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On Books

by Kelly Jennings

Justin C. Key, The World Wasn’t Ready for You
Aubrey Wood, Bang Bang Bodhisattva

Malka Older, The Mimicking of Known Successes 
Melissa Scott, The Master of Samar
Martha Wells, Witch King

Justin C. Key, The World Wasn’t Ready for You
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0063290426

I’ve been following Justin Key’s writing for some time, so I was pleased to hear about The World Wasn’t Ready for You, a collection of his short fiction. Some of these stories I had read before; others were new to me. Among the former is “Spider King,” which I previously reviewed for this column in May/June 2022. It’s a body horror story about an inmate, Darnell, who agrees to engage in a medical trial in order to obtain an early release from prison, and who ends up with a horrific superpower. Engaging and tightly written, “Spider King” is also a commentary on the ways in which the prison-industrial complex exploits Black Americans. This theme, the effects of systemic racism on Black citizens, runs through this collection.

In the story “Now You See Me,” for example, a group of white women who call themselves “Allies 4 Life” attend a supernatural art exhibit, Our Shoes, about the Black experience. The narrator is a doctor (as is Justin Key), a chief resident who has always excelled at her work, and has always been rewarded for her efforts. One of the other women, Pam, is pregnant; another, Danny, is a self-styled bad girl, who has gone from telling racist jokes in high school to being “extra with her allyship.” Attending the exhibit is, for them, an act of political virtue. But as they go through the exhibit, all of them feel changed in a way they can’t quite understand; and after they emerge back into the world, that change follows them. We soon understand that their privilege has been stripped away. Now the world treats them as if they were Black women. Pam’s symptoms of pre-eclampsia are dismissed by her doctors; Danny’s bad-girl behavior (speeding, using marijuana) is no longer seen as cute, but as criminal; and the doctor finds her hard work is invisible to her supervisors, while behavior that was previously lauded (correcting a student, advocating for a patient) is now treated as transgressive and harshly punished. This is a disturbing story, the more so because we see each of the woman internalizing their mistreatment, blaming themselves for what is happening—what have they done to cause this? Are they being too sensitive? Maybe they deserve what is happening? It’s a chilling look at how structural racism can be internalized.

Possibly the best work in the collection, “Afiya’s Song,” relates the alternative history of a slave revolt led by a woman, Afiya, whose powerful song can heal not just physical but also psychic injuries. Listening to her song, and singing it themselves, the enslaved people in North Carolina and then Alabama rise up against their enslavers, ending slavery decades earlier than in our history. Told in a combination of oral history and narration from Afiya’s point of view, this is a gem of a novella.

In the story from which the collection takes its name, “The World Wasn’t Ready for You,” aliens, the Keplan, have come to Earth. The Keplan, close genetic cousins to Earth humans, possess telepathy and other paranormal abilities. These powers terrify some people on Earth, and the resulting conflict nearly destroys the Keplan people. Survivors, kept in exile on their damaged ship, are powerless and impoverished, their history erased. Those who have managed to immigrate to Earth are treated with hostility and suspicion, as are the offspring of Human-Keplan relationships. The narrator of the story, Drew, a Black man who married a Keplan, is struggling to keep their son Jordan alive in a world deliberately structured to limit that child’s life and liberties. In a nice touch, Key’s Keplans breathe not just through their lungs but through their locs, which are, in fact, respiratory organs. Covering or otherwise interfering with these locs, thus, is like putting your hand over a child’s mouth and nose. This leads to tragedy—and calls back to real-world events—when the police arrest Jordan and restrain him by grabbing fistfuls of his locs. Drew, who had a telepathic connection to his son, feels and hears Jordan crying out, “I can’t breathe,” as the police “restrain” him.

Beyond the thematic interest of this collection, which is significant, these stories are skillfully constructed and masterfully written. Justin C. Key is a talent to watch.

*   *   *

Aubrey Wood, Bang Bang Bodhisattva
ISBN-13: ‎978-1786187017

Aubrey Wood’s debut novel, Bang Bang Bodhisattva, is a brilliant snapshot of a specific subculture in our own world. Set in 2032, the novel also functions as an if-this-goes-on cautionary tale. One of our main characters, Kiera, makes her living in the gig economy. She does mobile tech support fixing smart refrigerators, smart toilets, and so on, which have become too complicated for their owners to manage. The other main character, Angel, is a fifty-year-old ex-police officer / private investigator. He hires Kiera whenever he needs technological help, since he’s technologically illiterate.

Angel and Kiera are working together on a missing person case when they find the subject of Angel’s search, Malcolm, murdered. Malcolm is also Kiera’s lawyer, the one who is helping her with her name change. (Kiera is trans.) Enter David Flynn, a police detective who knew both Angel and Malcolm (also ex-police) from their days in his department. He does not really suspect either Angel or Kiera of killing Malcolm, but he is perfectly willing to frame them for the murder. Angel and Kiera must find the actual killer to avoid being convicted of the crime. Mix in another missing person—the one-night stand Kiera has fallen in love with, a person named Nile (they/her)—and the plot zooms along.

It’s a good story, but the real fascination of this book is the world Aubrey Wood shows us. At thirty years old, Kiera is still struggling in the gig economy. In her polycule (a polyamorous trio), only Sky has an actual job—he’s a counselor. Jinx, the third member of their trio, makes her living live-streaming games for an online audience. None of the polycule have health insurance or any sort of a social safety net apart from online crowd-funding sites; and for them to stay in their tiny, expensive apartment, their “Patriot Points” must stay at a certain “Liberty Level.” Patriot Points are a dystopian feature of this near-future world, a bit like credit ratings in today’s economy. Patriot Points can rise or fall depending on the social network ratings score any given person has. For instance, Kiera’s PP falls after a client gives her a one-star rating. Kiera can also rate those who hire her—thus hurting their PP average. A society managed by online critiques is a polite society, I suppose, is the lesson here?

Wood populates her novel with many such near-future details—cities in this future are run by crime cartels, for instance. They are also surveillance-heavy, with cameras and police officers everywhere, as well as police robot-dogs (which say “ROOF ROOF ROOF. STOP. CEASE. ROOF”). A presidential election is underway, but no one pays much attention to it, since politics matter very little in a society run by crime lords and billionaires. The general population, powerless to affect the critical issues of their lives (the destruction of the climate, the widening wealth gap, the militarization of a brutal police force, the loss of their civil rights), focus instead on the constant reshaping of their personal identities and bodies. Angel, for example, has reshaped his Hispanic body, making himself look like a white guy, and has renamed himself Michael Jones. Kiera has given herself elf ears and is saving up for surgery on her voice box. Nile has tusks, among other modifications. Robot hands and eyes are common. Indeed, nearly everyone we meet in the streets of Carson City has some form of body modification and is saving up for another. Wood doesn’t comment on this trend in the novel. It is left for the reader to make the connection between the obsession with appearance and the lack of political and economic power.

Everyone in this novel—or everyone except Angel—is constantly online, using chat groups and online communities to navigate their lives. Kiera, for example, finds solutions to tech problems in online forums, and when the polycule is facing eviction, they use social platforms to determine their legal rights. Later in the novel, when Kiera is in a self-driving car that gets hacked, she texts Jinx, having her ask her chat groups what to do. This is, frankly, how many of us currently navigate our lives—when my phone has a problem, for instance, the first thing I do is google solutions—and it’s a lot of fun to watch Wood show us the logical extrapolation of this habit.

The language of the book, or rather the language used by Kiera’s generation, is great. Having raised a kid who is Kiera’s contemporary, and having students in that same age group, I can tell you this language rings 100 percent true. I don’t know that people who are older than say, thirty, right now, or who don’t have a child in that age range, are going to get most of the in-jokes here, but can I just say 10/10, would recommend. Further, the LGBTQ+ representation is stellar. Aubrey Wood, herself trans, gives us the inside baseball view of the community. The scene where Sky helps Angel understand why his romantic life is such a mess is a particular delight. Finally, as I noted above, the plot is fast moving and intricate, but the reader is never lost. This is an impressive debut, and I look forward to more from this writer.

*   *   *

Malka Older, The Mimicking of Known Successes
ISBN-13: 978-1250860507

This slim novel, set on (within?) Jupiter, has a Holmesian feel. It starts with an Investigator, Mossa, looking into the possible suicide of a classics scholar, Bolien Trewl. Mossa consults her friend, Pleiti, who is a classics scholar at the same university as Bolien. Pleiti, playing Watson to Mossa’s Holmes, helps investigate Bolien’s disappearance, uncovering in the process a more extensive mystery.

Importantly, “classics” here does not mean what it would at a contemporary university. Pleiti isn’t studying Latin or Greek; she is studying novels of mid-twentieth century England (Watership Down, for instance), and she is studying them in order to extract knowledge about the ecosystem of England before Earth’s environment was destroyed. The ultimate aim of the classics department on Jupiter, as with the university as a whole, is to one day rebuild Earth’s ecology, so that humankind can return to their planet of origin. Meanwhile, most of surviving humanity lives here in Jupiter’s gassy realm, on platforms built from metal scavenged from satellites or mined in the asteroids, and on soil laboriously created from regolith mined from Jupiter’s moons.

Older gives us many delightful details about life on the Giant, as the inhabitants call Jupiter. The gas from the planet’s atmosphere forms storms that swirl around the platforms, for instance, creating conditions colder than humans like, so that gas fires burn in every room and restaurant and railway car. Travel on the extensive railway system is free. (Pleiti is scandalized when Mossa suggests ticketed travel would at least be helpful for investigators.) An expensive restaurant has created a private forest in which it grows mushrooms, firewood, and spices. People wear “atmoscarves” to filter the raw oxygen of the atmosphere being created for the platforms. This atmosphere is kept in place by “atmoshields.” The language used on the Giant is macaronic, which is to say filled with words and terms from all the varied languages of Earth—sans abris, for instance, to mean outside of a sheltered space; lenten for slowing a train; comemierdería for boorish behavior. And, significant to the plot, a sizeable section of platforms is dedicated to the Koffre Institute for Earth Species Preservation, or the Mauzooleum, as it is half-jokingly called. Here, genetic samples for hundreds of Earth animals and plants are kept in cold storage. A small number of those animals and plants have been reborn and are available for study or simply to be viewed by tourists.

All of these quotidian details make the novel a fascinating read, and the understated romance that builds steadily between Mossa and Pleita is charming. The plot has some nice turns, but plot is not the focus here: exploring this intricate world is. My one complaint is that the novel is so short, but Older has written a sequel, so we can, hopefully, look forward to many more visits to the Giant.

*   *   *

Melissa Scott, The Master of Samar
ISBN-13: 978-1952456169

Melissa Scott’s new novel, The Master of Samar, is a nail-biter. As with her stellar novel, Water Horse (2021), at one point I was so anxious that I felt compelled to flip to the end.

Set in Benjanth, a Venice-like city in a world rife with demons, mages, and political maneuvering, the novel follows Gil Irichels as he returns to his childhood home, the House of Samar. Rejected by his grandfather, Gil left the city years before, taking up a life as an itinerant curse-breaker in the hill country. Now, as the sole surviving Samar, he has inherited the House and all its responsibilities. As he soon learns, the deaths of everyone related to House Samar is not just bad luck: someone has deliberately been wiping out his relatives to the most distant cousin. The novel’s plot follows Gil as he attempts to learn the reason for these deaths. The answer is worse than he expected, and leads to that nail-biting conclusion.

Scott’s plot is excellent and its resolution satisfying, but the strength of this novel is its examination of power. In this world, magic is done by making contracts with demons; these contracts write themselves on the bodies of those entering into the contract. Licit practitioners of magic are trained and licensed by universities that are run by the Oratory (a religious establishment). Gil, trained in such a university, is a licit mage. Those who practice magic without formal training and without the approval of the Oratory are called ferals. Gil’s lover, Envar, is feral, and thus an illicit mage.

The relationship between Gil and Envar is also illicit, since only heterosexual relationships are legal in Benjanth. And while both these laws are in the main ignored, social disapproval of ferals and of same-sex relationships is heavy. As the new Master of Samar, Gil is expected to produce an heir, and immediately upon his return to the city, the pressure to marry a woman from one of the other Houses begins. Gil’s careful handling of this dilemma—he won’t give up Envar, but he knows he must have that heir—makes him very likeable as a character. The resolution of the dilemma is satisfying, but it is Gil’s use of the power that has devolved upon him that is Scott’s focus. As the Master of Samar, Gil has a vote in the Assembly that rules Benjanth. He also has control of the wealth that has accrued to the House of Samar over the centuries. He has, in other words, both political and monetary power. Such power, as we know from our mundane world, can be well or badly used. Here in The Master of Samar, Scott gives us an examination of such uses and misuses.

Gil, a determinedly decent man, uses the power that has come upon him to better the lives of those around him, and the city itself. Envar and another important character, Alaissou, are both ferals, with a great deal of magical power. They also strive to use their power beneficently. These three characters serve as models of how power can be a force for good. However, magic, political power, and wealth are all also misused in this novel. Scott creates complex villains with motives stretching far back into the city’s history, but their villainy has common roots: rather than working for eusocial reasons, like Gil and his family, the villains here are invariably working for their own benefit: to increase their own wealth and power at the expense of others. Thus, for example, Alaissou has been cursed by her stepmother, to clear the line of succession for the stepmother’s own children. Had Alaissou not been a feral of impressive power and control, the curse would have killed her long since. As it is, she has been left small, sickly, and infertile.

Throughout the novel, Scott shows us power misused in this fashion; but she also shows us the proper use of power. Alaissou aids Gil and Envar in protecting the city; Envar protects Gil and the household at key moments; and Gil uses his wealth to free a child from slavery, and to protect another child from those who would kill him for political gain. Further, Gil uses his political power to do justice, even when it looks as though this act of justice will doom him and everyone he loves.

This exploration of the good that may be done by those with wealth and power alone makes Scott’s novel worth reading. But she also gives us a wonderful, fully thought-out city (I love the scene where Gil goes under his house with a city watchman to examine the wards protecting the House of Samar, in which we hear about city wards, thieves, and tides). The supporting characters are also excellent. Gil’s housekeeper, for instance, whom he has known since he was a boy, is a treat; and indeed she illustrates Scott’s point about power. Though she has a small amount of power, she invariably uses that power for the benefit of others and to the benefit of the House of Samar. Likewise, Gil’s bodyguard, Arak min’Aroi, a swordswoman of the min’Aroi clan, has no magical or political power, and no wealth—but she does have her sword. It is a limited amount of power, but Arak uses it to better the lives of her friends, who have become her family. This novel has serious points to make, in other words, besides being—which it is—vastly entertaining.

*   *   *

Martha Wells, Witch King
ISBN-13 978-1250826794

Like many another, I discovered Martha Wells via her Murderbot series. Her new novel, Witch King, is fantasy rather than science fiction, but it is equally engrossing. This novel follows its main character, Kai, or Kaiisteron, Prince of the Fourth House of the Underearth, also known as the Witch King, through two different epochs of his life—during the invasion of the Hierarchs when he was young, and about sixty years later, well after the defeat of the Hierarchs. Both times are fraught for Kai, though for different reasons.

When Kai is a young demon, he embodies the newly dead Enna, a young Saredi girl. The Saredi, nomads who live in the grasslands in the northwest of their continent, invite demons to incarnate their recent dead as a holy practice. Thus, they honor Kai, and—just as importantly—accept him into Enna’s family. Kai, as Kai-Enna, is living a utopian life with the Saredi when the Hierarchs invade.

No one really knows where the Hierarchs come from, because the Hierarchs kill everyone in their path. They have slaughtered most of the world this way, leaving empty cities and rotting infrastructure behind them. Their aim seems to be to erase the world population and replace it with their own people. This aim is thwarted by Bashasa Calis, who joins forces with Kai and others to form the coalition that ultimately defeats the Hierarchs. After Bashasa’s death, however, his heir Bashat wants to reform the coalition as an empire, with him as emperor. At the renewal of the coalition, which is taking place during the second timeline in the book, Bashat plans to persuade the other members of the coalition to grant him that power. However, to do that, he will need to keep Kai, and Kai’s found family Ziede and Tahren, out of the way (all three of them having different, but impressive powers). The novel begins here, in medias res, with Kai waking up to find his current body dead, and Ziede, nearby, locked in a stasis spell.

One timeline of the novel follows Kai and Ziede as they unravel the mystery of what has happened to them, and as they search for Tahren, Ziede’s missing wife. The other timeline flashes back to the war with the Hierarchs, during which Kai loses his family, is captured and tortured by the Hierarchs, and forms the coalition with Bashasa, and a new family with Bashasa, Ziede, Tahren, and others. This braiding together of two separate narratives can, at times, dilute the effect of both stories, and requires a lot of attention from the reader. However, both plots comment on one another, and the overall arc is engaging, with many surprises (not all of them nice) for the reader.

The strength of the novels lies in Wells’ use of found family, and in her examination of the long-lasting effects of trauma on the characters. Ziede and Tahren, enemies when they meet, grow to trust one another, and eventually fall in love and marry. Kai, though he is not attracted to women (he is attracted to Bashasa), becomes a brother to them, as well as an uncle to their children. The fierce love between these three is convincing and occasionally heart-rending.

The effects of the trauma on all of them are equally well-done. When we first meet Kai in the body of Enna, he is a sunny, delightful child, loving and beloved by his extended Saredi family. Safe with this family as well as with his family Underearth, he uses his substantial demonic power to help those he loves, rather than as a means of revenge. Sixty-years-on Kai, who has been tortured and who has seen many of those he loves slaughtered, is angry and very willing to hurt and kill anyone who threatens him or those he loves. Ziede and Tahren likewise have been damaged by the trauma of the war. “How did it come to this?” Ziede asks Kai at one point. “I remember how we started. Now you’re all razor barbs and I’m an angry shrew.”

Kai disputes this description—at least of her—but it is true all three have been warped into vengeful warriors, ever-ready to destroy their enemies by any means necessary. A large part of the book examines not just the effects of this trauma but how all of them might begin to heal from that trauma. When, toward the end of the novel, Kai does not kill (but also does not forgive) someone who has betrayed him, we understand that healing might, at last, be possible.

As in the Murderbot series, this novel has an ensemble cast, and many, many delightful characters. Tahren’s younger brother Dahin is one of them—I was always happy to see him come on stage—as is the feral child adopted by Kai and Ziede as they search for Tahren. Further, the worldbuilding is intricate but not overwhelming. Fantasy novels often present us with a monoculture; Wells gives us a complicated, many-cultured world, with complicated characters who have complicated motives. This is masterly work. Though I love the Murderbot books and eagerly await each new installment, I’d love a sequel to this one, too.

Copyright © 2024 Kelly Jennings

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