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Category: Fantasy Page 4 of 8

Hugo Award Roundup: Short Story Nominees

The Hugo award deadline is right around the corner, so I’m running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. Today’s category is Best Short Story.


The City Born Great by N. K. Jemisin

The cover for “The City Born Great”. Illustration by Richie Pope.

Cities are full of life. In Jemisin’s story, if they grow large and powerful enough, they’ll become living beings themselves. But the birth of a city isn’t easy, and there are dark beings out there interested in devouring this new life. It’s up to the city’s midwife to usher them into the world safely and prevent the forces of evil from winning out. However, New York’s midwife, our unnamed narrator, is homeless, hungry, and skeptical. But it’s up to him to deliver this baby, sing its song, and fight the unnamed Enemy that wants to suck it dry.

One of Jemisin’s hallmarks is the use of protagonists that deliberately test the boundaries of readers’ sympathies. Essun from The Fifth Season is a great example. The narrator of “The City Born Great” – a flippant, pragmatic homeless person – is another. The climax, where New York actually comes alive, is great. But I think the story would have been stronger if the final scene were cut entirely. Otherwise, the ending was too tidy.

Read “The City Born Great” for free online.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong

Two sisters grow up with the power to see the snaking, infinite paths of the future, and twist fate to their own ends. When one sister leaves for the city, she regrets the effect her choice has on the other left behind. But some things are inevitable, and when she tries to return to save her sister, her attempts always fall short.

Wong’s story is interesting and the prose is delicate, but it somehow feels unfinished, overall. The story kept hinting that the girls’ parents were meant to be looming and significant, overbearing, but in the end they’re non-entities. I never understood why either sister felt so constrained by living with them.

Read “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” for free online.

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander

I reviewed this story last November, and my opinion of it still stands. It’s perfect, snarly and angry.

Read “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” for free online.

Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar

Amira is a princess whose beauty encourages the advances of uncountable numbers of men, including her father. To keep herself and her kingdom safe, she willingly sits in exile on a throne atop a glass mountain, awaiting the one man who can climb it and prove being worthy of her hand. Tabitha is a woman who loved and married a shapeshifting bear-man. However, after his abuse raises her mother’s suspicions, she does an act that breaks his trust in her. She must walk the countryside, carry his bear-skin and wear through seven pairs of iron shoes as penance before she can return.

But when Amira and Tabitha meet – Tabitha climbs the glass mountain in the hope that such a magical surface will wear through the soles of her shoes even faster – neither of them believe that the other deserves such harsh treatment. It’s not Amira’s fault that men always lust after her, Tabitha says; nor does Amira believe it’s Tabitha’s fault that her husband beat her. So the two forge a life together on their own.

I love the quality of El-Mohtar’s prose, and “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a fine example of how delicate and crystalline and sweet her writing can be. But on a thematic level, while I recognize it’s a response to a number of misogynistic tropes found in traditional fairytales, the story left me lukewarm. It feels like the theme of “it’s not a woman’s fault if a man is a controlling asshole” is really hammered in. It’s a fine message in and of itself, but it’s not that subtle.

Read “Seasons of Glass and Iron” for free online.

That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn

The cover for “That Game We Played During the War”. Illustration by John Jude Palencar.

Major Valk Larn is a war hero; like all people of Gaant, he’s a telepath. Calla Belan is a field nurse; like all people of Enith, she isn’t. Gaant and Enith have been fighting over the same piece of land for years. However, despite the Gaantish advantage of telepathy, the Enithi have managed to fight them to a standstill and negotiate a peace treaty. Now that the peace is holding, Valk and Calla are free to rekindle their unusual friendship over a game of chess.

As soon as I read “That Game We Played During the War”, I knew that it was special, so I’m delighted to see it as a nominee. I’m especially happy considering that out of all the short stories on ballot, this one displays the least amount of literary pyrotechnics. No snarky narrator, no perilous acrobatics of prose. Just two people, a chess board, and a grand, if not particularly original, metaphor.

Calla and Valk are both given full, real personalities despite little information in the text about their personal likes, dislikes, and fears. The effect is as if I’m viewing a simple yet evocative pencil sketch – a lot of information is deftly packed into as few lines as possible. Most of all, I appreciate the story’s genuine sense of kindness and goodwill. These are characters who have learned to see each other as people rather than enemies.

Read “That Game We Played During the War” for free online.

An Unimaginable Light by John C. Wright

I didn’t bother to read this one. I know enough to steer clear of the bullshit that Castalia House publishes.

Welcome to the Archipelago with Charlotte Ashley

Want to read swashbucking stories set on the high seas? Want Lovecraftian creatures to mess that swashbuckling up? Want, above all, to see multiple writers duke it out with feedback from devoted readers like you?

If your answer is “yes”, then what you want is Archipelago.

Archipelago is a historical fantasy serial with multiple new episodes appearing every month written by Charlotte Ashley, Kurt Hunt, and Andrew Leon Hudson. Imagine a blend of Moby Dick, Pirates of the Caribbean, Master & Commander and Game of Thrones — with Lovecraftian monsters lurking beneath the surface!

Archipelago isn’t just about storytelling, though. Readers will have the opportunity to influence events as the adventure develops, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes devastating. To take part, you can support the project through Kickstarter and Patreon.

And today I’ve got a special treat: an interview with Charlotte Ashley, one of Archipelago‘s creators and a noted spec-fic author in her own right, with stories published in F&SF, PodCastle, and more.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Me: The biggest thing that struck me about the Archipelago stories is how they’re set during the height of the colonial project between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and how the discovery of this other world parallels the “discovery” of the New World. How is Archipelago hoping to navigate, and potentially subvert, that sort of setting?

Charlotte Ashley: It was definitely my intention to turn Europe’s colonial aspirations outward, into uninhabited territory. We start our story around 1600 which was very early in the colonial process. England, Portugal, Spain, and the Dutch had all started building settlements, but they hadn’t claimed ownership on the large scale they would 200 years later. People in Asia, the Americas, India, and Africa were still fairly autonomous. We wanted to nip that European invasion in the bud, so to speak, so that non-Western people had a chance to participate in the Archipelago as strong, unconquered nations.

I think “discovery” is synonymous with “conquest” in our history, and we’ll explore that, but I also wanted to be able to look at alternatives.

Me: Yes! I really wanted to write down “Age of Conquest” in my first question, but that phrase has so much baggage.

CA: Well, there IS so much baggage there. I don’t want to dodge or deny the historical realities of the colonial period, but I hope we can imagine the power relationships a little differently.

Me: I was really intrigued by the setting of your story in particular. I wasn’t aware of the Ajuran Sultanate as a political entity before this. Aside from the parallel world aspects of the Archipelago itself, is all the other history up to the start of the story played straight?

CA: Not entirely. We did play a little loose with plausible, rather than confirm-able, technologies and ideas — Umur’s prosthetic hands, for example. They are absolutely within the realm of what was achievable by the artisans of the Islamic Golden Age, but I don’t know of any confirmed prosthetics of this kind. [Umur is the main character of the Ajuran Sultanate storyline, which will go live on May 19th at Black Gate.]

Me: Are any of the main characters based on specific historical figures?

CA: In the storylines of Roanoke and the Summer Isles, definitely. My nation is less rooted in historical reality, for two reasons: one is that historical resources about the Ajuran Sultanate in English are few and far between. The other is that I wanted to avoid too badly mangling a history that isn’t mine, so I focus more on the new nation and culture of Al’Tahj, which follows a very different trajectory than real-life Mogadishu did.

Me: There are so many different ways I can see this playing out — like each storyline establishing its own nation state and essentially duking it out in a proxy war. And then there’s the whole Lovecraftian aspect to things. I imagine that whoever is an indigenous inhabitant of the Archipelago is going to have a very different mindset and physiology compared to humans.

CA: The natures of the Archipelago’s major inhabitants are still a mystery. 😉 But, yes. The first settlers of the Archipelago have mindsets which are, we hope, similar to “real” 17th century ones, so they imagine this colonization process will be very similar to the one on Earth — that humans, at the top of the food chain, can move in and strip-mine everything in the name of their kings or gods or whatever. But this isn’t Kansas. They will find that out soon enough!

The first Year’s plot is very much about how the Nations set themselves up in relation to one another, as they would back home. Plots, politics, battles, espionage, and so on. But the world is its own character that will become more pronounced in future Years.

Me: How far out have you planned things?

CA: Pretty far — but with the understanding that everything could change on a dime with reader input and our own inter-Nation conflicts! The big pieces are there, though, the inevitability. How our characters react and live within the bigger picture is much less clear.

Me: One thing I also notice about the setting is that the entry points to the Archipelago are so spread out – the Caribbean, the Atlantic Seaboard, and the Horn of Africa. Supposedly on the other side of the portal, these three points of contact are a lot closer together. How do you see that affecting international relations? Like, if you can hop to Al’Tahj from near Bermuda, that really changes the relevance of sea journeys like sailing past the tip of South Africa.

CA: The Archipelago portals are actually quite far apart, but people are drawn to people! As soon as there’s any kind of a civilization, that’s where we go. We can’t help it. But the Earth-side politics come into play as well. Control over a portal is a huge geopolitical issue.

Me: What pieces of the SF/fantasy canon do you think Archipelago is influenced by? Conversely, are there any that Archipelago is trying to respond to or subvert?

CA: I know Andrew looked to things like Master and Commander, but Kurt’s work has a much creepier feel.

For my part, I have to admit to beginning with a vague sense that I wanted a story that felt like The Pirates of Dark Water [a Hanna-Barbera cartoon] did when I was 11 years old. But I also very badly wanted to respond to the idea that “discovery” always seems to mean trampling all over whoever was there first. In SF/F, we haven’t lost that mindset yet. For my part, I wanted to write something with the over-the-top swashbuckling fun of John Carter of Mars, but with an awareness of the politics of claiming lands, discovering things that have always been there.

Me: I imagine that it’s going to be more complex, though, than a character suddenly having an epiphany that Colonialism Is Wrong And Bad.

CA: Yah, I’m not sure they will ever come to that, necessarily. If I’ve pulled it off (and I hope I have), nobody should be able to see the subtext.

Me: Back to a few questions about the process: Do you foresee other authors and cultures contributing to Archipelago in the future?

CA: Definitely! We intend to bring in guest writers, but it would also be nice to create a rich enough world to retire storylines, nations, or even writers and bring in new ones. The format allows for it — hopefully the readers will stick with us that long!

Me: How do you and the other two contributors coordinate your stories, and how is the reader input aspect going to affect that?

CA: Hm, big question. We write several months in advance and share our stories with each other, to make sure we’re on the same page and not contradicting anyone. We have a Wiki with characters, places, and permissions. We have rules about what we can and can’t use. But, ultimately, we’re committed to writing an agile story. You can’t get too attached to your plan — or even your characters — because something might happen to it that you didn’t count on. I think of it as an ongoing writing prompt. The readers, or the other writers, give me some criteria, and I have to write my episode to fit it. And for me, the more I am given to work in, the better!

I am, personally, so excited about Tuckerizations. I am gonna have so much fun with those.

Me: There’s both a Kickstarter campaign and a Patreon for Archipelago. Can readers support both, or is it better to do one over the other?

CA: They both offer totally separate things, but in a perfect world they support both.  The core of the story will be offered through Patreon. The Kickstarter is more of an opportunity to taste – you get a world guide, some flash stories set in the world, some art, that sort of thing. That’s also where you can get Tuckerizations — but in order to READ the story you’re written into, you’ll need a Patreon subscription.

Me: Are there any final words you’d like to share with readers?

CA: Erm, gosh. Probably not. I talk endlessly! Despite all my blah blah about colonialism, this is some of the most fun I’ve had writing. I want this to be a joy, a ride. And it will be.


And that’s that! Charlotte is awesome, Archipelago sounds awesome, and you can support this project through both Kickstarter and Patreon. The Kickstarter campaign ends on May 31, so you’ve still got some time!

The back of the white canvas bag shows a fully-grown cat embroidered with gold, orange, and red thread. The cat's eyes are embroidered in green thread.

Ad Astra 2017 Roundup

Well, it’s Monday, which means Ad Astra 2017 has come and gone. Here’s a brief summary of how I fared this past weekend.

Friday May 5

I got to the con later than I expected because transferring to York Regional Transit at Finch Station was much more difficult than I anticipated. Lack of signage, unclear instructions on how to pay for fares, not enough information about which buses dock at which platforms – just in general, Finch Station is a clusterfuck to navigate, I mean what even.

However, I did still have time to eat and get my registration package before my very first panel, the one on gender terminology in fantasy and science fiction.

This panel was a frustrating one in retrospect, because, frankly, one of the panelists was disturbingly conservative in her approach to gender. She didn’t see the point of using the singular “they”, didn’t respect the existence of non-binary pronouns, and promoted the worst forms of gender essentialism. (“Gender is related to procreation!” “In my book, I made my male and female characters completely different species, and decided to mix things up by using the pronoun ‘he’ for all characters, even the female ones!” “If you use ‘they’ to refer to an individual, then what are you going to do when there are multiple people, huh?”)

Seriously.

I tried to shut these lines of discussion down when I could, but they really made me angry. I found out after the fact that I was not the only one who felt this way, and that several members of the audience (which was standing room only!) appreciated my attempts to call this BS out for being reductive and erasing.

(Also, as a note to the Con Committee, in case any of you read this post: if you’re making a panel about gender terminology in SF/F, it’s not a good idea to have it populated only with white cis women. Ad Astra has a noticeable diversity problem, and in future instances I recommend that the con make an effort to ensure that future panels on similar topics have queer/non-binary representation.)

Anyways.

After that panel was over, Mr. Books&Tea and I wandered around the hotel, checking out various rooms and running into other people. At one point, it felt like every single person I ran into was a friend of mine, and as more people gathered around me, it felt like I was a gravitational mass pulling other awesome people into its orbit. I felt like I was at the centre of a great big lump of friendships and happiness. 😀

Saturday May 6

Saturday was awesome. I took part in two panels. The first, moderated by Adam Shaftoe-Durrant, was about whether or not the western genre is still relevant today, while the second, moderated by Derek Künsken, was about the current state of space opera.

I actually had enough to say on both panels without running out of ideas, which is a miracle. Both Adam and Derek were great moderators, as they came prepared with a list of questions and made sure to cycle back and forth among the various panelists.

Every so often, it strikes me as incredibly weird that there are people out there in the spec-fic community who care about what I have to say. Books & Tea is a super tiny blog, and Twitter is my main avenue of promotion. While I do have some sort of legitimacy in the community because I slush-read for Lightspeed, I still feel like an impostor. I don’t write short fiction; I stopped doing that a few years ago. I don’t have any story sales to my credit, and almost all of the writing I’ve done about science fiction and fantasy has been on a hobby/volunteer basis. So hearing people like Derek say that they want me on their panels, that I fulfill an important role by being a reviewer, is really validating.

(Plus, Jon Oliver, one of the editors for Solaris, flew out to attend Ad Astra all the way from the UK. He sat beside me on a panel! The fact that I sat beside him, an Honest-To-Goodness Real Live Science Fiction Editor, is just another whole new level of weirdness. What the hell am I doing to deserve this awesomeness?!)

Other than those panels, I attended one on citizen science, which was fascinating. Glenn Norman and S.M. Sterling are both engaging speakers with lots of incredible life experiences. I also took part in some Artemis Bridge Simulator games, which are like being in a real-life episode of Star Trek.

I also got to hang out and chew some fat with awesome people like Beverly Bambury, Charlotte Ashley, Vanessa Ricci-Thode, Julia E. Muldoon, Sylvie Lafontaine, and more. It was a pretty awesome day, and I topped it all off by getting Indian food with the folks I play a Star Wars RPG with. It was a day filled top to bottom with nerdery.

Sunday May 7

I attended two panels on Sunday: one on crowdfunding and one on contemporary works that successfully disrupt spec-fic tropes. Both panels, featuring the likes of Charlotte Ashley, Vanessa Ricci-Thode, Carolyn Charron, and Beverly Bambury, were awesome.

Unfortunately, about halfway through the second panel, my body decided it had had enough. I woke up with a headache and my attempts to quell it with breakfast and Advil were unsuccessful; at around 11:30, I suddenly felt awful, my headache spiked in intensity, and I felt nauseous, like I was going to vomit.

Once the second panel was over at noon, I found Mr. Books&Tea, told him I was feeling unwell, and found a couch to crash on in the hotel. Said couch was immediately outside of the Artemis simulator room, where several people noticed I was feeling unwell, checked in on me, contacted the ConCom, and dispatched a medic to assess me. (The feeling of concern on my behalf was both gratifying and somewhat overwhelming. These were complete strangers! But they all expressed concern over my welfare. Really lovely in retrospect.)

I felt tired, headache-y, sick, and cold. One person said it sounded like I was having a migraine. Another said it could be shock. Others said it was con crud or even an instance of hypoglycemia. Even now, a day later, I’m not entirely sure what caused it, but whatever it was, I just felt not good.

Mr. Books&Tea got me a fruit smoothie to bring my sugars up, and once I drank some and felt good enough to stand up, we left the hotel and took a cab home. I really wish I could have stayed another hour or two, but I just wasn’t physically up for it. Not the best end I had imagined for this year’s con. :/

Random Coolness Y’all Should Know About

Nerdy Shenanigans

Apparently, on Saturday night, Adam Shaftoe-Durrant invited a whole bunch of con-goers to his hotel room and filmed an impromptu re-enactment of Spock’s death scene from The Wrath of Khan in his shower. Noted luminaries in attendance included Charlotte Ashley, Beverly Bambury, Andrew Barton, and Todd Gorski-Parker. Apparently, Adam’s working on editing the footage into something presentable. HURRY UP, ADAM. I WANT TO WITNESS THIS LEGENDARY PERFORMANCE.

Science and Activism

One of the panelists on Saturday’s panel on citizen science and crowdsourcing mentioned that Zooniverse.org is a great crowdsourcing repository. Check it out! Take part in improving scientific information sets from the comfort of your own home – it’s surprisingly fun!

Awesome Art

Most SF/F cons have rooms where you can buy pieces from art from other con attendees. This time, I discovered the beautiful machine embroidery work of Elizabeth Cano. She’s working on a PhD in engineering, and uses a machine to embroider extremely colourful, complex patterns on handmade bags and other pieces of fabric. I bought a bag from her with cats embroidered on it! Check out her Etsy store to see some more beautiful patterns, or see some examples in the gallery below:

I’ll Be at Ad Astra 2017 This Coming Weekend

Ad Astra is a major science fiction and fantasy convention in the GTA, and it’s coming up this weekend, May 5th-7th. I missed it last year, but this year I’ll be there, and – for the first time ever – I’ll be a panelist, too.

Here are the panels I’ll be participating in.

Friday May 5

Exploring gender terminology in fantasy and science fiction:  We as humans use terms like man, woman, girl and boy when referring to others in writing. At what point however when applying these labels to science fiction or fantasy creatures do they become non-applicable? Is there a defined line where these terms can no longer be used? Does it have to do with how uncanny the species is to us?

Participants: A.A. Jankiewicz, Jane Ann McLachlan, Suzanne Church, Cathy Hird (and me)
When and where: 8:00 PM – Oakridges room

Saturday May 6

The Western: Why is it still a thing?  The American “frontier” has long since been closed. The myths of the West have long since been busted. Yet if the successes of Westworld, Logan, and the Magnificent Seven remake are any indication, there is still an appetite in the English-speaking world for the themes and motifs of the Western. This panel will explore why adaptations and homages to the Western continue to resonate in a post-colonial world.

Participants: Adam Shaftoe-Durrant, Anne Bishop, David Clink, Matt Moore (and me)
When and where: 11:00 AM – Richmond B room

Space Opera and New Directions:  The meaning of Space Opera has gone through many changes through the decades, and some would argue that Space Opera is the epic form of science fiction. New authors such as Ann Lackie, Aliette de Bodard and Yoon Ha Lee as infusing Space Opera with new voices. What new directions can we read in the tea leaves?

Participants: Derek Künsken, Jon Oliver (Note: although I’m not listed in the program schedule, I’ve been invited to take part by Derek Künsken, who is a lovely, bang-up person)
When and where: 1:00 PM – Richmond B room

There will be plenty of other panels there to check out, plus author readings, parties, and even the Tesla Tea Room. If you’ll be there later on this week, let me know. I’m sure we can find awesome stuff to chat about.

30 Days of Reviews: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In the spirit of the month, instead of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, I’m going to write a short review every day, up to a maximum of 300 words. Think of it is NaNoReMo (National Novel Review Month). This month I’ll do short reviews of books, varieties of tea, and even individual short stories as the mood strikes. So read on!


last_unicorn_coverTitle: The Last Unicorn
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Publisher: Roc
Format: Paperback
Rating: 5 out of 5

My husband likes to joke sometimes that I’ve led a deprived childhood because I there are many classic children’s books and movies I haven’t been exposed to. But you know what? There are a lot of stories I’ve missed out on so far. That’s life. The best part about today’s review is that I can say that through reading The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, I’ve filled in a hole in my literary education that I didn’t even know existed.

I’m not sure if I even need to provide a plot summary, but here: A unicorn living in an enchanted wood learns by accident that she may be the last one in existence. Stunned that her happy solitude has transformed into loneliness, she embarks on a quest to find out what happened to the rest of her kind. Along the way she meets Schmendrick, a bumbling magician, and Molly Grue, the put-upon wife of a bandit leader. All hope appears lost, however, when they encounter King Haggard, who has imprisoned the remaining unicorns for his own enjoyment, as well as his ultimate weapon, the Red Bull.

You don’t need me to go on, do you? About the stunning transformation of the unicorn, a pure creature, into a human, who can feel love and regret? About the sheer density of thought, beauty and longing within such a slim volume?

Looking at today’s established and up-and-coming speculative fiction writers, I can see the impact of The Last Unicorn. I hear echoes of the sinuous, crystalline quality of Beagle’s prose across the field of science fiction and fantasy. I may not know a lot, but I think it’s easy to see that The Last Unicorn is an urtext for how genre has unfolded over the last 40-odd years.

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