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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.
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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.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters

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In the future, everyone will be trans.

So says Lexi. She’s a charismatic trans woman furious with the way she sees her trans friends treated by society and resentful of the girl who spurned her love. Now, Lexi has a plan to wreak her vengeance: a future in which no one can produce hormones and everyone must make the same choice that she made—what body best fits your gender?
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I first heard about Infect Your Friends And Loved Ones through Helen McClory’s Unsung Letter, specifically Letter 37 by Anya Johanna DeNiro; a novella about trans lives, literalising the transphobic myth of trans as contagion, by a trans woman? I’ll be reading that!

Peters’ novella is a slim volume, barely over 60 pages long; but Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones packs a lot into that space. It’s a story about trans life now, and the trans community; about the toxicity of masculinity, and the cisheteropatriarchy; about the way trans people are treated by society, and the way trans women are fetishised, othered, and attacked. The narrative jumps back and forth around time; so we see trans women in the modern world, marginalised and mistreated by cis men who claim to love them, and in the post-contagion future, where everyone has to choose gender, but trans people are the scapegoats for the problem, blamed (albeit accurately) for its existence.

Peters’ narrative strength rests on its characters. There are two whose interactions colour every part of the narrative; Lexi, and the unnamed narrator, a former friend and lover of Lexi. Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones makes Lexi both charismatic and unlikeable; her passion and dysfunction are incredibly powerful and draw the reader to her strongly, while her willingness to lash out and hurt those around her, and her manipulative nature repels the reader at the same time. This is also true of the self-centred trans woman whose voice the whole story is told in; less charismatic, and more obviously self-centred, she is a frustrating guide to events, with her sense of self-worth so obviously contingent on the approval of those around her. Both characters are incredibly believable and sympathetic, and their growth over the course of the narrative is effective and well written; Peters understands the way people change and develop and puts that in here very effectively.

The worldbuilding is quite slim; Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones has some vague sketches about the impact of everyone having to take hormones all the time, and of government supplying hormones to everyone, although it doesn’t really get into that, beyond looking at the black market supply of hormones to cis people (something that is a reality for many trans people in the present day). Peters isn’t really interested in the effects of the contagion on cis people, or for that matter on intersex people (which, given the premise of the novella, is a rather problematic piece of erasure); she’s really only interested in the effect on trans women.

That erasure of intersex people is symptomatic; Infect Your Friends and Lovers has two types of characters in: cis men, and trans women. No other kind of character gets a look in; cis women are mentioned at most in passing, in relation to husbands or boyfriends, and intersex, nonbinary or trans male people simply don’t exist in the narrative. Peters isn’t interested in their stories, and seems to be saying that solidarity is for trans women; that trans women’s communities are all, and only, about supporting people who identify as women. This doesn’t reflect the trans community I know, nor one I would wish to believe in.

In the end, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones is an interesting novella, and the emphasis it places on a sense of community is hugely important; but Peters’ erasure of trans people who don’t identify as women is a severe dampener on this whole work.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

Trans Day of Remembrance & Giveaway

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Today is Trans Day of Remembrance, the day on which we remember the trans people killed in the last year out of hatred, prejudice, and societal violence. This is its eighteenth year, since the first, in 1999, memorialised Rita Hester’s murder. The list of the dead whom we will be remembering from the last year, a sadly necessarily incomplete list because these are only the names we hear about, can be found here.

Today, I am going to a memorial to these dead from our community. I am going to make sure I do not forget them, that they are remembered, and that they are remembered not by dead names and misgendering pronouns, but for who they truly were; for the people who they were murdered for being.

Every year, there’s a long list of names, too many of them trans women of colour, who suffer the intersectional violences of misogyny, transmisia, and racism; too many of them sex workers, who suffer the marginalisation society forces on them. Next year, I want the list to be shorter, and I want your help to make that happen: to make a better world for trans people.

I’m going to give away five signed copies of CN Lester’s book Trans Like Me (reviewed here) in a fortnight. If you want to a chance to get a copy, it’s reasonably simple for you, but potentially life-saving for others.

There are two ways to enter: You can write to or call your local representative, and ask them to push for trans equality, trans protection under the law against discrimination in work and in receipt of services, adequate trans healthcare, and perhaps most importantly trans self-declaration of gender (as modelled, imperfectly, in the Republic of Ireland). Send an email to tdor.giveaway@gmail.com noting who you got in touch with and what you asked of them.

Alternatively, you can donate. Donate to one of the long list of trans organisations who do important, vital advocacy and support work for trans people, in various places around the world. If you donate, again, please send an email to tdor.giveaway@gmail.com saying to which group you donated. This post ends with some suggestions for charities to donate to.

You can enter as many times as you like, although you can only win once, and each entry must be different: that is, contacting a different rep or donating to a different charity. All entries must be received by 23:59:59GMT on December 18th. The winners will be chosen by a random draw from the entries, redrawing duplicate winners.

Feel free to comment with your own suggestions of trans charities or fundraisers for trans individuals, or with helpful scripts or form letters to send to officials, please!
List of suggested charities

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Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone

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The God Wars destroyed the city of Alikand. Agdel Lex has risen in its place. Dead deities litter the surrounding desert and a squidlike tower dominates the skyline—while treasure seekers, criminals, angels, demons, dispossessed knights, grad students, and other fools gather in its ever-changing alleys, hungry for the next big score.

Kai Pohala (last seen in Full Fathom Five) finds her estranged sister, Ley, at the center of a shadowy and rapidly unravelling business deal. When Ley goes on the run, wanted for a crime she most definitely committed, Kai races against time to track her down. But Ley has her own plans, involving her ex-girlfriend, a daring heist out in the god-haunted desert, and, perhaps, freedom for an occupied city.
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The Craft Sequence was nominated for the Hugo Awards for Best Series in 2017, for the nonchronological block of five novels that came out between 2012 and 2016. Now, dumping the numerical titles and for the first time releasing a book in immediate chronological succession from that which came before, Max Gladstone returns with Ruin of Angels

The Craft sequence has always been concerned with economics, with poverty, with religion, with imperialism and empire, with ideas of reality. Ruin of Angels engages with those concepts once again, fiercely; recalling the issues at the centre of Last First Snow, Gladstone draws the reader once again into a world where two different conceptions of reality and how the world should be are locked in a cold war, and something is about to give… Unlike that earlier novel, here, there literally are multiple layers of city; Ruin of Angels recalls China Mieville’s The City and the City, where the practice of knowing which city one inhabits is intensely political. The imperial authority of the Iskari believes in a specific kind of city, Agdel Lex, orderly, regimented, a planned urban metropolis of grids and wide roads, bordering a desert; and in the chaos of the God Wars, it implemented this vision on top of the city of Alikand, leaving that more organically evolved city of libraries in a kind of limbo between existence and not. The way Gladstone plays with these levels of realities, and the way the Iskari use the Rectification Authority (or Wreckers) to enforce their view of the city, feels almost Lovecraftian; certainly the tentacular symbiotes have something of that in their DNA.

Which city you inhabit at any time, which city you believe in, is a political act, and slipping between the realities of the two is a useful criminal survival skill; Ruin of Angels is in many ways a heist novel, or rather a series-of-heists novels, as various characters, most notably Ley and Kai, get in each others’ ways and ruin each others’ plans with the best of intentions. Indeed, Gladstone really captures the sibling rivalry between the two; the relationship between the sisters is at the core of much of what propels and prolongs the plot, as personal and political get entangled and miscommunication and noncommunication lead to disaster. That isn’t to say the plot is necessarily overlong; the way Gladstone propels it, with all its twists and turns, keeps the reader thoroughly engaged in Ruin of Angels, and wondering what happens, although perhaps with a few too many novel-prolonging jumps of point of view and obstacles thrown in. The biggest flaw it suffers comes from Ley’s character; like all heists, it relies on sleight of hand, the problem being that what Ley conceals from those around her, and Gladstone from the reader, raises the stakes of the novel dramatically as it draws to its close and seems to come slightly from nowhere.

Gladstone is always a fantastic character writer, and Ruin of Angels is no exception; that’s the greatest strength of the book, in fact. Kai, who we have met before in Full Fathom Five, sees her character fleshed out more, her realisation of her privileged background really being driven home and the trauma of the events of that novel driven home; Tara likewise continues her development from the hard, cold Craftswoman to someone who really cares and is engaged in a project of improving the world.

The rest of the cast are new, and make a fantastic set of points of view; Ley’s utter determination and refusal to open up to anyone else, to make herself vulnerable, are shown as both strength and weakness, and not the full extent of her character, while her former lover Zeddig is a brilliant, sharp, witty, committed woman who isn’t sure how to feel about her old partner, and gets caught up anyway. Relationships and their complexities are one of the hearts of Ruin of Angels; the way Gal and Raymet dance around their feelings is almost soap operatic in the way it is prolonged, and the way Gladstone uses their contrasting personalities to set up a beautiful romance pays off fantastically. Even the lesser characters who people Ruin of Angels are vividly written, from the vile agent of the Iskari, Bescond, to the perpetually high investments manager Fontaine, through the trans space-start-up ultra-rich visionary futurist (yes, Gladstone put Elon Musk in his novel… and made him trans); more than just broad brushstrokes, Gladstone gives them full personalities, in part by hinting at them around the edges of those strokes.

This number of characters introduces another innovation for the Craft Sequence to Ruin of Angels; in a book of less than six hundred pages, there are nearly eighty chapters, and each one is from the point of view of a different character, in some cases multiple characters. This is vitally important in giving us different perspectives on the events of the novel, and indeed the characters, at earlier stages; seeing how Kai and Zeddig see each other, for instance, is a wonderful piece of writing. However, especially as the action gets faster and Ruin of Angels moves towards its climax, it gets rather choppy and draws out the action and cliffhangers in a way that moves from powerful towards frustrating as Gladstone barely gives full scenes before cutting away.

Ruin of Angels marks something of a break for the Craft Sequence: less economic in scope, more concerned with naked power; more head-hopping and with a larger cast. But it still has the same essentially hopeful tone, the same flashes of brilliant humour, and the same excellence as ever; I highly commend Max Gladstone’s work to you, and think this continues the series in exceptional form.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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