THE HOUSE OF STYX by Derek Künsken

The House of Styx
(Venus Ascendant #1)
By Derek Künsken
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — August 2020
ISBN: 9781781088050
— Hardcover — 500 pp.


It’s approximately two hundred years in our future and the atmosphere of Venus has been settled by descendants of Québécois settlers. They subsist as a self-governed mining cooperative, but their political structure and livelihood are ultimately controlled by the bank that holds the economic strings. Families live in floating complexes, bio-engineered trawlers derived from native Venusian life that has evolved in the sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere. Active mining habitats circulate between atmospheric rangs to harvest elements and compounds that can be sold. It’s a dangerous life in environments inhospitable to human life, demanding bravery and advanced engineering skills.

The D’Aquillon family owns a habitat/vessel named Causapscal-des-Profondeurs, where patriarch George-Étienne leads their mining efforts in the lowest of Venusian rangs, isolated from the main colony, both its control and its support/aid. In part, the D’Aquillons are self-exiled to this most dangerous area of Venus, to an existence that has already claimed the lives of George-Étienne’s wife and one daughter. Jean-Eudes, the first-born son of the family was born with Trisomy 21, Down’s Syndrome, a condition the colonial authorities would not allow to exist, diverting precious resources to an individual who could not ‘contribute’. George-Étienne and his wife refused to give up their son, trading a life with the gentle and loving Jean-Eudes for medical services and colonial support, moving the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs to where no one else was willing to go.

With George-Étienne and eldest son Jean-Eudes are youngest son Pascal, a brilliant engineer of only sixteen years, and young grandson Alexis, the son of the daughter who was lost in a Venusian storm. While exploring the high pressure surfaces of Venus, George-Étienne and Pascal discover a cave where atmospheric currents oddly seem to be entering. Using a submersible probe and camera and they explore, bringing back rare metals and materials that should not be present on Venus, and machinery that appears to be alien. Pascal has the radical idea that they have just discovered something unfathomably priceless: a possible worm-hole to another part of the universe there within the Venusian cave. An opportunity for mining goods that no one else within the colony can get at, a possible way to get out from under the influence and power of Venus’ colonial system and the banks that enforce it.

The only person they are willing to trust with their discovery is Marthe, sister to Jean-Eudes and Pascal, who lives in a habitat with the main colony as a delegate to the ruling assembly, a leading minority voice against those in power. Marthe realizes that any move the D’Aquillon’s make to take advantage of Pascal’s discovery will need some support from other families, so she uses her diplomatic skills to pursue these. However, she is less certain whether to also bring her other brother in on the plan, Émile, the black sheep of the family, who left the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs after a bitter argument with his father, who now lives mostly in weak pursuit of women, Venusian religion, and an aspiration to writing poetry. This he fuels with self-destructive resentment and anger, mixed with alcohol and other drugs.

Can the D’Aquillon’s come together again, putting family first for their future, and the colony’s? Will the bank and the leaders of the colonial governing council discover what they are up to and put a stop to things? Might their efforts and diplomatic outreach to other families be the start of something much larger?

The House of Styx originally appeared in serialized form as three parts published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine back in 2020. Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) subsequently put out the complete version, and I recommend readers check it out. If you happen to have read other novels by Künsken, The House of Styx does exist in the same ‘universe’ as his “Quantum Evolution” series. My understanding as the “Venus Ascendant” series serves as a prequel detailing the establishment of things in the other. The House of Styx is similarly built on ‘hard’ science fiction and a focus on things physical and technological. I do wish Künsken had devoted as much to his exploration of the Venusian biology. The hard science of the House of Styx gave it a home in Analog, but really its all built on core themes of the novel dealing with familial interaction and identity politics. It is a space opera amalgam of hard SF and soap opera. And, as I detail below, that’s not a bad thing at all.

Given its original serialized format, the has an organization into thirds. The first establishes the setting and the personality/relationship between the D’Aquillon family members up to Pascal’s discovery. The second details the family’s process of making a decision of what to do regarding their discovery, and reaching out to potential allies. And the concluding third unveils the fruition of those plans and how that impacts the various family members.

A lot happens, therefore, in The House of Styx. Yet, it also reads as relatively incomplete. As the first part of a series, it is largely setting things up for the future, and the novel ends with a lot being unresolved. Sure, some things wrap up, and there are certainly character arcs/growth going on. I’m just not convinced that there’s enough for the novel to satisfyingly work as a stand-alone. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more. But, I don’t think I’d recommend it to someone who was only willing to commit to reading just this first book. If you read this, you’re setting yourself up to need to read the future books of the series to fully appreciate things.

Here’s why The House of Styx and beyond is worth investment: the setting and its characters work phenomenally well to explore both concepts of science and of humanity. The Québécois culture and argot that peppers the novel give it a unique and personalized tone from Künsken that provides an interesting and new perspective to what might be expected of future colonists of a world like Venus. The pride, daring, and loyalty of the D’Aquillon’s shines to overcome their sins, failings, or ‘imperfections’ for their environment.

Of all the characters, Pascal is most frequently central, with events going through his point of view, with Marthe and Émile being close seconds. For each of these siblings (and to some extent other characters who don’t really have POVs), the plot of the novel is really a vehicle for them to fully work out who they each are as individuals. Are they just a D’Aquillon, or are they also Venusian? Can they be different from their father, yet still be loyal to the family? What are they meant to do with their life? Who are they really meant to be, at their core?

These dilemmas become most perceptible in Pascal, who from early in the novel voices feelings of discomfort with his body and self image. Gradually, he begins to wonder whether the alienation he feels within himself between mind and the physical may come down to discord between biological sex and gender. Through conversations with his sister and his brother Jean-Eudes, coupled with self-reflection, Pascal decides that he is perhaps really a girl. In a very moving and well-rendered passage, an instant of a few words, Pascal become Pascale. She is more confident, but still confused on how to tell all her family, or the man she has fallen in love with (and he with her.)

Just as the novel centers of the themes of personal discovery of identity, so too does it work on the larger scale of political identity: self-sufficiency versus shared governance, a part of the colony or separate, beholden to a repressive economic condition or economically fully independent of such powers?

The House of Styx ends in a somewhat heartbreaking and cliff-hanger fashion, yet I suspect the follow up novel will have resolutions that make the ending happier, or offer return of characters long-thought lost. Regardless, I’m invested in seeing where things go for this planet, for this new partnership of families, for these people. Just, please, some more hard biology to go with the engineering stuff?


SAINT DEATH’S DAUGHTER by C.S.E. Cooney

Saint Death’s Daughter
By C.S.E. Cooney
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — April 2022
ISBN: 9781786184702
— Hardcover — 480 pp.


Not every story with a young adult protagonist is a young adult story. Though marketed as an adult fantasy, Saint Death’s Daughter features a set-up that is easy for prospective readers to gloss over and make a wrong assumption regarding target audience.

Teenage Miscellaneous (Lanie) Stones has lost both her parents within a month, the latest in an ancient family line serving the Royalty of Liriat as Assassin and Executioner. With her sister Amanita (Nita) Muscaria Stones away studying magic in Quadiib for the past four years, Lanie is left to face the family’s debts and future as the sole living soul within Stones Manor. However, though destined to be the next great necromancer from the Stone family line, Lanie has suffered from birth with an intense allergy to bloodshed, and violence in general, that manifests as physical trauma to her own body. How can she possibly be a powerful and successful necromancer with this disability?

Complicating Lanie’s situation further, Sari Scratch, the matriarch of a rival family, and the Stones’ creditor, is pressuring Lanie for payment, or marriage to one of her sons. In this time of fearful uncertainty, Lanie has precious few for company or solace: the Stones’ long-dead and magically bound servant Goody Graves, and the ghost of Irradiant Stones (Grandpa Rad) the previous family necromancer whose spirit is now trapped in the lock of a sarcophagus in the family ossuary (and longs to be free, restored to corporeal power).

The first part of Saint Death’s Daughter builds from this coming-of-age setup that is familiar from young adult literature. But Cooney’s novel approaches those themes with a dark complexity that combines playfulness with moments of uncompromising brutality.

Lanie’s maturation becomes tied with her elder sister, who returns home upon receiving the news from Lanie. Nita resolves to take over the position of Royal Assassin for Liriat to earn money that can keep Scratch creditors at bay. She is soon tasked in this with taking out powerfully dangerous enemies of Liriat: the four-and-twenty membered Court of wizards serving the Blackbird Queen Bran Fiakhna. With her from Quadiib, Nita has brought a man she has magically Fascinated and bonded, who she calls Mak. Able to transform between man and falcon, Mak’s abilities are completely under control of Nita’s call and whim.

The plot quickly goes beyond the set up and young-adult-novel trappings with intricate developments that I wouldn’t want to spoil. After its first part the novel jumps ahead seven years, continuing focus on Lanie’s struggles to develop as a necromancer, but now also as aunt to her fiery niece Sacred Datura Stones, daughter of Nita and Mak.

I immediately became enraptured by the gothic tones, sophisticated language, and compelling characters of Saint Death’s Daughter. It’s a large novel; it could have been conceivably split into two separate publications, but I think it works well as the single epic work it is. Cooney drops readers right into the story and world of the Stoneses, with its unique vocabulary, naming conventions, and societal structure. It requires some reader patience and attention to detail, but Cooney does a great job at introducing the essential elements to her characters and their world in a logical way that never feels like info-dump for its own sake, and permits the thrill of discovery. A brief glossary before the novel on names for time and deities in the novel seems unnecessary as most of these are not major or essential details in the novel, and may needlessly dissuade some readers.

The language is on one hand ornate, yet with Lanie’s point of view also alternates formality and intricacy with blunt flippancy and wit. This parallels the rigid social stratifications and traditions of Lariat and Quadiib and the contrasting youthful yearning of characters (like Lanie and Datu) to forge their own new way of doing things.

There is a gothic eccentricity to Saint Death’s Daughter that many others have likened to The Addams Family, and I wouldn’t disagree. Even with its dark themes, moments of despair, and unflinching violence/trauma, the novel still manages to be humorous and endearing. This is in no small part to how well Cooney writes the characters and their relationships with one another. Family is all. This is something many (if not all) can relate to – even when family members/ancestors may be horrific, selfish, or damaging. The next generation always represents hope.

Cooney’s world building is excellent in this fantasy, though not without limitations that some readers might criticize. The magic systems are fleshed out well, particularly the necromancy of Lanie. Cooney slowly introduces others as the novel progresses, particularly during the action sequences, culminating in a fantastic battle scene. The other strength lies in the characters, compelling in both the protagonists and antagonists, with even sympathies for enemies to be felt. However, most all of these characters come from the upper rungs of societies, readers never really get a sense of what the ‘regular world’ is like, or the lives of the common population. This is surprising given how class distinctions seem significant to the societies. I’m hoping we’ll see more of that in future volumes of the story. The glossary also hints to a pantheon of deities and complexity that even this long novel really doesn’t explore too much.

Ultimately, what Saint Death’s Daughter is all about – and what gives it meaning beyond sheer entertainment – is ways in which people use one another, how they let themselves be used, and what they sacrifice. This general theme plays out in all the relationships, both individuals with society and individual with individual: Lanie and Nita, Nita and Mak, Lanie and Mak, Datu and Lanie, Datu and Mak, Lanie and Grandpa Rad. Cooney uses these to explore power differentials in relationships, both healthy and unhealthy ways in which they manifest.

There are two relationships that particular stand out as fascinating and timely. First is the close friendship and building romance between Lanie and Canon Lir, the non-binary priest, and sibling in Liriat’s ruling family. Touching and painful, it will pull at heartstrings. Second is Lanie’s relationship to the family’s indentured undead servant Goody Graves. Lanie’s realization of the injustices that her family did to the woman who became Goody – and the continued exploitation of her becomes a major plot of the novel, as Lanie fights not just for her security and the safety of her family, but also liberation and reparations for Goody.

Saint Death’s Daughter succeeds in many ways, most basically as an exciting story filled with atmospheric text, rich characterization, and subtle depth. For as long as the novel is – and even with the amount of closure as a self-contained story that it does offer – I finished the book and was fully ready to start reading what comes next.


THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR, VOLUME 9


22609311The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
(Volume 9)
Edited By Jonathan Strahan
Solaris – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781781083093  – 624 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Slipping”, by Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows: MIT Technology Review SF Annual 2014)
“Moriabe’s Children”, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Monstrous Affections)
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, by Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
“The Lady and the Fox”, by Kelly Link (My True Love Gave to Me)
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”, by Holly Black (Monstrous Affections)
“The LONG HAUL, from the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”, by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, Nov 2014)
“Tough Times All Over”, by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues)
“The Insects of Love”, by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com, 28th May 2014)
“Cold Wind”, by Nicola Griffith (Tor.com, 16th Apr 2014)
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8), by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest #100, May 2014)
“Shadow Flock”, by Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”, by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”, by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2014)
“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”, by Alice Sola Kim (Tin House #61)
“Shay Corsham Worsted”, by Garth Nix (Fearful Symmetries)
“Kheldyu”, by Karl Schroeder (Reach for Infinity)
“Caligo Lane”, by Ellen Klages (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“The Devil in America”, by Kai Ashanti Wilson (Tor.com 2nd Apr 2014)
“Tawny Petticoats”, by Michael Swanwick (Rogues)
“The Fifth Dragon”, by Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
“The Truth About Owls”, by Amal El-Mohtar (Kaleidoscope)
“Four Days of Christmas”, by Tim Maughan (Terraform, Dec 2014)
“Covenant”, by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future)
“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”, by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, Jul 2014)
“Collateral”, by Peter Watts (Upgraded)
“The Scrivener”, by Eleanor Arnason (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Someday”, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apr/May 2014)
“Amicae Aeternum”, by Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)

Ninth in Strahan’s series of yearly collections, this is the first one I’ve read and it’s now a series I’ll be striving to fit into the reading list for years to come. It tends to favor the longer length of novella over shorter works, a factor that I’d a priori consider a major strike against. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, but there are certainly cases where they work exceptionally well for my taste. Most of the ones in this anthology do just that. As I write the paragraphs that follow I realize that a lot of the stories also tend towards the darker side, particularly the fantasy. I tend to like that style/ambience in stories, but obviously some readers may shy away from it.
The six stories that volume 9 begins with are all superb, representative of the quality and variety to come. I had already enjoyed both Ken Liu’s story and an earlier print (original?) of Holly Black’s fun space adventure with a compelling pair of characters (one human and one alien) and the interesting themes of monstrosity and the discoveries during coming-of-age. Kelly Link’s beautiful story is part urban fantasy and part fairy tale on family and friends set at Christmas. Similarly, Bacigalupi’s story is a fantasy hailing from the same original themed collection, but this one (unlike Link’s) is full of a darkness, a broken world, that I’d expect from him. Used to the SF stories I’ve normally seen from him though, this was a nice change done just as well. (I really need to read Monstrous Affections it seems). I’d already also read the latter story by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House that was reprint in Monstrous Affections too, and it is equally superb, though grounded in realism.
I have MITs Technology Review fiction issue on my shelf to read, and experiencing Beukes’ story from it in Strahan’s anthology makes me more eager to get to it. I’d only read Beukes’ The Shining Girls prior (which I found over-rated, but okay). The hard sci fi from her in this story is superb, featuring competitive sports and artificial enhancements taken to the next level. The tech is interesting here, but the humanity and depth of her protagonist is even more astounding.
Among those opening six, Usman T. Malik is yet another that blew me away with its effective treatment of terrorism and violence from a large scale focused down to the personal human level. This one just won a Stoker Award, and understandably, it is perhaps more horror than SF – and I recognize Malik mostly from appearances in Nightmare Magazine. Malik has another really powerful story in the themed collection Truth or Dare, that I’m reviewing next up. If you haven’t checked out his fiction yet, try either of these recent reprints. A latter story by Nix previously read in Fearful Symmetries also is truly horror in genre, though also a great story. I remember it vaguely from reading prior, but I think I enjoyed it this second time round even more.
The vague disbelief that I was so thoroughly enjoying these relatively long stories without growing restless or annoyed that I couldn’t finish in a bus ride finally broke with the seventh story, Abercrombie’s adventure from the Rogues collection. I have no idea if this is the case, but it felt as though I was supposed to already know these characters from somewhere, and I found it difficult to get into. Ultimately the story just kept going and I was long past caring. Swanwick’s story later from the same collection had the same effect. Egan’s also felt as though it was just a part of something larger, not a tale of its own.
Valentine and Griffith have a pair of stories that have a sort of ephemeral fantasies that have a beauty in the language but a strong tinge of darkness in their plots and ambience. Fitting in to this kind of story, Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” is one of my favorites from this anthology. She does an absolutely beautiful job relating the life of her protagonist with interludes about the biology/behavior of owls, with mythology, and with language. I read this one right before going to sleep one night and it made a fantastic bed time story.
Lastly, there were a few cases that surprised me, both negatively and positively. (Abercrombie was kind of one too given that I loved the only other thing of his I’ve read: Half a King.) First, the story by Wilson is on an important and relevant theme of racial issues, explored partially through a fantastic lens. I expected to adore it and be moved. Instead I found the structure and length to be an impediment. Second, Ellen Klages is represented with two stories here, I found this surprising, inexplicable. One would have sufficed and given room for something else. I didn’t find either bad, but neither impressed me to understand why both were here. Third, I really enjoyed Schroeder’s SF adventure. I haven’t liked a lot of his stuff in the past in Analog, but this is probably because they were mostly serials. Here it felt just right, and his strength in telling a good story with hard SF elements and a bit of optimism fit perfectly amid the other types of stories in the collection.
Any serious fan of SF/Fantasy should find things of joy here, and readers who don’t normally read the genre may find the novella lengths that mostly make this up to be perfect for dipping into some of the best authors in the fields. They vary from the simple entertainment to the literary, from the fantastic to the realistic. Although I’d read a decent number of those included in this before, almost all that I had (if not all) were ones that initially had really impressed me. (The only ones not already mentioned above are “Someday” from Asimov’s and Theodora Goss’ story, which is a fantastic achievement in making a compelling story out of something that reads like a nonfiction, a history.) I appreciated reading all these stories a second time, affirming to me that anthologies are useful even if you’ve read the fields somewhat well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.