Tag: Hugo Awards 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

While I haven’t read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first book in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series, I found A Closed and Common Orbit, last year’s Hugo-nominated sequel to that volume, a deeply enjoyable and approachable read. The characters are rich and honest, the universe is extensive and fascinating, and the writing is excellent.

At the core of A Closed and Common Orbit is one question, explored from several angles: what is personhood?

Whether the AI learning the limitations of a single body, an escaped genetically engineered slave finding out about the world outside her prison, a ship AI exploring motherhood, or an alien shifting between genders with fluidity, each character arc deals with the question of personhood. (Personhood as opposed to humanity is something particularly interesting to explore, given our own proximity to artificial intelligence and our somewhat limited understanding of consciousness.)

There isn’t an adventure at the heart of A Closed and Common Orbit, but there is action and change, despite the slow pacing of the novel. From a quick search, I gather that the pacing presented a problem for some readers, but I feel that a book about asking difficult questions and exploring them with genuine care should take it slow, be methodical, and not detract from it’s central premise with an epic dressing.

I am sure that, by making a categorical statement, I am shooting myself in the foot. There’s no doubt that it’s possible to write a compelling adventure that deals with the essence of personhood. That isn’t this book, though. This book takes time to show the confusion, fear, pain, and the joy, wonder, and curiosity that are part of the conscious experience. It made me think. A lot. And for that, I genuinely appreciate it. In a year filled to brimming with excellent reads, A Closed and Common Orbit may have fallen short of where it otherwise might have been on best-of lists. It’s an excellent book. One I won’t soon forget.

A Closed and Common Orbit is available on Amazon. (Use that link to buy it, if you like, and support The Warbler while doing it!)

This Census-Taker – China Miéville

In past posts, I’ve alluded to the divide within the speculative fiction world, wherein on one side stands the group that wants to elevate unheard voices, shine a light on different stories, and push the boundaries of our boundless universes just a bit farther. From the other side wafts a miasma, that same stench that has consumed U.S. politics which, in this case, wants to make science fiction “Great Again.” That group calls itself the “sad puppies,” which isn’t a joke, somehow. Anyway, their continued efforts to bend the system to push certain works toward award nominations have been less effective than previous years, though not entirely ineffective. Which brings me to This Census-Taker, by China Miéville.

I had planned not to read any of the puppy-nominated books from the 2017 Hugo nominees list, but I’d been meaning to read China Miéville for a while, having had his work recommended to my time and again by friends and colleagues the world over. Despite what follows, I will very likely try another Miéville in the future.

This Census-Taker is a book that, for me, never quite took off. It blends elements of fantasy and horror within a surreal framework, muddied by the unreliable narrator, a nameless boy who tells the story in pieces, from different periods of time, and with varying levels of basic knowledge. For all its artistry, the (quite good) writing isn’t able to give the requisite lift to the book. It falls flat.

There’s a murder (maybe), and a (possibly) bottomless hole where his (suspected) evil father dumps the (presumed) victims of his homicidal tendencies: animals and humans alike. Sometimes, the story moves one step outward, telling a loose frame story—the nameless boy, older now, in some kind of incarceration, is writing down the details of his childhood—but that, too, remains somewhat bland. This Census-Taker becomes even more lackluster when comparing it to the other nominated novellas from this year’s Hugos—Black Tom, Vellit Boe, and Every Heart a Doorway in particular, which I had read shortly before sitting down to listen to the audiobook of This Census-Taker.

As I implied above, I don’t indent to blackball Miéville from my to-read list as a result of my less-than-stellar affair with this novella. He’s a fascinating figure who has amassed an impressive corpus, and I’m curious to see his takes on other genres.

Maybe you, friend, can convince me to pick up one of his books sooner. Give it your best shot in the comments.

Penric and the Shaman – Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold, who won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Series (for the Vorkosigan Saga), is a fantastically decorated writer. Among her many accolades are six Hugos, three Nebulas, three Locuses, and as of 2010 (according to wikipedia), has sold over two million books.

And because I’ve been derelict in my studies of speculative fiction, I hadn’t heard of her until I saw Penric and the Shaman on the list of nominated novellas for the 2017 Hugos.

It’s tough to give a fair review to a novella that is set smack-dab in the middle of an established series: the second novella in a series of five that is itself set within a larger series. There’s an established world, pantheon, society, and long-standing relationships between characters, nations, and religious sects that would have been prohibitively difficult (not to mention ill advised) to include in the novella.

As such, there’s a bit of catch-up on the part of a reader hopping in to the Chalion series in its fifth installment. That being said, Bujold did an excellent job of back-filling questions for new readers while making sure that her pacing would keep knowledgable fans interested. Even with her admirable efforts, I found myself occasionally lost while reading Penric and the Shaman. There was just too much information to assimilate. There was plenty of available information between the lines, in character behaviors and dialogue, but keeping track of it is where I became disoriented.

But that’s part-and-parcel of my circumstance as a reader, and not a knock against the book. Bujold’s writing is very good—she imbues a sort of clarity in her writing that makes even the abstract and hallucinatory moments in the novella easy to picture, which helped me a great deal when it came to piecing the story together in larger, implied context.

Penric is a young (too young, according to most of the reactions to him in the story) sorcerer, advisor to a princess, and a divine priest of the “Bastard’s Order”—who represent the Bastard, the unnamed god of the forgotten, abandoned, and etcetera. Penric is also possessed, or perhaps in possession of, a demon, Desmonda, who hangs out in his brain and can occasionally, with Penric’s permission use his body.

Penric is sent off on a mission to capture a runaway shaman, Inglis, who has been charged with murder. When Penric and his cadre of soldiers finally catch up to Inglis in the snowy mountains, they discover that the situation is much more complex than they’d been led to believe, and Penric is tasked with balancing his roles as a clergyman and sorcerer, torn between his desire to help the man he’s chasing and appeasing the hard-nosed military leader who just wants to complete the mission.

Penric and the Shaman is, all-in-all, an excellent story that deals with intriguing themes of belief, death, personal responsibility, and agency within a wonderfully deep framework that I knew almost nothing about. I’m sure I would have loved the story if I was familiar with Bujold’s other work, but as it is, I really enjoyed Penric and the Shaman.

All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

So…hey there, reader. I’ve been away a while, with the exception of a few posts regarding that trip I took. Work’s been busy, life gets in the way, etcetera. In the couple of months since I last posted a review, I’ve read somewhere around a dozen books and stories, so in an effort to catch up to the schedule, I’ve set myself a rather aggressive review schedule. If, as I hope, I stick to that schedule, you can expect a review every other day through mid-November, possibly even into December. You ready? I am. Let’s do this.

[drop_cap]C[/drop_cap]harlie Jane Anders has been the talk of the Sci-Fi world this year, with her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, winning a Nebula and nomination for a Hugo, among its many other accolades. I think it deserves the praise.

All the Birds in the Sky is a story about abuse, growth, fear, artificial intelligence, the transcendental power of the mind, and the unknowable power of nature. It’s something of a treatise, from a Bay Area native, on the dangers of taking technology too far—something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit, incidentally.

The story follows the lives of two characters, Patricia and Laurence, who become friends as children, finding solace in each other’s company, processing their traumas together. They discover they’re a witch and gifted technologist, respectively, which drives a wedge between them, the resulting separation causing even more pain to each of them.

The three-act structure of the book is divided among periods in the protagonists’ lives, and leaps into their twenties—after Patricia has gone to Witch School after rescuing Laurence from a horrible military boarding school. Patricia has grown into a capable Healer, who cures people in San Francisco of all manner of ills, from actual sickness to fatal marital conflicts. Meanwhile, Laurence is a hot-shot engineer, whose connections and skill placed him in San Francisco as well, where he’s a rockstar in the tech industry. Our heroes meet again, at a party, and rekindle something of their old friendship. It blossoms into something more, and they work together to redefine themselves while recalling their traumas.

The final act consists of an epic conflict between the forces of witchcraft (nature) and technology, which, because it’s awesome, I won’t detail here. You’ll have to read the book. Which you should absolutely do.

Anders’s writing flows easily between ecstatic and window-pane, reserving stylistic flair for the moments of surreality that punctuate the novel. It creates a powerful effect—the contrast between the moments of magic and pain is stronger for it.

My only issue with the novel was the uneven pacing between the first act and the others. The first act—the childhood and abuses portion—was longer and slower-paced than its adolescent and adult counterparts and, for me, the latter two acts dealt with much more interesting philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness, morality, technology, humanity, and the limits of each of those subjects. Because the bulk of the action in the story takes places in the second and third acts, it feels like it races through those discussions, and I’d have liked to explore the topics a little deeper with her characters.

I loved the idea of putting technology and magic against each other in our world, especially one that I’ve become intimately familiar with throughout my (admittedly short) career. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are complicated places, and more than a few of the ideas that come out of these places could use the careful consideration that a book like All the Birds in the Sky gives to the merits of limitless technological progress.

I really enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky, and I think that chances are good that you’ll enjoy it too. If you’re eager to read it, consider clicking this here link to order it on Amazon, which will give your pal The Warbler a kick-back.

On Travels and Withdrawal

Is it possible to experience withdrawal from a trip?

It must be, since I’ve been feeling symptoms that I’d label withdrawal since returning from Europe about four weeks ago. It’s likely a combination of things: my partner, her brother, and most of our friends were away at a Certain Desert Shenanigans festival, leaving me plenty of time with my thoughts; and I just started a new job, so even though I’ve got plenty of time to myself, most of it has been consumed with adjusting to the implications of that new role.

But that isn’t an explanation of why I’m feeling the way I feel. It’s the setting in which those feelings have the opportunity to metastasize. To grow tentacles and explore the boundaries of their cage, to prod and test the limits of their power over my day to day.

It might seem strange to bestow agency and cancerous identity to these feelings. After all, you may find yourself asking, didn’t I have an amazing time?

I did. An overwhelming, immensely educational, mind-altering, perception-shifting, notion-rewriting time on my trip. And I came back to my life in the “default world”—as the Burners like to call it—and didn’t have the space I didn’t think I’d need to integrate those new pieces of me into this life.

How can I take the part of me that drank in the community like fuel, that ate up every spark of inspiration, that stoked the furnace that grew in me with reckless vigor, and fit it into the rest of this me, the one with the new commute and the past-due veterinary appointment?

Maybe one of the reasons it’s been more difficult than I’d anticipated is because the farther away I get from that space, both physically and emotionally, the more I think of it as the time I pretended to be a writer. I fooled so many of you, my new friends. Here you thought I was one of you, but I can’t hold a candle to y’all.

Part of me knows that’s absurd, and that I’m breaking one of the more important rules I learned on the journey, but I don’t have you with me to slap my wrist, crew! I’m here with my cats and my thoughts and there’s nobody who can stop this imposter train from barreling through.

So in an effort to stem the bleeding I am going to write about the trip, finally. Maybe it’ll remind me that I am one of you, after all.

###

Up until the minute Krystal dropped me off at the airport, I was terrified. I’d already spent the money—lots of it—on this trip, and I didn’t know anyone who would be there, at least personally. I’d be going to places I had never been, on a cruise for the first time (which I’d had reservations about anyway), to be a Writer in Public for what felt like the first time. (This isn’t entirely sensible, since I had been to a convention and had been working as a writer in the corporate space for nearly nine years. But feelings aren’t supposed to make sense, are they?)

But something changed when the car door closed and Krystal pulled away. I remembered what it felt like to travel, and to travel alone. I remembered that I love it. I was energized and ready to go.

On the first flight, to Copenhagen, I sat next to a young woman who was traveling out of the country for the first time, for a five-month study abroad program in Denmark. Her whole family was with her, but she wasn’t able to sit with them. We chatted a bit, mostly about her studies. When she asked what I was doing I kept it brief. A writing retreat. No, I didn’t know anyone else who was going on the trip. She said the idea terrified her. I told her I’d felt the same way until about two hours before we started chatting, and we laughed. I can’t remember her name.

After about seventeen hours of travel, I was in Kiel, a port city in northern Germany, standing on front of the hotel and deliriously recalling my reservations about the whole trip from the departures curb at SFO. All these new people, and what if my writing is garbage compared to all of them, it definitely is garbage, oh no, what have I done, now I’m Germany with all these people who will take turns telling me I should quit and they’re probably all very tall and this was all a mistake and maybe it isn’t too late to turn around and…

And I walked into the hotel, somewhat unhinged from the journey, and wholly unprepared for what lay in store for me.

I met my roommate, Travis (about whom I’ll share more, later), and went down to the opening event—a welcome and brief tutorial on how we’d go about boarding the ship. I saw people I recognized, but didn’t know personally. Authors I admire greatly, but hadn’t met personally. It was strange, to feel like I knew these people, but to know that because of our our long, asynchronous, one-way conversation, I was a stranger to them. Not for long, though.

That first evening was about meet-and-greets and learning to write through (and despite) fear. To understand that the fears that keep our fingers from putting words to paper can be looked at and analyzed (somewhat) objectively, and that we can develop techniques that allow us to either ignore those fears, or compartmentalize them, appreciate their strange value, and continue doing the work. It was an excellent way to start the trip.

The following day we made our way to the ship, the boarding of which could be called an ordeal, which in turn was overshadowed by the absurdity of walking onto what was, essentially, SpaceVegas.

Let me explain. The cruise ship’s ostentation was more than a little tacky, to the point where I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud when I finally made it through the various stages of boarding and saw the interior for the first time. It was like this Italian cruise ship line took their idea of what Vegas is, mashed it together with a single viewing of a Star Trek episode (for their signage and some of the decor) and said “yeah, that’s a good motif for our vessel, let’s go with that.”

I’ve made no secret of my newfound distaste for cruising (as you might recall from a certain poem published on this very blog), but that’s more a “me” thing than a “cruise” thing, I imagine. See, I used to have chronic vertigo as a result of stress-induced vestibular migraines, and a week on a cruise ship felt like being on the verge of a vertigo episode for nearly 24 hours a day. Not terribly fun. That being said, I will absolutely be going on a cruise again, next year, to attend the 2018 Writing Excuses Retreat. Because it was just that good.

Rather than go into the details of every day on the cruise, and our various stops along the way, I’ll go into what I’ve taken away from the retreat—which I recently did orally on that there podcast I have.

The retreat was unlike anything I’d done before. To be surrounded by a group of peers who’ve all signed up to take part in this creative growth, together, was motivating in a way I could never have anticipated. To hear their stories, both fictional and personal, to see them at work, to understand each other on a fundamental level, was overwhelming. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I was really part of a community. Sure, I have love, friendship, and community here and in other spaces in my life, but there was something different about this one. Writing is a personal, vulnerable, deeply strange thing, and to share it wordlessly (ironic?) with this group was like having a boulder lifted from my shoulders. I never knew I carried it until it wasn’t there. Instead of hedging my nerdiness in regards to writing, as I often do in the real world, here I was free to be me, and my own aforementioned nerdiness could barely hold a candle compared to the group at large. I had so much to learn from these people, and the only tragedy is that I had but one week to work with.

The instructors were fantastic. Caring, careful, intelligent, sensitive, available people who had no reason to be, other than that we share something outside of our relative levels of success. I got to finally talk to these people—these people—and they treated me like one of their own, no questions asked.

I got to pester John Berlyne with questions I never knew I had about agents, and rather than brush me aside he came and found me after his session so that I could ask the rest of the questions bouncing around in my head. I got to see Wesley Chu, delighted at finding his own books on the shelves of one of the best SFF bookstores I’ve been to in the world (in Old Town Stockholm), and I shared in that excitement with him—with a frikkin’ Campbell winner! I got to ask Tempest Bradford about my story, and she gave me such amazing feedback that I doubt I’ll ever forget our conversation. I got to know Thomas Olde Heuvelt and David Samwel, terrific people who shepherded me into meeting some of my idols at Worldcon. I got to sit down for an amicable lunch with Aliette de Bodard, who asked about my work with genuine interest, which lead to a long conversation about the nature of mortality and grief. I got to laugh with Dan Wells and his daughter, Audrey, about the boat-related shenanigans.

And that’s saying nothing of my classmates, who were every bit as stimulating and helpful as the instructors. I especially want to give a hat-tip to Travis Sullivan, my roommate on the ship, whose no-nonsense approach to solving story problems helped me break through on more than one idea that had been plaguing me prior to the trip. Also he somehow got me to go to the gym at 6am, which is a thing nobody has ever been able to make me do. Go figure.

Even if I went through the retreat moment by moment, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I think I’ve done a good enough job at showing how meaningful it was for me, though, so I’ll move on to Helsinki and Worldcon.

###

Arriving back in Kiel was surreal. The week on the ship had been both an eternity and a blip, and I was glad to be rid of the boat part of the ordeal. A week is a long time to spend thinking about writing all day, and while I felt ready for a breather, I wished that after a weekend of exploring I could go back to another week of retreat. But I had a flight to catch the following morning, to Finland.

That evening I went for a walk through Kiel with Yvette Keller and Mark Bessey, a wonderful couple from Santa Barbara with whom I felt immediately at home. We had an excellent (non-vegan, sorry) dinner, after which we returned to the hotel for the night. They were heading on the Castle Tour (epic, right?) with others from the WXR group, while I was heading directly to Finland to pretend I lived there for a week.

Helsinki is a wonderful city. It’s like a cross between Manhattan and San Francisco, but with a fraction of the population. Amazing food, beautiful architecture, water, parks, excellent public transit—Helsinki’s got it all. Not to mention that it was substantially more diverse than I’d anticipated. I saw mixed-race and interfaith families happily strolling about, like it was no big deal (because it is no big deal) and was refreshed. Granted, it’s more than likely that I’m applying a certain rose-colored lens to the place, but I was happily surprised by the positive commingling of cultures and backgrounds that surrounded me. I mean, I’m in a mixed-race relationship in Oakland, and I’ve gotten dirty looks walking down the street with Krystal, my partner. Go figure.

During the week leading up to Worldcon I explored Helsinki, eating delicious food and taking long walks, getting a bit lost and finding my way home—the kind of solo travel I prefer. I connected with folks from the cruise as they trickled into Helsinki, hitting up an Irish bar for a bluegrass band (that played R&B covers), or eating literally the best meal of my life (shoutout to Nina and Dan for sharing that with me). Suffice it to say that I had a love affair with Heksinki, and while I would love to return, I have no idea when the next opportunity will present itself.

Worldcon was huge, overwhelming, and as different as possible from the retreat, but valuable for a completely different set of reasons. I had an overfull itinerary planned out, with sessions overlapping each other throughout every day of the convention. But I didn’t account for the volume of attendees, the difficulty of getting into the rooms, and the general anxiety that comes from being squeezed through a fire hazard of a hallway while trying to beat the rush so that you’re not greeted by a “Room Full” sign on the door.

After the first panel I attended—in which every seat was taken, as was the standing room along the walls, and the floor space in front of the standers—I decided to forgo rushing to any other panels. I moseyed down toward the cafe, which turned out to be where I’d spend the bulk of my time over the next four days.

I was immediately greeted by one of the instructors from the cruise, who introduced me casually to the gentleman he was standing with, who turned out to be a Hugo-winning author of an excellent novella. From there, I was walked to a table full of kind folks who were more than happy to have me join them to chat. Only once we’d already been laughing did I learn that they, too, were quite successful authors, all with deals for forthcoming or in-progress series with major publishers.

And so Worldcon passed, with me bouncing from group to group, always feeling welcomed and treated as a contemporary, to the point where Charlie Jane Anders, who must have recognized me from a reading a few weeks earlier in Berkeley, asked where I’ve been published, why I looked so familiar, and if she’d read my work. It was surreal. I met so many authors and editors I admire and schmoozed with celebrities of my world, and it was the most normal thing in the world.

Worldcon had its ups and downs—downs being the somewhat broken mechanism of the event, ups being the incredible networking opportunities it provided—but I credit the success of that event entirely to having attended the Writing Excuses cruise. I felt like I was a member of a secret cabal of writers. Everywhere I turned I saw a familiar face, and was comforted. An environment that normally would have terrified me—an overcrowded convention full of tall people and lines and whatnot—became thrilling. Who would I see next? Who would I meet through them?

Worldcon came and went quickly, and I left with a huge list of books to buy, authors to catch up on, and friends to add to my various social media channels. By the time I was getting ready to fly back to the states, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I felt like I’d gotten a taste of the life I’ve been wanting to live for so long; a Writer among Writers, engaging with the creative content that means the world to me.

On the other hand, I was heading back home, to see my love, our cats, and to start a new job with one of the most exciting companies in the history of technology. A true win-win.

###

I look back on a particularly dark stretch of time, in my early 20s, wherein I didn’t have a clue where I was headed creatively or professionally, living paycheck-to-paycheck despite having a corporate job in entertainment.

I was terrified of settling for a life that amounted to a creative void, an endless chase of the illusion of success that would always move just out of reach. Of defining myself by my paychecks, and not by the substance of my interests. Of seeking the same kind of lobotomy that only substance abuse or self-help cults can provide. I worried that I was stuck on a path that led in a spiral, ever downward and ending somewhere too dark to contemplate.

One day, driving home and talking to my dad on the phone, crying and trembling with this overwhelming fear—as I did on far too many days back then—I set myself an ultimatum. I told my dad that I did not want to be having the same conversation when I turned 30. That I wanted to know what I wanted to do and how I would get there, that I would feel comfortable with who I became, with the plans I’ll have set for myself, that I would be proud of myself, and that my family would be proud of me.

I turn 30 in January. I’ve grown my book review blog into a “thing” that has fostered opportunities I’d never have anticipated. I have a new job, working for one of the biggest and most successful companies of all time. My title there is Writer. And I attended the Writing Excuses retreat, which left me feeling like I’d been strapped to a rocket and shot into the sun. And instead of bursting into flame, the great ball of pulsating energy reached out, collected me, and brought me into itself, all warmth and belonging and light.

I can see where I was then and where I am now, but if you asked me how I achieved the goal I set myself those years ago, I couldn’t answer. I don’t know.

But I’m glad I’m here.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson

A strange and delightful congruity connects The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with the last Hugo-nominated book I reviewed, The Ballad of Black Tom. Both reach back toward Lovecraft, grab hearty handfuls of story, and mold it into works that manage the requisite respect for the author of such incredible tales while openly challenging his prejudices. You can refresh your memory about how Victor LaValle elegantly reframes Lovecraft into a tale of loss and revenge in last month’s review. We’re here today to talk about Kij Johnson’s brilliant, expansive, and enthralling The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

Most of the story takes place in the same world as Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, complete with the array of fantastical locales and creatures that populate Lovecraft’s dreamlands—that’s right folks, there are zoogs, gugs, and ghouls aplenty in Vellitt Boe. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Lovecraft’s Unknown Kadath, but based on some cursory research it’s a bit of an outlier in Lovecraft’s body of work, particularly because it isn’t as macabre as his other works. In fact, some people on the web called it “uplifting.” I’ll reserve my own commentary until such time as I have read the book in question. I’m certain that an intimacy with Unknown Kadath would make reading Vellitt Boe all the sweeter, but even without knowing the context in which the story’s told, Vellitt Boe is a terrific work of writing.

In contrast to where LaValle took Lovecraft’s horror, Kij Johnson took the wonder and fantasy of Lovecraft and cranked them up to eleven. But there’s a stunning reversal at the heart of the story, specifically to do with wonder, which I’ll go into further below. Where LaValle took Lovecraft’s bigotry and reformed it into a story of loss and cathartic revenge, Johnson looked at the complete lack of women—his dismissive sexism—in Unknown Kadath and, occupying the space he glossed over, tells a story about adventure, fear, wonder, and the subversion of the divine.

Vellitt Boe, the eponymous protagonist of the novella, is a professor at the Women’s College at Ulthar (one of the dreamlands). That there is a Women’s College at all, and the hinted-at fragility of its existence, is clear commentary on Lovecraft’s treatment of women in general, but it isn’t a focal point of the story. It’s the foundation upon which the stakes are built for Vellitt and, though they remain throughout the story, an odd distance grows between Vellitt and the College she defends; her need to protect the school, its staff, and its students never falters, but her personal connection to it wanes.

A brief overview of the story’s events before I dive into what captivated me about it: Vellitt Boe is awoken in the middle of the night to discover that one of her brightest students, Clarie Jurat, has run away with a man from the waking world. As Clarie’s father is one of the benefactors of the Women’s College, this scandalous event could have far-reaching ramifications, up to (and including) the closing of the Women’s College. Vellitt volunteers to go after Claire and return her to the College, and sets off immediately. At this point, we know little of Vellitt aside from her role at the school and tidbits about her personality. As she travels, we learn more about her past and her passions—the story is a story of growth and change that is inspired by (and mirrored in) her adventure. Ultimately, the quest takes Vellitt out of the dreamlands and into the waking world where she finds Clarie and delivers her message—that Clarie must return to the dreamlands. That she must go home. It so happens that, because of the quest itself, Vellitt is barred from returning to the dreamlands. She is unable to go home.

Connection to home, or a lack thereof, is a recurring theme in the story, and there’s a kind of inverse relationship between Vellitt’s fading connection to her home and the overall story arc. As she travels, we learn that Vellitt lived an adventurous and nomadic youth, finally settling at Ulthar and hanging up her traveling cloak and boots for what she thought would be the remainder of her life. But at 55 and back on the road, Vellitt feels the breath of new life in her, and though she sees how she has aged since her traveling years, she realizes that while she was happy at Ulthar, she was stagnating. She was home at Ulthar. But she’s at home on the road—at home at the helm of her own moment-to-moment experience.

As she travels, she’s presented with difficult trials, and each is surmounted with the intervention of Vellitt’s own lived experience. The people she traveled with, the loves and abuses and terrors and strengths of her youth, they all inform her and propel her in strength toward finding her goal, which happens to be restricting that selfsame adventurous streak in a young girl. Vellitt feels for Clarie, for her desire to see the waking world, but she knows that tragedy could befall the Women’s College if this one girl’s thirst for adventure isn’t curbed. The sacrifices she must make so that the progress women made in that world wouldn’t be nullified. It’s a conundrum. It’s thought provoking and gives pause.

Before I spoil the whole book for you, I’d like to talk about one more thing I found particularly compelling about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The dreamlands are extraordinary, vivid, and magical. To us—and to waking-world dreamers who visit—it is a fantastical delight. In many respects it is to Vellitt and Clarie, but it is home. Having both been involved with dreamers, they yearn to see the waking world, with its infinite sky of billions of stars, with its enormous scale and properly behaved physics. A tessellating sky that’s something between paper maché and silken lacework is beautiful, but limited. Through the eyes of Vellitt, the awesome landscape of the dreamlands is dimmed, and when she finally opens her eyes in the waking world, a Wisconsin blue sky on a clear day holds the majesty of all the prismatic crystalline cliff-sides you can imagine. The simplicity—mundanity, even—of the real world isn’t replaced. Rather, it is seen from a different perspective, and I was as enchanted with the infinite sky, one I’ve seen every day for my whole life, as Vellitt when she first saw it.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is available on Amazon.

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle

Note: Herein begins a series of reviews of books nominated for this years Hugo Awards. For those who don’t know, I will be attending the Hugos this year in Helsinki, Finland, and have more than a little catching up to do in regards to the nominees. I’ve already reviewed a few nominated stories, which will be back-tagged with the Hugo tag, should you be interested in seeing the group together. 

When my dad first saw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, he expressed an emotion that, at first, struck me as odd, but as I thought about it, made a great deal of sense. He found the film deeply cathartic. To watch a group of empowered Jews brutalize Nazis, he said, felt good. Really good.

I thought about that for a long while. The second world war carved a deep wound on the entire world, and the holocaust left horrid scar tissue in my people across the diaspora. We are all affected, generations later, no matter our ties to survivors or victims, no matter our beliefs or shifting religious affiliations. As my father said to me once, during my time as a rather angry atheist in college (I’ve since calmed down), the Nazis wouldn’t have cared what you believed. To them, you are a Jew.

The scars left on a people from having atrocities visited upon them last generations, a metastatic stiffness that has a rippling affect on our capacity for integrating into the world around us. And because humanity displays a tremendous weakness for even short-term memory, the victims of history are often blamed for the cultural wounds that shape our collective neuroses.

And so when my dad saw Inglorious Basterds, he saw a power fantasy for a people disempowered by history, in the heart of the greatest and most terrible robbery of their dignity and humanity. He had a chance to live out a dream he’d never known lived deep in him. Watching the film again, I saw what he meant, and completely agreed.

In many respects, I imagine that The Ballad of Black Tom can foster similar catharsis for black Americans. The protagonist undergoes a transformation through the novella, from a wily young man using ignorance and intolerance to his advantage to a powerful, somewhat divine being visiting destruction on those who robbed him of everything. He plays by the rules, bending and weaving through them as he will, getting slightly ahead in a world that perpetually pushes him behind. When he’s pushed into encounters with the supernatural, the comfortable—if harsh and dehumanizing—world cracks at the seams.

And when his father is executed by police for absolutely no reason, the world shatters and Tommy Tester wonders why the rules mattered at all. No matter what he believed, no matter his actions or efforts, he is subhuman. Second-class and worse. He gives in to the darkness that lingers nearby, reaches for the horror that’s held at bay and wraps himself in it. Then, he finds revenge.

Victor LaValle’s writing is spectacular, harkening to Lovecraft (by whom the story must have been inspired, especially given the presence of Cthulhu) but exceeding it. It fits in with the canonical mythos while proving that Lovecraft’s defects—his intolerance, his bigotry—aren’t what makes his brand of horror great. They detract from it. The scars from the horrors visited upon African Americans are ripe for the kind of horrors these tales visit upon the world. With LaValle’s brilliant novella, we get a taste of how sweet that revenge might be.

The Ballad of Black Tom, published by Tor.com, is available on Amazon.

The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley

It’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing Kameron Hurley’s essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution. Heartfelt may be a good word. Expansive may be another. But what keeps coming to my mind, over and again, is important. Vital, even. Especially in today’s America, wherein the once-fringe Gamergate movement has become the de-facto governing philosophy of the country. It sickens me to complete that sentence, but it’s where we are.

Hurley’s book explores nothing new, which is a remarkable enough thought on its own. The problems women and minorities face in the zeitgeist are nothing new, and though things are slowly changing—and we certainly live in a “better” time—we are still unbelievably far from where we need to be. And it feels like we may have just taken a major step backwards.

Hurley’s essays are a no-nonsense, unvarnished look at the status quo, most often through the lens of her personal experiences. Her anger, pain, and passion are evident in her every word, and they suffuse you as you read her essays. It’s frustrating to read, because the very real problems she describes are absurd. Combined with her frank, brutal writing style, the essays achieve their goal easily: to incense the reader. And we should be angry. And we should be galvanized by her words and the words of so many others to take action, to stand beside our fellow humans and say “enough is enough.”

There were more than a few moments while I read the essay collection in which I thought critically about my own experiences. It’s given me pause, and further material for an essay I’ve been considering writing which I’d call something like “On Being an Invisible Minority.” It’d no doubt be controversial, but I worry about writing it, and truth be told, never will. I was able to articulate the thesis of that essay after reading Hurley’s collection, though. So I’ll share the question here: Are we gaslighting individual members of groups for assuming privilege?

I think the core of that question is that privilege is a complicated subject, to say the least. There are so many different qualities that are privileged in our society, but there are also many that disqualify the larger, “superficial” elements of privilege. Just writing that sentence filled me with anxiety. Finishing the thought does, too. Because I’m a white, cis male.

But I’m also Jewish. I’m also a victim of sexual assault. I’m short. I wear glasses. I have a physical disability that resulted from an injury that prevents me from effectively washing the dishes or flipping a pancake without discomfort. I have international experience and dual citizenship. I am multilingual. I am medicated for depression and anxiety, like so many other Americans.  I feel like I’m in constant conflict with myself over the obvious privilege and the not-as-obvious struggles. And everywhere I read that those superficial elements of my privilege supersede the things about me I feel have been much more defining in my journey through life.

Most of those things require digging to discover. But walking down the street, I’m way ahead of the game. I know that. So there’s the duality within me that drives me up the wall: I am immensely privileged, and I acknowledge that and want to do my part to change the status quo. And I have struggled, and continue to struggle.  But comparing the severity of tragedies and struggles is going down a dark, divisive path. I will never do it. I support the fight of my many brothers and sisters who want nothing more than the dignity of an equal opportunity to succeed, to live without fear of assault and discrimination.

Suffice it to say this: in my pursuit of success as an author of genre fiction, some doors will open more easily for me than for my compatriots of color, women, and the litany of others who suffer this systemic discrimination. It is unacceptable. Hurley’s essays shine a bright light on these issues, and for that, it is a work of great import.

This was a difficult review to write. But The Geek Feminist Revolution was not a difficult book to read. It flows, and Hurley’s righteous fury is appropriate and inspiring. Her contribution to the canon of the fight against discrimination, especially in our corner of the zeitgeist, will stand out as a remarkable moment of commitment.  Hurley has cemented herself as a fearless fighter—a woman driven to this end not only by external forces, but an internal strength and perseverance that drives her to shout until she is hoarse, then shout some more. Kameron Hurley, you have written a fantastic collection of essays here. Your work should be considered required reading for anyone who wants to become a “figure” in the genre fiction community.

I’ll be pushing it to every writer I know.

The Geek Feminist Revolution is available on Amazon and directly from the author.

Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

heart-bigAfter seeing her at a reading at Borderlands in San Francisco, I became a fan of Seanan McGuire. Before that reading, I’d only seen her work in Altered Perceptions, wherein she wrote a very moving personal piece about living with OCD. I knew she was rather prolific (from her essay more than anything else), and knew that I wanted to read something by her, the gods of my ever-growing to-read list willing.

The opportunity came to request her upcoming novella, Every Heart a Doorway from NetGalley, and I was delighted. Two birds with one stone, as they say.

Every Heart a Doorway is a tale of belonging, of a community of misfits and ill-fits, and of self-discovery. While it is, superficially, a simple tale, it is built on a wonderful, rich concept that is so large in scope that it encompasses worlds. It’s appeal lay in its telling-which was beautifully executed-and in its characters, a varied group of wonderfully zany, morbid, logical, calm children.
Set in a boarding school for children who’ve journeyed “beyond the looking-glass,” Every Heart a Doorway follows Nancy, a girl who found her way through a door in the cellar into the halls of the dead. Upon her return, like all children who go through portals to other worlds, she was somewhat incompatible with her old life.

One of the things I liked best about Every Heart a Doorway is the way McGuire built a system around the various magical worlds. While the story never delved deeply into this “magic system,” its presence served as a compass that positioned the characters in a framework, made their wild variations make perfect sense, and piqued my curiosity more than a little. The “handwavium” of many fairytale worlds is effectively nullified by an intellectual and academic approach.

The school is filled with characters who traveled to fascinating worlds, all of whom want to return, thinking them their true homes. For whatever reason-different for each child-they were returned to reality. Some were expelled, others returned as a test, administered to ensure their commitment to their particular world or their desire to stay in reality.

When students (and eventually a teacher) start turning up dead-brutally murdered-a panic sets in over the school. Nancy and her (few) friends set about uncovering the mystery. The challenge makes makes marvelous use of the skills or abilities some of the children gained in their worlds, leading to fantastical moments-like a boy animating the skeleton of one of the victims using a flute carved of bone-that make the story shine.

Every Heart a Doorway was a beautiful read, and some of the underlying messages could do with wider spreading-inclusion, openness, self-confidence-especially in this troubled sociopolitical climate.

I hope that Every Heart a Doorway is a taste of a larger world McGuire is building-I picture a world-hopping heroine embarking on many adventures in this multi-verse-but if it is not, Every Heart a Doorway was a delightful and satisfying enough morsel on its own. It is yet another fantastic novella that you should not miss.

Pre-order Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway on Amazon.com. (Using that link helps support The Warbler!)