Intellectus Speculativus

Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall

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You can’t cry in space, but I was giving it a good go.

After all, I’d just been THROWN OUT OF AN AIRLOCK by a horde of ALIENS and had about three minutes left to live.

So you can’t blame me for trying.

But as it turned out, that was just the start of my adventures.

Because very soon it became clear that if I was ever going to get back home, not only would I have to NOT DIE, but me, my friends and our floating robot goldfish would have to SAVE THE WORLD. No, scrap that. THREE WORLDS. All at the same time.

Easy, right?
~~~~~
Reviewing it eighteen-odd months ago, I had some serious issues with Mars Evacuees; but because Sophia McDougall is a lovely person, I decided to give Space Hostages, the sequel, a try regardless… and I’m glad I did!

Space Hostages picks up a little time after Mars Evacuees left off, including enough time having passed for Alice Dare to have published her memoirs of what happened to her last time out – titled, of course, Mars Evacuees; the conceit of both novels being that they have been written by Alice Dare as accurate records of what happened to her and her friends. Part of what that has led to is a development of Alice’s voice, alongside the rest of the cast; it’s a definite improvement from the first book, as McDougall appears to have gotten a better grasp on that voice, and on the characters she’s working with. Part of that, of course, is that they’re all tempered by their experiences; part of it is also that we have the full addition of Thsaaa to the cast, a Morror who we now know, rather than having to find out about, and who creates a different dynamic in the group.

There’s also a better grasp of the interpersonal dynamics of the core cast, in part because McDougall isn’t developing them from scratch, and in part because Space Hostages has some areas of interpersonal conflict that Mars Evacuees didn’t; it gets to examine longer-running tensions, such as between Josephine and Alice, and how those might be handled (McDougall doesn’t tie the tensions that she makes clear are there early, instead allowing them to slowly be healed and revealed across the course of the whole nove), as well as breaking the team apart into different configurations that allow for different pressures – such as splitting up Noel and Carl, which allows Noel to come into his own as an independent character rather than in the shadow of his brother. Unfortunately, the chapters from Noel’s (and Thsaaa’s) point of view are the weakest chapters of Space Hostages; Noel’s voice is weaker than Alice’s, and having the chapters being dialogues between Thsaaa and Noel is something of a problem because they don’t quite flow, especially the first one; there’s something slightly odd about having passages which are apparently recorded in the midst of the events they portray interspersed with retrospective chapters, especially when the former feel retrospective.

Space Hostages is, in some ways, a much more grown up book, full of greys rather than black and whites, with discussion of colonialism (outright statements of its place in British history, in fact), medical ethics, and the complexity of people, among other things; there’s mention, which one assumes children won’t catch (for that matter, how many adults have read Simone de Beauvoir?), of feminist theory. It’s a wonderfully complex novel that McDougall uses to ask all kinds of questions and raise all kinds of issues around real-world situations, without of course giving answers to those questions; the plot revolves around an alien empire that is emphatically evil, but doesn’t place humanity in the role of unmitigated good – and the aliens aren’t evil because alien, but because empire, which McDougall has (rightly) no interest in redeeming.

Many series become stronger as they go on; it’s clear McDougall’s Space Hostages falls into this category, although the ending implies there may not be another novel, and that would be a loss. Alice Dare has a fantastic voice, and one I’ll miss if this is the last time I’m too meet her.

Way Down Dark by J. P. Smythe

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There’s one truth on Australia: you fight or you die. Usually both.

Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one. The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to escape the living hell that is Australia, and to return Earth.

But first Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.
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Smythe has described Way Down Dark as “Mad Max on a generation ship”, and that’s a surprisingly useful shorthand description – it certainly explains the Australian motif of the series (although a reveal towards the end of the first book puts yet another spin on the naming of the ship Australia). But how close can a YA novel get to an 18-rated series…?

The answer is disturbingly close. Smythe recently said that he decided how far was too far by going right up to the line where he could imagine doing those things himself, and stopping there; given that Way Down Dark is a brutal, violent tale of survival, that line is pretty far. Mind you, Smythe does show some restraint – he chose to exclude sexual violence from a novel whose protagonist is a seventeen year old woman, which is a relief and an excellent choice. That still leaves a wide range of disturbing, horrific scenes available to him, and Way Down Dark uses that range freely; bloody violence is a frequent reality of the novel, not necessarily in form of combat but also in characters being beaten to death or murdered over minor infractions. Outside violence, Smythe has a number of viscerally awful descriptions of the Pit at the base of the cylinder that forms the bulk of the Australia; that Pit is where all waste – shit, piss, bodies, et cetera – has been dumped. For generations. Smythe lingers disturbingly, almost lovingly, on the Pit when it’s encountered; Way Down Dark builds it up into a hugely grim thing, and eventually puts Chan right into it.

Of course, this isn’t simply a horror story trying to gross the reader out; Way Down Dark has an awful lot more than simple grossness to it, notably (of course) character and plot.

Those two facets of Smythe’s novel are incredibly strongly intertwined; Way Down Dark is about a character deciding to do the right thing not because of a prophecy, or a sign, or even any indication that she should, but just because that’s the choice she makes. As Chan says, “I’m not special… I’m really not. Anybody could have done what I’m doing, but they didn’t. So I am going to. Maybe that’s enough.” (p202-3) That final sentence is the fundamental question of Way Down Dark: is it enough to simply stand up, as no one special, and interpose yourself between victims and attackers? Is it enough to try and do the right thing, while not knowing exactly what that is, what you’re up against, and even why you’re doing it? Smythe doesn’t want to answer the question, but Chan is a fascinating lens through which to ask it; we first meet her killing her already-dying mother, a combination mercy-killing and totemic protection for Chan with her mother’s ghost (or at least the perception thereof). Every moment after that ties into the moments before, building up a picture of who this girl who killed her mother is, why she did so – and what that means; while also developing her from that moment, changing her, rebuilding and refiguring her into a different person but with the same core, an admirable combination of strategies.

In following Chan’s in her battle against the Lows, a Reaver-like gang who are slowly taking over the ship, and her attempts to save the rest of the non-Low population of Australia, we see any number of chaotic events take place, as well as learning an awful lot about the society of a generation ship that has fallen into anarchy; barter and exchange of goods, the power of gangs, the diminishing resources (and what kind of resources people become willing to use) – Smythe has clearly thought about all of these, and behind Way Down Dark squats a whole huge universe of worldbuilding and thought that didn’t make the final cut. That creates a really lean novel; not a moment isn’t vital, simultaneously building Chan’s character (or someone else’s, or both), advancing the plot, and telling us about the world these characters live in; there’s an efficient economy here that science fiction and fantasy writers often lack, instead opting for sprawling grandiosity or extended passages that add little, things Smythe clearly has no interest in as form follows content.

Way Down Dark is one of those novels that simply stands head and shoulders above their competitors, in this case generation-ship novels and teenage dystopias; Smythe has brought the best from both genres and smashed it together, and then twisted, into a dark, grim future with a fantastic protagonist. If you don’t want to know what happens to Chan after the end of Way Down Dark, you’re on your own, because I’m really looking forward to Long Dark Dusk!

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

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Wasp’s job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-lost ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They’re chosen. They’re special. Or so they’ve been told for four hundred years.

Archivist Wasp fears she is not the chosen one, that she won’t survive the trip to the underworld, that the brutal life she has escaped might be better than where she is going. There is only one way to find out.
~~~~~
Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel of post-apocalypse is receiving a huge buzz, with positive reviews from luminaries like Liz Bourke and Amal El-Mohtar; Archivist Wasp may be dark, dystopian and grim, but it’s getting the same kind of reception as a novel like Uprooted or Goblin Emperor. The question is, how does the novel hold up to the buzz…?

The biggest strength of Archivist Wasp comes from Wasp, its protagonist. Kornher-Stace appears to have taken notes from some of the heroes on this list – but with a certain kind of conscience; Wasp knows how monstrous her actions are, but still commits them, knowing they are necessary for her survival – and making her central rule survival. The novel opens in the middle of a duel for her role as Archivist, against an upstart aiming to take her place; as if to set the scene for the rest of the novel Kornher-Stace has Wasp debate simply letting the upstart kill her… before allowing her bloody-mindedness to instead dictate the alternate course. That bloody-mindedness also leads to Wasp sparing the upstart, against tradition; another example of the ways in which Wasp confounds the expectations placed upon her by her role and the society in which she lives. In tht regard, this has something of the feel of a young adult novel; Archivist Wasp is all about Wasp fighting back against expectations of others and against the easiest course for her life, instead fighting for her independence with a fierce stubborness which is not presented as a wonderful thing to be imitated but instead as a brutal harshness in her that can be used for positive or negative ends.

The only other significant character of Archivist Wasp is the nameless ghost whose quest she takes as her own, for a price; we meet this nameless character a little way into the book as we see Wasp engaging in her role as ghost-hunter, finding, capturing and interrogating ghosts to learn about the apocalypse and to keep her world safe. Ghost, unlike Wasp, is very much an enigma whose character is slowly revealed across the course of the novel; whereas the question of Wasp is about the balance between stubborn rebellion and will to survive at any cost, including her integrity, the ghost is only questions, slowly answered across the course of the novel and the quest. It’s a beautiful paradigm as Wasp and the ghost keep each other guessing, our only two things to grasp first in the physical world and then in the afterlife; Kornher-Stace doesn’t make it easy for the audience, as Wasp is often actively hostile to both ghost and reader (although the tale is told in third-person past), and at times the narrative becomes a little disjointed as it follows Wasp so closely, but it creates a fantastic sense of character.

The sense of setting is much harder to get a grasp on, in part because much of Archivist Wasp takes place in the underworld (a true Hero’s Journey), and in part because it is so geographically specific and imprecise when on the surface; the world Kornher-Stace creates bears a vague resemblance to ours but there’s no sense of how to get from one to the other, although from a couple of mentions it is clear that the novel is set on Earth, and the vagueness of setting can be at times frustrating, making it hard to get a grasp on the plot and what’s happening exactly, as the world doesn’t make sense and so the characters’ actions, motivated by their world, don’t seem to follow anything. This is especially true of Wasp, who Kornher-Stace has a slight problem with keeping on track; every time she has to make a decision she seems to have forgotten the last decision, and the world backs her up in this, itself appearing to have forgotten her prior actions, strangely.

The plot is deceptively simple; Archivist Wasp follows Wasp and the ghost on a quest for someone from the ghost’s life, now dead and in the underworld. Along the way, Wasp discovers more about the pre-apocalyptic world, about the ghost and the person they are searching for, and about her own past; at times these reveals are singularly contrived and seem to come from nowhere, as in the case of the biggest reveal about Wasp’s past which is necessary for the end of the novel but comes from nowhere, and at times they are a little disjointed, but what Kornher-Stace is excellent at is conveying the emotional toll of each revelation. The brutality of the world Wasp comes from and the strangeness and grey cruelty of the (very Homeric) underworld create different challenges – although the repetition of combat is perhaps a bit of a problem, especially when the only toll of much of it is physical, rather than emotional; and at times that repetition is used to excellent effect by Kornher-Stace for character development, but largely it has a feeling of sameness.

Archivist Wasp isn’t really about the simple plot, but about the character trajectories that plot allows; the archetypical hero’s journey to retrieve someone from the afterlife, a staple of stories right back to Hercules and Orpheus, has always told us more about the character making the trip than anything else, and this particular iteration of that journey is no different; Kornher-Stace does that excellently, if at times with a touch too little control of her narrative. I can recommend this, but perhaps a little more warily than many others have done.

Cold Iron by Stina Leicht

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Fraternal twins Nels and Suvi move beyond their royal heritage and into military and magical dominion in this flintlock epic fantasy debut from a two-time Campbell Award finalist.

Prince Nels is the scholarly runt of the ancient Kainen royal family of Eledore, disregarded as flawed by the king and many others. Only Suvi, his fraternal twin sister, supports him. When Nels is ambushed by an Acrasian scouting party, he does the forbidden for a member of the ruling family: He picks up a fallen sword and defends himself. Disowned and dismissed to the military, Nels establishes himself as a leader as Eledore begins to shatter under the attack of the Acrasians, who the Kainen had previously dismissed as barbarians. But Nels knows differently, and with the aid of Suvi, who has allied with pirates, he mounts a military offensive with sword, canon, and what little magic is left in the world.
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Cold Iron is, Stina Leicht says in her afterword, the novel prompted by wondering what Lord of the Rings would have been like had Tolkein been American; leaving aside the vast disparity in length (Cold Iron isn’t much shorter than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is only book one of a series) this is very much epic fantasy in the Tolkeinian mode, albeit with some clear and interesting departures from that model…

The first is in its protagonists; Cold Iron has three protagonists, rather than the whole team of Tolkein, each of whom has help from friends and subordinates, but neither of whom really functions as part of a team of equals. That two of those protagonists are female is more than a cosmetic departure from Tolkein, as is making only one of them a fighter; the other two (both of the women, unfortunately) have different skills, are required to fulfill different roles, and never have to learn to fight, albeit this is because they are insulated from that necessity by position rather than anything else. Nels is, inevitably, our least interesting protagonist; as a soldier he doesn’t get very involved in the political struggles and has the closest journey of any character to the archetypical epic fantasy hero, realising his mysterious power and having to make difficult choices for the good of his kingdom and the world at multiple turns.

Ilta and Suvi, though, are both more static characters, more engaged with diplomacy and politics directly; Ilta is sidelined for an awful lot of the novel and seems little more than a convenient repository of knowledge on multiple occasions, but has some interesting dilemmas about how to use her powers of healing and foresight in various contexts. Cold Iron‘s real star, though, is Suvi, even if the novel often seems not to realise that; a political character moving through various realms of skulduggery and diplomacy, learning how to be a ruler while discovering the compromises any ruler has to make and the sacrifices that must be made, she’s a character who really grows across the course of the book and whose actions actually seem to make a difference, as opposed to Ilta as an accidental catalyst and Nels providing little if any agency at all.

The plot is as slow as one might expect, with much of the book rendered pointless by its ending; Cold Iron sees the breaking and reforging of familial bonds, the rise and fall of Nels and Suvi as powerful, the faltering failure and subsequent repair of a romance between Ilta and Nels, and – the one thing that does change – the war between the Eledoreans and the Acrasians, humans to the southern border. That so much of the novel replicates the status quo ante bellum at its conclusion is unfortunate, because we’ve ploughed through 650 pages to get there; things have advanced, but in quite a rushed nature, and a large part of the early novel wasn’t advancing anything. Mind you, Leicht does give us a compelling ending, and those things that have moved have moved a lot; I’d’ve liked less jumping around in time and more of a focus on how things were changing that we see changed, because much of the action seems to take place in gaps between chapters, rather than before our eyes.

That’s not to say the writing isn’t good; for a book the length of this one, Cold Iron feels much shorter, with punchy, well-written chapters full of action (just rather episodic and often fizzling to nothing), and some excellent moments. The description avoids falling into the Tolkeinian trap of love of every tree, leaf and twig; rather, it gives us a world that is as full as we need it to be to imagine it clearly, and that allows the sections of Cold Iron where Leicht draws on horror tropes to really have a sense of terror and doom to them, of a strange Outside evil. It’s a well-captured world, without trying to reach too far into a total control of the reader’s imagination but directing it well and accurately.

The biggest problem with this book, though, is that we’re rooting for the villains. Cold Iron gives us as heroes a magical species whose royal family and others have a verbal command magic that can be used on anyone; while there are ethical rules around its actual use, these are established early on as frequently broken. Essentially, the kainen can – and do! – bypass consent; every character who can, does this at some point, and Leicht doesn’t seem to interrogate how problematic this is. The Acrasians, humans, don’t have but are affected by this magic, and that’s no small part of what drives them; unaccountable being who can completely control them against their will are an easy enemy to hate – but again: Leicht makes those beings the hero, and does so by simply (at least in this novel) waving away the issues of consent, of agency, that such magic inevitably gives rise to, while using it to prop up a monarchy and class system which is equally unquestioned.

Cold Iron is a bit of a bumpy ride, then, and one whose ultimate destination I at least am rather disturbed by; but Leicht’s characters are interesting and human, and her writing is generally good, so I’m likely to see where the next leg of the journey takes us… given the dramatically changed circumstances of the cast at the end of this novel, it’s sure to be interesting!

Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney

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In the 1980s, poet and activist Roz Kaveney wrote a novel, ‘Tiny Pieces of Skull’, about trans street life and bar life in London and Chicago in the late 1970s. Much admired in manuscript by writers from Kathy Acker to Neil Gaiman, it has never seen print until now…Funny and terrifying by turns, and full of glimpses of other lives, it is the story of how beautiful Natasha persuades clever Annabelle to run away from her life and have adventures, more adventures than either of them quite meant her to have…
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Roz Kaveney is someone I have known for a little while now, and consider a friend; she also showed me a draft of the manuscript for this novel some time before publication. So when Tiny Pieces of Skull finally came out back in late April of this year, I knew I had to read it; and after wrangling with various attempts to lay hands on a copy, I finally got one by mid-May… just when my reviewing dried up. So, rather belatedly, I’m now reviewing the book, having read it nigh on two months ago; sorry for the delay, Roz! (Consider this a late birthday present?)

Tiny Pieces of Skull is itself a tiny book – only 180 pages long – produced by a tiny press – Team Angelica. This feels wrong for someone with a personality, and a reputation, as massive as Roz Kaveney’s; activist, poet, editor, author and critical writer, she has turned her hand to many things in the queer and the science fiction communities, and made friends along the way with luminaries such as Neil Gaiman. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that a novel based on her life-experiences in the 1970s feels larger than life, especially since for the UK at that time the United States of America, where Kaveney was, was larger than life (see Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens for another example of that larger-than-life attitude to the USA). It feels much more fantastical than is the case, purely because of the absurdity of the experiences it contains; and yet it also has an honesty about racism, sexism and transphobia – and how those, and movements fighting some of those – intersect (the portrayal of TERFs is, of course, deservedly unflattering at its kindest).

This is also the kind of book that would make a great piece of evidence for a prosecutor, if statutes of limitation didn’t exist. Tiny Pieces of Skull is very honest about survival as a trans woman in the 1970s: drugs, sex work, and a certain amount of at least proximity to serious crime all feature in the story, and Kaveney treats them in a matter-of-fact manner, as simply things that formed part of her (or rather, her character Annabelle’s) life; it’s a riotous, chaotic, confused life that involves gullible johns, corrupt moralising cops, drug dealers with commitment issues and controlling arseholes as well as a wide range of drag queens and trans women all trying to just get by as best they can in a society that often looks down on and despises them.

If there’s one problem with the book, it’s actually given away by the blurb; this is a novel full of people who are defined by a single character trait. Natasha is beautiful, Annabelle is clever, et cetera; Tiny Pieces of Skull has an awful tendency to reduce everyone else to being bit-players in Annabelle’s life, of significance only because of their significance to her… and worse, always stupider than her, needing her to help them or easily tricked and manipulated by her. While this is inevitable to some extent – no autobiography or memoir casts its protagonist in a villainous role – it grates a tad and starts to feel a little light and glib, as if Kaveney has given up on the realities of her life in favour of a version that feels less like reality and more like reality TV or soap opera, where schemes interact with schemes at every turn and witticisms are the only form of communication. This is especially egregious in the dialogue, which just doesn’t have a ring of verisimillitude to it; if this is fictionalised, then it needs to have the plausibility realism doesn’t need, and which this novel at times definitely lacks.

As an artefact of the 1970s trans scene in America, as a memoir of Kaveney’s life, and indeed as a soap opera of a novel, Tiny Pieces of Skull is a rather marvellous little book; just, perhaps, not one for this particular reader.

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre

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In seventeenth-century France, Louis XIV rules with flamboyant ambition. From the Hall of Mirrors to the vermin-infested attics of the Chateauat Versailles, courtiers compete to please the king, sacrificing fortune, principles and sacred bonds.

Here, Marie-Josephe de la Croix looks forward to assisting her brother, Yves, in the scientific study of the rare sea monster he has captured. But when Marie-Josephe makes a discovery about the sea creature that threatens all her brother, the courtiers and the King understand, it is left to her to defy the institutions that power her world.

But in the decadent court of King Louis, where morality is skewed and corruption reigns – will anyone listen to a single voice? Somehow, she must find the courage to follow her heart and her convictions – even at the cost of changing her life forever.
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Historical fiction is an odd genre, and historical fantasy in many ways an odder one; either it has to posit a wholly alternative history with its strange additions like Judith Tarr, or it has to – like Tim Powers – find the cracks in history to put its truths into, to fit the story into the less well-recorded parts of history. The Moon and the Sun does a strange combination of both.

McIntyre’s novel is set in an unusual timeperiod for a historical novel; the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The revolutionary period following his reign, and the mediaeval period of which his reign was in many ways the post-climax comedown, are more common choices; but The Moon and the Sun takes place in a brief period between the two, in the course of a short time at Versailles. Hence, we are treated to all the expected elements of Versailles; the courtly intrigues, the fantastic grandeur and artistic showmanship on display in the Palace and its surrounds and in the everyday garb of the courtiers, and the near-worship of Louis XIV (and the very mediaeval struggles between Prince and Pope).

Interestingly, McIntyre chooses to show us this through the eyes of a woman of colour, the orphaned daughter of an impoverished French noble recalled from the colonies; the triple-outsider status to the court of our protagonist (as female, non-white and poor) means that Marie-Josèphe de la Croix gives us a view of the court much closer to our own. On the other hand that view at times veers strangely close to a modern view; Marie-Josèphe seems strangely immune to the worship of the Sun-King of the rest of the court, although she respects him, and her attitude to many of the traditions and to the Palace itself feel less authentic than modern, as does her society’s attitude to slavery (slavery was abolished in the French colony of Haiti in 1793, and in French territory more broadly in 1794, although it was restored less than a decade later). The Moon and the Sun doesn’t shy away from the racial attitudes of the French court, including the idea of paleness as more beautiful and the fetishisation of the “exotic”; which allows it to discuss the idea of what makes humanity, and how we recognise humanity in other beings, without discussing racism through nonhumans (because racism is being discussed through straight-up racism).

This is the main theme of the novel; the question of what humanity is, and how we should treat other beings we believe to be human – including how far we should go to help them. The Moon and the Sun gives us mermaids in the court of Louis XIV, captured by Marie-Josèphe’s brother to help Louis XIV find immortality; a quest whose importance is emphasised by the fear of everyone in the novel about what would happen when his son took over (when really the problem was his great-great-grandson). McIntyre slowly builds up the humanity of the mermaids (referred to only ever as sea-monsters), though hints are given from their first appearance; and simultaneously builds up the court intrigues around the mermaids and the status of Marie-Josèphe and her brother in Louis XIV’s good graces, so that there are a combination of different incentives on the different characters involved in the novel to deal differently with the evidence of the humanity of the mermaids.

The Moon and the Sun has all the complicated interpersonal relationships of a courtly intrigue, including one gay relationship that is handled well – between characters protected from the legal and religious consequences of homosexuality by the king; and yet, the two characters involved are also rather problematically portrayed insofar as other relationships and treatment of others go. That’s actually something of a theme; with one exception, the relationships are somewhat toxic – but unfortunately the one healthy relationship in The Moon and the Sun is the one with the protagonist that involves some serious changes to her partner’s attitude to relationships in a rather problematic manner.

In the end, though, The Moon and the Sun is a well-written, thoughtfully undertaken piece of historical fantasy; it’s not perfect in its representations of relationships, though the portrayal of racial issues is strong, but perhaps worth checking out despite its flaws.

Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

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Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. An Army brat, Lois has lived all over—and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Fly straight.

As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won’t be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They’re messing with her mind, somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it’s all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, a guy she knows only by his screenname, SmallvilleGuy…
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Tie-in fiction is often regarded as somehow “lesser” than original fiction, and criticised as being “less imaginative” or “easier to write” than that which has to establish its own universe (although these criticisms aren’t levelled at mimetic fiction, which also doesn’t have to create its own world?); as such, tie-in writers have in the past been seen as second-rank. With luminaries and critically acclaimed authors like Tobias Buckell, Karen Traviss, Greg Bear and John Shirley writing tie-in novels (all for the Halo series), that perception is changing, and Gwenda Bond’s Lois Lane: Fallout should be stacked up with those novels in demonstrating why tie-in fiction can be just as good as original-world novels.

Lois Lane: Fallout is a true Lois Lane tale; unlike many of those told in comics, Superman doesn’t feature (well, not quite), and this isn’t told in the cracks around a Superman story. Instead, Bond sets her story at a Metropolis high school, with Lois as a student attending the school; she finds ways to tie into the traditional elements of a Lois Lane story – the Daily Planet, Perry White, conflicts with her father General Lane, and of course investigative journalism that annoys the authorities – while never losing sight of the constraints she has placed herself, and her protagonist, under by making her a high school student rather than an independent adult. A consistent threat in Fallout comes from within her own family, as Lois’ disruptive presence at schools (a feature that feels reminiscent of early Buffy) leads her father, General Lane, to want to send her to a military academy.

The story is one of the military-industrial complex and how it is insinuating itself into education and into gaming culture. That might sound like both a dry subject and old hat, and indeed it has been told before in the DCU, but Bond isn’t interested in talking about America’s Army is a recruitment tool for the military or how schools are used by the military to normalise specific kinds of violence; instead, she’s interested more in military experimentation on people without proper consent, and problematic studies that cross lines between the military and education. Lois Lane: Fallout is set in a kind of cyberpunk world with virtual reality headsets and a degree of interactivity that modern gaming still doesn’t allow, and from that she has created a world where the military might exploit that in ways reminiscent of Ender’s Game; the unwitting use of children for military purposes and the idea of gaming as an analogue to, and mask for, actual warfare are both points of interest which Bond engages with in the novel, and shows Lois herself troubled by.

But this isn’t just a political novel with a dry message to send; actually, it’s not that at all. At its core, this is a high school story combined with an origin story; hence, Lois Lane: Fallout sets the stage for the Lanes to conflict over the proper use of the military, especially in an age of extraordinary individuals (the DEO doesn’t come up by name but at least a precursor organisation clearly exists) and also sets the stage for Lois to become Perry White’s star reporter at the Daily Planet, recruited straight from school thanks to exposes on the youth section of the website. It’s engaged with the changing world of the 21st Century well in that regard; Perry is worried about the newspaper dying, and thinks this online experiment will at best prolong that death, while Lois is still deeply passionate and a believer in curated news sources and trusted news organisations in a way Perry no longer can be.

It’s also, as mentioned, a high school story; Bond gives us the expected cliqueyness of American high school fiction, and turns it into something more sinister over the course of the novel, as Lois Lane: Fallout engages with ideas of groupthink, peer pressure and ostracism in literalised ways that provide metaphors for everyday experiences in the way science fiction is so often said to do; Bond is also incredibly sympathetic to her teenage cast, never treating them as stupid or immature simply because of their age, but rather giving them agency, independence and a fierce sense of individuality not yet blunted by maturity, making them read much more like real teenagers than many authors accomplish.

Occasionally, the novel can feel a little light, and its characters descend at times into tropes – the gamer crowd are social misfits who wear all-black, there’s the preppy rich kid who is actually not as rich as he seems so puts on a front which makes him unlikeable, there’s the mean headmaster who just gets in the way, et cetera; and Lois Lane: Fallout treats its themes a little simplistically, with a generally anti-authority, anti-industrial message that could do with being better thought out and more rounded than the simplistic teen rebellion it at times comes across as, but these are failure modes of good YA, rather than being alien to the genre or feeling intrusive, rather than simply a bit of a let down.

Lois Lane: Fallout may not be the best superhero story out there; after all, it’s not really a superhero story. But it is a fantastic tale told using the trappings of the DCU, and a wonderful exploration of an oft-maligned character. I recommend it.