Skip to content
Home of the world's leading Science Fiction magazine

On Books

by Kelly Jennings

 Aliette de Bodard,
The Red Scholar’s Wake

Aliette de Bodard, who is of French and Vietnamese descent, often sets science fiction stories in her Xuya universe. Her award-winning novella, The Tea Master and the Detective, for instance, takes place in that universe, as does this novel, The Red Scholar’s Wake. The Xuya Universe is one in which the Chinese come to America, via the West Coast, a century before Columbus lands in the east. (Xuya is the name given to this new world by the Chinese.) A number of changes follow from this early discovery, eventually leading to a space-going future dominated by the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and by Mind-ships. Mind-ships are self-aware AI “minds” that embody ships, forming families with their crew as they navigate deep space. The Red Scholar’s Wake features one of these Mind-ships, the Rice Fish.

Rice Fish and her crew of pirates have helped to create a safe (ish) space far from Earth, called the Citadel, where the pirate fleets rule by a code they all agreed to. These fleets are called banners. Rice Fish is married to the Red Scholar, who is the leader of the Red Banner. Together they have helped create the Citadel and are among its most powerful members. But when the Red Scholar is killed, Rice Fish faces the prospect of losing her influence over the Banners.

This is where the novel opens, with Rice Fish proposing marriage to a prisoner, recently captured by the pirates of the Red Banner, Xich Si, who is a scavenger and a technical expert. Rice Fish does not expect this to be a true marriage in any sense; she simply hopes that having a consort with technical knowledge will shore up her ability to hold power. As Xich Si expects to be tortured to death, or sold into indentured slavery, she accepts the marriage proposal with some qualms. She also believes the marriage is a political expediency, and thinks that she will be a slave in all but name. However, as the novel progresses, the relationship between Xich Si and Rice Fish also progresses, developing into a real marriage, as well as a real attraction. Further, Xich Si’s technical skills prove vital, as they help solve the central puzzle in the novel—why the Red Scholar has been killed, and how, and by who.

The world-building here is dense and fascinating, and the plot works well. But the politics of this universe are the novel’s true selling point. Xich Si, a citizen of the An O empire, has legitimate reasons to distrust the pirates of the Citadel. They’re real pirates, capturing ships that come through their territory without paying protection money, and robbing, raping, and occasionally murdering the crews of these ships. Those who aren’t murdered are taken captive and either ransomed or sold into indentured servitude. Indeed, Xich Si’s former lover was tortured to death after being captured by pirates. These are genuine pirates, in other words, doing horrific things.

However, readers soon learn that the An O empire may be worse than the worst of these pirates. Xich Si has left a six-year-old daughter, Khanh, in the empire, and much of the novel deals with her attempts to retrieve this lost child. Through Xich Si’s memories, we learn that in the An O Empire, corruption, bribery, abuse of impoverished citizens, and the sale of those citizens into indentured labor is common. Indeed, much of the tension of the novel comes from Xich Si’s knowledge of what might happen if she tries to reunite with her child: it is common for the An O empire to torture to death not just captured pirates, but the families and friends of those pirates as well. Since Xich Si has married a pirate, this means six-year-old Khanh is at risk for that death. And when Xich Si finally does return to the empire to find her child, she learns that the woman she thought was her friend is preparing to sell Khanh into indentured labor.

Neither of the two main empires in the novel, the An O empire or the Đa͎i Viê͎t empire, provide justice or safety for their people. The pirate Citadel, on the other hand, despite its failings, at least attempts to achieve that justice and safety. The reader slowly comes to see that the “harsh but fair” space the Banners try to build is better than the alternatives, at least for those like Xich Si and Khanh, who have no power, wealth, or influence to wield. Aliette de Bodard does not flinch away from showing the failings and injustices perpetuated by the pirates, but paradoxically this makes her case stronger—that the deeply flawed pirate world is better than the supposedly civilized empires is a chilling condemnation.

I’ve seen this novel touted as lesbian space pirates, and it is that. Indeed, the power held and wielded by the women characters is a refreshing change. But the novel is also an examination of the uses and abuses of such power, and well worth reading for that aspect alone.

*   *   *

Kit Whitfield,
In the Heart of Hidden Things

Kit Whitfield’s first novel, a werewolf story with a twist, was published in the US as Benighted. I liked it so much Whitfield went into my buy-at-once category of authors, and so I was delighted to see that she was publishing her first novel in a decade, In the Heart of Hidden Things. This one is about fairies instead of werewolves. Specifically, it’s about the fairy-smiths who navigate the boundaries between the fairy-folk and humanity, as well as between common folk and the nobility. Whitfield’s novel is not set in any recognizable time or place, but the culture is vaguely English, and the level of technology is pre-Industrial, as is the justice system. Poachers, for instance, are hanged, even if they are ten-year-old boys who everyone knows are “touched.”

“Touched” in this novel means people who have been touched in some regard by the “kind neighbors,” a euphemism for fairy-folk. The touched in the novel are autism-coded, which is to say they share characteristics with the neurodivergent in our mundane world. The main touched character is Tobias Ware, a son of tenant farmers whose land borders on the forest held by the local nobility. Tobias does not understand that he should not stray into this forest, or that he should definitely not kill rabbits there. The main plot thread concerns the efforts of the fairy-smith, Jedediah Smith, to keep Tobias out of the forest and out of the hangman’s noose. Meanwhile, however, both Jedediah and his own son, Matthew, are worried about their son and grandson, John.

Like Tobias, young John Smith is touched. Tobias was nearby when a demon dog ran along the road above their house; John’s mother meddled with an oak grove infested with fairy-folk while she was pregnant. Tobias cannot speak, cannot bear to be inside a house, cannot stand human contact; John is impulsive, has no discretion, and is a little too skilled at understanding and communicating with the “kind neighbors.” It’s the sort of oddness that might be waved away, if John were not in line to become the fairy-smith after his father. As it is, like Caesar’s wife, he must be above reproach. And that he is not.

As with Benighted, much of the pleasure here comes from Whitfield’s ability to create a world and characters that feel real. John and Jedediah are the main characters in this novel, but all the secondary characters are interesting, three dimensional, and vital to the plot. Whitfield’s use of autism-coding for John and Tobias is well done, and the main engine for the novel; but the community she has built is both compelling and comforting, this last despite the many horrors that happen both on and off the page. This novel has been published in the United Kingdom and is not yet widely available in the United States, though determined readers can acquire copies through Amazon and Amazon UK.

*   *   *

  1. Kingfisher,

A House with Good Bones

  1. Kingfisher (the pen name of Ursula Vernon) is a very prolific fantasy writer. She is at work on more than one series set in the world of the Temple of the White Rat, but she also does stand-alone fantasy novels. Lately these stand-alone novels have swerved toward horror. The strength of all her work is not so much plot or worldbuilding—though she handles both of those deftly—but her characters, with whom we bond instantly, and whom we just want to keep hanging out with forever. These characters are richly developed, surrounded by family and by friends who become family; her villains are equally well-developed (though maybe we don’t want to hang out forever with these creepy monsters).

Here, in A House with Good Bones, the main character is Samantha Montgomery. Sam is an archaeoentomologist, which is someone who studies insects found in archaeological sites. She should be on a dig, but the discovery of human remains on the site has delayed her work for anywhere from a few days to a few months. As Sam puts it, in a nifty bit of foreshadowing:

And then . . . somebody found human remains. On the third day of serious digging, no less.

Well, that was the end of that. The whole project was on hold until the Native American Heritage Commission could sort out what tribe the bones belonged to and if they had any living relatives who would want them back for burial. Some archaeologists get bitter about these sort of regulations apparently, but I personally don’t want to muck around with anybody’s ancestors. It seems rude, and just generally tacky.

Sam has already sublet the room in the apartment that she shares with several other young scientists, and so is compelled to move in with her mother until the dig resumes. Her mother lives in a rural subdivision in North Carolina. (I love that Kingfisher sets her horror fantasies in these rural Southern outposts—that’s an under-utilized and fascinating setting.) Sam’s mother lives in the house she inherited from her mother, Gran Mae, who was a rigid and abusive woman, and one whom no one in her family was sorry to see go.

Sam and her mother and brother moved into the house after Gran Mae’s death, and Sam’s mother, who is a tough and forthright woman, immediately began redecorating and claiming the house as their own. This is the house and the mother Sam expects to visit. However, phone calls from her brother, who lives in Arizona but has visited Mom more recently than Sam, warn her that this may not be the case. Their mother is behaving oddly, and things are not as they were. And indeed, from the moment Sam arrives at the house, she begins to notice strange things. For one, her mother is behaving very oddly. For another, the house has been re-re-decorated, restoring the racist paintings and ugly doilies of Gran Mae. Also, the rose garden is strangely absent of insects. Then Sam begins to have, as she thinks, nightmares.

Sam attempts to apply scientific reasoning to the problem, listing hypotheses and then testing these hypotheses. Maybe her mother has redecorated to make the house more resaleable? Maybe her mother is depressed. Maybe her mother is trying to belatedly mourn Gran Mae. Maybe her mother has early onset dementia. The nightmares may well be nothing more than self-paralysis. Not uncommon! But creepy events continue, and indeed escalate, with massive invasions of ladybugs, paintings crashing from the wall, trails of rose petals filling the house. Sam does more research—interviews the neighbor down the street, who is her mother’s friend and just possibly a witch; talks to her mother’s gardener (the son of the QAnon gentleman who lives across the street); calls her brother for more information. Sam is still pursuing a scientific, reality-based answer when the ghost of Gran Mae shows up. Ghost, I say, but manifestation may be more accurate.

There’s a great deal of creepiness in this novel (I left the worst bits out), along with body horror and insect invasions. But the characters and Sam’s engaging voice keep these from being overwhelming, and indeed help make this novel, despite its horrors, a delightful read.

*   *   *

Mur Lafferty,
Station Eternity

  1. Kingfisher, who blurbs this book, says the story is as if “Jessica Fletcher ended up on Babylon 5,” Jessica Fletcher being the iconic character who starred in the television show Murder, She Wrote. Each week on the show, Jessica Fletcher solves a different murder occurring in her quiet little Maine town of Cabot Cove. Jokes about the number of murders in Cabot Cove are so common they’ve led to a trope, one called Cabot Cove Syndrome. Mur Lafferty takes this trope and runs with it.

The main character in Station Eternity is Mallory Viridian. From her earliest childhood, murders have happened around her. Her mother was murdered, her father was murdered, the uncle whose family took her in was murdered. Her teachers, her guidance counselor, and fellow students are murdered; and so on. Mallory solves each of these murders, always—like Jessica Fletcher—by noticing things no one else does. Oddly, the local police and crime scene specialists are not happy to have her help, and indeed begin to suspect her of having initiated the murders, either for attention or because she’s mentally disturbed. Mallory is indeed emotionally and mentally disturbed, though not in the way the legal authorities suspect: she is disturbed because every time she attempts to befriend someone, or to have a relationship with someone, murder follows.

Finally, unable to bear seeing yet more people die around her, Mallory asks for and receives sanctuary on Station Eternity. Station Eternity is a sentient space station some light years away from Earth. Only two other humans live on this station, so Mallory thinks this might help her avoid causing people to be murdered. Station Eternity is also inhabited by any number of alien lifeforms, including the Gneiss (intelligent stone beings who live for centuries and later in their lives transform into shuttles and other things); the Sundry (a hive mind of wasp-like creatures); the Gurudev (looking something like stick-bugs, the Gurudev have a chameleon-like ability to disguise themselves as part of their surroundings); and several others. Interestingly, all of these aliens have intelligent symbiotes. Every alien lifeform has evolved with and sometimes because of these symbiotes, and the aliens are surprised and appalled to learn humans do not have symbiotes, and in fact cannot achieve symbiosis with any intelligent being. (Symbiosis with bacteria or viruses does not count). Humans, on the other hand, upon having made first contact with the various alien species, immediately begin searching for ways to kill them. This leads to the discovery of a drug that makes humans wonderfully high, but which separates aliens from their symbiotes. This separation tends to kill either the alien or the symbiote, and sometimes both of them.

The novel starts with Mallory learning that Station Eternity has decided to allow a shuttle filled with humans to come aboard. Mallory’s safe space—the station where no murders will happen around her—is about to become Cabot Cove. Her attempts to warn the station, the other two humans who live on the station (an ambassador and a fugitive), or various aliens, fail; and as Mallory had expected, as the shuttle arrives, murders follow.

This novel works both as a science fiction story, with cool aliens and alien technologies, including the idea of symbiosis; and as a mystery novel, with several layers of mystery to be solved—murders on Earth, murders on the station, and the mystery of why murders keep happening around Mallory in the first place. Lafferty juggles these multiple plot lines as she moves through the book, keeping them all deftly in the air, and manages a successful and satisfying finale as well. I liked this one a lot.

*   *   *

Kelly Barnhill,
The Crane Husband

I read and loved Kelly Barnhill’s When Women Were Dragons a few months ago, so I was delighted to find she was releasing another book, The Crane Husband, in 2023. The Crane Husband is a trim novel—107 pages in the version I read—and a quick, enthralling read. It uses as its source material the Japanese folktale about a crane wife. There are lots of versions of this story, including some in which the wife is a clam or a fox, but a common version goes something like this: A man finds an injured crane, one who has been shot by hunters so that one of its wings is broken. He nurses the crane back to health, and after he has set it free, a beautiful young woman shows up at his door, claiming to be his wife. The man objects, saying he has no wife, and that he is too poor to have a wife. The woman says she can support them by weaving, but he must promise to stay out of the room while she works. She then locks herself away with the loom and weaves cloth that is so beautiful that the man can sell it for a high price at the market. She continues to weave cloth, and he continues to sell it for lots of money; but each time she emerges from the weaving room with more cloth, she is thinner and thinner (though still beautiful). The man grows curious about how she manages to weave such beautiful cloth, and one day, burning with curiosity, he peeks in the window, and sees that his wife is the wounded crane, and that she is weaving her feathers into the cloth. Seeing him watching, the crane gives a great cry and flies away forever.

As with When Women Were Dragons, this Barnhill tale is not just a great story, but also an extended metaphor; indeed, almost an allegory. Set in the near future in what had been a farming town in the American Midwest, The Crane Husband reimagines details of the original folktale, so that, while the woman is still a weaver, it is the man who is the crane. The woman still grows thinner and thinner while she weaves beautiful tapestries, while the crane husband both abuses her and battens on her suffering. Further, we are told, more than once, that by tradition women “fly away” from this farm as soon as they can, leaving their children and husbands and the farm behind. One version of this family story says that that before they leave, the women literally transform into birds. In other versions, though, the women just leave.

Barnhill’s story is told from the point of view of the weaver’s daughter, who is fifteen as the story opens. She is heavily parentified, raising her young brother, doing all the cooking and cleaning, and also acting as the mother’s manager, selling the tapestries and handling the money. She doesn’t mind doing any of this, since she loves both her brother and her mother—at least, she doesn’t mind until the crane husband shows up. What happens after that is foretold by something her own father told her before he died. When she was a young child, her father told her the story of the crane wife, adding in this gloss about the husband of the Crane Wife: “[H]e gets greedy. Because men get greedy. Oh, he is grateful at first. But then he wants more and more from her. He takes and takes and takes. After a while, he only sees what she doesn’t make, what she hasn’t achieved.”

This is how the mother sees love, too—that’s what love does, the mother explains at another point in the novel. It makes you willing to be consumed by those you love. The daughter is not so sure, telling her mother on various occasions that no other family in their town lives like this, and that love doesn’t have to be that way. (“So it goes,” the mother says about an injury the crane has done to her, to which the daughter replies, “I don’t think it has to, Mom.”)

The novel also looks at near-future developments, such as giant factory farms swallowing up smaller, family-owned farms, and at the use of drones to create a surveillance state. It is pitch-perfect in its depiction of a dying farming community. These parts of the novel, though background, are excellent; but it is the close look at the shifting “truth” of how human love works that makes this novel very much worth reading.

*   *   *

Lois McMaster Bujold,

Penric’s Labors

Lois McMaster Bujold, most famous for her Miles Vorkosigan series, also writes fantasy novels set in the World of the Five Gods. These include novellas about Penric, the first of which, “Penric’s Demon,” was published in 2015. Bujold has published one or two Penric stories every year since. In 2020 Baen Books began publishing omnibus collections of the novellas, with three novellas per volume. Penric’s Labors is the latest of these. It contains “Masquerade in Lodi,” “The Orphans of Raspay,” and “The Physicians of Vilnoc.”

I’m a big fan of Bujold, and mostly I enjoy her excursions into fantasy—indeed, Paladin of Souls is, in my opinion, her best book. Her Penric novellas follow Penric, the youngest son of a family of impoverished nobility, who in the first novella is possessed by a demon whom he names Desdemona. Demons in this world are either riders or ridden; if the human controls the demon, then the demon is ridden, and everything is fine. If the demon controls the human, the human is ridden, and that is a disaster. In Penric’s case, his demon has been “ridden” for nearly two hundred years, always by women or female animals (a mare and a lion, to be specific). A cross-gender possession like that between Penric and Desdemona is rare—usually men are possessed by male demons, and women by female demons. Penric and Desdemona have, at least after the first novella, a good working relationship, and indeed a friendship; and Penric, scarcely more than a boy when he acquires his demon, has his life enriched by having the life experience and knowledge of all twelve of the women “riders” available to him. This isn’t exactly trans representation, since Penric is definitely male and cisgendered, but it’s an interesting look at the gendered roles created by society and how they play out in any given circumstance. The novellas in this volume don’t touch on that to any real extent, but Bujold explores the topic in detail in “Mira’s Last Dance,” a novella that was in a previous volumn.

Each novella is a self-contained story, although characters and events follow Penric through the stories—for instance, at one point, he encounters a pair of half-siblings, Nikys and Adelis, and ends up falling in love with Nikys and marrying her, while forming a friendship with her brother Adelis, who is a commander in the Celadon military. (There are various kingdoms and federations in the World of the Five Gods, which honestly I have trouble keeping straight.) Nikys and Adelis show up as supporting characters in the novellas after that one.

The novellas often center around a mystery that Penric and Desdemona must solve. Not always—in the “Orphans of Raspay,” for instance, Penric is captured by pirates, and befriends two young fellow captives. The bulk of this novella concerns Penric’s attempts to find some way to rescue them and himself before they are all sold into (probably sexual) slavery. “Masquerade in Lodi,” on the other hand, is a straight-up murder mystery, with the twist that the murder victim unexpectedly survives; and “The Physicians of Vilnoc” is a medical mystery—Penric employs epidemiologic methods to deduce the cause of a devastating plague.

The relationship between Penric and Desdemona creates the main attraction for these novels, but as always Bujold’s world-building is stellar, and if these characters aren’t as well done as those in the Miles saga, they’re still a lot of fun. I could wish that the novellas in their omnibus editions had been published in the order of internal chronology—“Masquerade in Lodi” takes place some years before the other two, just after “Penric’s Fox,” which makes the Penric in that quite a bit different from the Penric in the other two novellas in this volume. But this is a quibble. For those of us who want hard copies of the Penric tales, this is must-have edition of the series.

*   *   *

Lily Brooks-Dalton,

The Light Pirate

Set in near-future Florida, The Light Pirate begins during a devastating hurricane, and follows the life of a child, Wanda Lowe, born during and named for the storm. It also follows the lives of her family members and friends. The Lowes live in the small town of Rudder, on the east coast of Florida, not far from Miami. Her father is a lineman, repairing and patching together the failing power grid. He is out doing this when his wife goes into labor during the hurricane, and when his two young sons wander off and are caught in the storm. The first third of the novel details these events, and is probably the best part of the book. Lily Brooks-Dalton captures perfectly what the run-up to a devasting hurricane is like, including why some people fail to evacuate. Kirby Lowe, Wanda’s father, tells his wife and his sons and his co-workers, over and over, that there’s no reason to evacuate; that he’s been prepping for hurricanes all his life; that someone has to keep the lights on. This theme, this refusal to leave a doomed place or to change our ways of dealing with that place, is the backbone of the novel. It is a theme that speaks heavily to our human failings when it comes to climate change.

After Wanda’s birth, the novel goes into fast-forward, time-skipping first ten years into the future and then twenty and then what appears to be sixty or seventy years. We follow Wanda as the hurricane season lengthens and the storms grow ever more powerful; as some people leave but others stay; as the world heats up until people must become nocturnal to survive; as Florida sinks into the ocean and as various local and state governments fail, until finally the federal government announces the “closure” of Florida. Evacuations are mandated at that point, but Wanda and her mentor, a biologist named Phyllis, do not evacuate. Through their eyes, we see the collapse of civil society and the crashing of the environment. In the last part of the novel, we see through Wanda’s eyes the rebirth of Florida and of humanity in a radically new form.

There’s a lot to like here. The writing is wonderful, and the story is a ripping yarn. Brooks-Dalton creates characters we admire and bond with, which makes the slow catastrophes of their lives more powerful. There’s also an intriguing mystery—Wanda’s ability to make the ocean light up and fluoresce, which adds some charm to the grim pages in the latter half of the novel.

If the book has a flaw, it’s this latter half. As we begin to experience the effects of climate change here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, narratives like The Light Pirate become less entertaining and more harrowing. Brooks-Dalton makes us understand, down in the pit of our stomachs, that refusing to admit that climate change is happening springs from the same well as refusing to evacuate in the face of a killer hurricane: the human inability to understand that the world can change, and that denial is dangerous. This is an important and masterfully written novel, and I stayed up all night reading it. The death of our current civilization is not a pleasure to live through, even in this fictional version; but Brooks-Dalton makes the point—and achieves a semi-happy ending by making this point—that climate change will not destroy the world—just our current version of the world.

Copyright © 2023 Kelly Jennings

Back To Top
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop