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January/February 2020
 
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Recommended Reading
by C.C. Finlay

One of the myriad pleasures of reading short fiction is the joy of discovering new writers before they break big. Watching an author make the jump from stories to novels is like hearing a musician perform in an artsy coffee shop and then following their career until they fill arenas.

That comparison is not particularly fresh, but it has never been more aptly applied than to musician and writer Sarah Pinsker. Her debut novel, A Song for a New Day (Berkley Books, September 2019, $16, tpb) takes place in a near future where terror attacks and disease cause the government to ban all gatherings of more than thirty people, ostensibly for the public good. But is there a public when people can't come together? Singer and songwriter Luce Cannon doesn't think so. She and her band perform underground concerts, even though it means she's always on the run from the authorities. Meanwhile, Rosemary Laws works within the system, promoting concerts and performers using virtual reality technology. Along the way, she discovers that live music has a different quality, a different effect on the people who hear it. er attempts to find and share it causes problems for Luce and puts the two at odds with each other.

Regular readers of this and other genre magazines will be familiar with the work of Pinsker, who began to publish short fiction in 2012. Her story "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind" (Strange Horizons, July 2013) won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and "A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide" (F&SF, March/April 2014), was a Nebula finalist; she's appeared regularly in magazines and on award ballots ever since. A Song for A New Day takes all of Pinsker's strengths as a short story writer—her eye for character and detail, her ability to find those perfect revelatory moments on which lives turn—and amplifies them on a bigger stage.

Perhaps the most satisfying thing about this book is that it takes its dystopian premise and shows people seeking a way out through art instead of violence. Luce attacks the system from the outside, eroding it around the fringes. Rosemary challenges it from within, pushing at unreasonable boundaries. Both take substantial personal risks, but they do it for a community and an ideal they believe in, not against those they oppose. At one point in the novel, Luce tells an audience "It's okay to be afraid, but we don't have to let it rule us. We're all afraid; it's what we do when we're afraid that matters." Those narrative choices elevate this book as much as Pinsker's craft and make it a must-read.

 

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Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press, April 2019, $27.99, hc) is that rare thing, a sequel that's better in almost every way than the book that preceded it, and Roanhorse's debut novel Trail of Lightning (Saga Press, June 2018) was a very good book.

In The Sixth World, the overall title for this series, climate change and Energy Wars have ravaged North America, with some of the biggest impacts in Dinétah, the southwest deserts traditionally occupied by the Navajo people. Roanhorse overlays the emergence of powers and figures from Native American mythology on this entirely plausible apocalypse, intensifying its effects. Maggie Hoskie is a young Diné woman with clan powers, and she gets caught up in the business of hunting monsters and chasing gods while she also tries to escape her own past. The first novel was fresh, fast-paced, and filled with interesting and believable characters.

In Storm of Locusts, the characters are sharper, the pacing faster, and the payoff even more satisfying. Part of the difference is that Storm emphasizes how Maggie keeps getting drawn back into her community despite her best intentions at becoming a loner. This story may have a setting common to many Westerns, but there is no stranger comes to town, defeats evil, and leaves town here. Maggie has deep roots where she lives, and connections to other people whether she wants them or not, and that matters narratively and thematically. The other difference is that Storm takes place along Route 66 and among some of the other iconic monuments of the American west, and it explores the violent intersections of different cultures even as it looks for new alternatives.

There was some controversy surrounding these novels. Roanhorse is of Pueblo and African-American ancestry, and foregrounds Native American voices and perspectives in both books. Still, the Diné Writers' Collective objected to her portrayal of some of the Navajo beliefs and protested the way many reviewers of the books seemed unable to distinguish between different Native American identities. So a smart reader will treat these books as the author's invention, and then go to Diné sources to learn more about some of the culture and myths that they find here. Meanwhile, Roanhorse provides an entertaining adventure that reveals wide new vistas for American fantasy, interrogates typical Western narratives, and draws on different cultural traditions to transform familiar archetypes and tropes. Storm of Locusts is a fun read, but we may look back and realize that it's also an important book.

 

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Another regular contributor to F&SF also has a new novel out, and while it isn't her first, in many ways it feels like a debut. Naomi Kritzer published five mass market fantasy adventures with Bantam Spectra between 2002 and 2006. The books collected critical acclaim and award nominations, but after that Kritzer turned her creative attention to short stories and made a name for herself writing science fiction. Highlights include her Seastead series in this magazine and "Cat Pictures Please" (Clarkesworld, January 2015), which won the 2016 Hugo Award. Using the latter story as a launching point, she's reinvented herself again as a science fiction novelist. Kritzer's new book Catfishing on CatNet (TorTeen, November 2019, $17.99, hc) is a near future technothriller being marketed as YA, or Young Adult, a category that causes some "serious" readers to look askance. But like the YA science fiction novels of Cory Doctorow or Paolo Bacigalupi, this book contains some big ideas. The novel's opening page starts with one of them:

 

My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. I particularly like helping people who take lots of cat pictures for me. I have a fair amount of time to allocate; I don't have a body, so I don't have to sleep or eat.

 

The narrator is CheshireCat, a sentient A.I. who's been hiding online as the site admin of CatNet. Steph, the novel's other, human, narrator, depends on her online community at CatNet because her mother is hiding from Steph's father, and the two of them never stay in one place long enough to put down roots.

A wonderful humor permeates this book. Steph explains to her friends on CatNet that her newest school has "a robot teach us sex ed because they don't trust the human teachers not to go off-script." The students decide to hack the robot and rewrite the script to make the robot give more accurate answers. Their stunt draws media attention, which brings trouble to Steph's door, and at that point the book turns into a slick, quick thriller. The same technology that helps Steph keep her fragmented life connected also makes her privacy impossible. Steph's danger puts CheshireCat's secret at risk.

One of the really smart things about Catfishing on CatNet is the thematic resonance between the two storylines. Steph and her friends are at an age where they are establishing their identity, independence, and personhood. CheshireCat is also fighting for their personhood in a different way and context. And just as CheshireCat takes steps to help Steph, Steph and her friends go to great lengths to protect CheshireCat. The book also intelligently avoids a too-tidy ending. Teens don't reach some magical resolution where all their problems are solved: they take care of one thing and then move on the next thing and that turns into a life. The ending of this novel shares that sensibility. Kritzer delivers the goods here and leaves us with a strong sense of anticipation for her next book.

 

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Another YA novel and a debut worth a look is Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (Amulet Books, April 2020, $18.99, hc). Ifueko is a Nigerian-American, and the book draws on a range of sources from Yoruba mythology to high fantasy to anime. One of the wonderful things about this novel is the way it inhabits all these worlds at once in defiance of easy categorization or compartmentalization; it makes the novel richer as a fantasy and simultaneously echoes our own untapped experience, especially for those of us immersed in a diversity of media.

Tarisai is the daughter of The Lady, her remote and mysterious mother, and a fairy that The Lady trapped into giving her three wishes. The third wish is physically embodied by Tarisai, who, when she comes of age, must go to the capital of the vast empire of Artisar, win the trust of the Crown Prince, and then murder him to fulfill her mother's long-laid plan. Tarisai is, of course, determined to escape this destiny, especially once she bonds with her found family. It's no particular spoiler to quote the line that "Only one thing is more powerful than a wish, and that is a purpose," and it gives an accurate flavor of the character's arc.

While the plot has some good turns and moments, the real joy of this book is the experience of the world that Ifueko has created. Because Tarisai has been raised in isolation in a magic castle, when she leaves it, everything in the twelve kingdoms is as new to her as it is to the reader. (It should be mentioned that this quality helps drive the narrative: Because everything is new to Tarisai, she also questions everything and pushes against many things her new companions take for granted.) The experience is heightened by Tarisai's unusual gift:

 

I could steal the story of almost anything: a comb, a spear, a person. I touched something and knew where it had been a moment before. I saw with their eyes, if they had eyes; sighed with their lungs; felt what their hearts had suffered. If I held on long enough, I could see a person's memories for months, even years.

 

This novel is filled with a constant sense of discovery, gloriously rendered in Ifueko's effervescent prose. It is a book best traveled slowly, lingered in, and savored.

 

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A nonfiction book that may be of interest to F&SF readers is the new study of Joanna Russ by Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press, August 2019, $22, tpb), part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series edited by Gary K. Wolfe. The series has been filled with excellent books, more than a dozen so far, many worthy of attention, but even among those, the Russ volume stands out.

Russ's early reputation as a writer and critic has deep ties to this magazine. She made her professional debut in our September 1959 issue when she was just twenty-two years old with "Nor Custom Stale," a far future fable about a "Forever House" that functions as a critique of 1950s style conformity. The magazine became the primary venue for her short fiction. Eight years later, in October 1967, she published her first book review column for F&SF, a role she continued in until 1980, and one that launched a new phase of her career as an essayist and, later, as a critical theorist. All of her work was informed by her groundbreaking engagement with feminist ideas.

Jones examines the entirety of Russ's writing carefully, thoughtfully, and thoroughly, with equal measures of warmth and sharp discernment. The book includes details about Russ's personal experience, but not in the manner of a literary life. This is a rigorous biography of Russ's mind. It charts the emergence of her thinking on feminism, fiction, and other issues; explores the way that thinking was expressed in every aspect of her writing; and demonstrates how that thinking evolved in response to her other experiences. Russ's beautiful, incandescent rage shines in these pages, but so does her capacity for reflection, and her gift for seeing certain things deeper and with more clarity than her contemporaries. Her blind spots are examined just as closely, as are the tensions that eventually drove her to leave sf.

Every writer must dream of someday having a reader who reads their work the way Gwyneth Jones reads Joanna Russ. This book is likely to appeal to a very narrow audience already familiar with Russ. But anyone who returns to her writing after this book will do so with new insights and appreciation.

 

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Some of the most interesting fantasy and science fiction being created right now appears in the form of graphic novels. Two in particular deserve a quick mention.

Even if you don't follow comics, you may have heard of Monstress, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda. In the past three years, the series has collected five Eisner Awards, four Hugo Awards, two British Fantasy Awards, and a Harvey. The story is an epic fantasy inspired by early twentieth-century Asia, in which magical creatures called Arcanics and an order of sorceresses called the Cumaea have been at war. The main character is Maika Halfwolf, a young Arcanic woman who can pass as human. She has a severed arm that houses a demon, a quest for vengeance, and a host of enemies. The story features matriarchal cultures and deep friendships between women, and it engages with themes of violence, slavery, colonization, and dehumanization. Takeda's manga-inspired artwork is visually stunning, adding texture and depth to the world of the story, while Liu's characters are layered, flawed, and compellingly complex.

Monstress Volume Four: The Chosen (Image Comics, October 2019, $16.99, tpb) builds to a climax that balances small, personal choices with the scale of war and worse. One of the best things about all of Monstress, and the new volume in particular, is the relationship between Kippa, an Arcanic fox girl saved from slavery, and Maika, her savior. As Maika is consumed by darkness and her demon's hunger, Kippa remains clear-sighted, ever hopeful. When Maika turns on one of their companions, accusing him of betrayal, it's Kippa who stops her: "I can't abandon people because they make mistakes," Kippa says in explanation. "I would have to abandon myself." The story is dark because the world is dark, but it is never without light.

Fans of the comic eagerly await each new issue, but the collected editions are a better route for new readers, both because of the story's epic scale and because of the unique way it creates its own narrative space somewhere between Western storytelling traditions and manga influences. The best way to experience this story is to dive in, head first, and read your way through Volume Four.

Farmhand, written and illustrated by Rob Guillory, is a story about biotechnology, family, and faith. Zeke moves back to Freetown, Louisiana, with his wife and children, where his estranged father Jedediah is an organ farmer. Jedediah has discovered a seed that produces "stem" cells that can grow any kind of limb or organ. People come from all over to get miracle "transplants." Of course, everything is not as it seems, and Jedediah's high-tech farm is beset by corporate spies and other problems.

The story contains generous portions of humor and horror, and Guillory's exaggerated, cartoon-influenced art style makes it clear that we're not to take the science fiction elements as serious speculation. But we are meant to take seriously the ethical issues. The tremendous benefits that come from the Jedediah Seed have to be balanced against the costs. All of this takes place against a backdrop of emotionally damaged people who are variously struggling toward healing, helping others, and their own selfish goals.

The series debuted in 2018, and so far there have been two "seasons" with two collected volumes. The new one, Farmhand Volume 2: Thorne in the Flesh (Image Comics, September 2019, $16.99, tpb), explores the unintended consequences of the transplant technology, both in those who've willingly taken it and those affected by environmental contamination. The story's conscience is provided by Zeke's godfather, Pastor Moore, who simultaneously accepts people and situations as he finds them while endeavoring to alleviate the suffering he sees. Farmhand is not an accurate picture of future biotechnology, but it is a roadmap to all the issues that future technology will force us to face, played out on a personal scale, and in that way it represents the best tradition of science fiction.

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