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Review: The Mythic Dream eds. Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe

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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.

The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

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The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials… and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.
~~~~~
Angry Robot Books send me semi-regular packages of books they think I might like; one arrived, purely by coincidence I presume, on my birthday, and included Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars. It took a few weeks to get around to reading it, but I ended up in the mood for an interesting space opera, and there it was…

The Wrong Stars is, perhaps above all else, fun. This isn’t space opera as serious or po-faced; one crew member is named purely so Pratt can get in a few different pop culture references and running jokes across the course of the novel, after all. There are fast-paced action scenes, ridiculously strange aliens with a brilliantly twisted and hilarious approach to first contact with humanity, and wise-cracking crew members. The majority of the book is written in quite a breezy style, even where there are relatively heavy discussions going on, and even the action scenes have a certain humourous quality to them.

That lightness of touch means that when Pratt does get heavy, The Wrong Stars doesn’t feel like a book about issues of slavery or colonialism, even though at its heart are questions about that. The heavier discussions are introduced slowly through the book, which engages increasingly seriously with heavy issues as it goes on, to the point where there are some horrendously dark sections towards the end of the novel that would feel, had there not been the slow build up, completely at odds with the opening of the book, which was open horror but not this kind of evil. Pratt balances things carefully, and the humour never goes out of the book, but the heaviness is also not undercut by a willingness to include humour.

In many ways, The Wrong Stars shares a lot of structural similarities to Bioware’s wonderful Mass Effect games. Pratt’s approach to characterisation is the strongest overlap here. The whole cast of The Wrong Stars would not be out of place on board the SSV Normandy; they’re wise-cracking, curious, daring, and intelligent. Different crew members have radically different outlooks on life; we have traumatised survivors of alien medical procedures, in the form of Drake and Janice, who are treated sensitively and intelligently, and who Pratt doesn’t use as the butt of any humour (although Janice’s dark cynicism and misanthropy are a source of a lot. The captain, Carrie, is a bold, decisive character with a troubled history and a strong sense of loyalty; and Elena’s unabashed sexuality make a pleasing contrast here, their budding relationship being one of the highlights of the book.

Indeed, the queerness of The Wrong Stars is refreshing to behold. Carrie and Elena are both bisexual, Carrie also self-identifying as demisexual; Janice is asexual, and explicitly this was the case before her trauma; Uzoma is nonbinary, using they pronouns, and touch-averse; and one other character is, at the close of the book, casually and in passing revealed to be a binary trans woman. None of these are a big deal; in Pratt’s future, queerness just is, not a source of angst (although romance can be, in the general minefield of interpersonal relationships way of things).

At times, the book can get a bit wearing, however. The Wrong Stars really could have resolved its romantic tension far faster, although it isn’t left simmering unresolved too long; the urge to bash characters’ heads, or other bits, together grates somewhat. Similarly, the humour and lightness of the banter at times feels a touch too uniform; Pratt’s dialogue is good, but Carrie, Lantern and Elena aside, the characters’ voices tend to blur together, in the same way Joss Whedon’s characters often do, and with the same register and tone.

I did enjoy The Wrong Stars, though, and Tim Pratt’s first space opera is a very enjoyable ride; especially if you’re a fan of Mass Effect!

Disclaimer: This review was based on an unsolicited final copy of the novel sent to me by the publisher, Angry Robot Books.

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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.
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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.
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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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A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, trans. Jocelyne Allen

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What are the Bamboo?
They are from China.
They look just like us.
They live by night.
They drink human lifeblood but otherwise keep their distance.
And every century, they grow white blooming flowers.

A boy name Kyo is saved from the precipice of death by Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. They start an enjoyable yet strange shared life together, Kyo and the gentle Bamboo. But for Bamboo, communication with a human being is the greatest sin.
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Vampires are a mainstay of horror, and have been since before John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; they’ve also long been a subject for reclamation in fiction, whether in that model or from other cultures. A Small Charred Face caught my eye as another entry in that long tradition of humanising monsters… Kazuki Sakuraba’s book is somewhere between a single novel and three separate, linked novellas collected into one volume; the marketing suggests it be read as one, and so I will review it as such.

A Small Charred Face is fundamentally a wistful, sad set of stories; it is about fading, aging, changing, and memory. The first two parts of the book are very intimate in scale, following single individuals; first, a human child taken in by a pair of Bamboo, who raise him until he becomes an adult; and second, a Bamboo who had befriended him briefly in his childhood, who later took in the child he took in shortly before his own death. They focus in very deeply and intently on the emotional relationships, and the idea of growing up; in the first part, of how a child does not understand the importance of growing up, and in the second, the problem of not growing up while those around one do.

A Small Charred Face is beautiful in both these parts; the characters are so well realised and so deeply, painfully human, in all their flaws, that their fights, their struggles, and their loves are all intensely touching. Watching Kyo age, and realise what he has forgotten, is a profoundly painful experience; while watching Mariko remain a perpetual child, while those around her age and die and maybe even forget her fundamental traumas, is similarly brutal. Sakuraba’s grasp of voice is vital here; the shifting first person narration is not only incredibly individual, but also ages with the characters, and shows their emotional development, in a very real way. Sakuraba’s writing also draws the reader through with great pacing and style, demanding one reads on to find out what happens to these characters, making it a fast book to read, and one hard to put down.

Sakuraba also shows romantic love beautifully; Kyo is raised by Mustah and Yoji, a pair of male Bamboo, and their mutual love and adoration is never shown as a sexual matter, but is shown as utterly pervading everything about them. A Small Charred Face, for half its length, shows some truly beautiful romantic writing; and the confusion of feelings of Kyo towards his adoptive parents is painful and beautiful to behold, as is the way his feelings about his past change and develop.

The third story in A Small Charred Face is rather less strong; it explains how Bamboo society in Japan came to be, in exile from China. Focused on a narrator who is a smart, dedicated, driven member of the royalty of the takezoku (the name the Bamboo called themselves in China), it looks at persecution and at discrimination. Sakuraba takes on a lot of themes across the sixty pages of this story, and tries to grapple with them all; while the despair of a brilliant woman forced into hiding her intelligence because of the needs of society are incredibly moving, other emotional elements don’t ring true, in part because the story is just too rushed, and relies too much on the way it plays on references to events in the future of the story that happened in previous episodes of the book.

In the end, A Small Charred Face reminded me very strongly of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling; both intensely emotional and beautiful books using vampires to talk about humanity, Sakuraba’s is much more wistfully sad, but, for the most part, just as brilliant.

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Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

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When anything can be owned, how can we be free

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
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Autonomous is one of those books which seems to be everywhere on social media, getting buzz and hype from everyone; Annalee Newitz herself was the founding editor of io9, so knows her geek culture, and is now tech-culture editor at Ars Technica, so she knows her science geek culture at that. But does she know about writing a novel…?

Before we go any further, Autonomous deserves praise for the style in which Newitz wrote it. This is cyberpunk thriller written for the 21st century; it’s driving, pacey, but not affectless or baroque, with emotionality bleeding through the text. The novel contains serial worldbuilding sections, but none too lengthy, and they all feel well integrated into the text; at times a little heavy-handed and a little too detailed, but on the whole, supporting the plot rather than being supported by it. Autonomous is written in close-third person, from a number of different perspectives, and each one is distinct and different, with different motivators; there is a slightly flat Americanness to all of them, but they are least easily distinguished.

Having said that, Autonomous is far from perfect. The plot is rather conventional thriller territory, right down to the ending, which one can see from rather far away; the race between heavy-handed state investigators and plucky infopirates to release information damaging to government-affiliated megacorporations isn’t exactly innovative. Nor, for that matter, are the subplots; Newitz writes with sympathy about the bot Paladin gaining a sense of self and others, but it’s again, not breaking new ground, and nor do the rather heavy-handed messages about out-of-control capitalism.

The characters are similarly drawn from previous works; Autonomous trades on pre-existing archetypes quite solidly, from the repressed Eastern European former Catholic Eliasz, now an agent of the IPC, to the pirate Jack with her heart of gold and desire to help other people. These characters are undoubtedly well drawn and written in a sympathetic way, but they’re nothing new to the reader; Newitz has less revitalised an old formula than simply regurgitated it.

This falls flattest around the questions raised by the novel’s title, Autonomous. It’s the characters whose actions are most obviously limited by questions of autonomy who are simultaneously the most new, and the least so. Paladin, for instance, the military spec robot, reads like virtually every other sentience coming into themselves; that she chooses to use a feminine pronoun rather than a neutral one, despite actively thinking about the fact robots don’t really have gender, is rather less interesting or exciting than Newitz seems to think. Threezed is at least a little more interesting, with his bitterness at the system and actions almost programmed; Autonomous gives, towards the end of the book, his perspective on events that transpired with Jack early in the book, and the contrast is quite fascinating, if also very incongruous.

Where the book falls down hardest, though, is its treatment of violence. Autonomous treats its first instances of violence very heavily and seriously; they are meaningful and important, and feel weighty, having continuing impacts on both plot and characters as the novel goes on. However, future violent outbursts seem far less impactful; there are multiple instances when characters torture others for information, and Newitz treats this incredibly lightly, with no seeming impact on those doing the torture, no second thoughts, or alternative paths seen as options. In the hands of a writer more prepared to engage with what that might imply, this could have been interesting; as it was, it just frustrated.

In sum, while Autonomous is intensely readable, and while the worldbuilding is detailed and fascinating, the actual novel, as a plot and set of characters, is distinctly lacking.

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Spectred Isle by K. J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
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At Eastercon, Juliet Kemp recommended I read K. J. Charles’ historical romance novels; she extended the same recommendation at Nineworlds, where Charles happened to be appearing, selling copies of her latest novel, the first in a new stand-alone series. So I picked up Spectred Isle and read it on the flight from London to Helsinki…

Spectred Isle is set in the wake of the First World War, in 1920s Britain; a society divided by class but united by the terrible experience of the war and following pneumonia, which wiped out so much of the population. Into this society are dropped Saul Lazenby, disgraced discharged soldier now working for an eccentric lord, and Randolph Glyde, a member of Britain’s magical and temporal aristocracies. This is a romance, so the end result is inevitable; what we read Charles for is to see how she’ll get there, and what obstacles will appear in the characters’ ways.

The biggest obstacle is themselves. Spectred Isle does a great job at writing the two romantic partners as opposites who bounce off each other hard even as they find the other incredibly attractive; the dynamic of their developing relationship is written sympathetically and powerfully, although at times with a bit of a knowing wink to the reader at the inevitability of them getting together. Each carries their own, different wounds, as well as their different experiences of being gay in 1920s Britain; Charles draws them together in a tender and beautiful emotional net built out of their different characters.

Aside from that, there is also the external obstacle of the supernatural. Spectred Isle is a book as much about supernatural sleuthing as it is about burgeoning romance; something or someone is attacking Britain’s magical defences, weakened by the slaughter of the occult war that underlay the physical one, and Randolph has to stop it. Saul seems to keep blundering in his way, until eventually, he’s drawn into the strange web being woven around the occult sites of England; and transitions from a sceptic to a believer in magic himself. Charles builds this plot slowly and carefully, placing clues as to what’s going on the way a crime writer does; putting the pieces together gives rise to a bigger picture that will, the reader presumes, continue in the later installments in the series.

Spectred Isle is interesting in the way Charles uses her setting. In 1920s Britain, homosexual sex was a criminal act, but also one that was, in the upper classes at least, often tacitly accepted; Randolph and Saul thus have very different attitudes to their sexualities, although there are interesting commonalities. What Charles never does is let either become a tragic figure, or the only queers in the world; this is a setting which has background queers of all kinds, and while both have tragedy in their past, in neither case is it solely because of their homosexuality. It’s a hard balance to strike, but an important one.

Finally, but very worth note, this is a romance novel that goes straight into erotica. Charles is very willing to put sex on the page, and explicit, slightly kinky sex at that; Spectred Isle has a few sex scenes, and each is different, well-imagined, and hot. They are sex scenes which reveal a lot about the characters, and grow organically out of the interactions between their personality types; made all the more sexy by the way Charles doesn’t shy away from being explicit, or having her characters be so.

Spectred Isle was my first taste of Charles’ period gay romance, but it definitely won’t be my last; this is a hot and brilliant book and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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