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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.
~~~~~
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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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…!

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

The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

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In the City of Woven Streets, human life has little value. You practice a craft to stay alive, or you are cast out. Eliana, a young weaver in the House of Webs, knows she doesn’t belong there. She is hiding a shameful birth defect that would, if anyone knew about it, land her in the House of the Tainted.

When a mysterious woman with her tongue cut off and Eliana’s name tattooed on her skin arrives at the House of Webs, Eliana discovers an invisible network of power behind the city’s facade. All the while, the sea is clawing the shores and the streets are slowly drowning.
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City of Woven Streets, known in the US and Canada as The Weaver and in Emmi Itäranta’s native Finland as Kudottujen kujien kaupunki, was released in June 2016 in the UK, and has been waiting in my TBR for me to get to it ever since… finally, that time has come!

The City of Woven Streets is fairly obviously a young adult novel, in terms of plot. Not only does Itäranta approach the standard rebellion against a restrictive society combined with forbidden romance angle, but she also integrates into this a kind of personal bildungsroman for Eliana in discovering her true power and role in things. It is a reasonably well executed example of its type; Itäranta’s version of an oppressive society built on a history of oppression and violence feels realistic in this regard, and the way it responds to opposition, and how the channels of power work, feel very plausible. It simply breaks no new ground, and there are certain moments, especially around the romance between Eliana and Valeria, which don’t feel like The City of Woven Streets really earned them.

The characters of The City of Woven Streets don’t stand out particularly strongly either; Itäranta’s characterisation isn’t bad per se, it’s just got a singularly unoriginal feel to it. Eliana feels like any other young adult protagonist discovering their powers and importance to the world while resisting the oppressive social order; Valeria’s muteness is virtually her only characteristic, which makes the romance between them a little strained; Weaver is the standard enigmatic, not entirely trustworthy mentor who is part of the structure of power; Alva is the wary ally; et cetera. The City of Woven Streets has characters, but none of them feel particularly real; the closest is Eliana, who at times does exhibit emotion and growth, but even her depths don’t feel very real.

The world of The City of Woven Streets is, on its face, a very creative and interesting one. Itäranta’s worldbuilding is complex and layered; the society she creates, with its rigid castes and classes, its professionalising of certain crafts as specialised to the point of not just guilds but almost monastic specialism, and its hidden, dictatorial political leadership, is one rarely seen in fantasy. The way Itäranta integrates these elements into a single society is at times very ill-considered; for instance, the gendering of certain roles like weaving and writing is stereotypical, and given the seclusion people with these roles are required to live in, the idea that they will also eventually get married seems rather strange.

This is also a world with very unclear attitudes towards queerness. At the same time, The City of Woven Streets has a couple of early references to homosexuality as a forbidden thing, but also not an uncommon thing in the cloistered single-sex environments; this would make sense were everyone’s reactions to the lesbian relationship that forms the key romance of the novel less straightforwardly accepting. The way Itäranta reveals both an intersex character and the treatment of intersex people by the society simultaneously is also rather problematic, almost brushing by the consequences of the worldbuilding she has done without really considering their implications.

Despite all this, I actually found myself enjoying The City of Woven Streets. Itäranta’s writing is fast and simple, without being simplistic; it keeps the story moving at a good lick, and draws the reader through, with hints at the broader picture and bigger world dropped from the start such that things build up slowly without too much by way of infodumping. The City of Woven Streets is almost like a packet of sweets: not as much content as one might have hoped for, and somehow disappointing afterwards, but at the time, definitely enjoyable.

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.

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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.

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