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Book Reviews: December 2020

A Universe of Wishes
Dhonielle Clayton, ed.
Hardcover/Ebook
ISBN: 9781984896209
Crown Books for Young Readers, December 2020, 416 pgs

In the March 2020 issue of Lightspeed, I reviewed Patrice Caldwell’s A Phoenix First Must Burn—very favorably. The moment I saw that book, I craved it, having pored through so many anthologies that lacked any meaningful amount of diversity. In fact, the more I studied anthologies, the more I realized that many editors repeatedly publish the same core set of authors across books and sometimes even across decades. In Phoenix, Caldwell declared an objective: to provide space for people who don’t see themselves represented enough in fiction. Whether or not you feel underrepresented, Phoenix put forward a batch of wonderful stories for any reader.

When I saw the cover for A Universe of Wishes, it had that same immediate impact, eliciting a similar craving. In fact, Universe editor Dhonielle Clayton contributed a story to Phoenix. Both Phoenix and Universe are published by Penguin Random House children’s imprints, and the latter has “We Need Diverse Books” across the top of the cover. Needless to say, the expectation elicited was to find something fairly similar to Phoenix. Even Clayton’s opening note declares, “The only thing that made me happy was reading . . . But after a while, I started to notice that kids who looked like me didn’t get to save the world, didn’t get grand adventures through fantastical landscapes, didn’t get to go to magic camp . . . For far too long some of us have been missing from magical worlds.” And I was not let down.

As with Phoenix, whether or not you feel underrepresented by the publishing industry, whether or not you crave stories that may more closely represent you, Clayton has put together a set of excellent tales for you.

Let’s talk favorites!

Tochi Onyebuchi’s “Habibi” is a tale of two people worlds apart in different sorts of dire circumstances who find a mysterious way to communicate. As they share their stories with each other, they grow as people and learn about themselves. This story gave me chills, and I can’t pay any piece of fiction a higher compliment than that. The power of this story is in the development of the narrative, so I won’t ruin it by saying more.

“The Takeback Tango” proves that Rebecca Roanhorse is just as great with space opera as she is with various types of fantasy settings. A young scoundrel sets out to steal back a few cultural artifacts from the Museum of the Conquered, items that were stolen when the Imperium took over yet another planet in their endless quest to expand and rule. This piece immediately grabs the reader through voice and character, rendering a sixteen-year-old protagonist who is full of charm. It has the sort of on-point socio-commentary on class and culture that regular readers of Roanhorse will expect, made more personal through an individual’s journey to hang onto the slenderest shred of sovereignty possible, and a sharp sense of aloneness from loss, not only the loss of one’s people, but of their family.

Natalie C. Parker’s “The Silk Blade” is a wonderful fantasy story that feels nearly epic, succeeding in creating an interesting narrative through a gladiatorial trope. The tale combines strength and softness and the delicate in unexpected ways, and plays with gender roles as well as familiar plotlines. Worldbuilding details and the courtship process itself make this one cool, with the added bonus of a thoughtful ending.

Title story “A Universe of Wishes” by Tara Sim has a great opening and an intriguing world. Thorn is trying to gather the magical power of wishes in a very specific way, and in the process gets caught by Sage. Thus begins a relationship that is well-written and constantly engaging. Some of the conflict points are predictable, but the treatment of their interactions is deft, and there are so many lovely plot moments and subtle reversals that this story can’t be considered anything less than a true accomplishment. This piece is also lightly philosophical, elevating the narrative: “Wonder, Thorn realized, was beautiful; it banished what was impossible and made room for belief.” Finally, the ending surprises, and yet still brings all the bits of the story together in a satisfying way.

The standout for me, the story that made me want to go to Twitter and shout to everyone how great this book is, was a story I didn’t even think I’d like: “Cristal y Ceniza” by Anna-Marie McLemore. I have seen so many retellings. And while retellings have their advocates, not to mention die-hard fans, I rarely feel that they do enough. This Cinderella retelling features a loving central family and the government as the bearer of malice: “La corrección,” an initiative in this fantasy kingdom setting that separates any spouses who are not male and female pairs, reassigning them to other spouses. In other words, ripping families apart so that anyone the government considers “male” will be with someone the government considers “female.” This story offers a level of insightful and nuanced class commentary that armchair intellectuals pretend to but miss: “This was the way of the world, how things came to be. Not by kneeling before sovereigns, but by small bargains made, with those who wanted what little I had to give.” It’s heartbreaking and wonderful at once. The narrative is made even better by McLemore’s thoughtful decisions around plot; a few inspired shifts in familiar narratives result in a really beautiful and award-worthy story.

The table of contents of Universe is stacked with tested and proven storytellers, such as V.E. Schwab, Tessa Gratton, and Zoraida Córdova. Readers can open this book anywhere and find a solid tale. The anthology Vampires Never Get Old featured some of the same authors, and a quick browse around will reveal a few more anthologies that offer better representation than many of the books soaking up the bulk of genre’s attention.

My single concern in seeing major anthologies like this gaining prominence is the sense of repeating the pattern of a lot of those other, established, well-known anthologists: utilizing a core set of people, and missing the opportunity to bring the sort of freshness to the game that comes from finding and publishing new voices—right next to the powerhouses of story whose names will sell the books. All the same, with these particular writers executing stories on this level, I, for one, will continue to crave and devour them.

Glitter + Ashes
dave ring, ed.
Paperback/Ebook
ISBN: 9781952086106
Neon Hemlock Press, September 2020, 256 pgs

It’s not necessarily unusual for a press to appear out of nowhere. Small and indie presses come and go, to a point where it becomes hard to keep track of them all. A press you’ve never heard of will announce their fifteenth anniversary, and another seemingly familiar press will announce the publication of their first title. Some are little more than vanity presses. Then again, several indie presses have reputations for higher caliber work, such as Small Beer and Tachyon, both known for discerning taste; Fairwood, which boasts a stable of reliable storytellers; and relative newcomer (since 2014) Meerkat, whose books are already accruing accolades and landing on awards lists. What is surprising is that an indie press would appear seemingly out of nowhere, produce a really nice-looking book early on, and present stories that are actually quite good. Thus, I introduce you to Neon Hemlock press, and their anthology Glitter + Ashes.

Sub-titled “Queer tales of a world that wouldn’t die” Glitter + Ashes features twenty-six pieces—some very short—“centering queer joy and community in the face of disaster . . .” As a collection, these aren’t superficial, sappy, or silly tales. They are thoughtful, uplifting, and empowering. Moreover, the work here features an array of intersectional diversity: It’s the sort of inclusive storytelling that isn’t adding in shoehorned identities for the sake of checking boxes; rather, these are tales that reflect a range of real perspectives and people through the lens of the fantastic.

The table of contents offers a strong set of stories. Short fiction readers will recognize the likes of up-and-coming authors Elly Bangs, Darcie Little Badger, and C.L. Clark, authors with notable short stories out and with new books on offer: Unity (Tachyon), Elatsoe (Levine Querido), and The Unbroken (Orbit, due in 2021) respectively. Add to this the likes of L.D. Lewis and Mari Ness, both well-known figures in the industry, and it’s clear that the baseline of quality in this anthology is higher than many—especially for a new indie press.

All the same, I have my favorites.

“Wrath of a Queer God” by Anthony Mull begins the anthology. It’s less than a page long—brief, clever, but utilizing lines that open up the imagination to broader images and scenes. The effect is an impact much larger than its word count, and a great demonstration of the dynamic nature of story.

“The Descent of Their Last End” by Izzy Wasserstein is gently beautiful and brief. As ash falls from the sky, two people share their last moments together, in a way that is poignant but grounded. At a page and a half or so, it’s surprisingly creative, interesting, and touching.

Michael Milne offers an intriguing world and set up in “The Bone Gifts.” Awl is a caretaker for the dying, and lives in a tower where people come to die. When Halligan dies, Awl is caught between the claims of her father and her wife, both of whom want Halligan’s skull. This story goes beyond cool ideas by virtue of its meditation on the way we cling to what little is left to us in our people.

Nods go to “A Future in Color” by R.J. Theodore, which has an interesting idea and is, perhaps, an allegory for the interdependent nature of artistic endeavors, not to mention life in general; and “Be Strong, Kick Many Asses” by Aun-Juli Riddle, an intimate look at the ways renewal and change are not always bad, even if they are scary.

A major standout is Jordan Kurella’s “The Black Hearts of La Playa.” This one is cut with strong lines and good turns of phrase. It’s a story that feels like it’s written from a joy of writing, evidenced by word choice, structure, the play of sentences, and phrases calling back to each other. Clever without arrogance, and approachable still. The language sets the groundwork for cool situations and even cooler ideas. Letty lives in a camp in the desert, an outpost of survivors standing against the menace of vampires. On the one hand, she has to reconcile her memories of her mother with her own observations of what they are doing out there; on the other, she has to navigate the often tricky interpersonal dramas which come from living in close proximity, and from building different sorts of relationships. The narrative takes things a step deeper, exploring the phases of Letty’s sense of belonging via her journey of self-discovery. It’s an excellent example of storytelling and craft.

While Kurella’s piece is outstanding, my favorite was Christopher Caldwell’s “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.” This piece was immediately engaging, bright with imagery, and had me absolutely laughing out loud from wonderful dialogue and the author’s wit. It is, essentially, the tale of a magical drag queen’s exodus, as she takes her “children” from one place to somewhere much safer. It’s warm and lovingly told and, at the same time, a rather wholesome adventure story.

It doesn’t matter if these favorites end up being yours, or if you find others that speak to you more. The bottom line is this: Rarely does a small press put together something so good so early on. If Neon Hemlock continues this kind of work, they are destined to become of the best indie presses around.

Black Sun
Rebecca Roanhorse
Hardcover/Ebook
ISBN: 9781534437678
Simon & Schuster/Gallery/Saga Press, October 2020, 464 pgs

Occasionally I want to write a single-line review: “Read this book.” Even more so for Black Sun, which is full of surprise and wonder, and which should be discovered in the course of leaving assumptions and expectations left behind.

The opening scene is vivid, arresting, and should be enough to convince anyone to read this book. It begins, “Today he would become a god. His mother had told him so.” What follows lands a solid visceral impact, verging on horror in all the best ways. Going beyond the spectacle, the narrative delivers an artfully nuanced relationship between mother and son, a detailed fantasy culture, and a clever plot set-up. You could teach writing classes based on chapter one alone.

The plot brings together disparate and fascinating main characters. Xiala is a sailor with fantastic abilities to affect the waters, and uncanny navigation abilities. She is rowdy and wild, and fairly cavalier about burning bridges. She hails from a group of people who are literally cut up and sold for parts. Serapio is an introspective youth, a vessel for a god with a violent bent, who is sent on a quest for vengeance. Naranpa is the pinnacle of authority in a system that seems to be losing its authority. She has to negotiate the politics of a crumbling power structure, as well as the intricacies of having been elevated to a position many feel she shouldn’t have, all while a scheme may be brewing to kill her, a justice-seeking revenge plot for the horrors her predecessors committed.

Each character is thoughtfully drawn, thrown into compelling circumstances in a detailed and innovative fantasy setting; and yet each individual is still relatable, their complicated lives striking chords to resonate on a deeply emotional and personal level. The strongest themes the book explores through the focus of their stories are those of belonging, complicated identities, and love. At heart, this is a story of misfits and people struggling to survive. Each character is caught in delicate circumstances, caught between cultures of different kinds, and has to navigate what that means within their specific situations. Serapio, for example, struggles with his destiny, and is willing to pack away his own desires to follow what must be done, even if he isn’t sure he agrees with it. His parents were in violent disagreement over how to raise him, coming from different backgrounds and beliefs. He acts in the name of a people who may not care for him, yet there’s an undercurrent of desire for connection that sings throughout his narrative.

Roanhorse creates a luxurious, imaginative fantasy setting, grounded in research and divorced from the European-style fantasy worlds that have become fairly standard fare. She breathes a glowing life into her characters, and crafts an intricate, engaging plot. This book demonstrates both a mastery of form and a willingness to explore, to actually challenge traditions and readers, and to not only add to genre, but to expand upon genre, with the best of possible results.

Read. This. Book.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief of Fantasy Magazine, senior editor at Locus Magazine, and associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He reviews books for Locus, Lightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.