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On Books

by Peter Heck

by Charles Stross
Tordotcom, $29.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-250-26702-3

Stross’s latest, billed as “A Laundry Files Novel,” is actually the start of a new series set a few years after the end of the main story arc of that series. There’s a whole new cast of characters, none of whom are involved in the magic-monitoring government agency that was the focus of the original series. All the key players, on the other hand, are “transhuman” magic-users—carrying on the series theme of a reemergence of magic into the modern world, in particular the return of the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional universe.

One group of protagonists is the Lost Boys —which includes a lesbian and a trans boy. (Yes, there’s a definite Peter Pan theme in this one, just as several earlier Laundry novels riffed on themes from spy novels or fantasy tropes.) Imp, the Lost Boys’ leader, is working to mount a definitive production of the original Peter Pan play. The group is crashing in an abandoned mansion near Kensington Palace—which we learn is actually Imp’s family home, lost when the ancestral fortune ran out. Imp and his gang acquire capital for the project and support themselves by magically assisted robberies. But their latest capers have attracted attention from a couple of people.

One of those is Wendy Deere—a former Detective Constable now working as a thief-taker in the private sector. The New Management, as the Elder Gods now running England are known, have reinstituted a number of older legal forms, including capital punishment for a wide variety of crimes. Wendy is barely getting by on her minimal salary, when a new assignment comes in that promises to put her at least temporarily in the black. As it turns out, she’ll be trying to bring in a gang of transhuman thieves—whom we quickly recognize as the Lost Boys.

The third key player is Eve Starkey, executive assistant to Rupert Bigge, one of the richest (and most dissolute) men in England, a stereotypical super-villain. Eve is extremely good at her job, using her transhuman powers along with an MBA to make sure her boss gets everything he asks for—which is a lot. And, as the plot progresses, the boss asks her to put her talents toward acquiring a rare book that has come on the market after apparently disappearing over a century ago. It’s a concordance to the Necronomicon.

The plot builds from those premises, as various twists lead both Eve and Wendy to throw in their lot with the Lost Boys. In the process, Stross builds a stark picture of an England corrupted by the arrival of the New Management—which, is in truth, not an especially exaggerated metaphor for the current state of affairs, with Brexit and other horrors on the near horizon. The new set of characters gives us a fresh perspective on what a world might look like after magical “superhero” abilities have become commonplace—without the possessors of those abilities having any moral superiority to the population as a whole. And Stross’s general high level of inventiveness keeps the reader from guessing too far in advance what’s going to happen.

If you’ve enjoyed previous installments in the Laundry Files, I think you’ll like this new direction for the series. You can pick this one up without having read the previous volumes—though it’ll probably make you want to go back and read them when you’ve finished it. Still, if you’ve somehow missed Stross’s work, I can’t think of a better place to begin discovering one of the best writers on the current scene. Highly recommended.

*   *   *

Lesson One of the Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-593-12848-0

Novik’s new series brings us her take on the “school for magic,” probably most familiar in the form of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. But, as the title of this volume makes clear, except for the diverse (and unruly) student body, Novik’s “Scholomance” has little in common with most of the books in this popular subgenre. Instead, we’re introduced to an automated school, with no teachers, no sports, no nearby atmospheric town, and a steady population of monsters of various sizes, all looking for a tasty meal of student.

We see the Scholomance through the eyes of Galadriel, the first-person narrator–and the daughter of a famous good witch, a fact she keeps hidden from all her schoolmates because she wants to be judged on her own merits. As a result, Galadriel is something of a loner in a school where most of the students are members of one clique or another, based on their parents’ membership in one of many magical enclaves. The enclaves are for protection from both the mundane population and from the dangerous entities that prey on all magic-users.

As the story opens, Galadriel is griping about Orion Lake, one of the best students in the school, and a member of one of the most prestigious enclaves. The problem is that Orion has saved her life twice now. That’s a problem because Galadriel’s talents are apparently aligned in the completely opposite direction from her mother’s—or Orion’s. Spells to do things like starting a supervolcano come easily to her; it’s a problem for her to get a spell to do something simple like cleaning up a mess in her room. But she has learned from her mother that evil magic—malia, as it’s known in the Scholomance—comes at a high price, a price she’s reluctant to pay. Despite this, and perhaps in rebellion against her mother, Galadriel finds her talents more fitted to malia than the safer magic her schoolmates practice.

In any case, Galadriel’s current mission is staying alive long enough to graduate, which isn’t necessarily easy. A significant proportion of students don’t make it to senior year, and those that do have to survive the ordeal of graduation—which involves escaping from a hall loaded with the hungriest monsters that the school’s abundance of magical mana has attracted. To get that far, she has to have allies—and somebody like Orion would be perfect, if she didn’t hate him and everything he stands for.

How’s that for a starting premise? Not only does Novik manage to make this apparently unlikeable character sympathetic—partly by giving her a sharp wit and a sharp tongue to match—but she takes what is by now one of the more hackneyed situations in fantasy and gives it a genuinely fresh aspect. A virtuoso performance by a writer who could easily have coasted on the laurels of her successful “Temeraire” series. I’ll be looking forward to the subsequent volumes in this one.

*   *   *

by Gardner Dozois & Michael Swanwick
Tordotcom, $14.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-250-75658-9

This short novel is an expansion of the 1995 novella The City of God, originally published in this magazine and in Omni Online. As Swanwick explains in a postscript, their collaboration was the result of Dozois’s asking him to complete “the Digger novel,” a work Dozois had been unable to bring to a conclusion.

The protagonist is Hanson, a low-status manual laborer in a post-utopian society. A tragic event on the job—for which he feels himself responsible—sends him out into the wilderness, uncertain what he will do, or whether he can even survive. But after joining up with a group of similarly displaced men, he hooks up with the Preacher, a misfit even among the cynically antisocial outcasts. And after a deadly raid by the authorities, the two of them make their way to the Wall—the boundary between the ordinary world and the City of God, a utopian land created by an all-powerful elite who have gone somewhere beyond the reach of ordinary men.

Hanson and the Preacher explore the land beyond the Wall, which offers both marvels and dangers. Not surprisingly, Hanson feels out of his depth. But the Preacher believes that he is called to change conditions in the society from which they have at least temporarily escaped, and, in making the attempt, he creates a disaster instead. Hanson escapes back to the world alive, only to fall into the hands of the authorities—who throw him into prison, where he is subjected to interrogation and torture. Oddly enough, the wounds created by the torturer heal almost immediately, leaving no scars or other trace. Even more oddly, his jailers seem not to notice anything wrong with that—until a new jailer named Delgardo arrives and starts looking at what’s right in front of his eyes.

Delgardo realizes that Hanson must have been to the City of God, and that his miraculous powers of healing are the result of that visit. Coveting the obvious benefits that Hanson has gained, the new jailer mounts a campaign to cross the wall and obtain them for himself—by sheer force of arms, if that’s what it takes. And, of course, he drafts Hanson to come along as a guide, with results that I’ll let readers discover for themselves.

Dozois left behind a substantial body of distinguished work, most of it at shorter lengths. This posthumous collaboration with one of his most accomplished protégées is a welcome addition to his bibliography. Don’t miss it.

*   *   *

by Stina Leicht
Saga, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-5344-1458-7

Leicht’s new novel takes us to a planet, Persephone, where deadly life-forms prevent expansion of the human colony beyond a single city. The economy is closely controlled by Sereao-Orlov, a mega-corporation that ruthlessly exploits the planet’s resources. But, like many frontier towns, the city is home to a population that doesn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with the corporation’s goals.

Among them is Angel, an ex-Marine who has become de facto leader of an almost-organized gang of washed-up mercenaries who’re willing to do just about anything for hire. She’s currently working for Rosie, owner of Monk’s bar—the kind of dive frequented primarily by career criminals and those seeking to do business with them. Shortly after the story opens, Rosie tells Angel that one of her crew has been murdered, apparently by a member of a small-time gang looking to expand. And, as it happens, Angel believes that one of the same gang broke into her room the night before.

This opening leads to an action-packed story with a rowdy cast of characters and a strong feminist sensibility. Angel and her all-woman crew find themselves aligned with an exploited group of natives, whose existence Sereao-Orlov has kept effectively hidden in order to maximize profits. But to protect them, Angel’s crew need to take on a corporate army—and eventually they take the fight all the way to company headquarters.

Space opera, one of the most traditional modes of SF, has found a new lease on life in the twenty-first century, often by adding punkish overtones to the “cowboys in space” ambiance of the subgenre. Leicht hits all the right notes here, delivering the perfect amount of action without falling into clichéd formulas. If you’re in the mood for a rousing adventure, check this one out.

*   *   *

by Holly Wade Matter
Aqueduct Press, $19.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-61976-185-8

Matter, whose short fiction should be familiar to long-time Asimov’s readers, tells the tale of two young women drawn together by music in a small Western town. Fortune is an itinerant musician who has made a deal with the Devil—selling her memories for a set of magical guitar strings and a vintage Chevy. Maud is a small town girl who has inherited a gift of magic—specifically, the ability to cast curses. When her car breaks down, Fortune hitches a ride into the nearest town, where she and Maud meet in the café where Maud is working as a waitress.

The two quickly recognize each other as kindred spirits. Maud, as it turns out, has a fine singing voice and knows many of the songs Fortune performs—so they’re soon singing together. Their relationship is complicated by the presence of Lightning, who gives Fortune her lift into town, and whose history with Maud started on a bad note. And, as the reader finds out before the plot has gone very far, Fortune hasn’t just stumbled into Maud’s hometown by accident—there’s a backstory that needs to be resolved.

Unfortunately, Maud doesn’t really understand her powers, or even truly recognize that she has them. She’s completely forgotten an important incident in her past, involving a curse she laid—and only she can lift it. The strands of the plot begin to fit together when she and Fortune decide to take their music on the road, and she meets people affected by the curse. Meanwhile, Fortune has a new encounter with the Devil—with unexpected results.

Matter brings all these strands together, painting a delightful picture of life in a small town that a lot of readers are likely to wish they could move to. And she fills it with believable characters—some of whom just happen to have a touch of magic. If you’ve enjoyed Matter’s short fiction, or even if she’s a new name to you, her first novel is well worth a look.

*   *   *

by Ros Anderson
Dutton, $26.00 (hc)
ISBN: 078-0-593-18287-3

Anderson’s debut novel is the tale of, a humanoid “pleasure doll”—the “dot-ie” in her name designates her as a sex robot. She tells her story in the form of entries in a diary—given to her by her “husband” (owner) when she first arrives at his home.

The Hierarchies from which the book’s title is named are the equivalent of Asimov’s Three Laws for sex robots. Naturally, the Hierarchies do not consider the possibility that the robot—a mere object, after all—has anything that might be considered rights or feelings. But, as we come to realize, is much more “human” than either the Hierarchies or the organic humans around her are able to recognize.

The diary records her responses to situations she finds herself in—at first, she seems happy to accept the conditions her role imposes on her. But without any intention on her part, she has a rival: her husband’s flesh and blood wife—the “First Lady”—who bears him a son. And therein lies the inevitable seed of conflict. For while the Hierarchies command never to come between her husband and his family, her husband’s attention to—buying her clothing and jewelry—are a threat to the wife. And when minds the child, whom the wife has briefly left unattended, the wife’s hostility becomes overt. is sent to a “hospital,” where her settings are readjusted—a process that includes disassembling her, although her head remains conscious and she is able to observe the callous way she and other robots are treated by the workers. She also gets an inadvertent glimpse of the disposal of another pleasure doll whose owner has decided to discard her. But the biggest jar to her sense of how things really are comes upon her arrival home, when she opens the diary and finds a note to herself—telling her that this isn’t her first trip to the hospital. Examining the book more closely, she finds a coded message—written in a way a robot can easily decipher, but nearly invisible to humans. And she begins to realize that she must escape while she still can.

The rest of the novel sends out into the larger world, where she learns how much her kind is resented by normal women—and finds a place where she can carry on her existence with a minimum of risk. It is, of course, effectively a brothel with robot whores, but there is no First Lady to resent her existence. And for the first time, she makes a friend—, who helps her learn the ins and outs of her new “life.” But of course new complications arise—and she and need to find a way to overcome them. Anderson makes simultaneously very perceptive and touchingly naïve—giving her comments on the world she sees around her a double-edged, ironic richness.

The book is a probing exploration of the role of sex in society, from the point of view of a character whose very essence (like that of Heinlein’s Friday) is that of a sex object. is very much a metaphor for women in society, their various gender roles, and how they might or should be different. This theme is central to a long and honorable lineage of feminist SF: Judith Merrill and C.L. Moore looked at the theme in the 1940s, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree Jr. gave it fresh perspectives in the sixties and seventies, and the line continues right up to today, notably in the book and media treatments of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. And now Anderson brings it into the 2020s.

This is a novel that will speak to readers outside the genre, and the publisher, Dutton, which rarely publishes SF, is positioning The Hierarchies as “a literary, voice-driven debut.” But that should do nothing to deter SF readers from picking it up; it’s a book that any writer in the field could be proud to have written.

*   *   *

by Wil McCarthy
Baen, $16.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2449-6

Bruno de Towaji is a reclusive scientist who has done pioneering work on super-dense matter, essentially miniature black holes. He has taken his well-earned fortune and built himself a personal planet out in the Kuiper Belt, where he can focus on the scientific problems that interest him while ignoring the rest of the human race.

In this reissue of a novel originally published in 2000, Bruno’s peace and quiet are about to come to an end. The Queen of Sol—who we learn is Bruno’s former lover, as well as the ruler of the entire system—comes to solicit his help with a problem he may be the only one capable of solving. An enormous structure, the Ring Collapsiter, created to facilitate interplanetary communication, has become unstable. If the miniature black holes of which it is made should fall into the Sun, the result will be the equivalent of a supernova in the center of the Solar System. That would be an unsurvivable catastrophe for the human race. Knowing what is at stake, Bruno heads to the inner system to see what can be done. Luckily, travel in this future is by matter transmitter, so there is no undue delay in getting to the seat of the problem.

Bruno discovers that one of his scientific rivals, Marlon Sykes, is the creator of the Ring Collapsiter. But with the fate of the Solar System and everyone in it at stake, the two quickly join forces to find a solution. It soon becomes evident that the problem with the Collapsiter isn’t a design flaw, but sabotage by some unknown entity—who isn’t above direct attacks on both the scientists, as well as the Queen. Worse, the saboteur appears to understand the scientific principles behind the Collapsiter every bit as well as the two scientists.

McCarthy paints a future society where dazzling wealth and privilege are on display, with a protagonist whose scientific accomplishments make him a natural member of the elite. But as the existence of the saboteur proves, envy and jealousy have not been eliminated by the wide availability of almost every imaginable commodity. Bruno needs to unravel the motives of someone willing to commit mass murder on the widest possible scale before he can arrive at a solution to the technical problems of reversing the sabotage—and with only a short time before civilization goes to hell.

An enjoyable story in the best hard SF mode, made more readable by McCarthy’s light touch with characterization and a refreshing sense of humor.

*   *   *

by Eric Flint & Dave Freer
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2456-4

Flint and Freer continue the story begun in James Schmidt’s 1949 novelette The Witches of Karres—a science fantasy tale of a space captain who ends up playing guardian to three young girls who turn out to have magical powers—klatha, in their language. The story (expanded into a novel in the mid-sixties) was one of my favorites in high school, and it’s a kick to see the familiar characters back in action. This is the third sequel, all from Baen and all written by Flint and Freer; the first also included Mercedes Lackey as a co-author.

The protagonist of the original novel, Captain Pausert, along with two of the three young witches from that adventure, Goth and the Leewit—both now in their teens. They have gained considerably more control of their powers than in the original novel, and (as was hinted at in that book) Pausert has begun to find that he has klatha abilities of his own.

As the story begins, Pausert encounters a pirate ship in deep space and, in a brief battle, destroys it. The pirates escape, and Pausert uses his klatha to bring aboard a number of prisoners the pirates had captured—nearly enough to overload his ship. As if that weren’t enough of a problem, some of them seem to blame him for their situation. He takes them to the nearest world to set them free, only to find still more problems with the local bureaucracy. He finally returns to space, thanks to help from a couple of locals whom they take along for the ride.

Meanwhile, Goth is off on her own expedition—which involves her booking passage on a smuggling ship. She quickly finds out that the smugglers see her as a commodity they can sell for a good price—slavery still exists in several backwater sectors. Using her klatha, she manages to convince the smugglers that she’s not aboard the ship—which takes her to a planet where the slave trade appears to be centered. Naturally, Pausert arrives at the same planet not long after Goth—and soon he, Goth and the Leewit are working to undercut the slavers’ operation at the source. In the process, they manage to uncover the answers to several mysteries, including the source of Pausert’s own klatha abilities.

The original Karres story was a delightful combination of science fantasy and humor, with likable protagonists and a well-paced plot full of surprises. The revived and extended series delivers those same qualities in good measure, without feeling at all forced or dated. If you enjoyed the original—which Baen reissued a few years ago—or if you’re just in the mood for a fun read, give this one a try.

*   *   *

by Som Paris
Aqueduct Press, $20.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-61976-171-1

This innovative fantasy is the story of Raven, a young trans girl from London, who wakes up to find herself afloat in an icy ocean. A boy, whose name we learn is Adap, comes across the ice floes to her, and brings her to a village on the nearby shore, where his family takes her in and feeds her. Gradually, she comes to understand that she has arrived in a cold, desolate place that feels to her like what she’s read about Siberia—although she understands the language. And there is magic here, though she quickly learns that the powers that be in this society deeply distrust it.

But Raven’s stay in Adap’s village isn’t to last long. Told by a village woman to seek the Bear Master, a powerful shaman in the west country, she sets out, accompanied by Adap, to find her destiny. But there are plenty of hurdles to overcome on the way. First, in a larger village they pass through, Raven and Adap are taken in for questioning by soldiers who’ve heard that a “crossover”—the local word for a transgender person—has been reported by someone in a nearby village. The interrogator reveals information about the current political and social situation and his role in it. He is a commissar, sent by Moscoba to this village at the end of nowhere, and turning in the crossover is a test of his loyalty. Defiantly, he lets them escape.

On their journey, they pass through wild territory and occasional settlements, with new adventures at each. Raven finds the different societies confusing, not entirely consistent with what she knows about Siberia—sometimes it seems she is in the old Soviet Union, at others in an almost prehistoric world. There are magical creatures and locations along the way, as well, and when she finally reaches her goal—which turns out not to be the home of the Bear Master, after all—there is a deeper revelation that makes everything clear.

Raven Nothing—the title refers to the protagonist’s denial that she has a surname—is not a standard fantasy novel. Readers looking for something that stretches the usual boundaries and asks tougher-than-usual questions are likely to find this a very rewarding book.

*   *   *

by B. J. GRAF
Fairwood, $17.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-933846-97-2

SF readers who also enjoy crime fiction should check out Graf’s debut novel, a near-future police procedural set in 2040s Los Angeles. Eddie Piedmont is a homicide detective who gets assigned to look into the fatal overdose of an exotic dancer. On the surface, it seems like either an accident or suicide, but Eddie smells something fishy. Given the details of the case—for example, the lack of other needle tracks on the victim—he fairly quickly comes to the conclusion that he’s got a homicide on his hands.

In Graf’s future, the L.A.P.D. is dealing with a brutal gang war focused on the distribution of green ice, a powerful new and highly addictive drug—and as Eddie and his partner are headed back from their preliminary investigation, they wind up in the middle of a shootout apparently related to the drug war. Eddie, hoping to prevent unnecessary deaths, ends up shooting the driver of a vehicle, who is brandishing a gun. The situation backfires as the driver turns out to be a fourteen-year-old Latino whom the papers describe as an honor student. It looks bad because Eddie and his partner had had a couple of drinks before the shooting. Eddie is hauled up for disciplinary action and taken off the case while a decision is pending.

But that doesn’t stop him from thinking about the apparent homicide. Looking at what he’s got so far, he finds a link to Dr. Lee, a geneticist working on a cure for a new plague—Alz-X, an early-onset version of Alzheimer’s disease that affects teenagers. Was the dancer blackmailing Lee? Was the geneticist working on something besides the Alz-X cure? And what does Lee’s defiant teenaged son have to do with it?

Graf deftly juggles these plot strands, all while drawing a credible future Los Angeles. As in the best cop stories, the setting and the characters—not just the suspects and victims, but also the other cops and their families—are as important as the mystery itself. And having said that, I should note that Graf manages to deliver a nice surprise ending on top of everything else. Let’s hope there’s more of Eddie Piedmont in the future.

*   *   *

NINE BAR BLUES: Stories from an Ancient Future
by Sheree Renée Thomas
Third Man Books, $16.95 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-9974578-9-6

Here’s a collection of short stories from Thomas, recently named as the new editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Readers whose main fare is SFnal magazines and anthologies are unlikely to have seen most of these—though any of them would have been an ornament to those genre venues.

As the title of the collection suggests, a significant number of the stories have musical themes. In “Shanequa’s Blues—or Another Shotgun Lullaby,” a young man from Senegal comes to Mississippi to bury his long-lost uncle, whose death the family just found out about. But he discovers a mystery—the old man had accumulated a large record collection, centered on the blues. To uncover the meaning of it, he must take a trip to Robert Johnson’s grave, in the company of a local woman he met on the streets. And the ultimate secret is a record of which only three copies are known to exist. . . .

“Head Static” follows an immortal woman who has planted the seeds of African music all around the world—she is “hungry to feed on a sound that had not yet been invented.” Another story, “Origins of Southern Spirit Music,” introduces us to an old man who runs the music shed, a shack full of instruments that reach out to the human spirit everywhere.

Other stories draw on a rich brew of African and African American lore, from rope-skipping rhymes to tales of tricking “Ole Massa,” to a group of slaves making their way to freedom shortly after Emancipation—and suddenly jumping in time and space to an unfamiliar world. Still others are closer to today—though always with a twist. There’s the story of a house that people go into but never come out of, and then the story of a city where the sun stopped shining while the rest of the world remains as usual. A lot of them are set in or around Memphis, Thomas’s home city.

And while many have music as a strong theme or sub-theme, what is equally impressive is the author’s fine ear for the language—especially her enviable handling of dialogue in a variety of accents. A really striking collection from a writer one hopes to see lots more of in the years to come.

Copyright © 2021 Peter Heck

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