Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wednesday Review: Struck

Title: Struck
Author: Clarissa Johal
Publisher: Musa Publishing (now defunct), CreateSpace
Publication date: February 2015
Genre: Paranormal/Gothic Horror
Price: $2.99 Kindle or $9.98 Paperback
Where to purchase: Amazon
Reviewed by: Cybelle Greenlaw
Description: Struck by lightning...claimed by shadows.

After a painful breakup, Gwynneth Reese moves in with her best friend and takes a job at a retirement home. She grows especially close to one resident, who dies alone the night of a terrific storm. On the way home from paying her last respects, Gwynneth is caught in another storm and is struck by lightning. She wakes in the hospital with a vague memory of being rescued by a mysterious stranger. Following her release from the hospital, the stranger visits her at will and offers Gwynneth a gift--one that will stay the hands of death. Gwynneth is uncertain whether Julian is a savior or something more sinister... for as he shares more and more of this gift, his price becomes more and more deadly.

Good morning, Everyone! Cybelle here with another Wednesday review. This week I had the pleasure of reading Struck by Clarissa Johal. I must say this was a great read, filled with suspense, humor, romance, believable characters, and downright scary moments. Gwynneth is a very realistic, down-to-earth heroine, who tries to find the best in everyone. Although emotionally vulnerable, she is far from weak and discovers her strength through her concern for others.

After surviving a lightning strike, Gwynneth begins receiving regular visits from the otherworldly stranger who rescued her, Julian. No one else can see him, but to her, he's very real and impossible to escape. He brings with him sinister, shadowy creatures that threaten to destroy anyone she cares for unless she lets him take something from her. What Julian takes, Gwynneth cannot identify, but the process is painful and creates a sense of deep loss. Through a new friendship with a mortuary beautician gifted with the ability to communicate with the recently deceased, Gwynneth begins to learn the identity of the mysterious Julian. Like her, he was once an artist, and through him, her passion for painting is reawakened. As Julian continues to use her, Gwynneth tries to protect her friends by isolating herself from them. Fortunately, her friends are persistent and loyal.

A fun aspect of the novel is the anticipation of a romance between Gwynneth and her childhood friend/roommate, Seth, a sexy man with a passion for cooking. Their mutual friend, Fenten, a charming gay man who loves Seth's skills in the kitchen, does everything he can to get them together. Along the way, the three friends encounter a number of fascinating characters and support one another in the fight against the mysterious forces attached to Gwynneth.

The book is fast paced and engaging, and I suspect most readers finish it in one sitting. While the atmosphere is dark, it is in no way gory. For readers who enjoy gothic horror and/or paranormal romance, this is a must read. I will certainly watch for more works by this author! 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Understanding Elatia

Today we have a real treat: an editor discussing one of her forthcoming books.  Elaine Daniels, of Recondite Publications dives into The Silent Slayer, a forthcoming book by Steven Beeho, and attempts to understand one of the most fearsome female characters you're likely to encounter.  

Elatia was born and raised in a nation of hunters, where a particular wood helps them to make powerful bows that women can use as easily as men. Attractive, intelligent and resourceful, she grew up with little to hold her back and much to help her advance her own desires. Unfortunately, she lacked empathy for others and developed a disdain for those around her. This grew to an arrogant cruelty. It led her to do harm to others and, when she escaped discovery, she soon wanted to do more. She thrived in being a danger in a society that radiated peace and equality. She loved to prey on the weak, she thrilled to take down the stronger. But Elatia knew there was only so much she could get away with at home before people would suspect her. Her nation was one of hunters, for that same reason they often left to wander the land and also territory beyond their borders. She set out to walk freely, hunt as she pleased and never become the victim. She went out into a world where much could threaten her, yet very soon all who knew her name were the ones to fear her. Her cruelty made her a highly effective torturer for information or persuasion. Her skill with the bow and cold, calm focus made her a deadly assassin. Her intelligence and awareness ensured she was never caught out. Elatia thrived amongst killers. She was among her own kind at last.

Despite being from Bamalia, a nation of equality, Elatia despises most of society, possessing particular disdain for those more powerful. Seeing strength as a form of power, Elatia has a penchant for torturing men; their fear guaranteeing her gratification. With her first kill under her belt by the age of sixteen, Elatia knew how to use her femininity and preyed on those who dared to find her attractive, although she also liked to ensnare the innocent and young. Coming from a race of skilled trackers, superb hunters - not to mention having the ability to survive in both grassland and woodland - Elatia honed her skills, so that by the age of twenty she began developing into something of a rare entity: a female assassin, known for willingly inflicting extreme torture on her victims. So terrifying were the tales spread about Elatia, more sought her out for hire, making her one of the top assassins, worldwide. With the mere mention of her name instilling a deathly fear, many victims beg for an imminent death rather than prolonged torture at Elatia’s hands.

“I doubt a single man in Callascino has gone to bed without checking every window and door since Elatia arrived.” He snorted in disgust. “What a name, she only feels elation when torturing someone.” 

It is her strong will and tenacious attitude, combined with deadly abilities that enable her to hold her own amongst ten of the top enforcers and assassins; the elite, a gang you would never hope to encounter. Being the only female and an attractive one at that, Elatia is aware that the rest of the elite fantasize about her and has no qualms in tormenting them. It is their fear of her and what she does that makes them abstain from taking advantage. She is also quick to use her derogatory observations to find fault with her male counterparts.

“You’re all killers and rapists, just like me, yet I’m not some cruel bitch but one helpless to her desire? Does your religion tell you that women are sluts and men can control themselves? Probably not. You think that way because it suits you, just like your other view of life is twisted.”

What sets her apart from them is that, despite her sadistic nature, Elatia never loses focus of what is expected of her and as of yet has never failed to complete a task. With a firm belief in her motto, ‘strike before they can’, Elatia is always on her guard, always aware of what might happen and, so, is always prepared. Her leader, Bane, considers her to be an expert at her craft - a true professional - and was particularly glad she agreed to join his gang rather than their enemies.

Unlike a lot of the elite, Elatia isn’t solely motivated by twisted urges, affording her greater self-control than most of her male counterparts and believes, in an unexpected moment of reflection, that because of this she would be able to walk away from her current life.

“Do you ever wonder what it would be like not to be us?” Elatia asked suddenly, looking at him, eyes still hard yet voice not full of revulsion for once.

“Yes, I think we all do. But it doesn’t appeal much, a life without fear.”

“I doubt any of us could stop. We all love it, to walk down a street and see everyone hurry out of your way, knowing they look at you only when your back is turned. It is wonderful. Yet there is also 
wondering if someone is aiming for your back, knowing all those people would cheer if you died, unable to ever really relax or risk death. Sometimes, and I mean only a few times, leaving all this and living differently appeals to me.”

“Really?” checked Rugal, yet he knew she spoke the truth, even if he wasn’t sure why. “What about your squealing girls and your cowering men?”

“Perhaps I would occasionally feed my craving. Strangely, I long to abuse the most when I abuse. Never have I gone a length of time without doing anything and felt like bursting through lack of pleasure. With self-control, I could stop. What of you?”

At first glance it is easy to dismiss Elatia as an evil piece of work, but as her story develops so does her character. At this point it appears that she can lose her permanent surliness and considers a life away from all the torture and killing. But, ever the professional, she has yet to finish the job she agreed to do and soon reverts to type.

Truly understanding Elatia may be something that never comes to fruition and whether she can relinquish her sadistic tendencies are yet to be revealed, but her multi-dimensional character is an enticing one to watch unfold in the drama in which she appears.

Elatia and excerpts featured in this post, Understanding Elatia, appear in The Silent Slayer by Steven Beeho, which is to be published by Recondite Publications, a publishing house of sci-fi, high fantasy and the downright weird, in September 2015.

This article was written by Elaine Daniels, editor of The Silent Slayer, on behalf of Recondite Publications.

Monday, June 22, 2015

And then you suddenly dig... this could be the start of something big!

Stacy Danielle Stephens is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she majored in Secondary Education Language Arts.  Her first novel, Daybreak in Alabama, was momentarily considered by a small press known for publishing That Sort of Thing.  Her second novel, But Soon It Will Be Night, was considered by another small press which asked too much for too little.  Her three collections of stories, The Bohemian Girl and other stories, TheNothing That Is and other stories, and When So Much Is Left Undone and otherstories, are highly regarded by the disappointingly small number of people who have actually purchased them.

Those among you who know me will recall that I am not a proponent of the big idea, no offense to those who are.  I’m a big fan of Eric Berne’s “Away From a Theory” theory, in which he said that psychologists were always publishing papers titled “Toward a Theory of” one thing or another, but airline pilots never fly “toward” Montreal.  He felt that psychiatrists should get away from theories, or at least step back from their theories a little, if only to get a better look at them.
     In my first draft of this article, I had mentioned the character John Savage, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and now I’m putting him back in because I can see where I was going with that after all.  He’d studied Shakespeare all his life, and had plenty of time for it, too.  Brother, did he have big ideas.  But he ended up hanging himself, because he could not effectively present those big ideas to either of the societies in which he had lived.
     Now, at last, we can consider Rachel Dolezal, strictly as a literary consideration, without discussing white privilege or inherent racist gobble-dee-guk.  What we want to look at is her big idea, and we don’t have to say she lied about her identity, we can call it a gift for fiction.  Frequent perms and a lot Tanfastic, and she’s everything she says she is, right?  Well, no, apparently she isn’t. 
     What went wrong?
     Her hair and makeup were impeccable, so we have to ask if, perhaps, her idea just wasn’t big enough.  Shall we suppose it would have worked better if she had claimed to be an extraterrestrial?

     It’s funny how you stare at the simulated sheet of blank paper on your flatscreen monitor and start tapping out the purest poppycock simply because it finds its way to your fingertips, and suddenly you realize why almost everyone says you’re a genius.  Rachel Dolezal’s failure is in being a real person, rather than a fictional character.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Wednesday Review: Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Title: Elysium
Author: Jennifer Marie Brissett
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Publication Date: December 2014
Genre: Science Fiction
Price: $7.95 (ebook), $18.00 (trade paperback)
Where to Purchase: Aqueduct Press  |  Powells   |   Amazon   |   Barnes & Noble
Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin

Hello HoF readers, and happy almost summer! Julia here, with a review of Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett. This is Brissett’s first novel, and it is one of those deftly written, “challenging” reads that made me love science fiction in the first place: the kind of book where you start off thinking “huh?” and wondering what the heck is going on, and by the end you’re thinking “huh!” and pondering interesting ideas that stay with you and grow ever more nuanced as you think about them more. Though there are many familiar sci-fi tropes in the book (alien invasion; post-apocalyptic scarcity; underground cities; winged warriors; virtual worlds that substitute for the real), the non-linear, kaleidoscoping way the story is told is what makes these all come together into something really unique and satisfying.

We start off in a relatively familiar place (modern day New York) with a small set of characters (Adrianne, Antoine and Helen) involved in relatively familiar relationship problems, but then the story keeps getting stopped and reset and rerun by what seems to be some kind of computer program or AI. Each new iteration of the story has echoes of what came before it, like a digital palimpsest that is never fully scraped away and so shows through in spots.  The characters shift genders (Adrianne becomes Adrian; Antoine becomes Antoinette; Helen becomes Hector) and relationships (spouses, lovers, parent/child, siblings) and the world shifts from “normal” to one that becomes increasingly grim and bleak as it becomes clear that aliens from elsewhere have attempted to exterminate humanity and claim Earth for themselves. Certain images and thematic elements keep reappearing in the book, as if to remind us that we are re-running the same story in a different iteration.

But this is not really a story about alien invasion and post-apocalyptic human adaptations. It is mostly a story about the possibilities and permutations of love and loss, on mostly the individual level but occasionally on the societal or all-of-humanity levels. We are left wondering what—and who—is “real” and whether or not there is ever really one version of anything, be it an event, a story or a person. Or reality.

For me this book was at its strongest and most memorable when it was exploring the feelings of love and loss between the characters, in whatever form they happened to be taking at the time. The moments of true, relate-able human feelings were what pulled me through each scene, even when I didn’t at first understand what was going on with the larger story. By the end of the book I really appreciated Brissett’s skill at non-linear storytelling, and found myself more satisfied with the ending than I had anticipated (I had feared that the whole thing would just sort of bleed away into chaos, but it wrapped up in a clever way.) My only criticism really of this book was that it was, if anything, too sketchy—though I understand and appreciate why it was so, I selfishly and greedily would have really liked the book to be longer and to have even yet more iterations, so that the setting(s) and the situation(s) could have been fleshed out even more. More kaleidoscope, please!

Considering that this is a first novel published by a small press, this book has already gotten a lot of kudos and attention (nominated for the Tiptree, special citation by the Philip K. Dick award, recommended by Locus, reviewed by the LA Times Book Review, and more). I hope it gets more. If you like your science fiction chewy and thought-provoking, you will like Elysium.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Big Idea, an Evolving Notion

On my last post, I didn’t say much about who I am and what I’m doing here.  I thought it might be interesting to HoF readership to rectify that, as my thought process and experience with the genre might be different enough to interest you. (or not, but then, that’s why we have a comments section!).

My name is Gustavo, and I write a little bit of everything, but mainly science fiction and fantasy.  I don't edit magazines and I don't publish my own work - I write genre work because I enjoy exploring and sharing ideas, and often those ideas are best developed within an unreal or future setting.  Those of you who’ve read my work (or most of my blog posts) will know that I’m fascinated by big ideas and plot much more than I am by characters.

I believe that one of the most interesting things about our genre is how those big ideas have changed over the past couple of decades to reflect the evolving tastes of readers in the genre.  It’s not news to anyone that the SFF world has, thankfully, become more inclusive and diverse in that period.  But it might not be quite as obvious that the demographics have also shifted away from the general readership to a much more educated and cultured audience as well.  We have, in a very real sense, become inclusive elitists - and that shows in the topics we consume.

Since the ramifications of elitism and inclusiveness as a general issue are being discussed endlessly elsewhere (see: Hugo Awards 2015, Tempest in a Teapot Surrounding the for more details), I won’t waste your time with it, but would prefer to look at the big ideas that have come to dominate the critically accepted portion of the genre – and also to give you my take on it.

I think there are basically two major trends within the genre that have emerged within the last couple of decades.  The first has to do with diversity and the inclusion of traditionally underrepresented groups, but particularly the study of the roles of women with the genre.

The stories about women – or simply about women’s role in SFF societies – that have been told over the past four decades are often among the most powerful SF tales.  Sadly, however, only people who read widely within the genre will read the good ones, which I feel is a tragedy.

That situation arises because casual readers and non-genre fans, when researching a good women’s role story to read will be pointed towards the more extreme feminist expressions of the type, such as Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or some of Johanna Russ’ more militant work.  The only effect this can have on a casual reader is to cause them to shake their head and say: “well, the science fiction and fantasy genre is just as preachy and mediocre as I thought”, and move on.

Sad indeed, but partly our own fault for making the preachy, extreme stuff the visible flagships of a current that is artistically and conceptually far beyond the stage where aggressive agendas ruled the world.  There are so many delicate, thought-provoking pieces out there which examine the roles of women in future or fantastic societies that it would be impossible to mention them all (but I would check out many of the other authors on this blog for some examples of brilliance).  But to the larger readership out there, they are often all but invisible.

The second large current is Ecology.  This is a field in which the genre has been much luckier.  The great ecologically-driven SF classic is Dune, and it would be hard to have chosen a better representative.  The fact that modern SFF has been writing ghastly dystopian scenarios in which corporate greed destroys the environment has happily gone completely unnoticed by anyone save the tiny niche of readers who religiously consume Dozois’ Year’s Best collections.

But for such an important topic, it’s a bit sad to see that the major classic is nearly 50 years old as I write this.  That is both an indictment of the sub-par work which has followed and the self-ostracizing course of the genre as a whole (being elitist inclusionists has the effect of limiting the size of the audience even if the internal diversity of the group is improved).

So, all in all, the genre is still waiting for a renewal in these two topics: major novels that will sweep away the cobwebs and the conception of a stale, agenda-driven past.  Novels with poetry, but without preachiness that will break down the walls of the genre ghetto and reach a wider audience in the way that Game of Thrones has done for traditional medieval fantasy, or in the way that magic realism has been managing to do continuously with Garcia Márquez and Murakami. 

It’s not impossible.  Jaded teens have been reading "traditional" SFF in droves since a certain boy wizard first escaped from middle-class grayness in Privet Lane. 

We need to give them something to keep them interested when they grow up.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

REVIEW: Justice Calling: The 20-Sided Sorceress Book 1

Title: Justice Calling: The 20-Sided Sorceress Book 1
Author: Annie Bellet
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Price: $0.99 (ebook) / $8.99 (paperback)
Publisher: Doomed Muse Press
ISBN:  978-1500629724
Point of Sale: various via author’s website
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I first heard of Annie Bellet via this year’s Hugo brouhaha.  Ms. Bellet had a short story nominated, but, in her words, tired of being “both a conscripted player and also a ball” she withdrew from consideration.  Out of frankly appreciation, I bought Book 1 of her 20-sides Sorceress series.  It’s a good book.

Jade Crow, narrator, heroine and sorceress of the title, is enjoying a quiet life in (fictional) Wylde, Idaho, gateway to “The Frank” (Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness).  Jade, who’s of Indian descent, runs a game shop there, serving the local population of fae and college kids who populate the town.  She’s also hiding out from her ex-lover, a man who personally saw Julius Ceasar get stabbed, and who wants to kill her and eat her heart.  (That’s how sorcerers get more magic.)

Then a hunky blonde man walks in and says Jade is a murderer.  Oh, and he’s a Justice – the fae’s police, judge and executioner all in one.  Thus ends Chapter 1, and starts a very entertaining if alas too-brief romp in Bellet’s entertaining world.  Jade finds herself forced to make a decision – stay and help or run – and do so quickly.

Justice Calling is really a novella – only 121 pages – but terribly entertaining.  Jade Crow is very modern, and speaks fluent Geek, as do her characters.  I found Jade’s predicament believable, as were both her and the other characters responses to same.  Jade has some very useful magical powers, but she’s not invincible, and neither is anybody else.  This was really an entertaining romp, and at least in the paper edition, there are two chapters from Book 2 of the series – which I ordered immediately.

Monday, June 8, 2015

United We Stand...

       Everyone knows that it’s a lonely task being a writer. Locked away in your metaphorical garret, bent over the keyboard, feverishly scribbling...
      True, the actual task of getting the words churned out and sifted into some semblance of order is a solitary business, but in the past 18 months or so since I’ve had my first title published, I’ve learned that writing is not something you can accomplish successfully in isolation.
        This hasn't exactly been startling news to me.  I spent the last ten years or so honing my skills with Paisley Writers Group, whose collective help proved invaluable, particularly when it came to learning to edit, and gaining the confidence needed to read work aloud before an audience.  Throughout this period the group wasn’t static. People came and went on a regular basis: they lost interest, moved elsewhere, became successful writers or whatever.   Local government cuts gradually led to the group’s decline until eventually, in its latter days, only three of us were in regular attendance.  Even then, I valued this select group as a trusted council of advisers, providing me with a network of beta-readers who could always be relied upon to speak candidly.
         Things have changed now. What with a full-time job and all the pressures that trying to raise the profile of a book brings with it, I find it virtually impossible to spend one evening a week hanging out with friends at a writers group.  If there’s one thing that I really miss about being there, it's the feeling that we were all in it together as we struggled to improve our writing skills. In many cases we shared the elusive goal of achieving publication via the traditional publishing route, an ambition which I was lucky enough to accomplish with the publication of Fire and Sword. 
              Once the transition to being a published author has been made, you might be forgiven in thinking that the major hurdle has been cleared, that making further progress is easy.  Instead, you find yourself confronting new challenges.  How do you get people to review your book?  How do you promote your book?  And – perhaps most difficult of all – how on earth do you get your title stocked by the ever-smaller number of bookshops who are operating in the modern world?
         It isn’t that easy, of course.  In fact, if I had the answers to those questions I'd be laughing. Thankfully, I’m with a tight-knit community of writers at Hadley Rille Books who are keen to help out in all sorts of aspects of the trade. But I’m a writer of historical fiction, and what works for the science fiction and fantasy writers who make up the majority of HRB’s list isn't necessarily appropriate for my genre.
         These days, writers are encouraged to develop a strong presence on social media, and at first I was keen to do this because it supposedly brings a whole lot of exposure and helped new writers get their name known more widely.  But while the virtual world is full of readers, it’s also full of writers.  “Competition!” some more ruthless authors may scream, as they connive and plot to better themselves at the expense of others. But even though I like to write about characters who scheme and manipulate in a Machiavellian fashion, this isn’t my way of working at all.
             In fact, it really isn’t a sensible way of working for anyone.  Because things really haven’t changed much from the days of the writers group. The goals may be different, and the means of achieving them, too, but the principle remains the same.  There are those out there who have been at this game longer than I have, and they have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t in this world than I do. Why not learn from them, and if you can find a way of helping promote their work in return, so much the better.
              Social media is an ideal way of linking up with other writers. It also allows for the creation of networks and alliances, something which is particularly useful for those who work within the same genre. The more familiar I become with the world of writing and publishing and the art of selling books, the more I realise that networks of this kind are crucial to making any kind of progress. Authors with big publishing houses have the advantage of a heavyweight marketing team behind them, independent authors and authors with small traditional publishers do not.  Punching above your weight is almost impossible in isolation, but strength, as the old saying goes, lies in numbers and the more individuals you can get fighting in your corner, the more likely it’ll be that someone, somewhere eventually sits up and takes notice
              Time alone will tell whether this kind of collaborative effort will bring the kind of reward that I’m looking for, which is an opportunity to get my title stocked in Scottish bookshops and reviewed in the Scottish media.  Will this ever happen?  I can’t say yet, because it’s early days yet, and I know for a fact that I’m only just embarking on a long hard struggle for recognition.
              But one thing is certain, even now.  Through my determination to take a collaborative approach to publicity and selling, I’ve already made some good friends who are not only talented authors, but excellent people, too. My life’s certainly become richer for meeting them.  It may not be the tight-knit bunch which met together every week to discuss their writing at the local writers’ group, but it provides a similar service. A support network, whose members are all linked by a common purpose.  And in a world where it's becoming increasingly difficult for a single author to make their voice heard amongst the din of millions, such a thing is worth its weight in gold.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: Athena's Daughters: Women in Sci-Fi & Fantasy Vol. II Eds. Maggie Allen & Janine K. Spendlove

As part of my summer reading last August I read Vol. I of Athena’s Daughters: Women in Sci-Fi & Fantasy, later reviewed by Julia in more detail. Now Vol. II, edited by Maggie Allen and Janine K. Spendlove, has been released by Silence in the Library Publishing. Like its predecessor it does what it says on the tin, presenting an anthology of stories by women with female protagonists (well, twenty do; more of the twenty-first later). Each story is illustrated by Ginger Breo, who has matched image to story in a most satisfying manner.

So, to the stories. I shared Julia’s reservations about Vol. I being a bit over-reliant on add-ons to previously created worlds. It’s not an observation that can be made about this collection, in which only two stories (The Pendant and At the Corner of the Garden Wall) are companion pieces to full length novels. As with the previous anthology there’s a wide spread of protagonists from a multiplicity of backgrounds and ages. Most are human, or mostly human. One exception is Morgana, surely the true protagonist of Trish E. Pahl’s Crow Bait and Switch, a highly articulate, rather sardonic crow with a taste for Jurassic Park. Various strange and wonderful worlds are visited, from far-future space opera to fairies at the bottom of the garden, taking in virtual reality, time travel, angels and demons, African folklore, and sword and sorcery along the way. There’s a reasonable balance of emotion too: some stories are bittersweet, others feel-good escapism and some offer a mirror to reality. There’s no true despair: even the darkest tale – The Final Voyage of the World’s Oldest Time Traveler (Tiffani Angus) – is leavened by a touch of hope.

My personal favourite was The Miraculous by Tess Tabak. It’s a zombie story that isn’t really about the zombies (I’d posit that this is true of all the best zombie stories!). It’s the ‘twenty-first’ story, the one written in the second person (a point of view hard to pull off, but marvellous to read when it is) so that, in an anthology rich in heroines, one can project either or neither gender onto its protagonist. They are spooling down to the end of the world in their grandparents’ house, reminiscing, reading, thinking, eating. The most interesting short stories approach their real subject elliptically and this one does so quite beautifully. It's melancholy and full of precisely observed detail. It’s also funny. Mostly wryly so, as the protagonist reflects on their grandfather’s philosophies and their grandmother’s quiet subversions, but one laugh aloud paragraph bears quoting in full:
Now that you are forced to eat vegan, limited to the food he kept in the house, you can safely rule out the idea that abstention from dairy reduces aggression. You would happily gouge someone’s eye out for a slice of cheesecake.  

Another story I found structurally interesting was Ariadne (Megan Chee), the text of which is the fragment of the iceberg visible above the water line. Ariadne is conscripted into a war whose cause she does not know; even her own part and purpose in it is left blank. It has the confidence to give away its ending right at the beginning and has, in fact, very little in the way of a plot. In careless hands such devices remove tension and momentum but here one savours the vignettes. On first reading I wondered if it were a stand-alone offshoot from a larger work but I gather it isn’t, and knowing that as I reread left me all the more impressed. So much is implied… In such a piece what is there is made meaningful by what is left out: filling in the background to shape the story into a ‘proper’ form would have rendered it insipid. It’s also interesting in its approach to the trope of the active heroine, presenting all the trappings but neatly undercutting them by the absence of autonomy. One to ponder.

The Killing Garden (Carrie Ryan) also stood out. It too treats its real subject sidelong beneath the iridescent gloss of fantasy. In a stylised, highly patterned court, condemned prisoners must race the emperor’s gardener through the thorny mazes of the palace gardens. Those who win are merely banished; those who lose are strangled by the gardener. Tanci, feeling the weight of her father’s disappointment that she was born a girl, challenges him for the post of gardener but eventually realises neither her purpose nor her father’s disappointment are as simple as she had thought in girlhood. Understanding brings acceptance and release. The prose is lyrical but well pruned and ordered, like the emperor’s gardens through which Tanci runs.

The beauty of a widely ranging anthology is there’s something to suit all tastes and moods. Fans of paranormal and dystopian fiction are as well served by this collection as those who prefer sci-fi and secondary world fantasy. Only those who wish for steampunk will wish in vain (I refer you to Vol. I!). It serves as a taster for a slew of different authors whose backgrounds are as diverse as the characters they have created. I’m certainly going to look up other work by some of these authors and shall look forward to seeing where the publisher takes their crowdsourcing project next.

I received a copy of the e-book from the publisher for review purposes.

Harriet Goodchild

Cover for the print edition (coming soon)
Athena's Daughters Vol. II buy links
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Publisher's website

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

My favorite Alien Culture

Hi folks! Mark here with just a short post.  I'm looking for some feedback and possible items to add to my reading list.  My interest today is in 'the most fully realized alien culture' vein.

When I look back over my reading life, I consider myself lucky to have been introduced at a young age to books that presented me with well-developed plots and characters in such ways as to make it easy for me to suspend my disbelief and wallow in the weirdness.  I never had any trouble accepting that spiders could speak and spell or that pigs could solve mysteries or mice could sail boats or drive model cars. I think it must be a universal constant for those of us who love to read and write in our genre to accept the unusual, understand in ways that approach the common-place, and to respond to it intellectually and with wonder at the same time.  No, really, I'm serious: I love the SFF genre for the paradoxes if for nothing else. I feel we tell the great stories better that way. 

I recall Sam telling Frodo that he sensed they were part of one larger, continuous story, and I think the Professor got it right. Middle Earth was always intended to be HERE, and folks have long identified recognizable elements in all the various cultures that made up the fabric of the place.  In the end, we come to love stories like the Narnia Chronicles, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, Freddie the Detective, and The Lord of the Rings not just for the escapism but also for the familiar. They make sense to us, for us, because ultimately they tell the big story of which we are all part.

Ultimately, culture has to fit in there somewhere. Narnia, Middle Earth, the barnyard, Watership Down, all of them worked for me because the cultures in the story were so fully realized.  In addition to the references above, I have a number of other books/series/authors whose work has always influenced me for the quality of the world building, the surreal familiarity of the cultures they present and the quality of the stories they told.  To wit:

CJ Cherryh has been one of my favorite authors since I first discovered her in Lin Carter's old Year's Best Fantasy anthologies. And then I found Gate of Ivrel and I was hooked. She is a master, in my opinion, of depicting alien culture in such a way as to make it acceptable.  Her Faded Sun books, the Dreaming Tree duology, the long running Foreigner series, the Downbelow Station universe novels--practically everything drips culture/conflict/comprehension.  I get the same high when I dig in to McKillip, McKinley, and LeGuin.  I must have an affinity, and yet I know I have my limits: I tried Rama too young to 'get it' despite how much my aunt raved about it.

What I would like to see here now are a series of comment responses from all who view this blog with respect to the following question:

What are or have been your favorite works that present fully realized alien culture? I'd like some titles and an explanation as to why you would include it. What makes it/them so special in this regard?


Mark Nelson
The Poets of Pevana
King's Gambit
Path of the Poet King
Pevanese Mosaic