I won’t mince words; I wasn’t a fan of Everfair. I wanted to be, but wasn’t.
I got my copy in the mail and was so excited. I was ready to drop everything and start reading. I often have this feeling, but was spurred on by the promise of something truly spectacular and very rarely seen in western publishing. The idea of a well executed literary fantasy set in a steampunk version of Congo was like a big piece of cake staring me down. I may have actually squealed a bit.
I want to be very clear when talking about this, because for as much as I have my criticisms, Shawl is very clearly good at her craft. She’s eloquent and considered. Even having disliked the book, I came away with a positive impression of hers. I would chalk my struggles up to some of the construction elements rather than saying that her writing isn’t worth the read. You should pick it up and give her a try, at the very least, read some of her short work.
The story itself follows a group of missionaries and refugees living in a section of the Congo set aside to become a land called Everfair. One part safe have, one part socialist republic, the book follows a family from Britain that is trying to lead Everfair in their vision, occasionally with the help of the black population, and, more often, without the input or significant leadership of the black population. The family deals with death, abandonment, interracial marriage, and sexual orientation all the while.
My problems with the story were compounding.
The story format jumps between characters and timelines. So, you can go from following one character in 1810 to another totally different character in 1823 all in a matter of four or five pages. For me, this was confusing and left the story without a cohesive feel.
The plot was meandering and unfocused. Rather than having a clear end-point, it paused every few pages to talk about tangents or give unnecessary context. This was all without really adding to an overarching arc that would have given that cohesion the story desperately needed.
The characters were tough for me. They could have been very interesting, but not enough time ever seemed to be spent on them. We’d stop in on them every once in a while. But in the mean time, there were so many other characters to visit and so many other shifts in timelines and ages that keeping track was a challenge.
The story is clearly well researched and Shawl clearly spent a good deal of time thinking it through. Her writing is very atmospheric, but I didn’t find the style to be cohesive enough to compensate for the meandering plot. It was a promising story, but didn’t deliver for me. I’ll have to check in with Shawl’s next work instead.
I was excited to hear Sofia Samatar was writing a new novel set in the same world as A Stranger in Olondria. I had listened to the book on audio a few months before and was interested to see what else she would do for the world.
The Winged Histories expands upon the world in A Stranger in Olondria, providing a background into the political/religious setting of the world. It’s set contemporaneously to A Stranger in Olondria and follows four women caught up in the upheaval.
The thought Samatar puts into the world and the religious development is fantastic. She features a number of well thought-out political and religious overlaps and how those interact.
One of the things I noticed right away was the consistency in Samatar’s writing style. The similarity in the first character’s voice and the narrator’s in Olondria was striking. Samatar’s sentence construction and description styles for the two felt very similar. In a way, I both liked and disliked this. I liked the consistency and the distinctiveness of Samatar’s writing, but worried that the book would be atonal, especially considering that there were three other characters whose points of view were about to be presented.
The stories’ characters were definitely distinct. They ran the gambit from funny and loving to dark and brooding. I would argue that the story is family based. The initial character is a young woman in line for the throne. Her family has worked hard to position themselves to take control. After a semi-scandal involving her sister and cousin, she is the last hope to marry well and secure the family’s position, but she runs away to join the army, to become a shieldmaiden.
From that point forward, she becomes the catalyst for revolution, eventually involving her lover, sister, and political rival’s daughter.
The story is fantastical and brings back some interesting characters like Tailon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone. The overall connections between the characters shows the depth of the story’s construction. Each character influences the others, eventually contributing to the political upheaval that takes place.
I really enjoyed the addition to the world Samatar built in A Stranger in Olondria. That being said, I wasn’t always sure that the story would have stood well on its own without my previously having read Samatar’s work.
The story feels very much like a series of intertwined novellas. Each new perspective pushes the story forward without always answering the questions left behind by the other stories. Some of the lore of Avalei is pretty important to the story overall, but doesn’t receive the same in-depth treatment that was needed in Olondria. In a way this makes sense, the distinction between the theology of the stone and Avalei is less important, but I imagine that reading The Winged Histories first may leave you a little lost.
At the same time, I can see the potential for the story to be a great introduction and context to its predecessor.
Overall, the story is very enjoyable. It’s beautifully written with some varied character voices, but I’d definitely suggest reading Samatar’s earlier works beforehand.
If you’ve read The Winged Histories, and especially if you read The Winged Histories before reading A Stranger in Olondria, I’d be very interested in your thoughts. Please comment below!
Thanks to Small Beer Press who provided me with a copy of The Winged Histories for review.
When I found out the premise and model of storytelling that Serial Box is doing, I knew I wanted it; when I found out who was participating and the quality of the work, I knew I needed it. Read the rest of this entry »
If you were looking for a fantasy/science fiction mash up, look no further. Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel, All the Birds in the Sky has you covered, and it’s pretty great.
The story follows two main characters, Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a computer genius. Patricia and Laurence’s relationship ebbs and flows, but one thing seems to haunt them, especially Patricia; the two of them have been foreseen at the end of the world.
There’s a lot to like about this story, but I’ll start with the one that struck me first: the humor. Anders’ story is rife with the kind of self-aware humor that pokes fun at itself and the genre. Guilds of assassins, secret orders, and talking animals are all used with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that had me laughing out loud and tabbing pages for the first time in a long while.
But, the story engages in a more serious talk as well about what it’s like to be an outsider, how easy it can be to be misled, and the balance between the fantastic, the scientific, and the radical on all sides.
The character building in the story is well-done. The story follows both Patricia and Laurence from childhood to adulthood, with all the rockiness that entails (skipping the awkwardness of high school and college). Most impressive in this was the establishment of trust in their relationship and the ways it would break down. Both characters are flawed and have their own histories from their years apart. This leads to a lack of trust, sometimes for unwarranted reasons. While some of the moments that result can seem a bit cliché, both characters are very human in their response.
The story also features some crazy plot developments and battles with side characters well-equipped to make things both better and worse, including an AI called CH@NG3M3. While it has more of a contemporary love story kind of feel, it also doesn’t shy away from mystery and actions. Overall, there’s a lot to love.
Charlie Jane Anders is the editor in chief of io9.com and the organizer of the Writers With Drinks reading series. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Tin House, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. Her novelette “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo award.
Self-published stories aren’t a terribly new convention. People have been paying to have their works released for a long time. But, with the advent of the internet and the widely available platform for author promotion and creation, self-publishing has become a common way for authors to get their works into readers’ hands.
I won’t lie. I have some pretty mixed feelings about the widespread use of self-publishing, mostly that for me it often becomes overwhelming to even glance in the way of self-published authors. The mountain of works simply is so hard to sift through that I often don’t tread very close.
However, there are some fantastic self-published works available online.
The Martian, Wool, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.
The standouts in self-publishing show that the publishing method isn’t necessarily reflective of the quality of work.
So, how do we accommodate self-publishing in our awards?
The Martian by Andy Weir is very highly regarded. It’s a well loved story with fans coming out its ears. But, to many SFF lovers’ surprise, it wasn’t eligible to be nominated for the Hugo Award in 2014 when it was picked up for publishing by Crown Publishing. The book had previously been self-published and without heavy revisions would not have been eligible. Crown decided to publish the book very much as-is, leaving the work ineligible and retaining its 2011 publication date.
The problem in awards is multifaceted. By and large, I think it comes down to a few issues: exposure, inundation, and gatekeeping.
Self-published authors are often the sole marketers for their books. They are the ones who are responsible for sending out review requests, getting the book available, and making sure the book is in the eyes of buyers, all while having to write, edit, and design the book. This is extremely difficult without the web of connections that many publishing houses have.
On top of all this, many readers continue to go to traditional publishers for their books and for those who may be open to smaller press or self-published works, the lack of in-store browsing ability and the difficulty in making your story available in online suggestion algorithms proves a big barrier.
In the event that a reader does manage to find their way into the self-pubbed section of Amazon, or Kobo, or whatever platform they may be using, there are so many self-published works that standing out may prove difficult. Not impossible, surely, but hard to do, especially without an existing strong following.
So, what do we do with self-published works that are deserving of awards?
This is the part where gatekeeping comes in.
Currently, the big awards in SFF (not to mention the broader literary community) are difficult to break into and not structured well for self-published authors.
Often, awards are either chosen by panel, or through a fan or membership nominating system. This leaves self-published works out of the loop. Nominating systems for panel awards often require submission by a publisher, and membership and fan nominating systems tend to still require the same-year publication date requirement, which often isn’t enough time for a popular self-published work to “break out,” and clumps those books together with traditionally-published novels, which have significantly more budget and reach.
Again, here I feel conflicted.
Something about this seems so unfair, as though the cards are stacked against self-published works. However, extending deadlines makes eligibility for self-published works opens up the door to complaints that the work isn’t being judges with its peers or that the system is unfair in the opposite way.
The Hugos did recently propose extending eligibility for books not originally published in the US. This wasn’t overly controversial, so maybe I’m worrying over nothing. I can’t imagine people denying the difficulties in publishing and promoting a book on your own.
But, maybe the Kitschies have it right, but by thee token, a digitally native category implies that self-pubbed can’t compete with traditionally published works in content quality.
There’s a “Digitally Native” category there that seems to have served well. The Kitchies is a panel award, though, so I wonder how that would play in to a fan or membership system.
Regardless, something has to change in order for the community to recognize the self-published works that can blow us out of the water.
What do you think? What rules changes or category additions would best serve this purpose?