treats itself as a piece of folklore. There are references, which feel at times a little too self-conscious, to the way Miel and Samir have become myth in the village; the novel tends to forget those between times, and while poetic, is essential a straightforward fabulist narrative. The mixed approach weakens the effect of either of these styles a little, although the language is still beautiful and penetrating.

In the end, though, When The Moon Was Ours tore my heart out and handed it to me on a platter as a bare, naked, vulnerable, beautiful thing. If you’re trans, it may well do the same for you. McLemore has written a fantastic, beautiful romance, and one well worthy of her Tiptree win.

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