Aptly described as “Little House in the Prairie meets Horror”, Daughters Unto Devils (Harlequin Teen, September 2015) is a pretty decent and scary YAAptly described as “Little House in the Prairie meets Horror”, Daughters Unto Devils (Harlequin Teen, September 2015) is a pretty decent and scary YA Horror that meshes historical drama and psychological trauma. Amanda’s family has recently survived the harshest winter of their lives: a big family trapped inside a small mountain cabin for months, with a pregnant mother in the throes of a fever that almost took her life. No one talks about Amanda’s mental breakdown that happened then but they all fear for her sanity. Amanda most of all. She carries the guilt for feeling uncharitable toward her baby sister and for her wanton behaviour with the itinerant postman whom she meets in secrecy. The father of the baby she now carries.
Wanting to start over, the family moves to a new home, to a larger cabin found abandoned in the prairie. There, it soon becomes clear that things are not quite right and that in the deeply unsettling prairie, unspeakable things lurk in the shadows.
Like A Madness So Discreet, Daughters Unto Devils has a main character dealing with mental illness. But unlike that book, this one doesn’t directly address it – we, the readers assume that Amanda has had a psychological breakdown due to the traumatic events her family went through. In the context of the novel though, that breakdown is dealt with from a religious perspective i.e. portrayed as the devil work. What’s interesting and welcome is how that perspective doesn’t take over the narrative. Quite the contrary: Amanda is portrayed with sympathy and empathy and the ending was surprising in how it empowered her. With a couple of big scary moments, this one is a good Halloween read. ...more
Baru Cormorant is just seven years old when the Masquerade comes to her home, Taranoke, bringing their foreign ships, their paper currency, their wareBaru Cormorant is just seven years old when the Masquerade comes to her home, Taranoke, bringing their foreign ships, their paper currency, their wares and their ways. This alone doesn’t frighten young Baru, for Taranoke has always been a port of commerce: a vital hub of trade exporting sugarcane in exchange for textiles, citrus for sailcloth, buying and selling currencies from the neighboring provinces and islands who make their safe stops in Taranoke’s welcoming harbor.
But during Baru’s seventh year of age, something is different–she knows that her fathers and mother are worried about something in the air that has to do with the new Masks and their ships and their precise Aphalone tongue. And Baru–a precocious child, with a head for numbers–has a deep hunger to not only understand things, but to fix them.
But some things cannot be fixed.
The Empire of Masks conquers Taranoke with treaties and simple economics, and soon Baru’s entire way of life is upended. The Imperial Republic offers economic stability, education, and opportunity for its absorbed peoples, but it will not tolerate Taranoke’s traditions or family structures. In the Masquerade’s zeal for social “hygiene” and insistence that proper relations must only be between one man and one woman, so many are tortured and killed–for sodomites, the hot rod; for tribadists, the knife. Baru loses one of her fathers, father Solit, to the Empire’s purge–and her life will never be the same.
Baru–brilliant, hungry, enraged–vows to save Taranoke from the Imperial Republic and their ways. And in order to do so, she rises from within the Masquerade’s ranks, studying, preparing, scheming for power. At age eighteen, she is granted the eminent position of Imperial Accountant for Aurdwynn–a land of squabbling dukes, a strategic buffer to threatening realms and prime location for wealth to be amassed for the Imperial Republic.
This exalted position, however, is also Baru’s greatest test. For Aurdwynn has one hobby, one habit stronger than any other: rebellion.
To save her homeland, to truly become her enemy, to prove her loyalty to the Mask and execute the wishes of her traitorous heart, Baru will pay any price–even if those prices mean that the coffers of her heart and soul run completely dry.
"This is the truth. You will know because it hurts."
Seth Dickinson’s debut novel is, in a word, HARROWING. There has never been a more appropriate use of that adjective to describe a book. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is glorious and soul-shaking; it’s the kind of read that rocks you to your very core. It innocently poses as a quiet book of a young heroine grappling with questions of identity, ambition, and vengeance under the cloak of macroeconomic theory… but Baru Cormorant is so much more than that. This is an epic fantasy novel without any dealings of the supernatural or fantastical–it’s an alternate history that concerns itself with the machinations of politics, of empire, of control, and the insidious implications of possessing and enforcing that power. Baru is a reading experience that is by turns hopeful and triumphant, but always, always exacts the cost of that hope and triumph in gold and blood.
Suffice it to say: I loved this book very much.
Written in Seth Dickinson’s crisp yet unassuming prose, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an eminently readable work. Descriptively poetic without being ornate or overwrought, this novel manages to blend depth of characterization with a plot comprising courtly intrigue, simmering rebellion, and nail-biting economic policy–yes, you read that correctly. Nail-biting economic policy (more on that in a bit). The characterization is what drives Baru, with its eponymous heroine (anti-heroine?) and her journey from precocious child, to darling student, to savant and master, to symbol of the Rebellion and of the Empire. It’s a coming of age tale and a romance, it’s a story of power and those who play the game of power. (The subtlety and nuance here, the years of games and machinations and understandings of each cause and effect put other epic fantasy books about squabbles over/seizing power to shame.) Baru herself is sympathetic, infuriating, calculating, naive, and hateful–more than anything, she is utterly, completely dedicated to her end-goal. And, if you’ll permit me to go down a tangent, I recently watched a documentary about a startup business that experienced a high level of success, very quickly. One of the (now, former) founders of this successful company remarked that he now understands what entrepreneurs mean when they say they’ve sacrificed so much to get to the point they’ve reached–not that they’ve had to settle for time away from their families, or how hard the hours have been or the money. Rather, you start to realize that they’re talking about sacrificing who they are, making compromises with their deepest and strongest beliefs, and crossing lines they promised they would never cross.
Such is the tale of Baru Cormorant and her rise.
"The Masquerade sent its favorite soldiers to conquer Taranoke: sailcloth, dyes, glazed ceramic, sealskin and oils, paper currency printed in their Falcrest tongue."
The startup analogy is, if you’ll permit me to continue with it, even more applicable when you realize that this is a book of economics. Baru Cormorant has a head for numbers and equations (but not so much for history), and she is assigned the role as the head accountant for a particularly rebellious region. As accountant, she is tasked with ensuring the accuracy of the many ledgers for the Imperial Bank, for maintaining the dominance of the Falcrestian paper currency backed by the gold that continues to sit in the bank’s coffers. As Baru controls the pursestrings of the region, she also controls the Duchy and Aristocracy, who rely on continual loans to grow, prosper, and compete with their neighbors. So, when Baru discovers a shocking type of laundering scheme in the works funding rebellion, she must also figure out how to counter it. And oh, trust me, it is fascinating. Dickinson manages to blend fiscal policy with historical precedent in an engrossing fantasy novel–think The Ascent of Money or The Wealth and Poverty of Nations or, yes, even Guns, Germs and Steel, but cross-pollinated with Game of Thrones or Jacqueline Carey-esque machinations for power.
But beyond inflationary policy and games of power executed through a single policy maker’s will, even more fascinating is the novel’s discussion of imperialism, the people who are absorbed under such expansion, and the cultural, social and societal changes that happen as a result.
Which brings me to the crux of the issue with The Traitor Baru Cormorant and much of the online discussion that has already occurred, and continues to occur regarding this book. Baru is a brown woman and a “tribadist”–she is a queer woman who guards this secret fiercely. She knows all too well the methods that the Masquerade will employ to exert its will–mutilation, torture, and death. The Empire of Masks insists on the binary, and allows only for the union of a man and a woman–it also delves in eugenics, forced breeding, and controlled intermingling of certain conquered and subsumed peoples (all for the betterment of the Empire, of course). Baru is terrified of revealing her secret, queer characters are tortured and killed in horrible ways, and the ultimate ending of the book involves a lover dying, sacrificing for another’s gain in tragic fashion.
My own experience is this: I am a biracial, straight, cis woman. As such, I approach this book from that perspective–but I cannot ignore or fail to acknowledge the wholly valid, thoughtful, and engaging other interpretations and reactions to this book that others, whom I deeply respect and admire, have written before me.+
For me, and my own interpretation of Baru and Tain Hu’s prickly romance of power, anger, and rebellion–I thought it was heart-wrenching and beautiful in all of its terrible glory. I loved it. I cried, I railed, and I triumphed with Baru’s final decisions.
Many others do not feel this way–and I encourage everyone to read some of these discussions and viewpoints because they are important.
For me? The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a triumph of storytelling and economic policy, and one of my favorite books of 2015.
Another one of our fabulous stories! The first Halloween Tale in what we hope will be an annual tradition. Horror! Identity! First contact! And that cAnother one of our fabulous stories! The first Halloween Tale in what we hope will be an annual tradition. Horror! Identity! First contact! And that cover by Kristina Tsenova
I wish to preface this review by saying I was entranced by this story and I loved it with all my heart – the same heart that was PULLED FROM MY CHESTI wish to preface this review by saying I was entranced by this story and I loved it with all my heart – the same heart that was PULLED FROM MY CHEST AND STOMPED ON by its ending. Oh, look: my heart bleeding at Kai Ashante Wilson’s feet.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps follows a caravan traversing a dangerous road.
It’s a story about brothers in arms, the army of warriors hired to defend the caravan. The bothers all stem from different backgrounds, with different languages and cultures. They are all men (if there is one major criticism I have for this story is this one: where are all the women?) and they all support and are loyal to one another. They joke, they fight.
And here we have this guy – the narrator – Demane, a big bear of a man, a warrior and also a doctor, a healer. In his own mind and his own language what he does, the way he cures, it is all science and physics. To others, he is a sorcerer.
I mention that Demane is a big bear of a man on purpose. This is a narrative that beautifully subverts expectations around warriors, around the idea of manhood and masculinity. If Demane is a bear, he is a Care Bear. He wants to fix the world’s pain. He cares deeply for his comrades and above all for their Captain. Isa.
Isa, who like Demane is a demigod, a descendant from immortal beings. Demane is big and strong whereas Isa is smaller, agile and his hair is covered at all times because without his headscarf, his hair would eat sunshine and he would become even stronger. Isa doesn’t speak: he sings. So, it’s a love story too. Between Demane and Isa and from Demane’s perspective and voice we really know what he feels for Isa. It’s harder to tell what Isa feels.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is the first novella published by Tor.com’s new program. It is quite the start for their new publishing venture – this novella is incredibly dense and it’s definitely not an easy read, but it’s ultimately rewarding (as well as devastating) in a myriad of ways.
It’s not an easy read because the narrative is anything but straightforward. It’s nonlinear, intricate, complex, meandering. It is rewarding because the world building is intriguing, the story does wonders with the idea of masculinity and manhood, the main romance is a LGBT one and the way that it explores language is incredible. The latter does add a layer of difficulty because there is a lot of code switching: the narrator thinks in his own mother tongue, but then there is the language he speaks with his comrades, each with their own common usages. But it is oh, so clever.
It is devastating because at its heart, this is a tragedy. And here is where I am conflicted about it and why it took me so long to write this review even though I read this story a long time ago.
The narrative is ambiguous in places: does Isa really sing when he speaks or is that Demane’s love for him that makes him hear his beloved’s voice as song? Is Isa self-destructive because of his past, because of his age? In many ways, the ending is foreshadowed in different ways – in the footnotes, how people tell the tale of Isa, in a later conversation between Demane and him. Because of this foreshadowing, because of the world building and because of who the characters are, this story feels like it couldn’t be anything but a tragedy and the ending feels very organic.
But it is still a tragic ending that happens to the two queer characters in the story (although not, thankfully, because they are queer). And here we go back to the problem of scarcity: in which mainstream SFF is plagued with tragic queer stories and sometimes, it feels as though queer characters never get a happy ending and it is so… frustrating. Sad-making. And I so wished that Care Bear Demane had his happy ending with his beautiful Isa who sang songs and had sunshine hair.
To paraphrase its own writing, I finished reading The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and on both cheeks I bore a delta of rinsed skin....more
"The Earth is the cradle of Humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever."
In the year 2545, a starship crafted by human hands began its voyage"The Earth is the cradle of Humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever."
In the year 2545, a starship crafted by human hands began its voyage from the Solar System to nearby star, Tau Ceti, just 14 light years away. Moving at 1/10th the speed of light for most of its journey, the ship’s voyage has lasted nearly 160 years when Aurora‘s narrative begins–just 10 years away from arriving at the eponymous moon that may serve as a new home for humanity.
During its long life, Ship has seen fifteen thousand humans (and even more animals, and many, many more bacterial and microbrial life forms) live and die in its rings, spires, and biomes. And now, Ship has begun the calculations and deceleration pattern that will bring it and the thousands of lives aboard to the Tau Ceti system, in the hopes that one of the planets or moons in the star’s habitable zone can host life. There’s Aurora, the crew’s best possible shot–a water world and Earth analog, with the right composition, mass, and likelihood of supporting Terran organisms.
Things have started to go wrong, though, aboard the generation ship itself–and Aurora is not what it seems. Soon, the human explorers born among the stars will face their greatest obstacle, and the first real choice they’ve ever had to make as a group.
“Up until today, history was preordained. We were aimed at Tau Ceti, nothing else could happen. We had to do the necessary … Now that story is over. We are thrust out of the end of that story. Forced to make up a new one, all on our own.”
Aurora is the latest novel from multiple award-winner Kim Stanley Robinson, and it is one that retreads familiar space–the generation ship, traveling from Earth with the fragile hopes of finding a new, habitable home in the stars; the challenges posed by generations of humans and Earth organisms born and living in space after so many years of traveling; an AI that develops a personality; the intrepid leader who unites her people in their indecision and fear. Yes, these may be classic tenets of the space exploration canon, but fear not, fellow traveler and science fiction fan–Aurora is like no other generation ship book you’ve ever read. A brilliant, realistic look at the future of space exploration and the fate that awaits humans among the stars, Aurora is the best book I’ve ever read from Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s also the best book I’ve read so far this year.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about what it is that makes Aurora so successful a tale–is it the blend of hard science fiction physics and biology? The compelling and original narrative structure, coupled with truly unexpected plot developments? The social and ethical questions posed by the narrative regarding space travel and the humans sent to colonize the stars? The legacy of a great leader and her daughter’s struggles to live up to her mother’s expectations? The evolution of Ship itself over two centuries of consciousness? The answer, of course, is that it is all of these things in a perfect, delicate balance–a calibration of which Ship itself would approve (and a goal to which Ship itself would need to dedicate its entire processing power).
From the very first page, Aurora succeeds, excels, as a story because of its unexpected narrative in both structure and substance. It begins as a kind of assignment, 159 years into the voyage. Over the years, the human lives aboard ship have been organized not in the tradition sense of having a captain, a first mate, and all the other associated ranks of command. Rather, Ship is broken into different biomes, modules that replicate the diverse ecologies and biologies of Earth–tundra, prairie grasslands, rainforest, boreal forests, freshwater lakes, deserts, and the like. Each biome is named for its Terran counterpart (there is a Costa Rica, a Mongolia, a Nova Scotia, and so on). For the most part, people can travel between biomes and wander the ship, although relatively few choose this life of wandering–although two very important people to this narrative have done so.
Aurora‘s main protagonist is a woman named Freya–at the time the narrative begins, Freya is just 14 years old, and following her mother Devi around the ship as Devi deals with problem after problem. So, while the ship has no commander or chief engineer, Devi is the de facto leader of this mission. Brilliant, able to predict and sidestep some of the logical fallacies and assumptions humans are apt to make, Devi is the reason why the ship is running so well, so late into its voyage. She identifies the myriad problems and their possible implications in the ship’s forever-closed system; she worries and obsesses and is so very angry (though most people can’t tell–Freya is very good at tuning into people’s feelings, though). Devi is also the reason why Ship is aware and creating a narrative–it is Devi who, in her younger years, started talking to Ship and worked on developing its artificial intelligence from a great quantum computer to something, possibly, more.
It is Devi who tells Ship to build a narrative of the journey, because she knows her time is short and that her people will need Ship’s help to survive whatever happens when they reach Tau Ceti and make landfall on Aurora.
And so Ship, after studying the appropriate queries and literature, focuses its narrative on Freya–Ship’s mother was Devi, too, so Freya becomes a natural focus of its attention. Freya knows that she is not her mother; she lacks her mother’s brilliant, glittering intellect and Devi’s ability to see the whole picture. In fact, Freya isn’t good with numbers or equations or science at all–but she is methodical, and deeply perceptive when it comes to empathy and other people. Like her mother, Freya chooses to wander the ship in her younger years, living with different people in different biomes, making new friends as she travels. (This becomes very important later, when every soul aboard the ship must choose how they will deal with their collective future.) The tension between Freya and the legacy of her mother, the great Devi, is a defining characteristic of Aurora, of Freya’s character, and Ship’s narrative–when the bad times come, Freya, her father Badim, and many others ask themselves “What would Devi do?” At every major point in her life, ever leadership moment, every watershed decision, Freya channels this question and does what she thinks is right–what she knows her mother would have chosen for the best possible survival of her people.
Ship’s narrative is also very clever in the manner that it divulges and withholds information. Aurora is a “hard” science fiction novel that offers plenty of meat in the biological and computational problems associated with space travel–because this is an AI, learning to tell a story, its asides into the problems of island biogeography and genetic diversity, complicated maneuvers around or composition of interstellar bodies, computational decision-making problems, are not info-dumpy or misplaced. They are naturally ingrained in the narrative–and if ship ever gets too far off course, there are humans to bring it back to the main thread of the story. (Another refrain from both Devi and Freya: “Get to the point!”) Suffice it to say that the science in the book is fascinating–the exploration of 200 years in space without the lifeline of Earth has its profound effect on the people, animals, and organisms aboard ship. These effects begin to take their toll when Devi is alive, and her greatest fears are realized just a few short decades later.
I refuse to divulge any spoilers–and I highly, highly recommend that anyone interested in reading this book refrain from looking at spoilers–but something very dramatic happens in the early half of the book that changes the trajectory of this voyage forever, and the goal of the narrative. I love that the official description of this book is intentionally vague–and it would do you, fellow readers, a disservice to spoil what happens to Ship and the lives aboard it when they get to Tau Ceti (or the thing that has happened in decades past, or that lies in the decades to come).
Which brings me to my next point, and the two most important reasons that Aurora is such a powerful and memorable book: the active questioning of the ethics of sending a generation ship on such a journey into space, and the character of such a self-aware spaceship itself.
I would like to assert a hypothesis (no doubt a generalization that Devi and Ship would find hugely flawed): most science fiction fans who choose to pick up a story about a generation ship and its arrival at a distant, Earth analog world, want to read the story of humanity settling at that world. We want to read the struggles faced by the humans aboard the generation ship, we want to understand the consequences of over a century of living in simulated 1.1g without sufficient biodiversity, we want to watch the spectacle of these humans who have never set foot on Earth or any other planet make their triumphant, hard-fought way on their new home.
"Here at this moment, Aurora roared, howled, boomed, shrieked, whistled. One of the explorers was bowled over, crawled around, got onto hands and knees, then stood up, carefully balancing, facing intot he wind and stepping back quickly four or five times, swinging arms, ducking forward to hold position. They were all laughing."
Aurora is and is not that story.
The quote from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, that notion that Earth is the cradle of humanity but one cannot stay in the cradle forever, is a central lifeline at the heart of any exploration in space–it’s the mentality that launched ship to Tau Ceti over a century before the book officially starts. It is also the underlying assumption that Aurora unequivocally, relentlessly challenges with every page. Ultimately, it’s a question of choice. Devi is so angry for so much of her life because she never had the choice to board a tin can–brilliant as it may be–and set off for the stars. Freya, and Badim, and Jochi, and Euan, all of these lives and the near 2000 souls who are aboard ship as it reaches Tau Ceti never were asked what they wanted, but had the choice made for them by one of their ambitious, exploration-hungry ancestors. Robinson’s argument with Aurora–so markedly different from his other books–is that there is a great human cost associated with exploration, and that space is hostile to human life. It reminds me of an accurate quote from Star Trek‘s Bones McCoy: “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” It is. Realistically, at this point in time, with the knowledge we have of the universe, it is. Colonization is hard, even impossible in space because other worlds are either dead and hostile rocks that will take thousands of years to terraform (presuming it is possible at all), or they are alive with their own invasive forms of life, which are almost certainly incompatible or hostile with humanity. A solution to the Fermi Paradox, if you will. Other intelligences or life may have the ability to travel to the stars, but it’s a farce–because the type of life supported by one world will not be compatible with another.
Aurora almost reads as a mea culpa for space colonization optimism, for getting caught up in the idea of something without considering the human cost. It’s a different, bold perspective that makes all the sense in the world, whether or not you agree with the sentiment.
"We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love."
Finally, last but certainly not least, the reason why Aurora stands out in this reader’s mind, is because of the ship itself. The starship that was once called Pauline by Devi, but refers to itself as Ship (and with the royal We), is not only the narrator and guide of much of this book, but its own evolution over the course of its centuries of life is the great achievement of exploration and humanity in Aurora. At times frustrating, at times funny, but always, always insightful, Ship is the gatekeeper of information and the caretaker of so many lives as it makes its way through space. It learns, it grows, it changes.
How much did I care about Ship? I legitimately teared up at the end, as Ship begins its glorious last run, its final calculations as it travels an impossible path.
"We had our meaning, we were the starship that came back, that got its people home. That got some fraction of its people home alive. It was a joy to serve."
It was a joy to read, too.
Aurora is a brilliant book. It is a challenging book. It is one that I savored, that I devoted all my attention towards, that I loved with every fiber of my being. It is one of the best books of science fiction I’ve read, and the best book I’ve read all year....more