Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom is my second read in the Nebula novella category, and it's a solid one.  It's set in New York City in 1924, centering on the Harlem and Red Hook neighborhoods.  Our protagonist is Charles "Tommie" Tester, a hustler and would be street musician who is actually not much of a musician.  He provides for his prematurely aged bricklayer father with the hustles. 

This New York admits to some magic, starting when Tester meets Ma Att and getting weirder from there.  Tester ends up tied in with an older white man, Robert Suydam, who is trying to make something big happen with occult magic.

That description doesn't capture the interest of the book, particularly how the story is told.  Tester suffers outrages echoing today, but told in a straightforward, passive way that effectively underscores the rage.  The story is a real page turner but it's subdued, not over-the-top.  The very basic unfairness of it all comes through, but effectively reinforces the plot.  Great stuff.

Also was fun to do a little looking around on the occult references.  The Supreme Alphabet has a pretty sketchy article in Wikipedia, and the other sites that come up look sketchy to click.  The Sleeping King is a harder one, I didn't find much relevant on it.

Four stars and a recommendation from me, it will be hard to beat.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde

The Jewel and Her Lapidary is the final entry in the Nebula novella category.  The story centers on Lin, the Jewel, and Sima, the Lapidary, the last survivors of treason against the royal family of the valley.  That family invoked the power of gems to protect it.  But there were two great costs that brought them down--the gems cause madness in those who can hear them, unless great skill is used and precautions taken.  More insidiously, it allowed the people of the valley not to participate in their own defense--the gems and lapidaries handled it.  Now their kingdom is at an end.

I really enjoyed Updraft, the Nebula nominated novel by Wilde from last year.  This story is less ambitious, but I can't help thinking it could have been.  Fleshing out other characters and developing the setting would have produced a novel, probably a good one.  As it is, we learn little about the valley society, missing out on what we learned of the people in her novel.  The story is a good one, but pretty much middle of the pack in the field this year.  3 stars from me.

So who's my favorite this year?  If it's my choice I pick Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar.  It's too beautiful to deny.  We'll see what the voters do.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

I'm starting on the novella nominations for Nebula, and began with The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.  This is her commentary on The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, an unpublished Lovecraft novella.  There are many references and touchpoints the Lovecraft story in Vellitt Boe. 

Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women's university in Ulthar.  The world is a strange, frightening and arbitrary place--distances, mathematical formulas, and most anything else may change at any time.  The sky is a low, roiling thing with numbered stars and planets that traverse it arbitrarily.  One of Vellitt Boe's students elopes with a Dreamer, a man from our world.  She goes on a quest to get her back.

The story is told in a beautiful, near-poetic voice.  Sort of an antidote to Lovecraft, who did something similar in a dark way.  I've never read Unknown Kadath, but could still appreciate this work.  It celebrates the strength of a woman of experience, showing her in all aspects.  I think it's a favorite for the award, and I'll give it four stars.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0, by Caroline M. Yoachim

Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station is what short fiction can do pretty well--humor.  You don't want a joke to take forever.  There is no hope for actual help, but the path to non-help is pretty funny.  It's written like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but not really.  Which was fun, because I used to like to try to read those things straight through and try to keep the plots straight.  A good 3 stars.

This one was indeed a contender, but my favorite for the Nebula is Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar.  Go check that one out.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers, by Alyssa Wong

Now this one, A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers, is pretty good.  A very intense relationship between sisters, sisters with weather working powers, and one of them suicides in pretty spectacular fashion.  The other tries to work through alternate timelines to bring her back.  Pretty darn cool and enjoyable, I would recommend it.  Strong 3 stars.

This Is Not a Wardrobe Door, by A.Merc Rustad

This Is Not a Wardrobe Door is another entry for the Nebula Award for Short Stories in 2016.  Rustad fully embraces the children's fairy tale, which is kind of cute.  It's a story of imaginary doors to imaginary friends that are actually real.  So far our relationship score is 4 gay, 1 cis, 1 trans.  It is good to explore a new space but I like stories that do more with it.  A weak 3 stars.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Things With Beards, by Sam J. Miller

Continuing the Nebula Awards Short Story reviews: Things With Beards is a good strong entry.  The Things in the title is a reference to the movie The Thing, based on the John W. Campbell story Who Goes There?  It's basically a followup to the story, with MacReady and Childs surviving but having carried the Thing out with them.  Figuring out the tie-in is fun, but we also get a message with MacReady becoming involved in violent activism as the AIDS epidemic gets under way.  Pretty interesting, I give it a strong 3 stars.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sabbath Wine, by Barbara Krasnoff

Sabbath Wine is another one of the Nebula Short Story nominees for 2016.  The story is really all about the setting, which is a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn during prohibition.  The daughter wants her father, a militantly anti-religious Jew, to have a Sabbath meal for her new friend.  For that, he needs kosher wine.

It's sweet and well written, a nice dessert.  3 stars.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar

Seasons of Glass and Iron is a fairy tale.  I get this information from the title of the anthology it is in, The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, and it fits beautifully.  Tabitha walks the earth in iron shoes, trying to wear them down.  Amira sits atop a glass hill that protects her from rabid suitors.  Both are caught in magical traps of their own making.  It's wonderfully well written and a pleasure to read.  It's definitely my favorite of the short stories so far, and I think it will remain so.  4 stars from me

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, by Brooke Bolander

So now that I have read my second Brooke Bolander story, I think I am typecasting her--she personifies Angry Woman.  Nothing especially wrong or right with that, it would be better if the stories didn't rely so much on obscenities to generate interest.  Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies is a hint at a story, as most short stories are, and its anger is directed at an entitled male serial killer.  No sympathy there.  But pretty easy as a target.  Red Meat For The Base, as they say in politics.  Though it isn't political.  It took much longer to write this than to read the story--so it goes.  2 stars.

You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, by Alyssa Wong

You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay is a story of wild magic, featuring power to raise the dead but really not anything like a zombie or ghost story.  So I would say I enjoyed it for originality.  The protagonist is Ellis, a young man who is channeling power (his mother's) to raise the dead.  He, his paramour Marisol and several others have been left or orphaned by a mine accident, and the powerful magic in the story is being used to guard the mine.  Then some bad dudes come to town who have some of that power themselves.

The irritating thing with this story is that it's told in the second person.  You, the reader, are Ellis.  But not really, the device doesn't actually work at placing the reader in the story.  It's awfully tough to pull off second person narrative, it's only been done once or twice and I can't remember the title right off.  And the device is not necessary at all, the story would be just fine, and probably nominated for awards, without this.

In any case it's a decent read and I can recommend it.  3 stars.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Orangery, by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

The Orangery is a very beautiful, literary fantasy story.  It uses advanced literary devices (two points of view that are very different) and gorgeous language to tell the story of Apollo as an erstwhile visitor to a protected garden.  The trees in the garden used to be women, but have chosen to forsake that form for a life in bark.  The Guardian confronts Apollo with his nature.

This is a story to admire, and it's probably a contender, but I like more to happen.  The plot is relatively thin here.  3 stars from me.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Blood Grains Speak Through Memories, by Jason Sanford

Continuing the tour of this year's Nebula awards for novellas, I read Blood Grains Speak Through Memories today.  The title is interesting and unusual in that it is a compact, exact description of the story.  You don't see that every day.

The story itself is on the border between fantasy and technology.  We get hints of a post-apocalypse world, where some desperate means was taken or emerged to survive.  The lands are tended by "anchors", people who acquire a special connection to the land through the title's "grains".  Our protagonist is one such anchor, who is considering carrying out her late husband's plan to rid the world of the grains.  They protect the world, but commit a fair amount of evil in the process.

The world is pretty fully built out for a novella.  We get a good picture of what it's like to be an anchor on the land.  The writing is powerful without getting sappy.  I think this one is a contender, it will be hard to beat.  I like it enough to say four stars.  I haven't read any Jason Sanford in awhile (since 2010), but am glad he's back.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, by Sarah Pinsker

It's Nebula season again, and this year all the available novellas are published in book form, so I'll get to those later.  First up, the novelettes.

Sarah Pinsker has an entry on the short side entitled Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea.  It is standard post-apocalyptic stuff--we have two protagonists, a rock star and a scavenger.  The rock star gets sick of life on the cruise ships that took to the ocean when everything went to pot on land.  She takes a lifeboat and drifts away, washing up on the scavenger's shore.  The rock star is mildly famous--the scavenger knows who she is--but is not wealthy enough to be a passenger on the ships. 

They are each working through the consequences of the end of civilization.  It's OK as a story, I liked it fine, but there's not a lot there.  I guess 3 stars.