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Some thoughts on Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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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.

 

Review | All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

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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.

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Review | Updraft by Fran Wilde

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You may be familiar with Fran Wilde. While Updraft is her debut novel, she’s been an SFF presence for years. She’s a prominent blogger and has a slurry of short stories to her name. Her blog, http://www.franwilde.net/ , features her own original fiction, interviews, reviews, editorials, the works.

So, knowing that Fran has been around a while, I was interested in picking up her book Updraft, but I was hesitant.

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Updraft is the kind of story I know off the bat has the potential to be a huge hit with the YA crowd. It’s about a young girl, Kirit, who wants to be a trader. This isn’t an easy task in a city made up of huge, isolated towers. Kirit will not only need to fly, a fairly common task, but be able to outfly the migrations of skymouths, huge nearly invisible beasts that devour the population of entire towers and can hide in plain sight.

I would be lying if I said that this didn’t make me a bit nervous. It sounded AMAZING, but also like it was going to be prone to the YA pitfalls that so often turn me off. Holy crapola was I pleasantly surprised.

Updraft is the kind of story that is going to rock some SFF socks off. Better yet, it’s the kind of story 13 year old me would have loved and 23 year old me can still really enjoy.

The world Wilde creates in Updraft is very cool. The population lives in towers that rise above the clouds. The towers aren’t built, they’re grown out of bone. It features individual flying machines and has a great steampunk meets Dinotopia feel. The city is plagued by giant beasts with voracious appetite. Politically and socially, the world is fraught with problems. It’s run by the Singers, mysterious and extremely powerful people with control over the legal system. The Singers manage the city from a central hub known as the Spire. The towers live in fear of the Singers, but the Singers are the only thing standing between the towers and the Skymouths.

The main character is a young girl named Kirit. She’s lived in the top of her tower, which marks her as the daughter of a well-to-do family. Her mother is a powerful trader who rose to rank on her own. Kirit idolizes her mother, but she accidentally comes to face with a Skymouth and lives, which basically screws up Kirit’s plans to work with her mom.

Throughout the book, Kirit goes from a fairly impulsive and naive girl to a strategic thinker. Kirit is one of my favorite parts of the book. Her growth is fairly drastic. She grows away from idolizing her mother, to simply wanting to succeed at new challenges, to wanting to do what’s right. Better yet, Kirit has her priorities straight. She’s pretty wrapped up in the problems she’s facing and is one of the few YA heroines I’ve read about in recent years to not get wrapped up in a romantic subplot that undermines the main character’s autonomy and self-empowerment. I did think that some of Kirit’s growth is a bit unsatisfactory. I would have liked to see more time spent on her going from one stage to another, but there was plenty of growth.

Similarly, there are plenty of times where Kirit doesn’t really go for the impulsive decision off the bat. I liked that there were “dumb” things she had to be convinced to do. Even better, Kirit is hesitant to jump into any big conspiracies.

I did think that there were some oddities with pacing. The beginning third of the story alternated between slow and quick without always transitioning or changing pace where it seemed that it naturally would. The middle had a great feel, but the end again seemed to have a bit of a stop and go motion to it.

Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised by this debut. Wilde really showed some fantastic worldbuilding. I liked the tone, setting, and characters. It’s rare for me to say, but the only thing that this book needed was a bit more length to flesh out some of the transitions and character growth. Another 50 pages and this book would have been perfect.

Note: I did receive a review copy of Updraft from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Willful Child by Steven Erikson

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Willful Child by Steven Erikson

Maybe it’s just that I don’t “get” Erikson’s sense of humor or that it wasn’t subtle enough for my tastes, but his Star Trek parody, Willful Child, was a miss for me.

In Willful Child, Captain Hadrian Sawback is taking his crew into space for their maiden voyage. Not long after departure, the ship is commandeered by an AI unit named Tammy that sends the ship careening towards their universe’s version of the neutral zone. They’re about to start an intergalactic war and Sawback is the one in charge of stopping it. Unfortunately, he’s not the most honorable person ever put in charge of a starship.

To me this book doesn’t offer much. Let’s face it, Star Trek is begging for a good parody and us fans want it badly. Unfortunately, Erikson’s book wasn’t my kind of funny.

Sawback is set up to be a misogynistic reckless captain, not unlike our own beloved Kirk could be. The way that Erikson presents it, however, isn’t funny. There’s no subtlety to it. Erikson is open in harassing the women in his crew and there wasn’t a lot to it otherwise.

I’m also inclined to find funny names not very funny. Second in command is named “Sin-Dour” and is perhaps the most subtle of the funny names, but there’s not alot in the character that I thought really enhanced that. Overall the characters were a bit dull, I thought.

The funniest aspect was the adaptation of the prime directive. The directives the Alliance holds instruct the crew to essentially go forth and conquer.

Overall, I wasn’t terribly impressed. Maybe a 2 or 2.5 for me. I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review via Netgalley.

Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

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I received this book as an eARC from Netgalley for an honest review.

Check out The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu here:

on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20518872-the-three-body-problem
on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Three-Body-Problem-Cixin-Liu/dp/0765377063

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