Friday, March 23, 2018

Short Fiction: November 2017

I had another few weeks of unexpectedly busy life, so I didn’t manage to post all of my recommended short fiction of 2017 before the closing of the Hugo nominations.  In any case, I still want to share the short fiction I’ve enjoyed reading, and I hope to get back to a more stable schedule soon.  For this set of stories, the themes are heists and trickery.  All three authors--Gillian Daniels, Marie Brennan, and J.R. Dawson--are new names to this series of posts.

His Wife and Serpent Mistress by Gillian Daniels (Short Story, Beneath Ceaseless Skies): The Marquis lives with his cruel uncle, and he is in love with a part-serpent woman.  He feels trapped in his life, but sees no way out of it.  When his uncle asks him to marry another woman for money, many truths about his past and present circumstances begin to become clear. The Marquis was an easily sympathetic character, and I was pleasantly surprised that the story did not pit the two women against each other. This was a fun heist story that comes to a delightfully happy ending.

The Siret Mask by Marie Brennan (Short Story, Beneath Ceaseless Skies): Another heist story, this one involves a legendary thief who has an elaborate scheme to steal the famous Siret Mask during a festival. No plan survives contact with the enemy, though, and this one in particular ends up relying on a lot of dangerous improvisation and changing roles.  The story had a lot of energy and fun, and it was also the sort where you feel certain everything will come out alright in the end. 

Marley and Marley by J.R. Dawson (Short Story, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine--Buy Here): Marley is orphaned at a young age, and put in the care of an unusual guardian -- herself from the future.  Young Marley is disappointed with what she can see of her future, and the two Marleys do not get along.  As Marley grows up, moving towards her inevitable appointment to raise herself, she considers whether she truly has to accept her future and her past.  This one is a lovely, emotional story that explores how life changes people, and whether people can change themselves.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey

Bablyon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey
Published: Orbit (2016)
Series: Book 6 of the Expanse
Awards Nominated: Locus SF Award

Beware of spoilers below from earlier books in the series!

The Book:

“A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood. The Free Navy - a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships - has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network. But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun.” ~Amazon

This is the second-to-last book of the Expanse that I read as a community read-along.  You can see our spoiler-filled discussions here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

My Thoughts:

Babylon’s Ashes continued the arc that began in Nemesis Games, concerning the conflict between Free Navy and the rest of the system. Nemesis Games had a tight focus on the crew of the Rocinante and their experiences, while Babylon’s Ashes widened the view to see how the conflict affected people from all over.  It did this by expanding the number of viewpoint characters from the usual four to nearly twenty people, each in very different circumstances.  This helped to show the wide-ranging consequences of Marco Inaros’s grab for power, but I also felt like it kind of diffused the central story.  Many characters only had a couple of chapters, which is not long to develop a character, setting, and story.  These were generally fun when they featured viewpoint characters from previous novels (like Prax) or particularly interesting minor characters (like Fred), but some chapters featured characters I did not have time to come to care about. In these last chapters, I felt impatient to get back to the ‘major’ viewpoint characters, who were driving the central story forward.

Some of the ‘major’ viewpoint characters included the Rocinante crew, Michio Pa, and Filip Inaros.  It’s always fun to see the story from Holden and the others’ perspective, but I was less inclined to enjoy the chapters giving perspective from inside the Free Navy.  I felt like the story was trying to make me sympathize with them, but there are some things you just can’t gloss over. The Free Navy characters either approved of or were actively involved in the murder of 15 billion people on Earth.  Whatever their motives and indoctrination, it was impossible for me to forget that they felt no regret about this massive slaughter of innocent people.  This also affected my ability to sympathize with the cause of the Belters.  It’s undeniable that they had been mistreated by the inner planets for many years, and something should have been done about it.  However, a good portion of the Belt agreed that that “something” was murdering 15 billion people, and that’s really not something I can get over.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed following the crew of the Rocinante in their part of the fight against the Free Navy. Marco’s narcissism elevated the Rocinante’s importance in the wider conflict, since he had personal ties to them through his previous abusive relationship with Naomi. This led to some exciting battles, which involved some creative quick-thinking on the part of our protagonists. For his part, Marco Inaros made for a infuriating villain.  His charisma granted him considerable followers and power to cause widespread harm, but it was clear from early on that he didn’t have a realistic idea of how to fulfill the promises he had made to the Belt. He reminds me of some very frustrating people in reality. I should also note that this is yet another book focused almost entirely on human conflict, as the protomolecule is still largely absent.  I thought this one brought the Free Navy arc to a good conclusion, and I finished the novel looking forward to seeing what would happen next.

My Rating: 4/5

Babylon’s Ashes continued the arc of Nemesis Games, featuring the conflict between the Free Navy and the rest of the solar system.  This time, the chapters followed a large number of people, showing how each of their lives were affected by the actions of Marco and others.  I felt this was useful for showing the wider effects of the central story, but it also seemed to somewhat dilute the central plot. I most enjoyed following the crew of the Rocinante, who were, as usual, right in the thick of things.  Marco and the Free Navy were infuriating villains, and it was very satisfying to see how this arc came to an end.  I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the rest of the series!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Short Fiction: October 2017

Hugo nominations season is upon us, and I have not yet read all the short fiction that I intended!  As a recap on these series of posts, it was the Hugo Awards that initially prompted me to dive more deeply into the world of short fiction.  The low nomination rate for short fiction (relative to novel nominations) leaves their categories vulnerable to gaming.  I figured that for my part, the best thing I could do is to read more short fiction and nominate the stories I like.  These posts grew out of that, simply from a desire to share stories that I personally thought were especially enjoyable.  The amount of short fiction I’m able to read in time varies from post to post, but I try to continue reading until I’ve found a few that I’d like to share.  

This batch of stories is more towards the fantasy side of SFF, with a new d-space novella from Jeremiah Tolbert, a divine match-making story from Jordan Ifueko, and a quiet alien contact tale from Dennis Danvers.  Tolbert is the only recurring author from previous posts, and I have recommended previous stories of his here and here. All the stories are available to read at the listed links.

The Dragon of Dread Peak by Jeremiah Tolbert (Novella, Lightspeed): Since this is a sequel, I would recommend reading “The Cavern of the Screaming Eyes” first.  If for some reason you don’t want to, it is still perfectly possible to understand this story without having read the first.  The basic premise is that space-time portals to d-space (essentially ‘dungeons’ or ‘instances’ in MMORPG parlance) have begun to pop up, and only teenagers have the ability to enter and resolve them. This might sound a little silly, but the emotional authenticity of the characters grounds the story in reality. The main character Ivan’s brother went missing in one of these instances, and he is keeping his fledgling (and somewhat inept) d-space team a secret from his still-grieving mother. Overall, it is a fun story about teamwork, leadership, and trying to outwit a dangerous dragon.  The novella is complete in itself, but it also furthers the ongoing plot of Ivan’s search for his brother.    

Oshun, Inc. by Jordan Ifueko (Short Story, Strange Horizons): This one was a fun story about the immortal employees of a Nigerian goddess, Oshun.  The main character works out of the LA office, seeing to the prayers of Nigerian-Americans. She uses her divine tricks for match-making, and she’s determined at the beginning of the story to impress Oshun by matching two particular lonely people.  However, matches are not always as good in practice as they might sound in theory. This was a pretty upbeat and humorous story overall, but I would note that the main character exposes some racist and misogynistic attitudes along the way.

Penelope Waits by Dennis Danvers (Short Story, Apex): I really enjoy peaceful, friendly alien contact stories.  A woman lives in a small town with an unreliable boyfriend, working at a dog wash and taking literature classes.  She wants a better life, but doesn’t seem to see a path toward it. When she encounters the aliens, though, she sees the potential for change. Her daily routine is filled with her thoughts about the Odyssey, the aliens, and the role she’s playing in her own life. It was a quiet, uplifting story told in a conversational style, and it left me with a smile on my face.