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Phantoms of the Midway by Seanan McGuire
McGuire’s Persephone retelling, centred on a fading American circus, is a beautiful and sweet story, that recasts its central couple as women, and Hades as not an abductor of Persephone but as the person willing to tell her the truth about herself. It’s a moving, emotional story, and one with a bite at the end; the way McGuire changes the nature of the six-month deal is absolutely brilliant, and impressively new. Talk about coming out of the gate strong!
The Justified by Ann Leckie
Leckie takes an Egyptian myth and makes it science fictional; there are traces of the same interests in power as she shows in the Raadch trilogy and in Raven Tower, but compressed, and reworked into the form of the myth, which she follows pretty faithfully – with her own twist, and a change of agency that turns the whole thing on its head in interesting ways.
Fisher-Bird by T. Kingfisher
Kingfisher’s aggressively Southern retelling of the Twelve Labours of Hercules is a fun fable, but the telling suffers from the strength of voice; the story works, and is very close to the standard Greek myths, but the Fisher-Bird is a frustrating narrator, and the story feels longer than it needs to be. If you’re a fan of this narrative mode, though, you’ll love it.
A Brief Lesson In Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse
This is a sort of flipside to McGuire’s story, thematically; it’s about loss, and grief, and being driven to extremes by grief. It’s very well written, and the way Roanhorse extends contemporary Native concerns into the future is excellently done; the impacts of fame are well handled, and the love that makes the central character make the decisions he does is well portrayed and believably written.
Bridge of Crows by JY Yang
This is a beautifully told melancholic story; it feels similar to the videogame Journey, in its aesthetics, but its story is more revolutionary, and more pending, than that. The way Yang builds their narrative through a series of sacrifices and the results of those is expected, but the conclusion to the story is less neat than we might usually expect; instead, it is left open, in a very intentional and interesting narrative choice.
Labbatu Takes Command of the Flagship Heaven Dwells Within by Arkady Martine
If you’ve read A Memory Called Empire, you have some idea what to expect here; playing with history, narrative, and different forms, to give different perspectives on a singular set of events, reset into space, and without clear answers or truths in many cases. It’s a very effective display of Martine’s talents, and feels like there are many more stories in this world at its corners waiting to be told.
Wild To Covet by Sarah Gailey
Gailey’s rural resetting of the Thetis myth didn’t work as successfully as McGuire’s; while powerful, it felt like it moved a certain amount of intentionality onto Thetis, and a degree of cruelty towards her child, while also absolving the men around her of responsibility, in some key ways. The story is inevitably beautifully written and the end cruel and right, but as a whole it left a sour taste in my mouth.
¡Cuidado! ¡Que Viene El Coco! By Carlos Hernandez
Hernandez’ story feels a little sickly sweet; which is surprising, given the darkness of what it is dealing with. It’s well-accomplished, and the science fictional elements are small but well-presented in a way that is very effective, but at the same time, the end feels rather too neat and simple, and excessively wholesome, in a rather frustrating way. In a volume of children’s stories, it might have fit; here, it felt out of place.
He Fell Howling by Stephen Graham Jones
This was a rather uninteresting werewolf origin story; the twist at the end is mildly interesting and plays with the Lycaon myth, but fundamentally, it’s a horror story that isn’t particularly doing anything new in the genre it’s playing in. Well written but unoriginal.
Curses Like Words, Like Feathers, Like Stories by Kat Howard
Howard’s fascination with stories, and the power of stories, and stories as magic is one I share, and this story was, inevitably, one of my favourites in the volume; it’s a beautiful and simple story, that mixes its frame narrative with its internal narrative, and splits and moves across timelines while being completely clear. Howard’s control of the narrative strands is fantastic, and her ability to use few words to make you feel for a character is brilliant.
Across the River by Leah Cypress
Cypress’ story feels unusually melancholy for this collection; but appropriately so for much of Jewish folklore, of which this is a reworking of two different pieces. It’s well told, although at times a little pat, and the Jewishness of it is never something Cypress allows the reader to lose sight of; it’s very much engaged with a modern religious tradition, and working with that in clever ways.
Sisyphus in Elysium by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is another weak one; while the ideas in it at times are strong, fundamentally it’s all about a man finding redemption and being rewarded with a woman, and it’s not a particularly interesting version of that trope. The moments when it seems to be working against that grain are undermined by other narrative choices Ford makes, leaving us with rather of an old-fashioned story, really.
Kali_Na by Indrapramit Das
Das’ story is a story about hope in a cyberpunk future, and about community and compassion; it’s a powerful and fascinating one, engaging with modern living faith and thinking about extensions of that faith into the future, and how it might look. It’s not actively predictive, but the predictive possibilities of it lend the character at its centre ever more depth; and her choices have weight and potency to them as we see ourselves reflected in them.
Live Stream by Alyssa Wong
Wong’s Actaeon retelling opts for one of the versions of the myth in which Artemis is revenging herself on a predator; it is also a parable about GamerGate and revenge porn and harassment mobs, sadly a fact of life for women on the internet as it currently is. It’s powerful, and dark, and pulls no punches in holding up a mirror to our culture and demanding we look ourselves in the eyes; brutally brilliant. It’s also hopeful, and a discussion of female agency and power and reclamation of both those things, and Wong makes that balance and shift with grace and skill.
Close Enough for Jazz by John Chu
Chu’s story is less a retelling of a myth than playing around the neglected corners of a mythology; but it’s a fascinating piece of play. The characters and world he build feel very real, and the dilemmas involved feel all too believable; there are points when reading this was a struggle, because the issues involved hit very close to home to me as a reader. It’s a simple little story, and one whose conceits fit together excellently with the characters playing in them.
Buried Deep by Naomi Novik
The Minotaur has been retold by any number of writers, perhaps most lastingly by Mary Renault; Novik’s crack at the myth feels rather half-formed, rather than full-fledged. The attempt to have it both ways with the Minotaur and Theseus both as heroic, positive figures feels forced, and the characters feel paper-thin.
The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s story is a brief one; it feels rather slight, and like Machado was more interested in some of the specific moments of imagery she includes than anything else, but given how powerful the final images are, perhaps she earns that a little!
Florilegia; Or, Some Lies About Flowers by Amal El-Mohtar
El-Mohtar is playing, again, with Bloduewedd; but this time, her engagement feels angrier, and more grown up. The story is told with a passion and frustration about the limitations placed on Bloduewedd, and the way she is treated; and the way El-Mohtar plays with and changes the story are powerful and beautiful, and her choice of narrative beats emphasise the importance of agency to her narrative.
The Mythic Dream
As an anthology, the variety of stories is incredible, and while there is a distinct tendency towards the Greek myths (nearly half the volume), it is actually the recentring of women and the centring of queerness into these stories that emerges as the strongest theme. Some don’t quite feel like they fit the volume, in some cases because they rub against that recentring; but the overall standard is excellent, the narrative flow of the stories as a whole and the order they’re in is brilliant, and the stand-out stories (McGuire, Martine, Howard, El-Mohtar) are truly spectacular. This is apparently the last collaborative anthology between Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, and they’re going out on a real high.
Listen. A god is speaking.
My voice echoes through the stone of your master’s castle.
This castle where he finds his uncle on his father’s throne.
You want to help him. You cannot.
You are the only one who can hear me.
You will change the world.
As has been well established here before, I am a big fan of Ann Leckie’s fiction, and hugely enjoyed her science fiction trilogy. I’m also a fan of big, complex, political epic fantasy that uses the second person (or rather, of The Fifth Season, the only book I know of which fits that criteria). So Ann Leckie doing big, political epic fantasy in the second person? Sign me up!
The Raven Tower is a brilliant retelling of a classic story. Without giving too much about Leckie’s textual inspiration away, the contemporary plot follows the beats of that story almost exactly, while retooling them to give the women more agency and less unjust punishment, and with a focus not on the central character of the original but on one of the side-characters as a lens through which to follow the action. The resolution is simultaneously inevitable and expected but also completely new as what has, up until that point, looked like a solely historical, secondary plot, is brought fully into the present.
That secondary plot in The Raven Tower is one of the brilliant aspects of the novel; the narrator tells, interspersed into the main action of the plot, their own story, a story that goes into the deep past of the world. The early parts of the secondary plot involve the appearance and evolution of life on the planet around the character, to give some impression of quite how deep that past is. With a very self-absorbed narrator and very little action, Leckie’s writing is beautiful and moving, and still manages to move the reader and action along; the solipsism of the character falling away as they start to interact more and more with others, and we see those ties changing and strengthening and forcing actions in fascinating ways.
The Raven Tower‘s narrator is not, of course, the protagonist; rather, the reader steps into the role of protagonist, as a trans man named Eolo, addressed in the second person. Eolo is the person whose eyes we follow the main plot, although in reality he is the aide to the focus of the action; a curious and intelligent young man, he’s a brilliant character, unfailingly loyal but also with an independence of thought and action that I really appreciated. His transition isn’t made a big deal of, though it is mentioned at a couple of points; the novel is totally accepting of his gender, although certain characters are at times potentially less so.
The rest of the cast of The Raven Tower are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them fail to rise above their bases in the story that Leckie has reworked, especially Hibal as the usurping king and Oskel and Okim as his pawns who are given a much more full backstory but still escape largely without character. Even Mawat is a little flat, although in a very human way; he is essentially a character defined by his temper and his belief in a set way of the world. When the latter is shaken, the former comes out; there is very little emotionality other than anger to him, although that anger is well written and Leckie does convey how much it defines him.
It’s with the women that Leckie really builds on the source text to do a lot more. Zezume, Mawat’s mother-figure, is a complex and conflicted character with a lot of agency in the plot, although she also proves flawed in who and what she places her faith in; The Raven Tower has a strong theme around misplaced faith and the consequences of it. Tikaz is the strongest case of this; a woman whose father has pushed her at Mawat, and who Mawat was in the past infatuated with, but who rejected him, and is absolute in her independence. She’s a fantastic character, smart and willing to fight for her place and her status, and Leckie really makes her shine.
This might sound like a decent book but not an outstanding one. All the elements are there; the genius is in the way Leckie takes them all, and uses them to create something so fresh, new, and brilliant. There’s a lot more to be said about The Raven Tower, but a lot of it is spoilery, or small; the way Leckie writes indigenous peoples and imperialism into her story, the way global trade links play a key role in the world, the way there is no good or bad side in the ultimate view only different kinds of bad side… there is an awful lot to percolate, to the point where a full accounting would be many thousands of words. Or the length of the book itself.
In the end, The Raven Tower takes its source material, highlights some of the problems of it while solving or evading them, and marries it to a fantastic narrative that takes in deep time and divine conflict, to become probably the best fantasy novel of 2019. And 2018 isn’t even over yet…
DISCLAIMER: Ann Leckie is a friend. Review based on an ARC provided by the author.
Following her record-breaking debut trilogy, Ann Leckie, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Awards, returns with a thrilling new story of power, theft, privilege and birthright.
A power-driven young woman has just one chance to secure the status she craves and regain priceless lost artefacts prized by her people. She must free their thief from a prison planet from which no one has ever returned.
Ingray and her charge will return to their home world to find their planet in political turmoil, at the heart of an escalating interstellar conflict. Together, they must make a new plan to salvage Ingray’s future, her family, and her world, before they are lost to her for good.
Never has a novel been so accoladed as Ancillary Justice was in the science fiction community. Never has a trilogy received quite so much love and critical acclaim as the Imperial Radch books did. Two years after the release of the last volume in that series, Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie has returned to what I’m calling the Presgerverse with a new novel, Provenance…
Provenance is a high-stakes political heist novel, on its face, that morphs through a series of other forms, including whodunnit, to something akin to a spy thriller by the end of the book; Leckie takes a simple plot, throws in a few curveballs (including a good murder, of course), and emerges with a complex and compelling narrative taking in issues of family, of imperialism, of political manipulation, of tradition, and of the very idea of value itself. Which all sounds rather highbrow, but Provenance also never loses sight of itself as a fun book; this is a novel which cracks jokes, and has the reader laughing aloud (a piece of translation software renders swearwords as things like “fiddlesticks”, cutting the tension at a crucial point in the novel). The tension is slowly built up through making clear the rising personal and political stakes involved in the novel, as they tie together in a very deft way; and the climax ties everything up surprisingly neatly and with an excellent emotional catharsis for the characters that Leckie has very much earned.
Much of the strength of Provenance is in those characters; Leckie really brings her varied and broad cast to life. The novel is narrated in third-person, from the perspective of Ingray, a young woman fostered by a prominent family in Hwae; the way fostering works plays a key role in the novel, and is somewhat reminiscent of Roman Imperial adoptions. Ingray is an interesting character, with low self-confidence, who is also something of a young adult novel archetype; indeed, at a couple of points, Leckie hangs a lampshade on her tendency to pluck, in the nick of time, a brilliant plan out of the air after panicking about it. The rest of the cast are rather less easy to peg onto any adapted archetype, especially Garal Ket, a neman who uses the pronoun e; Provenance never really explains its gender system, but gender neutral neopronouns appear on the second page, and are simply an accepted part of society, with various characters, including background figures, representing a range of genders.
The worldbuilding in Provenance is at times its weakest point, for a related reason: Leckie clearly knows this world and this system, but is only presenting relevant information – and at times, that leaves the book feeling a little messy, because what the reader sees as relevant information can go beyond what the author does. This is especially true in trying to understand the social and political system of Hwae; Leckie gives us a lot of pieces of the puzzle, but in the end not enough to really put the whole thing together, especially when it comes to the non-Hwae polities we meet who play pivotal roles in the plot.
Whereas the Imperial Radch trilogy was a triumph of serious space opera, Provenance is much more straightforwardly fun; it may be engaging with huge, important themes, but it never loses sight of the necessity of a sense of humour. Ann Leckie proves, here, that there is far more than one string to her quill.
Disclaimer: Ann Leckie is a friend. This review was based on an ARC of the novel provided, on request, by the author. Provenance will be released on September 26th.
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Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice swept the science fiction awards this year, winning the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, Hugo and Nebula Awards among others, an unprecedented feat. It’s also one of my favourite novels, and one I like to share with people as much as possible, for its scope and scale, its approach to gender, its fast-paced writing, and, well, general wonderfulness. But it’s not an isolated example; here are some books you might like if you enjoyed Ancillary Justice:
Tanya Huff’s Valour series of military science fiction have many elements in common with Ancillary Justice, not least the fast-paced writing and the sheer joy in science fiction taken. It goes deeper than that, though; both deal with, on some level, the traumas and crimes of war, the difficult decisions, and the idea of comradeship. Huff doesn’t deal with gender to the same extent as Leckie, certainly not with a full on attack on the standard gender paradigm, but gender stereotypes are out of the window. Furthermore, not only has the Voice of God declared all characters bisexual unless stated otherwise, but they actually are bisexual – that is, we see all sorts of configurations of various sexualities, as well as open relationships, polyamory and more, in a fantastic way. My review of the first book, Valour’s Choice.
Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension is possibly the most diverse novel I have ever read. Koyanagi’s cast includes chronically ill, trans, non-neurotypical, variously sexually queer characters, many of whom are people of colour and a large proportion of whom are not male (female, genderqueer, etc). This isn’t a matter of comment for Ascension, although some of the more unexpected representations – Otherkin, for instance – are, while normalised, still questioned by the protatonist. Koyanagi’s debut isn’t without its problems, including some very rocky prose and poor plotting, but that’s not to say it’s not worth your time despite this.
Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man is one of the most famous works of science fiction to have really questioned the gender binary, and one of the earliest to do it well. The clash of cultures between a five-gendered and a binary-gendered society still has problems related to essentialist assumptions, even while challenging binarist thinking, but it at least opens the discussion up in an interesting way, similar to the questioning of our understanding of gender the Raadch of Ancillary Justice provokes. Like Ancillary Justice and, more so, Ancillary Sword, Scott’s Shadow Man also tackles issues of colonialism and the relationship between dominant and nondominant cultures, and ethical relations between them, in a brilliantly done and never overstated way. My review of Shadow Man.
It’s impossible to talk about Ancillary Justice without also talking about Iain M. Banks and the Culture, despite the lack of direct influence from one on the other. That’s in large part because the Culture and the Raadch have a number of features in common, including the prominence of AIs – treated very similarly by the writers, but very differently in their worlds – and the non-binarist approach to gender. It’s also something deeper, though; both the Culture novels and the Raadch address issues of cultural colonialism and the homogenisation of culture by a dominant force, albeit using different kinds of force. They’re also both extremely good writers, Banks famously so; and the combination of fast, fun romp with very serious issues and a certain degree of tragedy that both achieve is very notable.
So, those are the four big recommendations I’d make to fans of Ann Leckie and Ancillary Justice… but now it’s time to throw open the comments to the floor! Why am I wrong? What have I missed? What would, or wouldn’t, you recommend?
Breq is a soldier who used to be a warship. Once a weapon of conquest controlling thousands of minds, now she only has a single body and serves the emperor she swore to destroy.
Given a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to the only place in the galaxy she will agree to go: Athoek station, to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew – a lieutenant she murdered in cold blood.
Ancillary Sword, as the cover says, is the sequel to the Nebula Award winning, BSFA Award winning, Clarke Award winning, Hugo Award winning Locus Award winning, Kitschie winnning debut novel (yes, really) Ancillary Justice. Leckie’s sophomore outing, therefore, has a lot to live up to.
And boy, does Leckie deliver. In serious, glorious style. I went into Ancillary Sword nervous; having championed Ancillary Justice, having represented Ann Leckie at one of the many awards ceremonies she has triumphed at, having been so blown away by the first book, my fear that the follow-up would fall short was less about it not being good, and more about it not reaching the heights of its predecessor. Reader, I am happy to reiterate: it doesn’t. The linguistic idea of using female pronouns and nouns for everyone – mother and daughter, never parent or father or son – is not a trick that gets less interesting as we see it more; Ancillary Sword is more concerned with civilians and with interpersonal relationships among a broader spectrum of individuals, and therefore it has a different impact. The primary force is that gender, and hence sexuality, are irrelevant; it doesn’t matter what gender two characters who feel attraction are, they just feel attraction. That’s a really powerful and important thing to see, and Ancillary Sword showcases it excellently.
Of course, Ancillary Sword is far more than just that one element. Leckie, in this novel, has Breq captaining a Ship, AI and all; that Ship, Mercy of Kalr, hasn’t got ancillaries, but its previous captain ordered the crew to behave as if they were ancillaries. Leckie paints beautifully the various results of this for Breq, herself an ex-ancillary, ex-Ship; not only the relationship between a Ship-in-human-body and a Ship-as-Ship, but also the strange combination of discomfort and reassurance Breq takes from her false ancillaries, and the damage the loss of the hive-self has done. Ancillary Sword is a beautiful first-person portrait of Breq’s recovery, but isn’t just concerned with her; Lieutenant Tisarwat, a character introduced in this novel, has a not wholly dissimilar experience, and seeing the different ways each incorporates and deals with that experience is fascinating.
This isn’t a book focused wholly on relationships, though. Ancillary Sword feels like a response to On Basilisk Station; in each case a new commander is sent to take control of the defences of a station and the planets surrounding it. While David Weber’s Honor Harrington is concerned only with the military and logistical sides of this, Leckie has Breq take a far wider view of “defence”: and that gives Leckie a chance to delve into some of the socal fabric underlying the Radch empire. Socio-economic injustices and the way conveniently-invisible-but-vital groups come in for a serious critique and the idea of how to deal with the fallout of that, in the long term, is discussed as a problem, rather than being solved. The long-term impact of serfdom or slavery is discussed directly and seems to be an entry into discussions of how to deal with the US’s problematic history of oppression in the South; Ancillary Sword doesn’t just not seek to give answers, it actively demands we don’t look for easy answers or to simple saviours. Leckie goes so far as to include a power-imbalance rape, although it is never called that; but it is made abundantly clear that consent is impossible between two people with a major power imbalance (p282). The extent to which this book takes on social issues and the construction of, and underpinning of, society, is really glorious.
So far I’ve not actually really talked about the plot of the novel, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. Suffice to say that where Ancillary Justice was a brilliant, crunchy science fiction yarn with some hints of Iain M. Banks, Ancillary Sword completely strikes its own path; Leckie, here, is like no other author, and amazing with it. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but Ancillary Sword deserves – no, demands! – the same level of recognition as that received by Ancillary Justice.
DoI: ARC received from Orbit, the publisher of Ancillary Justice & Ancillary Sword, on request. I accepted the BSFA Award for Best Novel, won by Ancillary Justice, on Ann Leckie’s behalf at EasterCon. Ancillary Sword will be released on October 7th.