It’s All Fun and Games – Dave Barrett

allfungames_finalI watched Dave Barrett’s It’s All Fun and Games climb the charts of the Nerdist Collection contest on Inkshares with a mixture of admiration and curiosity. The premise—a Live-Action Role Play game come to life—seemed pretty basic. I decided it would be made or broken by the quality of the prose and characterization, since the plot could not possibly be that interesting. Right?

Not quite.

Turns out that It’s All Fun and Games was a fabulous read. The writing was effective—not arabesque or anything, but strong writing that was easy to read, but not overly simple—and the characters had enough depth. But what took me by surprise is the larger arc of the story (left unresolved in the book) and where it might lead.

For those of you unfamiliar with Live-Action Role Play (LARP), it’s one of the nerdier pastimes you can get into. Essentially, it is acting out your dungeons and dragons characters and battling each other using foam weapons, nerf arrows, and beanbags as your implements of war. Here’s a cringe-worthy example of LARP in action.

Now that you understand the context, we can talk about It’s All Fun and Games. Six friends begin what seems to be a weekend of normal LARPing adventure when, for reasons unknown, their make-believe becomes real. The begin to take on the mannerisms of their assumed characters, as well as their personalities, memories, and abilities. They take their mysterious and magical translocation in stride, assuming they must play out the “encounter” to discover how to get home.

For a short while, progress is smooth. They save some townsfolk from brutal bandits, find some treasure, and feel powerful with their in-world “enhancements.” But, things tending toward entropy, a member of the team is soon killed, and all but one are taken captive by a group of monsters.

The process of rescuing the team is fun to read, but the tacit acceptance of the changing circumstances by the group (attributed to their assimilation of fictional personalities) is irksome. They rebel at the notion of their captivity in a fictional world for only a short while (until things get real what with the death and all), and from that point forward, are adventurers. I’d have liked to see a bit more resistance on the part of the teenagers—though they’ve become magically skilled and fine warriors in their own right. Even if some parts of it would be awesome, I can’t say I’d be entirely stoked to suddenly find myself in a dungeons and dragons quest.

The end of the story is somewhat abrupt. The crew is rescued by the unlikeliest of members, and they set off to learn more about the Evil Guy who brought them to the fantasy land for reasons unknown. It kind of fizzles out—a single encounter that would have been terrific fun to play with friends in dungeons and dragons, but a less-than-perfect ending to a novel, perhaps.

If, as I surmised from the accompanying text, Dave Barrett intends to make this a serialized story, I’d be glad to read the next installments. It was a quick read, without too many surprises, but absolutely enjoyable and well worth your time, if DnD is your cup of tea.

It’s All Fun and Games is available on Amazon and Inkshares.

Filtered – G.K. Lamb

filteredWhen I read the opening pages of Filtered, I expected to find the book clichéd. A teenaged girl in an oppressive, gas-mask wearing society begins to question the structures that surround her. She deals with broken parents with a broken marriage, and frightening images of death by painful asphyxiation all around her. Will she be the chosen one? What unique power will manifest, turning her into a superheroine that cleans the toxic, ashen air?

I was being superficial, and I regret my initial write-off of G.K. Lamb’s first novel as “just another” YA-targeted story. Filtered was engaging and well-crafted, and at the end of the day it was simply a good read.

It hit me with particular intensity through vivid descriptions of waiting in line to enter and exit buildings—the heads-down shuffling, seeing only the legs and feet of the person in front of you, the weight of your skull and brain pulling painfully at the muscles in your neck. It was a powerful way to show an oppressed society. But it was also directly relevant to an experience I began having shortly after starting the book. I changed my commuting pattern, and I now get on and off the train at one of the busiest stations in San Francisco. For more than a little while, the escalators were out of service, and the vast numbers of commuters clogging the platform had to walk up thin staircases, in single file, to get out of the station. Everyone looking down at their phones, shuffling slowly, waiting for their turn to lift a foot to the first step.

Here I was, reading about the psychological torment caused by the kind of waiting I was doing in my daily life.

But it’s not just that I was having an analogous experience to the protagonist. It’s that this notion of waiting, and others like it in Filtered, are eminently relatable. Even if we don’t have to wear gas masks to keep toxic air out, we can understand oppressive figures in schools, the shame and boredom and inanity of waiting in what feels like a senseless line,  the confusion of adolescence, and the pain of solitude. These are the things Evelyn Brennan (the protagonist) is dealing with, but they’re all punctuated by—and indeed caused by, in a sense—the setting of Filtered, which plays a key role in the story.

Filtered presents Evelyn in peril, using her wits to investigate the un-investigable. Where Lamb departs from conventional thinking, however, is in punishing her, immediately and very harshly, for her actions. The injustice of it is stunning, and you’re left feeling her shame alongside her as she watches the torment meant for her delivered to an innocent creature. It’s far more powerful than if she’d been punished herself.

That moment foreshadows the climax of the story, in which our determined protagonist learns the secret of the Great Society’s founding (oppressive empire figure in Filtered) and galvanizes a heretofore-unknown radical group to action, resulting in catastrophe.

Filtered does what it does well, but the climactic action rises a little quickly given the pacing of the first 60% of the book. I enjoyed the pacing of the first half, but I think the book would have been greatly helped by more hints at revolutionaries throughout, laying foundation for Evelyn’s personal rebellion.

Filtered is available on Amazon.

Author Interview: Robert Batten

Robert Batten is in the top 25 in the Launch Pad contest, which means his work has a shot at being placed in front of some serious eyes in Hollywood. In this interview we chat about his book, Human Resources, zombies, Tasmania, and what’s next for him in the contest.


Q: Tell me a little about yourself—how long have you been writing?

In some ways, I feel like I’ve been doing it forever, and that it was inevitable.  All my life, I’ve been a story person — whether telling my own or losing myself in someone else’s. I first started writing as a child, and have continued — on and off — ever since.

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Robert Batten, in the flesh

As a child of two outdoor education teachers and mountaineers, my childhood was dominated by exploring  the unrivaled wilderness of Tasmania. Rugged mountain ranges, dense temperate rainforests, high alpine plains; a perfect training ground for any budding adventurer.

This was a setting  with few people (typically only the ones we brought with us), and no internet or other modern distractions. Through necessity, I learned to entertain myself armed with books and my imagination.

Travel was an important contributor to  my formative years. I was fortunate to have parents afflicted with an irresistible urge to explore our amazing planet, an affliction they passed on. I’ve come to view traveling as storytelling in motion — every landscape a new setting, every person a new character in their own narrative, every culture a new tapestry steeped in history. Once you start unravelling that web it’s impossible to stop.

At university, I followed my passion for gadgets and studied Information Systems rather than English. That path has led to an interesting and diverse career in IT, but left my drive to tell tales unfulfilled.

Since then, I’ve picked up my writing a few times. Each time I’d start trying to craft a complex world, get caught in the details of planning (rather than focussing on the story), and intimidate myself into stopping. That changed in early 2010 when I did something different, which was the genesis of Human Resources.

human-resources-cover-3Q: Tell me about Human Resources. 

It all started with a vivid and specific dream. Unlike most of my dreams, this one stuck with me, bouncing around my subconscious, clamouring for my attention. After daydreaming my way through the sequence repeatedly, I decided to write it down. This time, I didn’t attempt to craft a world, just to capture that single scene.  I think that was crucial for me as it reminded me how much I enjoyed writing. Next thing I knew, I was knee-deep in a novel.

The premise of that dream, and the setting for the novel, was a simple one. When the zombie apocalypse comes (and let’s face it, we all know it’s coming), what if the ones to save us were more dangerous than the horror they saved us from? Creatures who were acting out of cold, calculated self-interest?

Human Resources is set in the near future, years after a zombie-like plague overwhelmed civilisation. In the aftermath, all that remains are heavily fortified city-states, created and ruled by global corporations, which in turn are owned and run by vampires. The novel is a story of survival, of freedom, and of unlikely alliances. Possibly most importantly, it is a story of choices — the tallying of risk, the weighing of sacrifices. Sometimes the “right” path is obscured behind shades of grey. Sometimes the greater good demands sacrifices we can’t bear to make. Those decisions define us, and they define our characters. The players in Human Resources have some tough decisions to make.

Q: Were there any books/movies/video games/interpretive dances inspired you to tell this story?

Many, though few directly. I’ve always loved stories in any medium. Books, TV, movies, games, anime, manga — I’ve probably spent as much time out of reality as in it. My preferred genres are Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and (particularly) Urban Fantasy and Alternate Reality. I devour series such as The Dresden Files, Kate Daniels, Guild Hunter, Harry Potter, and Throne of Glass. It’s inevitable that my style and content will reflect some of this, but none of those books have directly influenced Human Resources.

There are some books and movies with closer parallels to the world of Human Resources, either in thematic elements, style, or setting. The Passage by Justin Cronin is an amazing take on a vampire apocalypse, and blew my mind. Daybreakers with Ethan Hawke shares some common setting elements with its vampire-run corporate dystopia. There are also some similarities with aspects of I am Legend.

Early on, I realised I wanted the novel to stand confidently as a science-fiction, with some supernatural elements. This raises some pointed questions about who and what my vampires are, so I set out to discover exactly that. I’ve since published some of the results of that investigation here.

Q: Have you always imagined it as a screenplay as well?

Yes and no. As someone who has spent time playing RPG’s — tabletop and PC/online — I always felt Human Resources would make a great game setting. In my mind I’ve also envisioned it as an anime, rather than visualising it as a live-action movie or TV series. The possibility that it could be picked up for that is an exciting prospect, but for now I am trying to focus on getting the novel into shape fit for publication. Baby steps!

Q: You’re from Tasmania! Why is the story set in the Siberian mountains?

I love my native island state of Tasmania. For those who are about to open a new tab and Google it, Tasmania (or ‘Tassie’ as it is affectionately known by locals) is the Southern-most state of Australia. It is an island some 350 kilometres (220 miles) from the main Australian continent. It’s rugged, sparsely populated, but filled with incredible National Parks and World Heritage Areas.

Moving on to the question, the novel isn’t set in Siberia. Only the virus which brought about the destruction of the civilised world, leaving behind a horde of transformed horrors, originated in Siberia. The story picks up decades after this outbreak and the virus has since covered the globe.

I needed a large urban city for the setting to work. The entire population of Tasmania is only about 500k; I needed somewhere larger and more strategic. In the end, I chose to locate the story in Sydney. Chapter One mentions Edison’s office having a view of the bridge and opera house — these landmarks are the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Q: There’s a trope within the Zombie genre, wherein the world is the same as ours but without any idea about what zombies are. Do you have any opinions about that?

I think it is, to an extent, necessary for many of these stories to work. If you want to take a serious approach to the genre, having victims who are unfamiliar with the lore seems to make this more believable. I feel that if the world started with people well-versed with zombie novels and movies, there tends to be a natural shift towards a comedic approach. Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and Cabin in the Woods are great examples of this. In a world jaded by zombie cliches, where the CDC has published zombie survival plans, zombies just aren’t scary anymore. However sheepish some might be to admit it, I think we have all spent time planning what we would do, where we would go, and what supplies we would need. The result is a lot less harrowing than a setting full of ignorant, unsuspecting mobile dinners. To me, just seems to fit better.

In Human Resources the question is somewhat moot. Being set so long after the outbreak, it really doesn’t matter what people knew before it occurred. I do want to be careful in what I say when I relate this back to my novel — I’m toeing the line of spoilers — but my zombies are a little different than the classic variety. Indeed, it could be argued the infected in my world share more with those of I am Legend rather than The Walking Dead. I’m afraid you’ll need to read the book to find out more about that.

Q: How long is left in the contest, and how are you what’s your position as of today?

The contest has two concurrent streams; a formal judging stream and the crowdfunding competition.

The formal judging stream concludes at the end of November, with a number of prizes to be announced. This will include at least one manuscript being optioned by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free and at least one author being signed by Energy Entertainment.

The crowdfunding competition runs until 16 December (PST), at which point the three manuscripts with the most pre-orders will be published by Inkshares.

As of right now, Human Resources is performing strongly in the crowdfunding competition, holding the number one position. It has also been named by the Launch Pad judges in their Top 25, so it is also in a position to pick up one of the major prizes from that stream.

In addition to the Launch Pad Manuscript Competition, there have been two exciting new developments in the past week:

  1. Human Resources was named by Inkshares in their new “2016 List” of top projects not yet published.
  2. It crossed the magic 250 pre-orders threshold, which means one way or another Inkshares will publish the novel. The question — dependent on the competition outcome — is whether it will be mass produced and marketed, or print-on-demand.

Q: Any final thoughts you want to share?

Up until May this year, I had not shared my writing with anyone outside a close circle of trusted friends. Indeed, the primary audience for my writing has been my wife, who’s unfailing support and encouragement has kept me going; I certainly hadn’t believed I could be published. A lucky chain of events led me to Inkshares and provided the excuse I needed to share my work — a community-run event encouraging authors to exchange critiques.

Psychologically I’m still struggling to accept all that has happened since then. First joining the Inkshares community, making connections and building confidence, then The Launch Pad Manuscript competition. I’m grateful to Inkshares for their platform, as well as the other partners in the competition. But what I really want to do is single out the Inkshares community. From that first day they have been welcoming and encouraging and I have been carried to this point in part by their enthusiasm and generosity.

 

These Are My Friends on Politics – Billy O’Keefe

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It’s possible to summarize 2016 with a single meme. I know. That’s what the world has come to. Here it is:

I don't want to live on this planet anymore

(It works on so many levels! Let’s talk about it over coffee or a beer, depending on time and place.)

We’ve faced the deaths of cultural icons, widespread ideological violence, the overwhelming reality of our changing climate, and the disintegration of any semblance of civility in global politics. We have had to contend with the growing polarization of dialogue from every side of every argument. Today, we watch, holding our breath during a historic election: we will either elect the first woman, who represents a holding to the status quo, or the first rotten overripe tangerine who also happens to be a rampant misogynist, racist, and serial molester. To me, it seems like a really easy choice. But this has been the most contentious election season in my life, and quite possibly in the lives of my parents and grandparents.

Which brings me to These Are My Friends on Politics, by Billy O’Keefe, published last week by Inkshares. It’s a delightful little book presented as a children’s book for “adults who act like children.” How appropriate.

O’Keefe makes the bold statement that everyone knows to be true, but often ignores, especially during contentious political seasons: we become absolutely awful to each other, largely because of heavily polarized representation of the state of things, but when we aren’t talking politics, we are all reasonably nice people with the same overall desires. Controversial indeed.

Billy’s drawings suit the tone of the writing well—they grow increasingly chaotic, violent, and absurd. They depict what I feel myself becoming as I argue about politics: a monster.

I have had a difficult time with this election season, as I’m sure many of us have. I’m tired, angry, sad, confused, hopeful, and disheartened. Vitriol feels like its at an all-time high. That’s why it was a pleasure to read Billy’s book; it was a moment of levity in a time that is fraught with stress. When I read his book, I smiled at the absurdity of it all. It was therapeutic.

These Are My Friends on Politics is available on Amazon and Inkshares.

Motive For Massacre – Chris Philbrook

51fvpa-gojlThe sequel to Wrath of the Orphans is, incidentally, much less wrathful than its predecessor. Motive for Massacre might sound like it gets hairy—and it certainly does—the plot of Motive follows the Everwalk twins along the path to discovering who orchestrated the destruction of their home and the slaughter of its two hundred-or-so citizens, and why.

It’s a much tighter story than Wrath, owing to the fact that it didn’t have to do much world building, allowing Chris Philbrook to immediately focus on the characters and their challenges. It is also stronger as a result.

I listened to Motive on Audible at double-speed, which rendered the problems I mentioned in my Wrath review obsolete. Kevin T. Collins’s narration is strong, if still a little one-dimensional.

Motive spends considerably less time traveling, which contributes to its sense is focus, and lingers on description only long enough to give you a sense of place, except when locations are relevant later in the story. As I said above, this one is really about the characters.

Malwynn and Umaryn find themselves in situations where their thirst for bloody revenge takes a backseat to other desires. Umaryn is quickly realizing that her abilities as an artificer are extraordinary, and Malwynn is falling in love.

The twins are challenged by their individual and collective needs, which drives the first half of the book well. And just before that world have become irksome, the story switches gear and the central arc of the trilogy, discovering who was responsible for the destruction of their home, and why they did it.

Their adventure takes them back on the rails, and they learn much more than they’d anticipated about their family’s past and present. Adventure ensues, but it is in many ways subdued when compared to the explosive and violent action in Wrath.

Motive is a more enjoyable book through and through, though it would be impossible to read without making it through Wrath first. That being said, if your want to commit to (probably) more than forty hours of listening to a dark fantasy and steampunk crossover, you could do much worse than dig in to the Kinless Trilogy.

Motive for Massacre is available from Amazon and Audible.

Simone – André Brun

André Brun must be some kind of masochist. The author of Lies and Deception (to be published by Inkshares some time next year), knowing the difficulty of crowdfunding a book, has gone back for more on multiple occasions.

For the currently-running horror contest, he’s entered a book of connected short stories, Arcadia, the first of which he sent me for review.

Simone is very short, and in a pretty rough state, but what it lacks in polish doesn’t detract from the content of the tale.

Secret cults, monsters, and true fear creep into the periphery, seeding curiosity in the reader about what’s to come in the stories that follow.

Though it might frustrate some readers, there’s a moment in Simone that I found greatly appealing. The character—presumably Simone—states that, while she was traveling, she came upon a pillar in a jungle cave.

There’s something delightful about not knowing the details there. The omission builds character. Simone, in the telling of her tale, doesn’t think that her being alone in the jungle at seventeen is important to the story; it’s just a detail that informs the listener of time and place.

Thing is, there has to be a story about why she was in the jungle at such a young age, alone, seeking shelter in a cave. It could be a story all on its own. But she glosses over it.
That simple absence of detail reminds me of stories from the golden age of science fiction, stories that opted for dense statements that can span millennia as opposed to the modern world of genre fiction, which is detail-oriented and strives to break presses worth strength of word count alone.

Though Arcadia will no doubt need polish, the substance is there. I look forward to reading it someday, whether it’s a winner in the contest or otherwise.

The Show – Filip Syta

theshowcoverfinal-1I read Filip Syta’s The Show (published by Inkshares) a few weeks ago, and it was the final nail in a coffin that’s been long in the making. I knew that I couldn’t review the book with any kind of honesty until I’d given it some time to marinate, and waited for certain changes in my life (detailed below) to take place.

To be frank, I’m still not even sure if I liked the book. The writing didn’t pull me in, though it’s mechanically good, and the protagonist is, for most of the book, a patently shitty person.

But the book does one thing exceptionally well, which earns it a high rating in my opinion: it is deeply—almost painfully—honest about the experience of working in the tech world.

Vic, the star of The Show, picks up and moves to San Francisco, a gleam in his eye as he considers his future with “Show”—a company which is never explicitly called, but probably is, Google. He knows he’s going to work at one of the coolest companies in the world, and that the name alone is enough to cast a halo over his head. He’s part of the Biggest Thing On Earth(TM).

He sees the world around him as his new plaything. He is intoxicated by his newfound wealth, and the ostentation of his industry and company. He sees, but doesn’t acknowledge, the gross and growing wealth disparity in San Francisco. He is fed, liquored up, and paid handsomely. And for a time, he works hard for it.

But for the most part, he fritters away his time getting wasted, chasing casual sex, and generally being a cocky asshole. Eventually, he just spends his time drunk between hangovers and lying to his clients and supervisors.

I’ve worked with Vic. I’ve worked with many Vics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to launch into a diatribe against everyone I used to work with, or millennials, or anything like that. I’m going to talk about the way working in tech changed me.

In tech, as in anywhere in the world, there are good and bad people. But my observations tell me that a higher percentage of cutthroat sociopaths chase the “easy” money in tech than want to, say, fix a cup of coffee or wait tables. I could be wrong. Grass is always greener, I suppose.

I started working in tech due to a stroke of luck. A close friend opened the door, and I gladly walked through it. I vibrated with excitement at the prospect of being gainfully employed, making more money than I could honestly believe, at one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, at twenty-one. I drank deeply of the kool-aid; practically swore allegiance to the company.

Slowly, my idea of the company began to fade. That vision was shattered into dust by my first Vegas conference.

I watched obscenely wealthy people mingle with their much-poorer paid associates from around the country, getting belligerent drunk, exposing their gross misogyny and brutishness, cloaked in the false twilight of casino floors, glowing with liquor and fake attention from paid hyper-sexualized women.

I watched people cheat on their spouses, or at least try. I dragged a nearly-unconscious executive, her dress torn well above her waist, to her room, lest she be set upon by less-than-savory, lecherous creeps who likely disregarded her words at meetings. A married co-worker tried wrapping her leg around me at the bar we’d rented out for the opening night drinkfest. I escaped to my room to read a book with a dragon on the cover.

I watched the jaws of a trap spring shut around my mind. I felt like I was careening hopelessly toward becoming what I saw, drawn in by the enormous gravity well that forms from trying to buy your way out of bone-deep dissatisfaction.

That isn’t to say that the entirety of my tech life was bad. I made great friends, worked diligently, and learned a great many things. I do not consider these last seven years wasted.

But in reading The Show, I realized that it was past time for me to leave that life and try to make it some other way. I want to create. To write. To read. To listen. To explore. To exercise. The exhaustion, mental and physical, that was the result of day-in-day-out rat racery stifled my creative mind. It made me a poorer listener. It made me lazy. It also made me deeply depressed, a condition for which I’m now medicated.

There are moments in The Show that remind me so much of my own experience, that resonate so truthfully with the things I’ve seen in my (admittedly short) time in tech that I reeled as I read. As the plot thickened and Vic realized that his life was falling apart despite appearances to the contrary, I saw myself reflected in the pages.

The whole book encapsulates the zeitgeist of silicone valley tech so accurately that it is difficult to point to one passage call it an exemplar of techbro life.

But if I had to choose, I’d pick this one:

“The next day, I was back at work and was in a meeting that was about a previous meeting, which we had had to discuss another meeting that we’d had in response to a meeting someone had had with someone else. Almost everyone in the room was sitting with their laptops open browsing the internet, reopening the same websites over and over again to see if anything new had happened during the twenty seconds since they’d last checked.”

I’ve been in those meetings.

There’s one other moment in the book that comes to mind as particularly resonant. Shortly after one member of the crew says that he feels like his mind is putrefying on the job, during another moment of vulnerability, a colleague tells Vic that he went to seek help at the on-site mental health services clinic.

“’You know what they said when I wanted to sign up for an appointment?’

‘That you should do some cocaine and you’ll be fine?’ I smiled.

‘Wouldn’t surprise me. No, that there is a waiting list of two thousand employees, and the first available appointment is in eight weeks. Aren’t we supposed to work at the best place in the world? How can there be so many of us in need of a shrink?…’”

Why indeed.

Yesterday was my last day at the big tech company. Today, I start something entirely new.

The Show is available from Inkshares and Amazon.com

WarblerChat — An Interview with G. Derek Adams

When I read G. Derek Adams’s Asteroid Made of Dragons, I became infected with a new love of fantasy. You can read all about how much I loved Asteroid as well as his first novel, Spell/Sword, in the linked reviews. What I’m sharing below is the content of our delightful conversation last weekend. Talking with Derek was a delight, and I hope to interview him again when he has a fantasy novel empire.

Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia McKillip

mckillipdreamsofdistantshores

Tachyon Publications has a knack for putting out excellent collections of short stories—in fact, it seems to be their specialty. This week’s “flavor” is Patricia Mckillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores, an excellent anthology that spans modern fiction, slipstream, and urban fantasy.

Dreams of Distant Shores contains five short stories and two novellas, and while you should certainly read the whole collection, I’d like to focus on the novellas in this review.

The first, The Gorgon in the Cupboard, is emblematic of Mckillip’s strengths at imbuing characters with tremendous reality and honesty. The cast is made up of artists and their many models and muses, principal among them a painter pining for another painter’s wife, and a peasant who has undergone the deepest of personal tragedies—the loss of a child.

Oh, and there’s a talking painting of Medusa, too.

The flow of The Gorgon in the Cupboard is fantastic. It maintains many threads effortlessly, while transmitting real emotion through believable characters using surreal moments and wavering sanity. The Gorgon in question, the Medusa on the protagonist’s painting, is nothing more than a par of eyes and a mouth, imbued with life—whether as a figment of his imagination or by some magical intervention—and a keen and biting wit that she uses to motivate him to look in different places for the muse he seeks.

The way McKillip uses painting, color, and the struggle to express the moving, sometimes ephemeral nature of the subject, is phenomenal. It puts you right there with the artists as they paint and cavort around town and the countryside. The introduction of Jo, the muse, is done in heartbreaking contrast—a rainy night finds her huddled with vagrants under the awning of a butcher’s shop, where she reminisces about the death of her infant child and aged mother. All she has to remember them by is her scarf. Once, she had been a model for the protagonist, but the manner of her initial departure was such that she wouldn’t dare return to his studio.

Things twist and turn, the Gorgon whispering encouragements and distractions into the painter’s unwilling ear, and the plot resolves nicely. All told, it’s a fabulous story.

But the story that shines brightest in the anthology is, without a doubt, Something Rich and Strange. Here, McKillip enters a Haruki Murakami-esque state, building a world and a “normal” life for her characters, then blurring the edges of reality slowly, until you’re plunged alongside the characters into the surreal and mythological. It’s a magnificent story, truly wonderful, and even if the rest of the stories were mediocre—they aren’t, the whole anthology is great—this story would be well worth picking up the whole book for.

Something Rich and Strange takes its name and much of its symbolism from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, dealing with sea-gods, temptation, betrayal, love, trust, and bravery. It’s a whirlwind story that buffeted me like a hurricane. The transition into surreality was so smoothly done that I looked at the world around me, confused and unsure of whether I, too, was falling into some kind of fey. Something Rich and Strange is brilliant. That’s the long and the short of it.

Dreams of Distant Shores is available on Amazon and Tachyon.com.

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor

binti-nnedi-okoraforNnedi Okorafor’s Binti just won best novella at the 2016 Hugo Awards, after having won the Nebula Award in the same category. I had no idea what the book was about, but based on the cover art alone, I knew I wanted to read it. It’s part of Tor’s new effort to publish shorter fiction through their Tor.com imprint, and they’d been advertising heavily on sites I frequent, so I’d seen the cover of Binti a few hundred times before I finally picked it up. It was a bit serendipitous, actually. I walked into a bookstore I’d never seen before near my house while my parents—who were visiting—explored shops nearby.

I love going to local bookstores and scoping out their genre fiction sections. More often than not, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are poorly represented, but Diesel books in Oakland had a lovely section in the back with a great selection. I pursued the section slowly and the cover I’d seen so many times caught my eye. I felt like I had to have it. I’m very, very glad I bought it.

Binti is one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read. It’s beautifully written, complex, and vibrant. It’s imaginative, human, and challenging. I hesitate to be so hyperbolic, but I think it’s a masterpiece. It certainly deserved its wins at the Hugos and Nebulas.

I enjoyed everything about Binti, from the living cephalopod spaceships to the rich cultural traditions, to the interfacing of the technological and the spiritual. So often science fiction falls into familiar trappings of external technologies, pale humans, cold hulls, and a deliberate disconnection from basic biological self. Okorafor integrates everything together with grace, while illustrating a fantastically large-scale universe from bits and pieces sprinkled throughout Binti.

But more than beautiful words and a beautiful message, Binti is a great story. The plot takes a hard right turn halfway through, which took me by complete surprise, yet ties up elegantly, leaving the eponymous protagonist, Binti, stronger and wiser. I felt stronger and wiser too, when I finished it.

Binti is absolutely brilliant. It’s about 90 pages long, and you should take the hour or two to read it. I imagine it’ll be used in short fiction master classes for years to come.

Binti is available at Tor.com and Amazon.