Unfinished books: WEIRD SPACE: THE BABA YAGA by Eric Brown and Una McCormack

Eric Brown and Una McCormack, Weird Space: The Baba Yaga. Abaddon Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

The reason I didn’t finish this novel – a standalone, as far as I know, in a wider series – has very little to do with its quality and a lot to do with my present impatience and ill-humour. I wanted it to be a fun military space opera in which things blow up from the get-go. That’s… not really what the first fifty pages here are giving me: the main character is an intelligence analyst, and quite a bit of the opening section involves bureaucratic turf war and the breakup of a relationship. It’s well-written and well-done, and I might pick it up some other month to read to conclusion. But right now there’s something ridiculously off-putting about it.

SENSE8 links

Because I can, and because I care:

Foz Meadows, On Sex In Sense8:

…it’s not just the unprecedented primacy this show affords to queer sexuality, sensuality, love and romance as a narrative prerogative: it’s the fact that, instead of making that scene an excuse to have Sun and Riley and Kala join in, which is something we’ve seen a billionty times before in narrative – that is, (ostensibly) straight women being sexualised, whether in queer contexts or not, for the pleasure of a (presumably) straight male audience – we had a scenario where the (ostensibly) straight guys were all either experiencing (Capheus) or participating in (Will and Wolfgang) queer desire, in such a way as to make straight desire the subtext of a dominant queer sexuality in a way that I’ve literally never seen done before

Fade Manley, Things I Like: Sense8:

The trick is that this is a television series paced like a book. One of those brick fantasy novels with a cast of thousands, where it’s going to take half of the first book just to get people talking to each other. This doesn’t mean it’s slow! But it means you need to set your expectations differently. The episodes have some emotional arc, and often a big scene near the end, but they don’t have a big central plot per episode. The focus shifts as all these people deal with their individual problems and lives… and eventually, with each other’s problems and lives.

VERMILLION by Molly Tanzer (Patreon-supported review)

Vermillion by Molly Tanzer

Word Horde, TPB, USD$16.99, ISBN 9781939905086. Cover art by Dalton Rose. Cover design by Osiel Gómez. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Molly Tanzer is an award-nominated author of short fiction. With several collections already to her name, Vermillion is her debut novel, and it’s a peculiar book.

Not peculiar bad, mind you. Just peculiar. There’s enough material and sheer badass bizarre worldbuilding in Vermillion to do for any three other novels, and Tanzer sticks in all of it in a single volume. It makes for an odd, off-balance experience, in terms of immersion and structure. And yet it works, somehow: Tanzer has sufficient command of the tools of her craft to make the novel work as a unity.

But I get ahead of myself. Publishers’ Weekly described Vermillion as a mix of “steampunk and ghost story,” but that’s rather misleading. Vermillion reminds me rather more of a modern-day penny dreadful or dime novel, chock full of incidents and events — but with far better characterisation than is typical of either.

Nineteen-year-old Lou Merriweather is a psychopomp. The daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, she’s inherited her father’s business in 19th century San Francisco, and she’s making a decent living sending ghosts, shades, and geung si on to the afterworld, whether or not they want to go — while passing for a man. That is, until she hears that young men from Chinatown who went away in search of work have gone missing somewhere in Colorado. And until one of them comes home dead in a crate full of patent medicine called “the Elixir of Life,” and well on the way to becoming a geung si.* Lou doesn’t especially want to investigate what’s happened to them, as her skills are more suiting to placating spirits than tracking down the living, but there’s no one else willing and able to go. And with a conspiracy apparently disappearing young Chinese men, her conscience — not to mention her mother — doesn’t leave her much choice.

Her quest into Colorado leads her to a ruthless but friendly young man called Shai and a sanatorium known as the Fountain of Youth. The Fountain of Youth is run by a doctor who’s also a vampire — and Shai’s lover — and who’s just a touch on the megalomaniac side. Not only is Dr. Panacea running the sanatorium to bring him a semi-constant supply of human “food,” but he’s been keeping the Chinese workers prisoner to help build him a flying machine. Lou finds herself in the middle of a pretty sticky situation, and she’s not just risking her own life. Because by coincidence the sanatorium is playing host to her childhood friend Bo Wang, who’s dying of consumption, and with whom she’s been in love for a very long time — even though he loves another man, himself. And another of the sanatorium’s patients, teenaged girl Coriander — who’s been dispatched to the Fountain of Youth by her parents in the hope that the doctor can cure her of her patently unnatural attraction to other women — involves herself in Lou’s investigations.

And everything blows up in their faces. The desperate action of the climax almost belongs in a different book entirely, as allies and enemies square off in open fighting while Dr. Panacea launches his man-made dragon into the sky. Can Lou successfully save herself and friends old and new? And what happens, afterwards?

Vermillion is a hell of a ride. Action interspersed with introspection; conflict with scenery; otherness with belonging. It has talking sealions and tribes of sentient bears whose treaties with the United States forbid the building of railways; it has monster-hunters and psychopomps. And it is interested in outsiders, people caught between communities or pushed outside of them. (It doesn’t shy away from depicting anti-Chinese racism, for example, but it’s just as happy to show friendly relationships that cross race, class, and gender lines: it’s not, for example, a particularly heteronormative book.)

Lou is a fascinating character, whose youth and whose position as the child of immigrants determines how she interacts with the world. Her brashness, combined with her innocence, makes her point of view both interesting and believable. And while Vermillion is unevenly paced, it’s still remarkably compelling. I enjoyed reading it.

And I’m really rather looking forward to seeing what Tanzer does next.

*A sort of Chinese undead.

This review comes to you courtesy of my Patreon supporters. If you enjoyed it, please consider supporting me in my ongoing quest to keep myself and my cat in the comfort to which we would both like to become accustomed.

Another year older and still not dead!

Today I’m twenty-nine years old. Another year older and still not dead!

It has been my habit on my birthday, the last couple of years, to send messages to people telling them how much I appreciate their presence in my life. This year, I think, there are too many people to make that entirely practical – and I don’t know all their emails. So I’m just going to write here what I want to say.

Dear friends,

It’s been a tricky year, since this time in 2014. Without you, I wouldn’t be here. Without you, I wouldn’t have a PhD all but in hand. Without you, my life would be so much poorer and smaller, and contain so much less joy. I am honoured by your acquaintance, and your friendship, your hospitalities and your support: your presence in my life is a gift and a blessing, and it humbles me.

Thank you. Never stop being awesome.

Books in brief: David W. Anthony, THE HORSE, THE WHEEL, AND LANGUAGE

David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2007.

This is a lot less populist than its title implies. It is a solid and engaging work of scholarly synthesis that brings together evidence from historical linguistics and archaeological excavation to investigate the geographic origins of Proto-Indo-European, and the spread of Indo-European languages, and what kind of material culture Indo-European culture groups might have had.

The first section concentrates more on the historical linguistics, and is a lot more accessible than the latter sections, which requires one to keep track of the names of a lot of archaeologically distinct culture-groups, type-sites, and other sites. And pottery, and bones, and a gloriously detailed treatment of prehistoric steppe cultures. I liked it a lot, but it’s not my period or area and even though I’m used to keeping track of these kinds of details in other contexts, I did find it quite hard to follow in places. (This might be, in part, because I was reading it a little at a time over a long period, and not making notes.)

It’s a lengthy tome, and detailed, and more readable than this sort of detailed survey often is. I enjoyed it, and I recommend it if you have an interest in prehistoric steppe cultures.

Books in brief: Cari Hunter, NO GOOD REASON, and Karis Walsh, MOUNTING EVIDENCE

Somehow it came to pass that a certain publisher of queer fiction auto-approved me on Netgalley, which means that I received access to a tranche of new or forthcoming lesbian novels.

The best of that tranche, by me, are the novels by Cari Hunter and Karis Walsh.

Cari Hunter, No Good Reason. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. Ecopy courtesy of the publisher.

This is a crime novel set in the Lake District. The two protagonists, cop Sanne and doctor Meg, are best friends and occasional lovers. When a badly injured young woman is found by hikers, who appears to have escaped from an abductor, both Sanne and Meg are drawn into the hunt for the perpetrator. It’s a very readable novel, with very appealing characters, albeit with some pacing issues, and for that reason I went out looking for everything else Hunter has written when I was done. It transpires that No Good Reason is her fourth novel: the others aren’t quite as good but they’re still solidly enjoyable.

Karis Walsh, Mounting Evidence. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. Ecopy courtesy of the publisher.

A romance between a cop who comes from a family of dirty cops, and an environmental activist/single mother. Abigail Hargrove is a lieutenant with the mounted police unit. Kira Lovell is a wetlands biologist. They meet at the state fair, and murder and kidnapping and underhanded dealings interfere in their awkward courtship. Fun, although the prose is a touch clunky and the pacing on the uneven side.

Recently arrived review copies

Five of them!

Five of them!

I’ve been away. I come home after six days to find a stack of review copies waiting for me. No pressure, like?

Courtesy of Tor Books, Max Gladstone’s LAST FIRST SNOW, and ARCs of David Weber’s HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER and Gene Wolfe’s A BORROWED MAN. And courtesy of Titan Books, George Mann’s THE AFFINITY BRIDGE and Bennet R. Coles’ VIRTUES OF WAR.