ARCHITECTS OF MEMORY by Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory
(The Memory War Book I)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — September 2020
ISBN: 9781250215475
— Paperback — 336 pp.


Indentured salvage pilot Ashlan Jackson has a new work family, and hopes of gaining citizenship now seem attainable. Saved from a mining colony owned by the Wellspring Celestium Holdings corporation where she had little chance of ever getting free from debt, Ash has been rescued by the captain of the Auroran Coporation salvage ship Twenty-Five. Taken on as pilot, Ash has a new chance at life, and the possibility of earning credits to rise from indenture. Despite being physically freed from the colony mines, Ash secretly lives with a terminal illness, one born from contact with the Celestium fuel that powers humanity’s space-flight engines. Citizenship will not only provide Ash freedom, but will give her access to the cure. But, her past on the Wellspring mining colony still haunt her, especially the memories of her dead fiancé Christopher, who perished before he and Ash could both escape.

Though her life remains full of hard indentured work, Ash sees the small steps forward, and has become relatively comfortable around her shipmates, who all trust one another with their lives amid the harshness of empty space and alien threats. Surprising herself, the closest relationship Ash has built is with the captain of the Twenty-Five, Kate Keller. Their mutual attraction and budding romance is something they each try to control and keep secret from the others, to ensure the corporate functioning of the ship remains professional, and their futures’ safe.

The great wrench in their possible futures (but also the tremendous opportunity before the crew of the Twenty-Five) comes from war with the Vai, the first and only aliens met by star-faring humanity. Conflict with the Vai has existed since first contact, and thus far humanity has lost again and again: a devastating destruction of ships, colonies, and millions of lives. Until, everything changes above the colony Tribulation, where the Vai engaged several human corporate ships in battle. Something has happened to cause the Vai to retreat beyond the interstellar boundary known as the White Line. A terrible weapon has been left behind that corporations are now after, ostensibly to help save humanity, but also to get that competitive edge. The crew of the Twenty-Five is first on the scene to scavenge Vai technology and try to find this awesome weapon that can lead to salvation or annihilation. There, at Tribulation, they try and unravel the mystery of what occurred to pause the alien threat. Ash finds answers with both personal repercussions and larger meaning for memory and the nature of life.

Osborne begins Architects of Memory like a blast of lively brass at the start of a Romantic symphony, dropping readers right into the action of this salvage scene and slowly introducing the world, plot background, and characters through Ash’s point-of-view. Along with Captain Keller, we soon meet fiery and loyal war veteran Natalie Chan and Leonard Downey, the engineer who has a thing for Natalie and uses his and irreverent humor as “Chief Executive of Snark” to help calm the others. Also on the Twenty-Five are: Dr. Reva Sharma, an Auroran citizen and physician whose high birthright status and accomplishments sharply contrast with her assignment to the grunt-work of the lowly Twenty-Five‘s crew; the ambitious Executive Officer Alison Ramsay, whose taciturn efficiency compliments Captain Keller’s gentler leadership.

Just as one is getting to know these characters and their histories, Osborne presents more revelations, deepening mysteries, and new quagmires for her protagonist Ash or supporting cast. The pages of Architects of Memory flow with a well-paced intensity balancing action with twisty plots, character betrayals, and moments of quiet resilience when all seems lost or over. The novel embodies space opera as if part of some epic saga, yet manages to do this within a constrained setting of time (days) and location. The reader witnesses struggles, heroism, and failures among this salvage crew, but it feels like a personal story of something much grander in scope. In other words, this is a novel about a handful of specific people, but Osborne makes that individual scale also symbolic for human-wide conflicts of corporate class structure and alien contact.

These humanity-scale themes are nothing new to SF, of course, but Osborne makes them fresh and entertaining at the personal level of character interaction. And, on the front of alien first contact, she writes some fascinating concepts regarding the nature of the Vai. I would write and say more, but I definitely want to avoid spoilers on this. With governments failing to maintain the high cost of space travel/colonization due to fewer immediate benefits (the pandemic has again shown how awful we are at preparing for longterm betterment), private companies have taken on the risks of space exploration to invest in the far-future rewards that will come. Two hundred years from now in the time of Architects of Memory, this practice has led to the indenture and cut-throat (literally perhaps) corporate competition that forms the fabric of human society and injustice. While Osborne doesn’t necessarily take this theme significantly astray from what other space opera SF has done, it seems as if it plays an even larger part in the sequel novel.

I adored the characters of Ash and Natalie, whose interactions and friendship/conflict form the bulk of the novel’s momentum. Osborne puts these two women not just through traumatic pasts, but continued challenges that eat away at the core of their identities and dreams. Yet, they each stay as honestly true to themselves and their ideals as one could ever expect, and fight against tremendous odds for the slim chance of continued survival or eventual victory. The so-called Golden Age of SF soap opera is notorious for having pretty awful representation of females. The men are shown in a better light, but still read as far less than believable humans. They do great things, but they also seem so poorly challenged. As others have also recently done, Osborne corrects things in two ways thus: the genders are treated more equally, and in many regards the gender does not even need to matter (such as clothes or occupation or relationships); all are written with strengths and weakness, and their victories are earned. As much as I loved the character of Ash, I loved Natalie even more. This may be because she and her past still remain dark and mysterious to the readers in many ways (compared to so much of Ash’s point of view). I’m excited to see that the next novel actually is with Natalie as protagonist.

There is only one criticism I would make of Architects of Memory; it comes from its compressed setting, but I was very willing to look past and forgive it amid the abundant things the novel excels at. So many important events occur offscreen (in the past) to have made the present that the novel explores. OK, I admit that’s kind of a dumb statement. Of course the background to a story’s plot has huge monumental events that shape the plot. But here there are some whose absence lessens that impact that plot threads, character relationships, could otherwise have. One instance is the broad close-knit relationship between the Twenty-Five‘s crew, often described by Ash as a family. Cracks and tensions that form in this family, betrayals that occur, happen before readers have gotten to fully see the degree of trust and friendship there. Ash at least relate how things were different, however. The more unfortunate example is the relationship between Keller and Ash. Ash’s love for Christopher, Kate, and herself form the emotional heart of the novel, and it would have been great to see more of her together with the Captain. To Osborne’s credit, she does try to solve this with hallucinations that are a side-effect of the Celestium sickness. I can’t honestly think how Osborne could have solved this without creating other problems, so maybe my criticism here is totally unwarranted. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that my one regret from reading Architects of Memory is that with other constraints it couldn’t explore that relationship between these two great characters more.

With its excellent pacing, compelling characters, and riveting plot, Architects of Memory is a novel that makes the reader want to enjoy the ride in one sitting, or as few as possible. Although it has a sequel, Engines of Oblivion is the intended end to the duology, to my knowledge. And, if you were inclined to just stop with the close of this one, Osborne does a fantastic job at wrapping the events of this episode up in a satisfying way, which makes further adventures possible and welcome, but not obligatory.

For any interested, excerpts from Architects of Memory are available to read on Tor.com and the Tor/Forge blog. I’ll be starting my copy of Engines of Oblivion in the next days and will have a review of that up here shortly after completing, and I also hope to have up an interview with author Karen Osborne on the two novels and her machinations for the future. Look for those then, and if you haven’t yet started with this one, what are you waiting for?


LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE #129 (February 2021) Edited by John Joseph Adams


The majority of the stories in this issue were average to good. Two of the three that stood above the rest are reprints: “Small and Bright” by Autumn Brown and “Sidewalks” by Maureen F. McHugh. The original other that I adored was “Me Two” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown.

“The Mathematics of Fairyland” by Phoebe Barton — You feel as if this doesn’t bode well as a start to the issue. So you stop reading and go onto the next story.

“Bulletproof Tattoos” by Paul Crenshaw — A reprint from an anthology themed around the concept of: If This Goes On. The story serves as a satire on gun violence and the lengths that people (or technology) might go to prevent it, without really solving the heart of the issue. Works for its purposes of making a validly good point with interesting speculation, but I found the satire a bit too heavy to really enjoy it as a story.

“Me Two” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown — A lovely short story about two souls who cannot be together, through a scifi twist. A young boy grows up realizing that every other day he wakes up as a girl on the opposite side of the world (and she switched with him). However the distance they each swap is more than just across one world. Beautiful take on connection and loss.

“Sidewalks” by Maureen F. McHugh — Reprint from an issue of Omni several years back, this fantastic story begins as the protagonist Dr. Gupta is given a psychiatric patient who seems to speak gibberish. Dr. Gupta soon discovers it is actually Old English, but what is her origin? The story unfolds almost like a mystery and is extremely satisfying.

“Church of Birds” by Micah Dean Hicks — Originally published in The Kenyan Review, this story comes inspired by the Grimm fairy tale “The Six Swans”. I’m not that well-read in fairy tales and while I’ve enjoyed some retellings or things done in their style, it’s not a sub-genre I gravitate toward. This does explore an interesting theme though around the repercussions that would come for a person who has been turned into some other form of animal, like a bird.

“The Memory of a Memory Is a Spirit” by A.T. Greenblatt — After leaving her island home, a caretaker returns to tend the overgrown environment and live again with the angry spirits she had abandoned. Although very straight-forward, it is beautifully written, and the themes/character are easy to empathize with or relate to.

“Small and Bright” by Autumn Brown — Reprint from Octavia’s Brood, a collection on my shelf that I really have to get around to reading. This tale of a post-disaster subterranean human civilization includes feminist themes around motherhood and discovery of hopeful new worlds. I found the biology in this of reproduction and symbiosis particularly interesting, but the beautiful language of it all, even when describing something horrendous, is just transcendent.

“Destinations of Beauty” by Alexander Weinstein — Part of a series of short stories written in the style of travel guides for exotic lands, this focuses on ones that – as the title indicates – feature beauty. Usually a beauty now lost or unappreciated amid noise or melancholy. I am not a personal fan of this kind of plotless story, but it does excel at evoking mood in the reader here.

The issue also features an excerpt of the novel Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, book reviews “On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu” by LaShawn M. Wanak, “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack” by Chris Kluwe, and “Latinx Screams, edited by V. Castro and Cynthia Pelayo” by Arley Sorg. Author spotlights by Audrey T. Williams, Benjamin C. Kinney, Elan Samuel, and Laurel Amberdine. Editorial by John Joseph Adams, plus Coming Attractions and other miscellany. Cover by Grandfailure.


THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION #753 (January/February 2021) Edited by C.C. Finlay


An overall solid issue to mark the final issue under the six-year editorial tenure of Charles Coleman (CC) Finlay. While I didn’t remotely dislike this last editorial era, there didn’t seem to be as many stories falling in as favorites for me as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction previously had. There are likely more stories purchased by Finlay still slated to appear in upcoming issues, but I am excited to see how this beloved genre outlet evolves under Sheree Renée Thomas. I also have liked Finlay’s fiction a lot in the past, so I’ll be please to see him return to more of it.

“The Dark Ride” by John Kessel — A blend of history, fiction, and SciFi Fantasy, this relates the assassination of President McKinley by the Anarchist Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo New York. Beside the historical narrative is an alternate version of events where Czolgosz travels to the moon and becomes a resistance leader against the oppressive.y ruling moon people. As the novella progresses, the two histories begin to blend together, highlighting the similarities of the social and political ideals that Czolgosz holds on the two worlds. And contrasting the failure that the assassination was in bringing larger change, compared to the hero he becomes on the moon. The SF moon world here is styled after the SF of the early 1900s when the story is set. Though it had some interesting aspects to it, those didn’t need a novella to be accomplished.

“Interludes with the Gunwright” by Jonathan L. Howard — One of my favorite stories in the issue, a touching tale of passions: of love between two characters, and a devotion to one’s chosen craft. A soldier visits a gunwright to secure new weapons, and without money instead leaves a valuable gun in her possession for study/reference as payment. The gunwright is pleased to see the soldier one day return alive, and the two find themselves craving time spent together in life despite their professions tied to destruction and violence.

“Bible Stories for Adults, No. 51: The Great Fish” by James Morrow — I have yet to enjoy or even appreciate any of the stories from this series by Morrow. For this one I gave up trying and stopped reading halfway.

“Integral Nothings” by Robert Reed — Though a series of vignettes, Reed relates how things on Earth have been altered by unknown, alien forces with a step-wise series of “Blessings” that appear to help preserve the planet and its populations. Each section focuses on one particular human representative point-of-view, but written with an omniscient, distant voice that playfully describes the human as the epitome of some trait (most intelligent, most wealthy, etc.) while contrasting that with an anecdote that shows how little and insignificant humans are in the scheme of the cosmos. They style works well to tell a story – whose heart is pretty familiar to the SF field – in a fresh, fun way.

“The Diamond Family Glitters” by H. Pueyo — The grandmother and matriarch of a family is dying. Each of her children and grandchildren has inherited some sort of unique supernatural ability, and they wonder whether that magic that helps keep them spiritually connected and unified will vanish with her passing. Well written and touching story of the symbolic magic that passes between generations and how that can be kept alive.

“A Little Knife Music” by Jenn Reese — Another powerful short story around the symbolism of weapons in this issue. This one explores the nature of using a dangerous gift or talent, and devotion to mentors and friends. An assassin gifted by the Goddess of Music with a deadly, cutting voice becomes conflicted when she is ordered to kill a friend. Superbly written.

“N-raptured” by Justin C. Key — Unseen aliens have converted racists on Earth into rats, and anyone who has used used the n-word has a tick mark scar appear suddenly on their forehead for each infraction as warning to not go too far like those turned. Six scar marks, and you become a rat. Those not so ‘raptured’ away have been left to carefully consider and watch their language and interactions, but Carl finds it hard, even though he only used the n-word when singing lyrics to a song. Well, and that one other time… But that doesn’t make him racist, right? Thought-provoking satire on race relations, language, perceptions, and the socially ingrained.

“Hard!” by Van Aaron Hughes — A SF story revolving around the sport of curling. The intro mentions how this is surely the best written of such stories (perhaps the only?) Nonetheless it is enjoyable, light-hearted fare featuring a warm father/son relationship. Makes sense to me that aliens would be a fan of curling.

“Litter Witch” by Susan Palwick — A lovely parable or fairy tale type story about resilience and strengthening over bullying. A young girl who dreams of being a witch is made fun of at school, but uses those injuries to build a home in the woods, to be in a place where years later another young girl arrives who needs some of that strength to survive.

“Wild Geese” by Lavie Tidhar — Nothing about the plot really engaged me with this story, but the far future cyberpunk and blend of cultures made for a fascinating atmosphere/setting that feels very real even within a short story, albeit mysterious. Tidhar also writes it with a flowing beauty. I wish there were more here in the terms of plot or even themes that I could have found to grasp onto. But it may also be one to reread.

“The Piper” by Karen Joy Fowler — A young man follows a friend in joining the army to fight for the King, but changes his mind about the decision after their departure and learning a possible other path. Relatively short (though not flash fiction length), it’s a good spin on familiar tropes (as the intro to the story promises).

“You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” by Paul Di Filippo — Published within the “Plumage from Pegasus” feature that Di Filippo writes each issue, this is still short fiction, so I find it odd that the feature is so rarely mentioned in other reviews that cover every other story. They are usually humorous and/or satirical and/or farcical and/or etc in tone. They’re rarely earth-shatteringly deep, but they are usually clever and entertaining. This one plays well with the seemingly ever-expanding “Best of…” collections in the genre and the fragmentary sub-genre niches of SFF.

The issue also features the poem “Annabel Digs Her Own Grave” by Gretchen Tessmer, book reviews by Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand, game reviews by Marc Laidlaw, film reviews by Karin Lowachee, and the science article “How Fast Are We Going?” by Jerry Oltion. With “Coming Attractions”, and “Curiosities” by Thomas Kaufsek. Cartoons by Ali Solomon, Arthur Masear, and Kendra Allenby; cover art by Kent Bash.


Humans and the Environment in Translation: New Event for the Calico Series from Two Lines Press

I’m always excited to see additional literature in translation, and this in particular caught my interest in its intersection with ecology and climate. I am lucky to be able to read this for review, so look for it in the future. But also I wanted to share the news, copied below from Two Lines Press releases, about an event that should be of interest to others holding a passion for translation. Follow the link below to learn more, including biographies on the three translators of this international eco-lit collection.

CELEBRATE ELEMENTAL

“Join Point Reyes Books and Two Lines Press on March 11 for a special event celebrating the release of Elemental with contributors Jessica Cohen, Allison Charette, and Brian Bergstrom. Moderated by Cristina Rodriguez. A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Madagascar, Iraq, Germany, and more, this latest installment of the Calico Series maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the environment. Featuring fiction and reportage from eight authors working in different languages, Elemental is an awesome collection that speaks of climate catastrophe, geological time, and mythology; it’s a global gathering of engaged, innovative eco-lit. Register for the event on Point Reyes Books event page, and don’t forget to buy a copy of the book while you’re there!”

THURSDAY, MARCH 11

5:30 PT | 6:30 MT | 7:30 CT | 8:30 ET

About Elemental

A family’s heirloom stones unearth a story spanning war, illness, and radioactivity. A pipeline installed to protect a town from flooding results in a howling that disturbs the town’s inhabitants. A political prisoner embarks on an epic flight toward freedom, literally blown like a kite in the wind.

A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Norway, Germany, Madagascar, Iraq, Poland, and Israel, this collection of fiction and reportage maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the natural world. Do we set the limits on our existence? Or is it wind, water, fire, and earth that define–even control–us? Borrowing from eco-literature and mythology, Elemental unflinchingly takes up the earth.

“Stone, earth, water, ice, wind, and burning heat. The stories here dig deep and unexpectedly into life’s fundamentals—the elements and the passions—bringing into English, many for the first time, writers of stature from across the globe. A celebration of both storytelling and translation, Elemental is essential, a gift that opens up the pleasures of new worlds.” —Hugh Raffles, author of The Book of Unconformities

About the Calico Series

The Calico Series, published biannually by Two Lines Press, captures vanguard works of translated literature in stylish, collectible editions. Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of our present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world today.

Humble Bundle Deal from Tachyon Publications for eBook Readers!

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HUMBLE BOOK BUNDLE: SUPERMASSIVE SCI-FI, FANTASY, & HORROR BY TACHYON

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Plus, you decide how much of your purchase will go to support two nonprofits:

Founded in 1999, The Carl Brandon Society‘s mission is to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.

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$441 WORTH OF AWESOME STUFF • PAY $1 OR MORE • DRM-FREE & MULTI-FORMAT

A CONTEST OF PRINCIPLES (STAR TREK) by Greg Cox

A Contest of Principles
(Star Trek: The Original Series)
By Greg Cox
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) — November 2020
ISBN: 9781982134709
— Paperback — 387 pp.


Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are ordered to the planet Vok, where the government there is holding its first democratic elections after a long period of authoritarian military rule. The Federation has been invited to watch over the elections as non-aligned observers, and ensure that the computer-based voting system proceeds without controversy or tampering. The outcome of the election will have broad repercussions for nearby systems as well. Vok has territorial eyes set on the planet Braco, viewed as their ancestral home. But the nearby planet of Ozalor also contests Braco as their own, and generations of animosity has now built up between the worlds. Adding to the eggshells that the crew of the Enterprise must step among, Ozalor maintains a fiercely isolationist policy, maintaining no diplomatic ties to the Federation, and keeping memory of last encounters turned hostile and deadly.

While Kirk visits Vok with Federation representatives to oversee the election, news of contagious disease outbreak on Braco draws Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel and a security guard to that nearby world via shuttle. It’s a trap! (Oh, sorry, that’s Star Wars) Ambushed upon arrival, Dr. McCoy is secreted off Braco by a majordomo to the royal family of Ozalor. The Princess of that planet is afflicted by a mysterious disease and McCoy has been kidnapped to help treat her. Spock meets up with Nurse Chapel and the security officer on Braco to investigate the doctor’s disappearance, but faces resistance from the controlling government there, who is eager to blame a political dissident group on their planet for the kidnapping. On Ozalor, McCoy tries to help his VIP patient,, despite the circumstances of his enlistment, but discovers himself then plunged into the machinations of the royal court.

The older mass-market paperback Star Trek novels stuck to the episodic format of the television series, with one major plot line and setting, plus a lighter, B side-plot somehow worked in. The newer novels have felt more expansive in scope, and A Contest of Principles continues that trend, with Enterprise crew members dealing with situations on not just one alien world, or two, but three. Each setting with its own cast of supporting characters and cultures.

Vok feels akin to present-day Earth, the US more specifically given our own recent election turmoils and polarizing partisanship. Braco bears resemblance to many other alien worlds of Star Trek where political differences have created a break-off group labelled terrorist, and the ruling factions thus increased the militarism of their police and security in response. Braco seems headed down that path of authoritarianism from which Vok is just now trying to move on from. However, whereas Vok directed the militarism externally to their enemies on Ozalor, Braco is now directing its militarism internally upon a population caught in the middle of the Vok-Ozalor feud, and thereby divided. With politics of a feudal monarchy, Ozalor feels the most different, almost like a culture from a fantasy novel. The healer/advisor to the court who is able to treat the Princess’ agony through seeming magic augments this fantasy vibe.

These three settings and the interconnected plot threads of each do work perfectly when writing Star Trek: The Original Series, because of the trio of characters that lead it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This has become the standard to the detriment of what stories could be done with a larger batch of the crew, or a different subset other than that expected trio. For the TV show, the actors playing those characters were the top-billed, indeed the only ones mentioned in the opening credits. But too often the media-tie in creations of Star Trek have then chosen to also just focus on those three.

I do get it, the charisma between the three are a large part of what made The Original Series work, made it beloved. They make a perfect trio, balanced and complimentary to buffer against the harshness or weakness that any of those individuals have on their own. Writers keep returning to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, because it’s a classic team and it works. But for these newer Star Trek books, I still hope for broadening beyond that easy, familiar setup of the primary three.

A Contest of Principles does put a bit of a spin on the trio in the sense that it is not putting them together to work off one another, but rather separating them and forcing them to manage as their pure, unadulterated selves, each unguided and untempered by their two friends. So while I may wish to see one of the secondary characters featured more than those three, again, at least we can see them manage on their own. On the other hand, Cox did the same recently with The Antares Maelstrom, and it could get old fast.

Cox does a great job writing each of the three leads, effectively capturing their voice and mannerisms. They act exactly as one would expect them to during the period in which the novel is set, the final year of the Enterprise’s original five-year mission under Kirk. They each are given a challenge and setting that most ideally plays off in opposition to their character traits as well. Kirk is a man of action, but is now placed in a role where he is to observe, severely limited in how much action he can take. Spock, of course a Vulcan of logic, is left to deal with a corrupt and illogical security force, and forced to turn to the arts of diplomacy that (at this point in his life at least) lie with his father Sarek, not he the scientist. McCoy is put up against a magician whose powers he can’t quite explain, to cure a disease that is not responding as his medical knowledge suggests it should.

Though this all may not then be particularly original, Cox writes it engagingly well. McCoy and Spock’s chapters I particularly found entertaining. Spock makes acquaintance with an animal/pet that is humorous and endearing. And, who doesn’t enjoy curmudgeon, but gold-hearted, McCoy chew some scenery? I’m less of a Kirk fan, but those who are will surely find familiar joy with his third of the story.

Thankfully this does work for the novel, as other parts of it succeed less well. The new characters are as one-dimensional as primary characters are able to be in media-tie in novels. The stakes can’t really be high for a crew we all know are going to be fine. But, those created just for this could contain greater depth. There isn’t much nuance to those on Braco or Ozalor, and they behave rather stereotypically. The characters on Vok do have far more nuance, to create intrigues of scandal and conspiracies, and something beyond clear-cut heroes/villains in the election. However, that gain becomes hampered by dialogue that can come across as corny. That issue of dialogue also represents the one negative that crept into the otherwise well-written Enterprise characters, with Kirk. I know Kirk has used the term ‘mister’ in his lines on the show (e.g. “you better think twice about that, mister!”) but when written it looks extra silly; Cox employs it often. The start of the novel went slower for me due to the dialogue writing of those secondary characters, but once more of the action started up I was able to get into the story and enjoy this as a decent Trek novel after all.

Recent Star Trek novels have also upped, or expanded, things in the theme department. A Contest of Principles, which takes its title from a quote regarding politics, of course is all about the themes of politics, comparing them across three unique situations/worlds. When I first read the summary of this regarding the elections and a pandemic disease outbreak I wondered how Cox managed to get things so right! The pandemic outbreak angle of course ends up being a lure for McCoy only, but the similarities between the recent US elections that were going on as this book was published in November are likely not coincidence. Many of course saw the capital riots coming – given they were announced and long-stirred-up, of course. I feel as though the situation on Vok wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly for realism, but nonetheless the look into politics there vis-a-vis our reality is a useful endeavor, as are those ‘contests of principles’ explored on the other two planets.

A Contest of Principles is going to work well for any fans of Star Trek, but it’s probably not one I’d strongly recommend for general readers who don’t care about the series. But for the fans of these stories and this crew, let’s just get some more of the other characters, please?


Online Book Launch: THE SECOND BELL by Gabriela Houston

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club and

Angry Robot Books Present:

An Evening with Gabriela Houston!

“Next Tuesday Mar 9th we release The Second Bell, the much-anticipated fantasy debut from Gabriela Houston, and we’re delighted to be partnering with London’s beloved Super Relaxed Fantasy Club for a FREE online launch event!

From 7pm GMT we’ll be livestreaming on Facebook and YouTube, as Gabriela joins us for a reading from The Second Bell, a chat with host Magnus Anderson about the book and her writing career, and an audience Q&A!”

SYNOPSIS

In a world which believes her to be a monster, a young striga fights to harness the power of her second heart, while her mother sacrifices everything to stop her…

In an isolated mountain community, sometimes a child is born with two hearts. This child is called a striga and is considered a demon who must be abandoned on the edge of the forest. The child’s mother must then decide to leave with her infant, or stay and try to forget.

Nineteen year-old striga, Salka, and her mother, Miriat, made the choice to leave and live a life of deprivation and squalor in an isolated village. The striga tribe share the human belief that to follow the impulses of their other hearts is dangerous, inviting unspoken horrors and bringing ruin onto them all.

Salka, a headstrong and independent young woman, finds herself in a life threatening situation that forces her to explore the depths of her true nature and test the bonds between mother and child…”

This dark fantasy is one that I’m not anticipating. View more information on this event invitation from Angry Robot Books.

The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston • Releases 9th March 2021 • PRE-ORDER

UNCANNY MAGAZINE #38 (January/February 2021) Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas


Since its inception I’ve been one of the Space Unicorns supporting Uncanny Magazine. Yet, among all the genre outlets, it is probably the one that I’m most divided on among typical story content. The type of story they feature sometimes works fantastically for me, but then other times falls flat; this is even with authors who are typical favorites. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it to explain the reasons behind those personal tastes, but just accept that Uncanny will feature an even split for me.

“Tyrannosaurus Hex” by Sam J. Miller — One of my two favorite stories in the issue. For me, Miller can take a story concept that I’m not all terribly excited about and still turn it into something engaging and interesting; this is a case in point. At a dinner, a young girl joins an even younger boy in virtual reality entertainment through their implants, while the adults obliviously chat. The girl quickly realizes something is not quite right, and very dangerous, with the program the boy is running. Namely the malware that has infected it. An interesting take on generational tech divides, shared digital experiences, and lazy parenting.

“A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard — You stopped reading this early in.

“Pathfinding!” by Nicole Kornher-Stace — A second story on children in simulations, with a director and individuals named with numbers, à la Stranger Things. Written in third-person present across 31 numbered sections, it felt long to me. I had no serious problems with it, but didn’t take to its themes or style particularly either.

“In That Place She Grows a Garden” by Del Sandeen — A reprint from a story I first read in Fiyah Magazine, from an issue themed around ‘hair’. A young African American girl is disciplined at school for failing to conform to discriminatory codes that ban traditional Black hairstyles. Despite their attempts to control her body, her head has other plans for what it will grow. Really adore this one, even a second time.

“Beyond the Doll Forest” by Marissa Lingen — My other favorite new story in the issue, again by an author I often enjoy. A nanny ponders her young charge who fears curses, the miniature forest that the girl has built in her playroom that seems to show small changes and fleeting glimpses of creatures, and the absent siblings the girl speaks of. A creepy fantasy of magic, illness symbolized, and the strength/powers of childhood imagination.

“Femme and Sundance” by Christopher Caldwell — Two men start a passionate relationship and plan a bank heist, utilizing charmed masks provided by a curandera one of them knows. Then starts a wild ride on the run with the money, but the magic of the masks still vibrating, and others in pursuit. A fun urban fantasy adventure.

“Distribution” by Paul Cornell — This one certainly fits within the ‘uncanny’ moniker. It’s filled with deep themes of human nature, memory, and social obligations, and it’s set within a vaguely post-disaster setting where fragments of rebuilding occur that hearken to the past, but amid continued near-future technology from our present. Mostly consisting as an interview conversation between two characters, I found it hard to get into and appreciate despite themes that usually resonate.

The issue also features editorials from the editors and “Imagining Futures: Where Our Works Go from Here” by Elsa Sjunneson; poems “Medusa Gets a Haircut” by Theodora Goss, “Kalevala, an untelling” by Lizy Simonen, “bargain | bin” by Ewen Ma, “What The Time Travellers Stole” by L.X. Beckett, and “Fish Out of Water” by Neil Gaiman; essays “Weird Plagues: How Fear of Disease Mutated into a Subgenre” by John Wiswell, “Milk Teeth” by Octavia Cade, “Hayao Miyazaki’s Lost Magic of Parenthood” by Aidan Moher, and “Trash Fantasias, or Why Mass Effect 3‘s Ending Was Bad Actually” by Katherine Cross; interviews of Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Paul Cornell by Caroline M. Yoachim; and thank you messages to Patreon supporters and Kickstarter backers.


CREATIVE SURGERY by Clelia Farris (Translated by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)

Creative Surgery
By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839
— Paperback — 172 pp.


Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.

The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.

Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.

“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.

Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.

“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.

“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.

Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.

I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.

Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.

The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.


January/February 2021 Short Fiction Roundup


Here is the first bimonthly roundup up my short fiction reviews from those markets that publish with a greater frequency than monthly or bimonthly. Right now that includes Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Abyss & Apex is another one I will feature, but given that it’s quarterly the January – April content will all just appear with the March/April post.

Given the number of stories, for these I’m only reviewing/mentioning the ones that I enjoy most. I may eventually review Fantasy Magazine fully as it is a more standard monthly publication. However, right now it’s so short, and half the content of the first two issues has fallen into the only two categories of things I absolutely don’t go for. So I’ve included it in this for the time being.

Many of these are available for free to discover if you are not a regular reader of them. I hope that those who enjoy and become fans of the outlets will be able to support them.

I still have several regular January/February issue reviews to put up before getting started on March/April, but they should go up in the near future.

Fantasy Magazine – Edited by Arley Sorg & Christie Yant

“Things to Bring, Things to Burn, Things Best Left Behind” by C.E. McGill (Issue 63, January 2021) – A stunning fantasy that seems to cover familiarly trodden territory at cursory glance, but weaves together several deep themes into a modern direction. At story’s start the protagonist, Oz, is about to commit suicide, only being stopped by a knock at the door and the arrival of an official group from town. His name has come up in the draw for choosing the next sacrifice to the god of the mountain. Oz’s journey to the mountain leads to greater self-discovery, reconciliation with his past, and a lesson in sacrifice. I love how the tone of the story feels set in conventional current world, yet with elements of magic and fantasy, or the beliefs of another era. This fits perfectly with Oz’s life journey.

“Kisser” by David James Brock (Issue 64, February 2021) – This story will resonate with any who have had the stress dream of teeth falling out. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read it right before going to sleep! However, where the story could go full down the route of horror, it only brushes against dark fantasy in its setup, a man who finds his teeth actually coming out. A great character study that investigates how the man’s obsession with peripheral details of life (including outside of control) can compound to be more harmful than letting go – and how he might move past that.

“Flight” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Issue 64, February 2021) – Written from the third-person point-of-view of gray parrots, this story shows the interactions of these birds among one another in a community being changed by humans. The story revolves around the general theme of disruptions of natural processes by humans, the uncertainty and unbalance it creates and how other animals may adapt. It also illustrates how the cruel violence and disregard of intelligent humanity goes beyond the ‘red in tooth and claw’ (or beak) of biology. Beautifully written.

Daily Science Fiction – Edited by Jonathan Laden & Michele Barasso

First time I’ve ever reviewed something from this treasure of an online story outlet. So, I’ll start off by just saying in general they are something fans of SFF should subscribe to (it’s free), and if you enjoy it, consider supporting. With a story every day, usually flash-fiction length, they publish a fair amount that is solid, if not Earth-shattering. Occasionally there is something I’m not a fan of, and sometimes there is something that really resonates. Here’s a couple that did:

“The Union” by Tim Yu (26th January 2021) – Regarding this story that features an impending alien invasion of Earth, the author notes: “If we really faced an existential threat and had to unify, what would be the new benchmark normal to unify into? How would we funnel all of human diversity into that normal?” The optimist in me says that I don’t know as this is the most likely answer, but with the sadness of profound realism I feel it’s up there in probability. Well written, and I hope to see more from Yu. Perhaps a story with marine biology next?

“Echo Recovery” by Jennifer Linnaea (5th February 2021) – Beautifully written SF/Fantasy about relationships, making music together, and grief. The Songmaster of the Great Theater at Noti Station accompanies a reptilian-like Vhatian singer named Gyen to Gyen’s hibernation pod after the unexpected death of Gyen’s human song-twin Digne. While Gyen can flee the emptiness in repose until a new song-twin matches to him, The Songmaster, who was in love with Digne, cannot escape the grief process and going on with the business of writing music and managing the dual species singers. The language and emotions of the story are like music.

Strange Horizons – Edited by Vanessa Rose Phin

“Yearning” by Maya Beck (4th January 2021) – A man guides a group of sharecroppers through a ritual they dub firesouling or firesailing, a passage of the spirit into the bodies of ancestors past and descendants future. Through this they observe, and yearn for, what was and what might be. Even with violence past there are visions of a hopeful future. A wonderful piece of Afrofuturism within the fantasy genre that makes a good story with a strong voice.

“A Serpent for Each Year” by Tamara Jerée (1st February 2021) – Perfect flash fiction on grief, death, and celebrating the passage of time in a life.

“Ootheca” by Mário de Seabra Coelho (15th February 2021) – Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a weirdly surreal fantasy with tinges of SF and a nod to Kafka. It explores relationships amid personal tics or details that one might focus upon in another, and judgements that humans make based on happenstance or accepted norms.

Tor.com – Irene Gallo (Publisher), Chris Lough (Director), and Bridget McGovern (Managing Editor)

“Let All the Children Boogie” by Sam J. Miller and edited by Jonathan Strahan (6th January 2021) – “My mind had no need for pronouns. Or words at all for that matter. This person filled me up from the very first moment.” Music can open up whole new worlds and one person can change how you look at the world. Sam J. Miller’s writing can do these things too, like the voice reaching out over the airwaves in this, speaking of a hopeful future possible. Though I get none of the pop culture references in this, despite growing up in the time period, Laurie and Fell’s story is universal, beautiful and uplifting.

“Shards” by Ian Rogers and edited by Ellen Datlow (27th January 2021) – Four out of five people survive a horrific Evil-Dead-esque night in a cabin in the woods. The horror does not end there. Excellent chilling story that confronts the absurdities of horror tropes. It looks deeply into how what becomes glossed over, or moved past, upon the dawn of the morning after, and the cue of the credits, might be the most horrifying of all. In some ways this starts as a sequel, but going places far different than the original, familiar tale.

“Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels” by Lavie Tidhar and edited by Jonathan Strahan (10th February 2021) – I have to admit that Tidhar is one author who writes wonderfully, but whose stories have just never seemed to fall into a style I appreciate, or carried a message that personally resonated. This, a mashup of horror and mystery staples, does fit squarely into two of my literary loves, and it works simply in how entertainingly intriguing the characters and set-up are. I’ll have to go back now and read the first story featuring this character. Once upon a time I would have found this needlessly long, but novelette/novella length has grown on me, particularly with recurring protagonists like these and the clever spin of the plot.

“The Tyger” by Tegan Moore and edited by Ellen Datlow (24th February 2021) – On the night of a wedding reception, a museum comes alive in ways different than before for twelve-year-old Jules. The story does not go in the direction I had expected from its summary, and ends so profoundly and amazingly that a synopsis could not do it justice. The title references Blake’s famous poem, of course, but Jules’ symbolic journey through the museum into adulthood features a prehistoric bear, rather than tiger, to make a fine atmospheric impact. And then again, the tyger here may be something completely different.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Edited by Scott H. Andrews

“As Tight as Any Knot” by M.A. Carrick (Issue #320, 1st January 2021) – This is set in the same universe as the new Orbit Books novel The Mask of Mirrors, which I’ve had my eyes set on recently. But, until now, I had no idea until now that the author is a pseudonym for writing pair Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. Can’t recall reading Brennan, but I really enjoyed Helms’ Missy Masters novels for Angry Robot Books. Anyway… in this, Ondrakja sees a young beggar girl on a street corner and sees value in saving her from circumstances. “She knew what happened once someone vanished into the depths of Nadežra’s brothels.” The keyword there, is ‘value’. This serves as an introduction to the fantasy world of the novel, and the intrigues of its characters, that makes you curious to read more.

“Daughters with Bloody Teeth” by Marika Bailey (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – Beautiful and evocative fantasy that plays with the individual and the collective ‘we’ within the framework of a wolf mythology. Beyond that, it speaks to human injustices and rights of self-authority. It takes a moment to really get into this and make sense of what is occurring, but also, I think my mind wandered from paying attention to subtle reveals of information at first, being just enraptured by the flow of the language.

“Bast and Her Young” by Tegan Moore (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – A historical story around the ascension of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh, and her consolidation of power amid realization that she is not the first female Pharaoh. It is nice to see a retelling of Egyptian history/mythology, as it seems less common in fantasy than Greek or Norse. Moore gives Hatshepsut’s voice a bit of a modern colloquial twist that I at first found odd, but grew to appreciate.

“Her Black Coal Heart a Diamond in My Hand” by R. K. Duncan (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A dark chilling tale that explores the degrees of exploitation that can occur when creating art from the emotional hurt (or literal ghosts) of others, and from oneself. Rich language and turns in this story make it an engaging, compelling read.

“The Guadaloupe Witch” by Josh Rountree (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A witch finds confronted by a young man sent by her former husband to kill or capture her. The young man is a childhood friend of her now deceased son, her beloved she is now on a mission to restore. While the plot of this story is familiar, it proceeds in a tender and assured way that shows the true power of the eponymous witch.

“Quintessence” by Andrew Dykstal (Issue #324, 25th February 2021) – Deep within winter-covered Highfall peak, miners of a resource called quintessence are kept functioning and alive through expensive injections of red, rationed by the mining Company, but administered on-site by a witch. Loren’s brother-in-law Clyde is sick and dying of ‘crack-up’, but the newly posted ‘old’ witch Gristle refuses to provide Loren with additional red to save him. Wonderful world-building and characterization here, and exploration of consequences of the well-intentioned going too far in desperation. And the secret evils of corporations in search of profits.