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book reviews by Althea

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas

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The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas by Paula Guran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*** “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor (Binti, Tor.com)
Previously read, as part of the Hugo Voters’ Packet.
“Enjoyable YA space adventure with an engaging protagonist.
In this future, the Himba tribe of Namibia are an insular minority, looked down upon by the majority Khoush although the Himba have become specialized experts in math and ‘harmonizing,’ producing “astrolabes” (which seem to be the future’s smartphones). Teenage Binti’s skills have won her a coveted scholarship to an intergalactic university, but to her family, it is unthinkable that she would be permitted to leave her tribe and go. Unwilling to let her dreams die, Binti runs away and soon finds herself on a ship en route to Oomza Uni. Unfortunately, that ship is hijacked by alien terrorists.
Although the setup is both fun and fascinating, there were a few plot holes and the way things eventually worked out was too easy and simplistic, I thought.
My issues with the story:
(view spoiler)

2. On a related note, although yes, the professors at the Uni did both the right and the sensible thing by acceding to the terrorists’ demands, it seems inconceivable that none of them would mention the slaughter of a boatload of their colleagues, some of whom would undoubtedly have been close friends, lovers, family… No grief or anger at their loss is shown – only a bit of anger at demands being made. Overall, the mass murder is treated like a quickly-forgotten no-big-deal.

3. Binti’s skin treatment is revealed to be a cure-all to the alien Meduse race. Luckily, it turns out that the formula is not unique to Namibia; it can be produced elsewhere. However, no mention at all is made of the immediately obvious situation: if something you have is valuable to a warlike species, you and ALL OF YOUR PEOPLE are in deep danger. It never seems to occur to Binti that if she can’t provide more of it, the Meduse would undoubtedly invade Namibia for it.

4. In a story this short, there’s room for a limited number of unexplained and logically unlikely thingummies. We start out with one, the mysterious ‘edan’ that Binti found in the desert and uses as a good luck charm. It sure is convenient, when she’s attacked, that her good luck charm turns out to be a mentally-powered force shield AND translation device! But, seeing as there wouldn’t be much of a story if it wasn’t, I can accept that. All the Meduse are appropriately shocked that she can suddenly communicate with them. However, that’s kind of negated when later, it turns out that communication can ALSO be facilitated by a quick ‘sting’ that’s actually some kind of DNA/blood transfusion… I think that having either the ‘sting’ or the ‘edan’ as a plot device, but not both, would’ve made the story stronger.

5. As one last minor point, I would’ve liked more on what ‘harmonizing’ is and how a math/engineering-related skill translates into negotiation skills. But that’s mostly just because Binti’s professional thought processes are interesting. I wanted to find out more about the ‘astrolabes’ she makes, too!
(hide spoiler)]

**** “The Citadel of Weeping Pearls” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s, Oct/Nov 2015)
My favorite piece by de Bodard that I’ve encountered so far.
Court intrigue meets space opera meets family drama. The setting reminded me of Vernor Vinge’s ‘Fire Upon the Deep,’ with it’s sentient ships and bizarre zones of space where physics works differently. It also reminded me of Somtow Sucharitkul’s Inquestor series, with a glittering panoply of an Asian-inspired society with aristocrats, soldiers and scientists.
Thirty years ago, threatened by her mother the Empress, the Bright Princess disappeared along with her space Citadel. Now, upon the brink of war, the Empress seeks her missing daughter – and the cutting-edge weaponry secrets she undoubtedly had, in order to achieve her feat. Her head research scientist is working on the mystery. But when the scientist disappears without a trace, the situation become even more critical. Her top general (and former lover), and her remaining daughter are ordered to investigate. But some situations have no easy solution.

**** “Gypsy,” Carter Scholz (F&SF, Nov/Dec 2015)
Earth has passed the tipping point. The environment is in ruins, states are collapsing, greedy oligarchs and businessmen are grabbing what resources they can for themselves and letting the planet’s billions go to hell. One brilliant scientist forms a desperate, long-shot plan – to secretly divert resources into sending a ship to Alpha Centauri, in the hopes that there will be a planet there where humanity can start again. That ship is the ‘Gypsy’ and this is its story.
The opening of the piece is too “tell-y not show-y” as the author bluntly lays out this near-future scenario, but as it went on, it wholly won me over. It intercuts between letting the reader know how this plan slowly came to fruition, and ‘current events’ aboard the ship.
The story includes a plethora of scientific details and problem-solving which I believe would appeal to fans of Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ – but this story is ever so much better, on so many different levels. It has real dramatic tension (and excellent writing.)
The ‘Gypsy’ was designed for a crew of twenty, who are all in drug-induced hibernation. Only in emergency situations is an expert specializing in the system that the emergency is in, awakened. So the story features a string of emergencies, each dealt with by a different character, whose personality and motivations we learn in their section.
As readers, even as we see the remarkable extremes of human ingenuity and hope, from the beginning, we have to say, “This is more than just a long shot. This might be truly impossible.” I wondered how the author was going to deal with that. And at the end, I thought he pulled it off wonderfully.

*****“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” Usman Malik (The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, Tor.com)
Previously read.
“I’d heard good things about this story before reading it, and it lived up to all of them.
Our narrator grew up hearing stories from his grandfather about the dethroned Mughal princess he knew, living in poverty, running a tea shop in Pakistan which has protected by a jinn. Those tales didn’t seem significant to him until his grandfather dies, and he goes back to Florida for the funeral, from his job as a professor in the Northeast. Among his grandfather’s effects he finds a journal which will lead him to Lahore, in search of a mysterious and secret treasure.
The story seamlessly melds Indiana Jones-style adventure with philosophical speculation on the nature of the universe, and with a sharply-drawn, contemporary depiction of the relationships between lovers, communication between generations, and the difficulties of the immigrant experience. Yes, it’s a lot to take on in one short story, but it all works perfectly.
My one quibble? I’ve always had a fundamental objection to stories where (view spoiler) This story does that with acknowledgement of this problem – but it does it anyway. And I still didn’t love that aspect. But I still loved the story. It’s amazing. Read it!”

*** “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu, translated by Ken Liu (F&SF, Mar/Apr 2015)
An alternate history – with a twist. Rather than simply introducing a different possible incident in our history which could lead to variant outcomes, the reader gradually realizes that time here is running backwards. It’s well-done – the idea is introduced smoothly, and the flow of events, one to the other, actually seems to make almost as much sense as the way things really happened. Of course that sense – or rather, the lack thereof, is a main theme of the piece, as Bao Shu brings in Sartre’s existentialism into the narrative.
The ideas are interesting, but the story structure itself feels a bit bare-bones, as the narrator tells the story of his life, starting with his earliest memories at four years old, through student years and being a rebellious youth at Tiananmen Square, up into a distinguished career… Through it all, the one constant is his love for his childhood friend, QiQi, even when she is separated from him – or lost to him. I suspected that the narrative might turn out to be some kind of ‘confession,’ due to its unembellished, matter-of-fact tone. But no, it’s just the style.
The conclusion was a bit sappy in an annoying way, too. (view spoiler) I still found the story overall to be original and thought-provoking.

**** “The Last Witness” by K. J. Parker (The Last Witness, Tor.com)
(Previously read)
What if someone had the ability to erase your unwanted memories? The collateral would be that that person would take on your memories as his own, absorbing them in such a way as to make them indistinguishable from his own past.
What kind of person would you have to be in order to agree to do such a thing? What kind of person would the agglomeration of these memories make you?
If you answered, “not a very nice person,” you would most likely be correct, says K.J. Parker.
The marketing of this novella makes it look like a traditional fantasy story, but it’s actually a much more ambitious, philosophical work – part thought experiment, part character study. I thought it was quite successful – if not necessarily very pleasant.
I think it would be enjoyed by people who liked Patrick Rothfuss’ ‘The Slow Regard of Silent Things,’ but I thought that this novella was actually more interesting.

*** “Inhuman Garbage,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s March 2015)
Murder mystery aboard a space station! A dead body has been discovered, secreted in a recycling bin. Upstanding detective Noelle DeRicci is motivated and determined to solve the case. Unfortunately, from her perspective, no one else seems to be. Her partner is fine with slip-shod work. She certainly doesn’t trust the coroner who’s assigned to the case. The deceased woman’s employer is a suspect – after all, he’s reputed to be involved in organized crime, and he had just fired her, non-amicably. The recycling magnate who reported the body may be hiding something. And her boss seems to want to just drop the case.
Detectives struggling against obstacles and opposition is nothing new in crime fiction – but what makes this story really fun is that we get to see each of these characters’ individual perspectives on the situation. As it turns out, there are more facets to this crime than DeRicci guesses.
This is apparently part of the ‘Retrieval Artist’ series; after reading this I’m definitely interested in exploring more in this universe.
eBook PDF available for free, here: http://www.asimovs.com/assets/1/6/Inh…

*** “The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans, Mythic Delirium Books)
A fractured fairy tale – a sequel to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, mixed with elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans.’ Our narrator is a shape-shifting rat-man, a earthy, garbage-loving member of the ‘Fair Folk.’ He treasures his hopeless obsession with Dora Rose, a swan maiden whose lofty beauty puts her far above his league.
But now, a troll-ish/ogre-ish woman masquerading as the human mayor of the town of Amandale is working hard on a grotesque project – she’s using children to hunt down swans and warping an ancient magic to turn their bones into musical instruments. Dora Rose’s family has all been killed, and she’ll be next, unless her hapless suitor can find a way to help her.

*** “Johnny Rev” by Rachel Pollack (F&SF, Jul/Aug 2015)
I’d previously read a companion piece to this one, “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls.” Then, I’d commented that it was written to feel like a short entry in an ongoing series, although it wasn’t. Well, I guess, since then, a couple of more entries have appeared. This one still is chock-full of references to events that seem like they should already be in other books.
Our protagonist, Jack Shade, is an occultist who’s bound by a geas to assist anyone who shows up asking for his help and bearing his business card. But what’s the right thing to do when the holder of the business card is… himself? And the goal of this magically-created duplicate is to defeat none other than – Jack Shade.
It’s a fun urban fantasy tale, but I didn’t really care for the writing style, overall. (I really don’t need to know the color and style of every character’s outfit…)

Many thanks to NetGalley and Prime Books for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

View all my reviews

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