FALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS by Nalo Hopkinson

26386436

Falling in Love with Hominids
By Nalo Hopkinson
Tachyon Publications – August 2015
ISBN 9781616961992 – 240 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“The Easthound”
“Soul Case”
“Message in a Bottle”
“The Smile on the Face”
“Left Foot, Right”
“Old Habits”
“Emily Breakfast”
“Herbal”
“A Young Candy Daughter”
“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog”
“Shift”
“Delicious Monster”
“Snow Day”
“Flying Lessons”
“Whose Upward Flight I Love”
“Blushing”
“Ours is the Pretties”
“Men Sell Not Such in Any Town”

“I didn’t used to like people much.” So starts Hopkinson in the forward to her third short fiction collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. The title comes from a line by science fiction author Cordwainer Smith, whose “Instrumentality of Mankind” work Hopkinson cites as an important influence on her own writing.
“I loved his imagination, style, the poetry of his writing, his compassion. Loved his sensibility in writing about a racialized, manufactured underclass and telling some of the stories from their context.”
The stories within this collection originate from across roughly a decade span of Hopkinson’s writing career; with varied styles and themes they are absolutely unified only in their author. So then who is Hopkinson?
Born in Jamaica and raised in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada, Hopkinson writes speculative fiction and fantasy that typically includes elements of Caribbean culture and tradition. Many readers appreciate this perspective that her heritage provides the field, and she is equally valued for sincere inclusion of characters who may be any combination of people-of-colo(u)r, female, or queer. Such unique perspective alone shouldn’t define her work though. Above all Hopkinson is talented, attracting the respect of writers such as Junot Díaz and earning accolades such as the 1999 Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
 –
The uniqueness of her perspective also doesn’t mean that her writing is just for people like her. It’s really important to have books by all kinds of people, not just straight, white men. But that doesn’t mean that a book by a straight, white man can’t speak to a queer, black woman. Or in this case, the reverse. Hopkinson’s writing touches all those qualities that her quote on Cordwainer Smith mentions. She writes universal, core themes of what it is to be human, to deal with despair and to fight it. As her forward to the collection relates, this comes from her own evolution as an individual in society.

“One of the progressions I’ve made is from being a depressed teenager who saw how powerless she was to change all the ills around her to being a mostly cheerful fifty-something who realizes there are all kinds of ways of working together towards positive change… So part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling love with hominids.”

The opening story of this collection, “The Easthound”, is an exquisite introduction to the range of Hopkinson’s writing. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where adults become ‘sprouted’ into creatures that kill and feed upon the living, the story uses setting and a minimized plot as backdrop to focus on characters and emotion. This balance – tending towards what typically gets called literary – is typical of Hopkinson’s stories. Also common for her work, here she takes a general premise that should be familiar to science fiction fans and puts on her unique twist. Her writing is not usually ‘light’ reading and some of her stories benefit from multiple reads because nuanced characteristics aren’t at first registered. Yet, “The Easthound” demonstrates that Hopkinson can write taut action sequences amid more quiet moments of deep character introspection. The language can vary from the straight-forward to a more artistic poetry, such as lines in this story that form part of a ‘Loup-de-lou‘ game that children play.
Because of her range as a writer, readers may not enjoy or appreciate all the stories in the collection. Some, like “Flying Lessons” or “Blushing” seem designed to challenge the author and reader alike. “Soul Case” puts a lot of complexity into a relatively small bit of space. (Not unlike, perhaps, fitting a  soul and intelligence into the limitations of a human body, the ‘soul case’ of the title). For some its explorations of politics, history, race, and humanity will work brilliantly. Others may wish its soul had more room to breathe, to develop within the novella length. “Shift” adds a Caribbean twist to The Tempest, another example of a story grounded in something familiar to contrast with stories that have elements more unconventional – and verging on bizarro, like in “Emily Breakfast” or “Snow Day”.
Overall this collection conveys a feeling of reading folklore. Readers particularly drawn to that style of fantasy will probably easily enjoy Falling in Love with Hominids, as Hopkinson uses the style effectively even in the context of a science fiction tale. Some of the stories here have been included elsewhere, including “Best of…” anthologies, pointing to Hopkinson’s success and recognition. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, there is no better place to get a representative view of it as this.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN, by Alyc Helms

In case you missed it, my review of Alyc Helms’ The Dragons of Heaven from Angry Robots Books appeared this week at Skiffy and Fanty.

thedragonsofheaven-144dpi-e1433930087302

“In the darkened streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Missy Masters is struggling to take up the vigilante-hero mantle of her retired, estranged grandfather, Mr. Mystic. Missy shares his stubbornness, his intimate connections with Chinese culture, and his uncanny ability to cross into a realm of shadows and exert limited control over the creatures within…

…The Dragons of Heaven is a fun read. It is a genre blend that combines urban fantasy with folkloric myth, the superhero comic, romance, and the complex family dynamics featured in ‘mainstream’ fiction. There is magical action driving the plot aplenty, there are moments of humor and pop culture reference. But there are also great doses of introspection, of character development for Missy, and deep themes at its core.”

Read the complete review at Skiffy and Fanty!

And look there this coming week for my upcoming review of The Liminal War by Ayize Jama-Everett.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher as part of The Angry Robot Army via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Herald, by Ed Greenwood

The Herald, by Ed Greenwood
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 6
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00H6J6KQQ
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published  3rd June 2014
Source: NetGalley

Rapper Ice-T recently made some amusing comments on a podcast about an unexpected D&D-related audio book recording he was set up to make. Reading his comments me original thoughts were that it was sad he was dumping on fantasy, role-playing-derived or otherwise based on what appeared to be stereotypes and the worst the genre has to offer. Now I see where he was coming from in his vulgarity-strewn phrases about “******* talking like Yoda” and “******* pegasi”.

Up until this volume I have really enjoyed “The Sundering” series of Forgotten Realms novels. The opening one had been the weakest I felt, but still enjoyable due to my familiarity with Salvatore’s characters. The novels that followed impressed me, and I’ve found a few new authors and series within this shared world to check out. Each book was unique, but provided a solid perspective on these events within the Forgotten Realms. But “The Herald”, well I struggle to find anything positive to say about it whatsoever.

Until this series I’ve only read Salvatore, and only his earlier novels. I’d heard of Greenwood’s character Elminster in name alone. While most of the other “Sundering” novels provided decent background to become familiar with their characters, “The Herald” provides almost none. And it is a huge, ever-shifting cast. The layout of the electronic copy probably didn’t help, where breaks between characters and points of view were not always obvious. This formatting issue of an advanced reading copy happened with earlier “Sundering” novels though and wasn’t nearly as problematic.

“The Herald” is just simply a mess. Having read it closely I still have little idea who the various characters are other than superficially. Some I could only figure out by using online resources. There is a good amount of action, but little time is spent getting to know any of the characters, you are just expected to know already I assume. Beyond the difficulties of trying to figure out who everyone is, there is also the matter of trying to figure out what is going on. I got bits and pieces, and a generic sense of good fighting evil, but other than that, nothing.

As Ice-T implied (even if he wasn’t talking about “The Herald”, his words certainly hold true), the writing is simply hard to slog through in many spots, filled with archaic style and grammar and an abundance of universe-specific vocabulary that unless you are a gamer or familiar with this, will go right over your head. Others effectively use context to help impart comprehension to the uninitiated. As the designer of Forgotten Realms, I guess Greenwood can’t bother with this. Elminster frequently switches back and forth from old English ‘thou’s to a modern ‘you’ with no apparent logic.

I assume that if you are a big fan of this universe and know all the Elminster novels you’ll read this no matter what. But for those like me who may read more casually, or how are looking to enter into this universe, go elsewhere, like some of the earlier “Sundering” novels. Although a series, thankfully these don’t all have to be read. Me, I’ll return to catching up with the adventures of Drizzt and discovering the other works by Dennings, Kemp, and particularly Evans.

One Star out of Five

The Sentinel, by Troy Denning

The Sentinel, by Troy Denning
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 5
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00FO5W6VW
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The Sundering” series of Forgotten Realms novels, small, personal stories detailing times of upheavals in the shared universe, continue to entertain me and surprise me with their successful range of style and subject matter. For a shared fantasy universe based on role-playing games. certainly ‘light fiction’ that not everyone would take seriously, these have each been impressive. I am again glad for this discovery of Forgotten Realms works beyond Salvatore’s.

LIke Salvatore, Denning is well-known for his Forgotten Realms novels, and certainly also for his Star Wars novels. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever read Denning prior to this. What struck me about his style in “The Sentinel” is how cinematic the writing feels. When adapting written word for screen, much needs to be cut to keep the action moving, the essential details still provided, but able to fit into a short period of time of a film or TV episode. Denning manages to convey this sense of urgent story telling here. The novel immediately breaks out in mid action, a fight and a chase that quickly turns into the mad race/quest that becomes the plot of the story. Denning writes the action very well, believably, providing detail while still maintaining that quick economic pace of words and sentence flow. Amid the continuous drive forward of the novel, Denning still manages to put in moments of character introspection and interaction focusing on the emotions behind their lives, their decisions, or what may be more apt to say, their destinies. While some of the characters aren’t developed beyond their immediate role, the key characters of Kleef and Lady Arietta are rendered suitably complex for the size, scope, and style of this novel.

What I particularly liked about “The Sentinel” was how closely the style of its writing matched the overall theme in the story. Each novel of “The Sundering” series has dealt with ‘Chosens’ of various gods, serving almost as avatars of a divine battle in the material realm of Forgotten Realms. “The Sentinel”, however, is the first to fully dive into this concept of being a Chosen of a god, of having your life not necessarily be about your ‘choices’ as much as your ‘destiny’, what you need to do, what the gods are driving you toward. Denning’s novel thus becomes the closest to a Forgotten Realms version of mythology that I have yet seen, reading in parts not unlike the themes of Homer’s “Iliad”. The quick nature of the writing, and the constant propelling of action forward, starting characters mid-adventure and going head-forward towards the denouement parallel this theme of mythology so effectively. Characters have few moments to deeply consider or choose what they are going to do, they are being driven by an author, the particular god they worship and have committed to, imbued with the powers and responsibilities of being Chosen.

The plot of “The Sentinel” thus becomes rather simple, a straight-forward quest with few major complications, unlike some of the previous entries to the series. Yet, here that deficiency of a clichéd, simple plot doesn’t play as being all terrible because of this successful merging of style and theme by Denning, simply taking the focus of this story onto something more Classic, fantasy back to its roots of mythology with a modern twist.

Four Stars out of Five

The Waking Engine, by David Edison

The Waking Engine, by David Edison
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 0765334860
400 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Any fan of the fantasy/sci fi genre should take note of this highly inventive debut novel, and any fiction reader should pay attention to Edison’s future output. While there are some basic problems with the novel, its numerous strengths outweigh them, most particularly the obvious talent Edison has for the writing craft. With greater experience and perhaps a bit less ambition than displayed in this novel, Edison could be a powerhouse.

“The Waking Engine” probably falls closest within the category of ‘urban fantasy’, but it is truly a mix of multiple genres. This blending of disparate elements becomes the defining aspect of the work, from its influences, its structure, its writing, its plot, etc. Remarkably, most of these pieces end up working when put together.

The strongest accomplishment (as appears universally acknowledged by both those that liked the book or not) is the world building. I am not convinced that the universe of “The Waking Engine” is wholly original in its ingredients – they are mined from a host of archetypic stories – but Edison certainly molds these into something his own. Decent fantasy world building is not particularly unique, but what Edison does excel at is the revelation of this world to the reader. The reveal is gradual, full of mystery, and thereby very captivating. It almost invites the reader to shout out questions as they try to gain footing in the uncertainty, bizarreness, and confusion. Tying the protagonists discoveries to the revelation for the reader helps make him relatable and helps drive the plot forward. For me the experience of reading “Waking Engine”, particularly the beginning, reminded me of playing the game “Planescape: Torment”, where the character you play in the game awakens from death in a strange world with no memory of how he got there or who he was. Though the protagonist in this novel does have memories, the experiences of waking to something unfathomable and strange is alike. You the reader/player discover this world as he ventures out into it.

The second accomplishment of Edison in this novel is his prose. It is rich and poetic, utilizing a very precise vocabulary to render visualization to the strange environment of the city and its abnormal denizens. The language he uses is wonderful at rendering mood, and in this way certain parts of the novel have an almost gothic feel to them, particularly in those moments most dark. There is also a literary depth to the writing. Beyond starting each chapter with false quotes from famous (now deceased) people, “The Waking Engine” is full of references literary, historic, and philosophic. There is meat on the bones of this novel, and Edison gets his ideas across really well. Finally, Edison successful writes in the exposition necessary for revealing this strange world to the reader and protagonist. Information flows naturally and rarely feels forced.

Despite these huge strengths there are some issues that arise from the sheer ambition of this novel. For one that characterization is not as developed as one might hope. Secondary characters are actually quite rich, inventive, and in several cases (particularly the villains) simply wondrous. This actually ends up making the protagonist feel rather hollow. An everyday Joe, yet seemingly unique in this universe, he never stands out as someone you are fully invested in, or really know. Little is brought up regarding his past, and the majority of the present is mainly about him trying to figure out what the hell is going on for him to worry beyond that question. If it weren’t for the link to him in the form of world building revelations, this would have been a major problem.

The second problem comes from the sheer wildness of the plot and its plethora of characters. The pacing of the plot and the handling of its many threads becomes messy, and the extreme invention of the novel’s set up makes the ultimate climax pale strongly in comparison. In addition to the protagonist, other secondary characters begin to rise in prominence and import and thus in focus, which ends up compounding the lack of depth in the protagonist.

By the end of “The Waking Engine” I had the sense that I had gone through a crazy and thought-provoking ride with plenty of memorable moments, but felt underwhelmed by the actual story at its heart and relatively pedestrian ending. Being a debut novel with such high aspirations and a tone of confident freshness it isn’t surprising that some elements just fail to come together, and thankfully those don’t ruin the novel as a whole for me or negate the obvious talents that Edison has to develop.

Four Stars out of Five