ALL THE HORSES OF ICELAND by Sarah Tolmie

“… Fans of rich historical fiction, sumptuous prose, and the alluringly magical wonder of legend will eat up this short, transformative story. Tolmie takes the academic and renders a long-dead past into a timeless, vividly painted portrait of cultural exchanges, and the history-altering possibilities they can provide to the adaptable among us.”

Read my entire review of All the Horses of Iceland HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Tordotcom Publishing – March 2022 – Paperback – 112 pp.

RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP: THE MILITARIZATION OF AMERICA’S POLICE FORCE by Radley Balko

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Force
By Radley Balko
PublicAffairs — 2014
ISBN: 9781541774537
— Paperback — 528 pp.


This is a title that went onto my to-read list when it first came out, but it took years and a happenstance coming across the book at Burning Books to get a copy, and then awhile of it sitting in a pile before deciding I really needed to get into it. Despite those 8-or-so years, the relevance of the title has hardly diminished, becoming perhaps more important, focusing on issues that are germane to front page headlines in today’s New York Times.

The title of Balko’s books is somewhat incomplete. Thought he militarization of civilian police serves as a major focus of the book, it’s more broadly a history of, and commentary on the third and fourth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America. For those who don’t remember the particulars of this part of the Bill of Rights, these are:

Amendment III: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Balko begins by discussing the colonial and revolutionary context of these amendments, with emphasis on the third that seems so irrelevant to us today at the surface level. He discusses how the amendments both relate to the common law Castle doctrine, and explains why these were considered so fundamentally important both then at the time of the writing of the Constitution, and now.

He then traces the concept of civilian policing through history, quickly getting to its use in the United States and focusing in a series of chapters on the decades from the 1960s to the 2000s. The starting point of the 1960s corresponds to the political introduction of the “War on Drugs” to the nation, as well as violent events that led to the development of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.

The tie-in of targeted amplification of drug prosecution (particularly minor offenses that have no victims) and SWAT (increased militarization of policing) corresponds to the gradual, systematic erosion of civil liberties related to the Castle doctrine and the pair of Constitutional amendments. With mind-boggling and frightening implication, Balko relates how systems of policing have violated, or circumvented, protections against individuals in their homes, degraded the supposed protections supplied by warrants. Worse, politics have instituted a system whereby police departments are perversely rewarded for feeing this self-perpetuating machine of terror, and have even been penalized for actual fighting of crime with results.

The most obvious injustice that Balko brings up with anecdote again, and again (showing it is an acute symptom of societal, or institutional, disease) is the no-knock warrant that became created and justified to allow police to enter private residences with no warning, with impunity, violence, and little oversight or consequences for their actions. All that was needed became a the mere suspicion that drugs may be present, and that warning of entry to the home could, maybe, result in drugs being disposed of.

Balko shows how often this has been abused with horrendous consequences due to ignorance and errors. Misidentified homes, wrong addresses, poor or dishonest informants and intelligence, etc. I lost count of how many innocent people’s lives ended because their home was suddenly invaded by dark-clad paramilitary forces. And nothing would change, it would only increase.

Alongside this, Balko also addresses how police SWAT teams became increasingly used for situations where they were not required – for example, peaceful protests. Or police departments in areas of the country with no record of violent crime for over a hundred years got themselves a SWAT team and battle tanks. Simply because the money was made available, and this is America.

What may astound many readers of this is how pervasively the political will for this extended through the decades and broadly across party lines. Conservatives who introduced ideas for being tougher on crime were later stunned that their misguided legislation had grown beyond intent, misused to now not target criminals, but attack civil liberties. They recanted, and regretted their initial ideas. But it is too late. Liberals who fought for the rights of poor people don’t want to be painted as being soft on crime. So they support/introduce bills to increase funding or giving authority to police. And it comes back to bite them.

Sadly, the failure of the Supreme Court through the decades in protecting the Constitution equally becomes clear. And, it makes one realize that the recent erosions of Constitutional protection (and future that this current court is likely to take) is not that atypical.

The NYT article I mentioned earlier is actually about how President Biden is issuing an executive order in response to what occurred to George Floyd (and the many, many other similar travesties of justice. This order demands reductions in police use of the ‘choke-hold’ and reductions in the use of ‘no-knock’ warrants. Ironically, Balko reveals that one of the biggest political names in the past decades who has personally driven legislation leading to increased police abuses like the above was Senator Joe Biden.

The birth of SWAT and police excesses were ultimately born from fear of maintaining control of a population that could arm itself with weapons and armor that an ordinary citizen could not take on. Recent events remind us that continued access to such weapons and bodily armor by the general population will only further fuel the fear and the arguments in some eyes that police should do more to protect, and that civil rights should be sacrificed. Balko’s text reminds us just how vigilant we need to be, and perhaps even work more directed and effectively towards reversing the general trends of our democracy.


SLIPPING by Mohamed Kheir (Translated by Robin Moger)

Slipping
By Mohamed Kheir
(Translated by Robin Moger)
Two Lines Press — June 2021
ISBN: 9781949641165
— Paperback — 260 pp.


Struggling journalist Seif decides to pursue a risky, but intoxicating story: a fresh exploration of Egypt that penetrates into the mystical and arcane realms that exist alongside the mundane, echoes from the past and hopeful susurrations of the future, scenes unnoticed and unfurling outside time. He partners with Bahr, an older man who has recently returned to the nation from exile, and carries within him expertise on the location and properties of these ethereal corners of the ancient land, urban and rural.

Along the journey Seif discovers insights into his past: unexpected connections between their fragmented discoveries and his own tumultuous experiences, between the characters they meet and people who have shaped his own life. Most notable is his former girlfriend Alya, a radiant woman with an otherworldly talent for song who disappeared from his life amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, and its revolutionary potential.

Slipping is an apt English title for Kheir’s novel. He constructs it with a fragmented architecture that mimics the parties and voices within the Egyptian state. The characters fluidly slip through time and space, dry reality and seemingly magical realms, memory and aspirations, in fractured revelatory moments. As Kheir steps around the investigatory tourism of Seif and Bahr, he intermixes chapters of other characters in unresolved flashes, people who turn out to be connected to a spot where the pair eventually visit (or visited). By the end all the loose threads and haziness clarify into coherent interconnected fabric of existence. Again, like a national identity composed of individual souls.

This architecture makes Slipping a bit of a challenging read. It’s a novel that’s short enough to easily be worth rereading, and seeing how things are constructed after already knowing how they all fit together. The challenge of Slipping also exists in its nature of magical realism. While technically qualifying as fantasy for some, it’s not always clear what is real, what is imaginary, what is symbolic, etc. But, in the end, I’m not sure if that matters much. Only in the sense that it gives the novel a very surreal kind of feel that celebrates uncertainty and even a bit of confusion.

Kheir (and Moger) temper the relatively heavy demands of following the plot and characters of Slipping by placing a huge portion of its artistic and entertainment value in the melody of its phrases and the richness of its atmosphere. The mysterious vocal talents of Seif’s girlfrind Alya are in part a personification of the musicality of the language in Slipping, a celebration of a culture and a nation though words. Not only written, but in their sound. Many parts of Slipping are outright poetic, demanding not just to be read, but heard. Performed.

This became particularly obvious to me when I had the opportunity to attend a remote online session organized by the publisher of the English translation here in the US, Two Lines Press [It may have also been sponsored by a book store, if memory serves. It’s been awhile now, at the height of the pandemic, so I can’t recall exactly, apologies.] The event featured a discussion between author Kheir and translator Moger, an enlightening bit of insight into the magic that went into making this text available to English language speakers here.

As part of that event, Kheir read a short section in the original Arabic. I cannot speak or decipher Arabic (though some of my current research students are now teaching me a bit :D) But, my goodness was it a beautiful passage to listen to. I followed along with Moger’s translation within my copy of the book. Like when listening to music with no words or lyrics I can’t decipher (hi early REM and Michael Stipe) the sound of the Arabic conveyed the mood, the emotion, set by the text exactly. Not telepathic, it was empathic. Robin Moger then also read from his translation and spoke a bit about the choices he made when working on being faithful to the text and its musicality.

Even without that event, Slipping is a testament to the power and preciousness of literature in translation. Though a challenging novel in many ways, it is easily emotionally resonant. Anyone who is in particular a fan of magical realism would also want to look into this, a gift to unwrap from the complexities of modern Egypt.


LIFE SCIENCES by Joy Sorman (Translated by Lara Vergnaud)

Life Sciences
By Joy Sorman
(Translated by Lara Vergnaud)
Restless Books — October 2021
ISBN: 9781632062956
— Paperback — 272 pp.


On the surface level, Life Sciences is about an individual’s response to inexplicable chronic disease within a modern society that can provide no relief or healing. Seventeen-year-old Ninon Moise wakes one day to discover the skin of her arms burning in pain at the slightest touch. Her doctors are at a loss for how this has come about, they wonder if perhaps she is just even making it up. Or perhaps there is no physical cause to it, but an issue of psychology, a trick of the mind and self perceptions of pain?

The onset and unique specificity of symptoms doesn’t surprise her, she’s expected their arrival, only uncertain in the precise form they’d manifest. Her mother Esther was similarly struck with achromatopsia at a young age, an inability to see colors any longer, with no discernable cause or deficiency behind its revelation. Back through the family line, to the earliest recordings in the Middle Ages, women in their family have been stricken with seemingly random disease. A curse. Or a perverse female birthright claimed.

It’s therefore time for her daughter to stand out, and it’s as though that distinctiveness can only be revealed through her genes, as though uniqueness can only be expressed by a cell line, as though the force of a person’s existence is reabsorbed whole by the transmission of genetic characteristics hoped to be rare and mysterious, as though that force can’t be incarnated, for example, by an act…

Ninon’s physical discomfort, and the complications the condition manifests for her daily activities – like high school – quickly turn her mind from seeing the disease naively as a rite of passage, membership and individuality attained within her family. She rebels against acceptance and accommodation, seeking answers from medicine, and treatment, starting with basic identification of what afflicts her, for “… a sickness without a name isn’t a disease, it’s just shapeless suffering.” The awful chasm of fearful uncertainty becomes alleviated when professionals diagnose her condition: dynamic tactile allodynia.

…what a marvelous, beautiful trio of words! wonderfully pompous and complicated, three words when just one would have sufficed, three words that roll off the tongue, and with the diagnosis pronounced, Ninon could almost dance for joy, she’s finally been deemed sick and therefore innocent, absolved of all suspicion, what a relief to know you have something rather than nothing.

The joy from that first step of answers rapidly vanishes as she realizes the doctors have no clue what to do about this monster they have given a name. They throw any treatment they can think of towards her body. And when that fails, her mind. With modern medicine failing at every turn, she turns to traditional, folk practices. But still the pain in her arms continue with the barest brush of touch. Is it perhaps lessening with time? Or is that just her becoming habituated to the pain?

Sorman’s novel thereby works at this basic level as a fascinating study of an individual human body falling prey to biology that we still do not precisely understand. For as far as we may have come from hundreds of years ago, our science sometimes still fails to provide answers or healing, giving less than even religions or faith may have given to Ninon’s female ancestors through the earlier ages.

Sorman’s language, beautifully translated in flowing prose by Lara Vergnaud, spectacularly conveys the feelings of pain and helplessness, of despair that can happen amid inexplicable disease or disorder. It’s something relatable for any feeling human who has felt desperation for finding answers to one’s health, even if one doesn’t have to live with a chronic condition.

At the metaphorical level, the novel becomes something even more, symbolizing the cultural and societal treatment of women through the ages in the form of these inherited diseases. The women through the ages in her family suffer, and they are asked to just simply bare it. There is no fixing it. There is no reason why. It simply is.

…Ninon thinks that she’d have liked to be a boy but doesn’t mention it, not wanting to upset her mother. And ultimately it’s on that day, when she learns that the men of the family were touched by disgrace too, that she realizes the scope of the curse, that of being born a girl: hormonal chance, genetic injustice.

The disease biology and feminist readings of the novel are not mutually exclusive either, as medicine still routinely ignores issues of female health, of female-specific biology over the male standard. This is evident from issues of reproductive rights, to remaining uncertainties of the hormonal complexities during female development (youth to beyond menopause) and their varied effects on the female body, something society has wanted to simplify and control, not really understand or let flourish. A scene later in the novel where Ninon goes to see a more holistic healer reiterates this traditional view of women being equivalent to a body, to skin:

I am a body above all else, solemnly repeats Dr. Kilfe, I am a body above all else, and nothing pleases ninon more than this affirmation, I am skin above all else, adds the psychiatrist, I am made of all the sensations that emerge on the surface of the body, the surface of the consciousness is homothetic to that of the body, they have the same surface area, the same reach, the mind isn’t buried in the folds and twists of the brain, it appears on the surface, sensitive to wind and sun, to caresses and blows.

Life Sciences is a powerful and artistic novel, pulsing with the life of language, not just human biology and feminism. The first half of the book, and its close are phenomenal, but my one critique would be that most of the second half starts to feel repetitive and needless. Nonetheless, it is a quick, satisfying read and doesn’t feel insurmountably bloated at all.

For those who enjoy the themes of this novel and want something similar – or in a shorter dose, I’d recommend Sarah Tolmie’s short stories in her collection Disease. Tolmie goes more toward the side of absurd comedy, but the general themes are very comparable to those in Life Sciences.


NOVA HELLAS: STORIES FROM FUTURE GREECE edited by Francesca T. Barbini & Francesco Verso

Nova Hellas: Stories From Future Greece
Edited by Francesca T. Barbini & Francesco Verso
Luna Press Publishing — March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387389
— Paperback — 152 pp.


CONTENTS:

Introduction by Dimitra Nikolaidou

“Roseweed” by Vasso Christou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Social Engineering” by Kostas Charitos (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“The Human(c)ity of Athens” by Ionna Bourazopoulou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Baghdad Square” by Michalis Monolios (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“The Bee Problem” by Yiannis Papadopoulos & Stamatis Stamatopoulos (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“T2” by Kelly Theodorakopoulou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Those We Serve” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

“Abacos” by Lina Theodorou (Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou & Vaya Pseftaki)

“Any Old Disease” by Dimitra Nikolaidou

“Android Whores Can’t Cry” by Natalia Theodoridou

“The Colour that Defines Me” by Stamatis Stamatopoulos (Translated by Stephanie Polakis)

I’d originally meant to review this anthology of Greek science fiction for Speculative Fiction in Translation. However, I became delayed in writing the review and Rachel Cordasco got her own review of it posted onto her site in the meantime. I agree wholeheartedly with her general praise for Nova Hellas, but I had different personal favorites from it. Her review is definitely still worth checking out for comparison.

The collection starts strongly, with a pair of my favorites. “Roseweed” is set in a post-climate change dystopia where divers and engineers explore the lower floors of partially submerged buildings for structural integrity. They are hired as part of a plan to turn these spots into ‘escape rooms’ for rich tourists looking for the thrill of visiting abandoned locations filled with the allure of danger and risk among the decay. The story highlights one of the repeating themes of the anthology: that amid disheartening futures, people find ways to go on and live amid the changes. Even when it is still the rich that are carelessly exploiting environments and the classes beneath them, regular people find some semblance of optimism amid those challenges or frustrations.

The story that follows, “Social Engineering” likewise does a great job establishing one of the unifying features to the anthology, the merging of the Classical Greece with the Modern and the Future. This short story literally overlays the periods in an Athens that is cloaked within artificial, or ‘augmented’ realities. The protagonist of the story has been hired to influence an upcoming city referendum, and the plot delves into how engineering at the level of physical urban planning but also through directed social interaction may create more issues than solutions.

Those themes of society hidden underneath veneers or layers, and the interplay between the architectural hardware of a place (with its loaded history) and the individuals who fit into that system like cogs comes up again in different ways in “The Human(c)ity of Athens”, and then another artificial reality in “Baghdad City”. Interestingly – and I assume intentionally – that specific portmanteau of ‘humancity’ appears in a later story of the anthology as well (T2, if I recall), striking alternate tones to the same theme(s).

Like Rachel, I enjoyed the classic science fiction vibes of “Those We Serve”, with its artificial intelligences that have ‘replaced’ human counterparts, and the mystery of “Any Old Disease” that called to mind questions of what we consider biological versus not. “The Bee Problem” similarly evokes thoughts on the intersections between the biological and the artificial when the performance of drones becomes affected by a return of native bee populations.

Very short, “Abacos” had a transcript format that I didn’t really enjoy, though it is certainly well composed as that. It shares with “Android Whores Can’t Cry” an element of trying to reconstruct a past, the truth, from recording, which is interesting. I remain uncertain over that last story, probably the most challenging in the anthology, and needing a reread.

The story that closes out Nova Hellas was another of my top favorites. “The Colour That Defines You” occurs in a future world where some unexplained event has caused humans to no longer see colors. In general, people are left only seeing shades of gray from black to white… except for one specific color that is unique to each and every person. Pure happenstance leads some to discover the identity of that one color their brain can process. Others haven’t yet found it. Through the story we follow the threads of several intersecting characters and how this unique situation ends up defining their existence. What if the only color one could perceive was that of fresh, scarlet, blood? The set up for this is pure MacGuffin, but Stamatopoulos takes the literal plot, as well as its symbolisms in fascinating directions.

I can’t say as I’ve ever read science fiction – or even any fiction – from Greece before, but I’m glad to have had this opportunity to discover new authors and see their visions of common, but varied, themes in the genre. A huge amount of thanks to Luna Press Publishing for making works such as this available, and as always to my friend and partner in crime Rachel Cordasco of SF in Translation for helping to spread the word. [For legal reasons, Rachel and Daniel do no actually engage in criminal enterprise.]


REVENANT by Alex White

Revenant
(Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
By Alex White
Gallery Books — December 2021
ISBN: 9781982160821
— Paperback — 320 pp.


Along with re-reading/continuing with the Star Trek novel series from their starts, I restarted getting the newest releases to read as well. They’ve certainly improved a lot, on average, but I felt a bit frustrated that so many were from the original series cast, or its reboot. Where was the greatest Trek of all time? Where was Deep Space Nine? With the novels in disarray due to Picard upending canon, I was even more disappointed. Finally, after more than a decade (?) a DS9 novel appeared on the scheduled horizon. Revenant is fantastic, and I can only hope that more DS9 books will arrive to come, whether set during the timeline of the TV show as this novel is, or tweaked to mesh with the new canon.

Alex White’s Revenant is set near the start of DS9‘s fourth season, after “The Way of the Warrior” and prior to “Indiscretion”. A longtime friend of the Dax symbiote arrives on the station to beg Jadzia Dax’s help in guiding his rebellious granddaughter Nemi, who has turned from family and friends after being twice rejected by the Trill Symbiosis Commission for joining. Jadzia had served as a mentor, and a ‘big sister’ role model for Nemi, and decides to take a vacation leave from the station to go find the young woman who she has regrettably let drift away from her busy life in Starfleet. Jadzia is shocked that the Nemi she finds has changed even more than Nemi’s grandfather had realized. With horror, Jadzia learns that Nemi harbors an unauthorized symbiote. Her investigation into this meets resistance from Trill officials, and puts her life in danger by poking at a hornet’s nest of bureaucratic secrets and a threat from Dax’s own unclear past.

Revenant is a novel that will only really work for fans of DS9 who retain familiarity with the show, particularly how Trill society works and Dax’s past hosts. White returns here to the plot of Dax’s suppressed memories of a psychopathic host named Joran who committed murders, a history that the Symbiosis Commission knowingly tried to cover up and hide, even to the danger of Dax’s life. What has occurred to Nemi forces Jadzia to further face memories of Joran, as well as aspects of Curzon’s personality and choices that sit badly with her.

With this, White does something really important for DS9 and Dax’s character, confronting the problematic aspects of Curzon as a selfish, lecherous man who used power, and his weakness, to harass. The novel also provides more ‘humanity’ to Joran’s character, rationale for his acts of murders, and an answer to what happened to him. While that first really well into the plot of novel, and makes the story engaging, it does change how Joran’s personality is depicted within the TV series. Though still monstrous and disturbed, readers (and Jadzia) feel a great deal more sympathy for him. This also twists this thread out of canon alignment with later points in the TV series (such as Ezri’s grappling with previous host Joran.) But, given that such changes to ‘canon’ and logic happen all the time even within the TV show itself (just look at the introduction of the Trill in The Next Generation to what they are in DS9,) I hardly mind.

The other interesting aspect of Revenant is its inclusion of other DS9 crew members. Jadzia starts out on her own, but soon enlists the help of Kira. With Kira featured along with Jadzia on the cover of the book, I expected this partnership to remain. However, Kira stays for only a bit before heading back to the station to tag-team swap with Bashir and Worf. White handles the Jadzia-Kira friendship very well, and it would have been nice for that to be explored in more depth, particularly on that Kira side of things.

Again, I can’t complain about this too much, because the inclusion of Worf is one of the best aspects of Revenant. The relationship and marriage of Jadzia Dax and Worf did make sense (far more than any Troi-Worf relationship,) but I don’t recall the TV series spending too much time on the two characters getting to discover one another. White uses this Jadzia-centric novel as an opportunity to show just how she and Worf move past assumptions to a friendship, respect, and attraction. It’s not a plot thread I ever thought about wanting to see more of, but reading it here made me realize how great it can be when handled as well as White does.

In the acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Alex White asks that readers get their other books as well, and I’m now going to have to do this. I don’t recall reading their work before, but I am very impressed with Revenant‘s style, architecture, and characterization. I didn’t want to go much into the plot development, as I think that works better for readers to discover fresh. But, White handles the pacing and ultimate conclusion of the novel very well, even including a bit of technological science fiction that is more fitting than the usual techno-babble solutions that magically save the day in typical Trek.

CBS/Gallery Books, give White more Star Trek to write, and please – enough with the early periods of Trek, give us some more DS9.


TOUGH TENDER by Max Allan Collins

Tough Tender
(Hard Case Crime Series #153; Nolan Series #s 5 – 6)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 15th March 2022
ISBN: 9781789091434
— Paperback — 346 pp.


The reprints of Collins’ Nolan series continue from Hard Case Crime, with another two-for-one packaging featuring the ‘retired’ titular thief and his young heist partner Jon. The series has had a complicated publication history, often out-of-print and relatively difficult to track down. This volume collects the fifth and sixth novels in the series, first published in 1982, Hard Cash and Scratch Fever. Even more-so than previous double collections from HCC, these two novels fit exceptionally well together, linked by a ruthless femme fatale antagonist. Tough Tender simply reads like one complete story in two acts.

The set up for these episodes in Nolan and Jon’s lives follows a standard format, also frequently used in the Quarry series: The criminal protagonist is trying to live a retired life, but previous deeds pull them back in. Usually what brings them back to crime is either the prospect of a really big paycheck, or someone coming out of the woodwork to kill them. The first part of Tough Tender, Hard Cash, offers a slightly different tactic: blackmail.

An executive at a bank that Nolan and Jon robbed previously in the series shows up at Nolan’s restaurant with an offer for another heist, this time with inside cooperation. Nolan wants no part in the risks or the executives eager ignorance. Facing the choice of either going along to hear more about the executives plans or killing him to prevent him from turning Nolan in, Nolan opts for restraint, taking Jon for a meeting to hear more about the heist plan, and the executive’s threats. There, they learn that the real drive and brains behind this plan is a sultry and dangerous woman name Julie, who has the married executive wrapped around her finger in adultery. Still not liking any bit of being ‘forced’ into a heist, Nolan and Jon choose to proceed, cautiously, expecting a double-cross.

In Scratch Fever, the second half of Tough Tender, Jon has returned to his life of comics and rock and roll, while Nolan is back at his restaurant/motel. As Jon’s band performs in a local backwoods music venue, he is shocked to see femme fatale Julie among the audience, a woman that he and Nolan thought was dead. Even worse, her deadly regard notices him. Jon manages to get a message of warning to Nolan, but not without also become captured by the jaded girlfriend of one of Jon’s old flames, a confused girl who has become ensnared by Julie’s destructive sexual allure.

Of the two components, Scratch Fever works best, offering a more unique scenario within the series than Hard Cash and focusing equally on Jon as on Nolan, in alternating chapters. Hard Cash also suffers from poorly inserting the Comfort family series antagonists into the plot. Though Jon shot the Comfort patriarch in the previous entry to the series, the old coot managed to survive, and is off with one son to get revenge on the guys who stole from them. The plot line only becomes possible due to a stupid slip up by Nolan and Jon in the previous novel, and Collins’ “oh, he actually wasn’t really dead!” ploy. This would be forgivable, but the Comfort plot in here really goes nowhere, with an evaporating resolution by mere chance as this B plot intersects with the main heist plot.

The other aspect that reads off in these novels would be Nolan and Jon’s automatic reaction to Julie (from first meeting) as “that bitch”. There’s a harshness to Nolan in particular that does not play well at all, particularly in 2022. Similarly, Jon’s relationship with the lesbian girlfriend who kidnaps him in Scratch Fever plays out in an unbelievable way that in today’s age would have to be depicted more delicately and realistically.

Then again, these were written in the 1970s – published in the early 1980s – and they are noir pulp. So readers who go for this fare shouldn’t be entirely surprised or put off even when things run counter to contemporary sensibilities or reader beliefs. The fact is that Tough Tender serves as a solid continuation to the Nolan series. Still not as refined or engaging as the Quarry novels, but essential for fans of Collins’ neo-noir and the HCC label.


A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace
(Teixcalaan #2)
By Arkady Martine
Tor Books — March 2021
ISBN: 9781250186461
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


I considered A Memory Called Empire, the first book in Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, to be among my top reads in 2019, if not the best. Along with reviewing it on Skiffy & Fanty, I also went out of my way to recommend it to as many people I could that might read science fiction. At least two got back to me after the fact to thank me, explaining they really enjoyed it as well. The novel subsequently deservedly won the Hugo Award. If this recent space opera series from Tor hasn’t been on your radar, or if it’s languished in your TBR pile, I encourage you to pick it up tout de suite.

Martine followed up that stunning debut with A Desolation Called Peace last year, a novel that is every bit as engaging and successful as its predecessor. It enriches the series with continued exploration of politics and culture at the level of individuals and empire, and then further dives into speculations of a first contact scenario. Though this novel offers a satisfying closure to the series as a duology, it clearly could be expanded into more volumes featuring its ‘universe’. I fervently hope that this would be the case, particularly if Martine uses such an expansion to tackle other classical themes of space opera that she hasn’t touched yet, or uses it to explore completely novel themes that the genre might allow.

A Desolation Called Peace picks up mere months after the conclusion of the first volume. Teixcalaanli Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is dispatched to confront the alien armada that has appeared at the edges of known space. The aliens have destroyed a colony and she finds no way to effectively combat them or communicate with the mysterious beings. In a desperate attempt to break this impasse and the growing threat of destruction, Nine Hibiscus requests a first contact communication envoy from the Information Ministry, Three Seagrass. While secretly smuggling herself to the frontlines, Three Seagrass recruits the aid of Mahit Dzmare, the Lsel ambassador to the Empire, thereby saving her former associate, and friend, from the political fallout on Lsel Station from the events of the first novel. Together, the two forge an even stronger relationship, making contact with the aliens. With the help of Nine Hibiscus’s loyal adjutant Twenty Cicada, they unlock the first steps of comprehending their alien enemy and how to effectively communicate back with them. However, rebellion within the fleet (set in motion by elements in the Empire set on influencing young Emperor heir Eight Antidote) risk subverting the progress they make.

All of the rich examination of colonialism, culture, and individuality from the first novel carry on into the second. This specifically holds true within the realms of language and communication, which of course now aren’t just interrogated through the Teixcalaanli Empire – Colonized Lsel divide, but also with the mysterious aliens. These aliens are more ‘Other’ than the “Barbarian” people who exist outside the Empire, distinct not only in culture, but in biology and psychology. The aliens exist with a hive, shared consciousness that passes on through generations, without the individuality or concept of ‘death’ that humans would have. This concept is not remotely new to space opera, but Martine employs it in a fascinating way by contrasting it with the rest of the world building she established since the first book.

The main, and secondary, characters of A Desolation Called Peace are as splendidly drawn as in the first novel, and the further burgeoning relationship between Three Seagrass and Mahit is a pleasure to read and see develop. However, Twenty Cicada, notably shines as a bit of a break-out star in the novel. Martine gives him a captivating backstory and spiritual outlook that wonderfully sets him apart from so much of what drives the other characters we’ve met.

These are novels that I know I will happily return to and reread sometime in the years to come, but I also look forward to anything else Martine writes, in this Teixcalaan universe, or elsewhere.


ANNA by Sammy H.K. Smith

“… Anna is a tautly written dystopian thriller immerses readers in a brutal world of struggling for survival and personhood. It is not inspirational. It is a horrifying and brutal first-person account of traumatic abuse and finding a possibility of some freedom or power despite it…”

Read my entire debut review for Fantasy Book Critic of Anna HERE

Solaris (Rebellion Press) – May 2021 – Hardcover – 300 pp.

WINTER IN SOKCHO by Élisa Shua Dusapin (Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho
By Élisa Shua Dusapin
(Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Open Letter Books — April 2021
ISBN: 9781948830416
— Paperback — 160 pp.


Sokcho: A bustling warm-weather tourist destination of South Korean lakes and beaches. In the winter, Sokcho lies dormant, almost as quiet and isolated as the demilitarized zone that lies mere minutes away, separating life there from North Korea beyond. A young woman in her mid-twenties works at a guest house as a receptionist, having returned home to the town after her studies in Seoul. Her Korean mother works in a town fish market, and her French father is long gone. Though she has a boyfriend, she remains uncertain of his place in her life. Even more, she hasn’t quite figure out who she is, let alone who she should be.

The arrival of a curious guest disrupts the slow and detached days of the unnamed protagonist’s stagnant contemplation as she works reception. The guest is a middle-aged Frenchman named Yan Kerrand, a writer and illustrator of graphic novels who has sought out the cold, barren Sokcho and its environs for inspiration in finishing the final volume of his series. He feels lost of how his character’s story should proceed, and looks to the landscape and conversation for revelation.

The protagonist begins by speaking with him in hesitant English, uncertain to reveal that she is half French, and has learned the language at school, but transfixed by the window that Kerrand might supply to the unknown half of her cultural heritage. Kerrand asks her to serve as a guide of the town for him, explaining his desire to see the ‘real’ Korea, not the tourist trappings.

What follows is a growing friendship and non-sexual intimacy between the two, a discovery between two souls adrift, individuals riddled by doubts who are searching for connections and being seen. Both by others, and by themselves. Coupled to this humanity of characters is the exploration of the Korean landscape at that harsh, scar-like DMZ divide between South and North: two nations with shared heritages, but who have become separated too long to know one another. And as a result, also have lost some conception or understanding of themselves.

Winter in Sokcho is as sparse and desolate of a novel as its setting, but it is not nearly as cold. Dusapin’s writing (and Higgins’ translation) are brimming underneath the glacial, calm plot with powerful emotion, a building, suspenseful atmosphere that something will apocalyptically surge from these characters in a clarity of self-comprehension. Self appreciation is another theme. Both characters, each in their own way, suffer from deficits in self-appreciation and self-confidence. For Kerrand this most overtly exists in his struggles to find appropriate closure to his art, and acceptance that he will reach that based on past successes. For the protagonist it manifests in self-perceived body dysmorphia, her persistent feelings of repulsion to aspects of her physical form, even when realizing unwarranted cause for feeling so.

Though the character’s each come to personal revelations, not all is resolved, no more than the political divide between North and South of the Korean core heritage has resolved back into wholeness.

The strengths of Winter in Sokcho sit in the rich beauty of its language and atmosphere. Both the narrative passages and the dialogue resonate deeply and can be savored. Frequently, that richness tickles multiple senses with descriptions of food. I’ve struggled to come to some sort of conclusion or interpretation of why food figures so predominantly in the novel. How does that relate to the themes? I don’t have a good answer for myself, yet. But, at least on the level of structure the additions work beautifully to render detailed emotional, sense-inducing atmosphere to the novel.

Winter in Sokcho won the Swiss Prix Robert Walser, as well as the French Prix Régine-Deforges. Its translation into English by Higgins recently won the National Book Award for Translated Literature. This is not a novel for readers who demand exciting, intricately designed plots or explosive finales. However, if you enjoy literature of rich atmosphere and language, literature that is simple to read, but complex and evocative when digesting, then this novel is a book you should search out. Support publishers like Open Letter Books for helping bring amazing texts like this to the English-speaking world.