Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Book Reviews: March 2020

The City We Became
N.K. Jemisin
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 978-0316509848
Orbit, March 2020, 448 pgs

The City We Became is entertaining, engaging, and most importantly, fun! The Orbit Publishing site’s blurb begins, “Every great city has a soul.” But trust me: Skip the blurb, skip the descriptions, and dive in. Let this book surprise you.

N.K. Jemisin is perhaps best known for The Broken Earth series, each book of which won a Hugo Award for Best Novel. Completed after The Dreamblood fantasy duology and The Inheritance fantasy series, The Broken Earth, for many readers, cemented Jemisin’s reputation for groundbreaking secondary world fiction limned with anger and social commentary. In her 2018 Locus interview, Jemisin described The City We Became, saying, “After the Broken Earth, I needed a palate cleanser. This is just meant to be a fun, silly story.” And Jemisin delivered—although I’d add “brilliant.”

If some measure of advanced description is required, stand in a bookstore and read the prologue—any reader with heart and imagination will keep going. The prologue is kind of tactile and visual, yet somehow real, and just thoroughly interesting. It tickles at curiosity immediately, while laying down wonderful character work via smooth internalization in an easy, flowing voice. The sum effect is a sense of something epic and cinematic, seasoned with a dash of the surreal and a dose of the very real, all within the span of a few pages.

The story itself is that evil is brewing, threatening to destroy New York. The city is becoming sentient, waking up to life. As it wakes, a set of humans become avatars for the city: Each represents a part of the city, and as a collective, they represent the entire thing. Together, they must rise up and fight against evil. It’s all a bit graphic novel, a bit The Matrix, a bit anime, as well as old school horror, in the best of possible ways. Super Sentai TV shows come to mind, specifically Battle Fever J (though your referent may vary), their descendant anime shows, as well as DC comics villain Starro. Lovecraft is both evoked and critiqued. So much is immediately familiar and full of nostalgia, while still being full of surprises and glittering creativity. It’s seamless and fun and even on this level alone, well done.

What makes this book even more special is that the characters are so different from each other, just as each borough of New York is different from each other. The people they know are different from each other, the people they meet are different from each other. Calling it “diverse” or “inclusive” doesn’t really do justice to what is, at heart, simply a stunning set of characters drawn from a variety of possibilities and portrayed incredibly skillfully.

Meanwhile, the narrative holds a mirror up to American (meaning US) culture. The beautiful and the terrible are on display, seen through themes on family, prejudice, friendship, struggle, and more. Gentrification is personified and challenged. Love, however, in its myriad expressions, runs throughout the story.

Along this vein, the heart of the book is, essentially, a glowing but occasionally quite frank love letter to New York City. And it ain’t all pretty. But it feels deeply researched and deeply lived. Moreover, the story is filigreed with fantastic cultural and historical notes, which makes the read, while still easy, richer; it gives the narrative depth of life and further complexity.

My slight objection would be that the characters often simply “know” things or “don’t know” things, or “realize” things, without necessarily earning discovery or knowledge. Sometimes they “feel” the answer to a question; sometimes they don’t, or maybe eventually do. It’s arbitrary and plot convenient. Accordingly, solutions to problems sometimes feel random or just handed to the characters. At the same time, it does line up with the premise, and it serves to keep momentum going in a book that is already incredible and doing a lot of things.

The City We Became is fierce, clever, brilliant, and beautiful. It is genre at its best: a tale of living cities that illuminates truths about human lives. While having fun!

A Phoenix First Must Burn
Patrice Caldwell, ed.
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 978-1984835659
Viking Books for Young Readers, March 2020, 368 pgs

The tagline “Sixteen stories of Black girl magic, resistance, and hope” caught my eye. But seeing the authors listed in the table of contents enticed me to start reading, such as Alaya Dawn Johnson, Rebecca Roanhorse, Somaiya Daud, L.L. McKinney, and more. Not only is this a collection of heavily awarded and recognized authors, but they are authors with interesting things to say, and important perspectives, not just on current issues, but on life and culture in general. The uncorrected early copy promised that “Octavia Butler’s heirs have woven worlds to create a stunning narrative that centers Black women and gender-nonconforming individuals.” What A Phoenix First Must Burn delivers is wonderful narratives that subvert expectations, challenge assumptions, and above all else, entertain.

Favorites include Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Gilded,” which is immediately arresting through striking imagery wrought in easy, lovely prose. The year is 1521. In the Ingenio of Admiral Diego Colón in Hispaniola, a girl is born who is attuned to metals: They sing to her, and if she focuses, she can shape them according to her will. Children are rare in this work camp, where non-white people are forced into lifelong slavery, and punishments are common. But the girl with a talent for metal discovers that she can gather more goods than most, so the admiral offers to let her buy her freedom. Just when she thinks she has it figured out, a young man arrives, new labor from across the ocean, and he complicates everything. It’s a beautiful tale, told in a soft yet fierce tenor.

“Melie” by Dread Nation author Justina Ireland is deep fantasy genre fun: a sorcerer’s apprentice story in a standard-ish fantasy setting, but with meaning and bite. Melie is constantly overlooked and relegated to fetching things. She is clever, however, and quite stubborn, qualities which serve her well. Determined to rise in the ranks, her efforts uncover surprises that threaten to upend her world. This piece is a solid narrative with great subtext on human interaction posed in straightforward but kind ways. Even better, Melie is a wonderful character.

Dhonielle Clayton presents “Hearts Turned to Ash,” a captivating tale steeped in Americana, told in smooth writing. Etta is dealing with heartbreak when her soul mate breaks up with her. The problem is, for Etta, this heartbreak is a fatal condition: Her heart is literally turning to ash. She has little time to figure out why this is happening and to try to fix it. It’s a great blend of folklore and fairy tale, with cool imagery and textures.

Book editor Caldwell has her own story in the anthology as well: “Letting the Right One In.” I hesitated to read it, as I have feelings about editors putting their own stories in an anthology they are editing—and the feelings aren’t good. There is no one to declare, “This bit isn’t working,” or “This story isn’t so strong; do you have another?” In Caldwell’s story, Ayanna is a young introvert who loves reading vampire books, and who becomes more and more disconnected from friends and family. In fact, Ayanna struggles with depression and feelings of isolation. Everything changes when a girl turns up in the library, a girl who is reading the book Ayanna had planned to check out! It’s a vampire story and as such, it’s very familiar. Some parts of the piece seem obvious. But good characters, good writing, and lovely dialogue make this story interesting. Details in the narrative make it thoughtful and quite strong.

Danny Lore’s “Tender-Headed” is a battle of the braids, where Akilah has had enough of Auntie stealing her neighborhood business braiding people’s hair. The set-up is great, the storytelling is compelling, and the dialogue is effective. It starts out as a tale of youth versus age and ends up a touching story about family.

National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi offers “Kiss the Sun,” a stunning tale of the soucouyants of Kiskeya island. By day they work in the resort or have other unassuming jobs. At night, they become “witches”—flying balls of fire that feast on human souls. The story draws on folklore as a backdrop for a brilliant discussion of women’s relationships with each other, as well as the impact of invasive developers on local culture and identity. It’s a gorgeous piece in so many ways, especially in the way it challenges ingrained and destructive ideas around beauty.

Caldwell, in her introduction, makes her objective clear: Representation is important, and she wants to help. She wants to provide stories where people who don’t see themselves nearly enough in fiction (or see only harmful examples) can find a mirror to their lives, their realities, their beings. It’s a wonderful collection of stories, it’s important, and everyone should read it.

Made to Order: Robots and Revolution
Jonathan Strahan, ed.
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 978-1781087879
Rebellion/Solaris, March 2020, 400 pgs

Jonathan Strahan has been editing anthologies since 1997’s The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy: Volume 1. Even before this point he had been publishing and editing Eidolon magazine as well as writing reviews for a number of years. Fifteen Hugo Award nominations and a World Fantasy Award win later (among other accolades), he gives us Made to Order, one of three anthologies he has scheduled for 2020 release, along with a handful of other books he is editing for Tor.com Publishing. It is, therefore, no surprise that the table of contents for this original anthology is so promising: Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Alastair Reynolds, Annalee Newitz, John Chu, Sofia Samatar, and Brooke Bolander are among the star-studded names of award-winning notables in this book. It is also no surprise that the stories themselves are consistently interesting and strong.

A good anthology will inevitably contain a story or three which didn’t land for any given reader, but it should also have those pieces which soar. For me, standouts included Ian R. MacLeod’s “Sin Eater.” It begins with a fairly familiar trope but MacLeod pairs this with the science fictional concept of consciousness transfer to a virtual world and throws it all into a fairly far-future Earth setting. The focus of the piece is one of the last tangible humans left: the Pope. There are some expected elements, but it’s a fun read and intellectually engaging read.

Tochi Onyebuchi’s “The Hurt Pattern” is a biting tale of a young lad who is essentially a near-future news-finder. “News” is, of course, a loose term. He works digitally through various surveillance networks for a company that sells the image feeds to whoever will buy them. As failsafes start to fall apart and the partitions in his brain no longer work, he is emotionally battered by the barrage of human misery he’s supposed to emotionlessly monitor. Where the story goes from there should be left for discovery. It’s a smart take on capitalism and its dehumanizing effects, as well as surveillance, and more.

“The Endless” by Saad Z. Hossain pits AI against AI (and a human or two) in a piece that critiques corporate culture, questions definitions of sentience, and speaks on race and class, all in intriguing, thoughtful ways. An AI is being forced out of its job of running an airport and, instead of getting the job it was promised, it’s essentially getting demoted to working in relatively severe confinement, potentially forever. The language and writing are both excellent, replete with dark, sometimes sardonic humor. Some of the material is expected, and on one level, this is a basic revenge story. There is also a stream-of-consciousness feeling to the narrative, rather than the feeling of a carefully plotted story. At the same time, there is so much more which elevates this piece, including one of my favorite scenes in the entire anthology—no spoilers—and plenty of cool surprises. It’s vicious, deep, and fun, all at once.

One of the most impressive pieces, strictly on a “damn, that’s good writing” basis, is Daryl Gregory’s “Brother Rifle.” First, it is perhaps one of the more interesting and creative premises in the book; it’s an interesting take on the theme: A previously decisive marine, who used a gun-robot in combat, has been rendered unable to be decisive after a brain injury. On an intellectual level, it challenges the reader to examine the concept of “robot” not only against the tool the marine uses but against the human protagonist who has been damaged. Besides these questions posed, the storytelling is thoughtful and cleverly engaging. The story starts out fairly gripping and gets more and more taut as it progresses. It ends up as a wonderful examination of relationships, choice, and the human condition.

There is a great breadth of purpose and approach to the tales in Strahan’s collection: a variety of interpretations, not to mention styles of science fiction. There are twists on the familiar and there are innovative visions. More importantly, Made to Order brings together some really solid pieces of writing.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is an assistant editor at Locus Magazine. He’s soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.