A Wiscon Reading Report: The Best in Upcoming Fantasy – 2017 Edition

A Wiscon Reading Report: The Best in Upcoming Fantasy – 2017 Edition

CSE Cooney and Amal El-Mohtar reading at Wiscon 2017-small CSE Cooney and Amal El-Mohtar reading at Wiscon 2017 2-small CSE Cooney and Amal El-Mohtar reading at Wiscon 2017 3-small

CSE Cooney and Guest of Honor Amal El-Mohtar perform Music & Miscellania at Wiscon 2017

Just a few days ago I wrote about Kay Kenyon’s upcoming novel At the Table of Wolves, the tale of a young woman forced to use her budding superpowers to spy on Nazi Germany and prevent the immanent invasion of England. It’s pretty clear to me that this is one of 2017’s breakout novels, and I was thrilled to get a sneak peek at it last year.

How did that happen? By attending a small, intimate reading at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio. In fact, convention readings have tipped me off to countless breakout books over the years, including works from Guy Gavriel Kay, N.K. Jemisin, Ian Tregillis, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, Cory Doctorow, and many others. I even attended a reading by George R.R. Martin many years ago, in which he read from an unpublished novel titled A Game of Thrones — and then stuck around afterwards to chat to the small audience, and sign my advance copy of the book.

Any convention worth its salt will have a decent reading program. But the best conventions showcase a wide range of writers, and have multiple reading tracks. And after decades of attending cons, I can say without hesitation that the one with the best record for introducing me to stellar new talent — and tipping me off to fantastic new books — through its reading program is Wiscon, held every May in Madison, Wisconsin. And this year’s con was no exception.

[Click the images for bigger versions.]

Max Gladstone, CSE Cooney, Amal El-Mohtar and K. Tempest Bradford at Wiscon-small

Max Gladstone, CSE Cooney, Amal El-Mohtar and K. Tempest Bradford at Wiscon

This year Wiscon was held from Friday, May 26, 2017 through Memorial Day, Monday, May 29, 2017. Here’s my rundown of the highlights from this year’s convention. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend every reading, but I did the best I could.

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Fri, 4:00–5:15 pm
Amal El-Mohtar has a history of collaborating with likeminded souls, from editing a poetry zine to performing with a troupe of writer/musicians to co-writing fiction and beyond. How is it possible to discover fellow travelers and co conspirators across space and time(zones)? What are the benefits of such long distance collaborations, and how do different kinds of collaborative projects come together?
Max Gladstone, CSE Cooney, Amal El-Mohtar and K. Tempest Bradford

The Stop, Collaborate and Listen panel was moderated by K. Tempest Bradford, and really was an informal — and very funny — conversation between Guest of Honor Amal El-Mohtar and two of her frequent collaborators, Max Gladstone and CSE Cooney. The audience heard plenty of tips on what makes a good collaboration (and how to tell when a project is going off the rails), and plenty of very funny anecdotes from the panelists on how collaborations are born.

CSE Cooney and Amal El-Mohtar reading at Wiscon 2017 4-small

C. S. E. Cooney and Amal El-Mohtar

Music & Miscellania

Fri, 9:00–10:15 pm
Come and enjoy a musical extravaganza concocted by bewitching sensations Amal El-Mohtar and C.S.E. Cooney. Their repertoire includes singing, musical instruments of undisclosed types, moderate mayhem and poetry.
C. S. E. Cooney, Amal El-Mohtar

Alecto! Alecto!-smallThis was a joint reading/performance by C.S.E. (Claire) Cooney and Guest of Honor Amal El-Mohtar, and it was the highlight of the Friday programming. It was held in Michelangelos, a warm and spacious cafe across the street from the convention hotel.

It’s not easy to sing a cappella for over an hour, jointly and solo, but Claire and Amal pulled it off. More than that, they had the audience completely enthralled. Claire sang selections from her two albums, Headless Bride and Alecto! Alecto! My favorites were “Lysistrata, Strut Your Stuff,” “Foxgirl Song Cycle 1,” and “Sisters Lionheart.” Amal read a number of poems, including the hard-hitting “Song for an Ancient City” and “The Winter Tree.” Several times they performed together, to powerful effect.

Claire published the complete set at her blog. You can also listen to both of her albums online, and I highly encourage you to do so. Both are highly enjoyable, but Alecto! Alecto! is especially fine, packed with brilliant lyrics and playful melodies, and several really hypnotic tunes.

Alecto! Alecto!

Headless Bride

That wrapped up Friday. Saturday was a day of back-to-back readings, with a stellar participant list. Wiscon is a pretty large convention, with over a dozen simultaneous program tracks, and I spent the day running from one reading to another, hurriedly cross referencing the program book and the map to find out where the hell the Assembly and Conference 2 rooms were. And try as I might, I couldn’t fit everything in — for example, I was forced to skip the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading, which in past years has been a highlight of the Wiscon reading program.

It was all worth it. I spent the day being introduced to — or getting reacquainted with — some of the most talented writers in the field.

Here’s the rundown.

The Four Musketeers - Jeanine Marie Vaughn, Randee Dawn, S. Brackett Robertson, and CSE Cooney-small

The Four Musketeers and their marvelous hats: Jeanine Marie Vaughn,
Randee Dawn, S. Brackett Robertson, and CSE Cooney

The Four Musketeers

Sat, 10:00–11:15 am
The Four Musketeers come together to tell tales of trolls, pirates, fae warfare, haunted dolls, and shadowspirits.
C. S. E. Cooney , Randee Dawn, S. Brackett Robertson, Jeanine Marie Vaughn

This reading opened with the four participants showing off an impressive array of hats. While there were several highlights of ahead of me the rest of the day, this session turned out to be the most consistently excellent and surprising 90 minutes of the entire convention.

Jeanine Marie Vaughn proved an excellent choice to open. She read a chapter from The Peculiar Predicament of Poppets, her unpublished novel of the Great Chicago Fire — or, more accurately, her novel about the rash of mysterious and deadly fires that started on October 8, 1871, and struck multiple municipalities on the same day. The brief excerpt Jeanine read featured a terrifically exciting runaway wagon scene, and an exceptionally brave young girl whose attempt to rescue her mother and sister held the entire audience enthralled. I listened to many readings on Saturday, but there wasn’t another one that had me on the edge of my seat the way Jeanine’s did. I’ve heard bits and pieces of Jeanine’s novel at other readings over the years, and I’m certain it won’t be long before this one is snapped up by a savvy editor. It features great characters, a solid premise, steadily mounting dread, and supernaturally creepy dolls. This one is a winner.

Randee Dawn read from her unpublished story “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t expecting much. The quick synopsis she gave at the start — something about portals opening in the countryside, the fae intruding into our world, and the military dispatched to intercept them — didn’t grab me, and I sorta expected to tune out after a few minutes. Didn’t happen. In fact, Dawn had me intrigued after five minutes, and downright hooked after ten. Crisp, spot-on dialog, completely believable characters, fast action, and strong hints of sinister goings-on — Dawn’s story had it all, and then some. If this one had been available in the dealer’s room when the reading was over, I would’ve snapped it up immediately. It will appear in the upcoming anthology Children of a Different Sky, and I’m anxiously looking forward to reading the whole thing.

S. Brackett Robertson was another pleasant surprise. She read from an unpublished short story about a young student who gets lost on the way home, and finds a small bridge with a surprisingly talkative troll. Unable to pay for passage, the student must rely on wits. At school the next day, the student finds at least one other attendee has met up with the troll. Robertson’s story was memorable for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most intriguing was her casual use of non-gendered pronouns for the narrator, which forced the audience to play close attention to other clues about his or her identify. “I do know the narrator’s gender,” Robertson told us after the reading, in response to direct questions. That’s just one of the many things Robertson had me intensely curious about after just a few pages. Great stuff.

CSE Cooney wrapped up the proceedings with an excerpt from her as-yet unpublished story “Though She Be But Little,” which she called “the BIZARREST story I have ever WRITTEN, bar NONE.” (In their acceptance letter, the editors of Uncanny conceded “This might be the weirdest story we’ve ever received.”) It did not disappoint! The tale featured a plucky protagonist in a world that has… changed. There are talking animals, feral children, pirates, and a floating alligator. And that’s not even the bizarre stuff.

I want to take a moment here to say that, when I bought two early stories from CSE Cooney for Black Gate, she was already one of the most talented young writers in the business. Her talent has grown in leaps and bounds since. Her World Fantasy Award-winning first collection Bone Swans helped put her on the map, but she continues to innovate with each and every story. I want to describe “Though She Be But Little” to you, but encapsulating this amazing tale in a mere few sentences may be beyond my abilities. It is a miniature marvel of wonder and literary surprise, and it was easily the finest piece of fiction I had the honor to enjoy at Wiscon. It will be published in the next few months in Uncanny magazine. Miss it at your peril.

Maurice Broaddus at Wiscon 2017-small Anne M. Pillsworth at Wiscon 2017-small Ruthanna Emrys at Wiscon 2017-small S Lynn at Wiscon 2017-small

From Airships to Elder Gods: Maurice Broaddus, Anne M. Pillsworth, Ruthanna Emrys, and Samantha Lynn

From Airships to Elder Gods

Sat, 1:00–2:15 pm
Tor.com authors and friends deconstruct steampunk, Lovecraftian monsters, and other richly deserving genre tropes. Ruthanna Emrys will read from her new novel Winter Tide. Maurice Broaddus will read from the recently released Buffalo Soldier. Anne M. Pillsworth will read from Redemption’s Heir, her Neo-Lovecraftian YA series. Samantha Lynn, a Long Hidden contributor, will read from her suburban Chicago dystopia-in-progress.
Maurice Broaddus, Anne M. Pillsworth, Ruthanna Emrys, and Samantha Lynn

From Airships to Elder Gods also took place at Michelangelos, across the street from the convention hotel. With the exception of Amal El-Mohtar’s Guest of Honor reading, this was the most well-attended session of the entire reading program. Not too surprising, as it had a line-up of Tor’s star authors reading from their latest releases.

Maurice Broaddus opened with a chapter from his weird western Buffalo Soldier, which featured a Texas gunslinger, mag lev trains, robot wolves, and river mermen. All part of a gorgeously imaginative western setting that reminded me strongly of King’s The Gunslinger, the opening book in The Dark Tower series. All the action took place against the backdrop of a wider struggle between the Albion Empire and imperial Jamaica, and the hints of the background story were tantalizing. I got my hands on a copy of Buffalo Soldier as soon as I could after the convention ended.

Next up was Anne M. Pillsworth, who read from her Lovecraftian YA novel Fathomless, the second novel in her Redemption’s Heir series. The books are set in Arkham, and concern wizards and their friends who are trying to protect the world from Lovecraftian monsters. The colorful and enticing segment she read featured blood magic and the Dreamlands, and a young boy ensorcelled by a wizard. The series is edited by Carl Engle-Laird at Tor; we covered the first two books enthusiastically here.

I’d heard a lot about Ruthanna Emrys’s Lovecraftian tale Winter Tide before the convention started, and everything I heard made me curious. The premise is fascinating: The U.S. government rounded up the people of Innsmouth in 1938 and interned them in the desert, far from their Deep One ancestors and the deep waters that sustained them. A decade later, in 1948, survivor Aphra Marsh is working for a bookseller trying to assemble an occult library. Aphra and her employer find a rare occult book at an estate sale of a dead Arkham professor — what looks like a Yith notebook, or a decent forgery. But Aphra will have to reveal her knowledge of magic to performs the rituals in the book… By the time Ruthanna had finished reading, Winter Tide had shot up near the top of the to-be-read pile. As a surprise for the audience, Ruthanna also read the prologue to the sequel to Winter Tide, coming out next year. Set in 1949, it featured aliens and a shuggoth on a mining colony on a strange asteroid.

Buffalo Soldier Maurice Broaddus-small Fathomless-small Winter Tide Ruthanna Emrys-small

Some of the books featured at From Airships to Elder Gods

Readers of Tor.com will recognize Anne M. Pillsworth and Ruthanna Emrys from their popular and ongoing Lovecraft Reread, which analyzes Lovecraft’s original texts in an entertaining series of articles.

Samantha Lynn read the first chapter of her unpublished novel, which she said “Started out as a deconstruction of classic dystopias such as Brave New World.” It opens with a man named Marks chaperoning a bunch of 8 year-olds to the Field museum in Chicago, when he sees a child with a familiar face among another group of students. A face that signals a perplexing mystery — one tantalizing enough to cause him to guide his charges to follow the other group. When his school director shows enough interest to tell Marks to track the girl down, he knows he’s on to something. The chapter didn’t contain much more than that, but it did have plenty of intriguing elements, including glimpses of a strange alternate history (or maybe near future?) in northern Illinois, with cannibals in Naperville. Either way, it has me plenty curious.

There are excerpts of these books available at Tor.com:

Buffalo Soldier
Winter TideChapter One / Chapter Two

Amal El-Mohtar at Wiscon 2017-small

Wiscon Guest of Honor Amal El-Mohtar

the-starlit-wood-smallerGuest of Honor Reading: Amal El-Mohtar

Sat, 2:30–3:45 pm

Amal had 90 minutes to herself for her Guest of Honor reading. That’s a long time to expect one person to entertain a large audience, but she was more than up to the challenge.

Her reading was two parts. For the first half, she read from her Nebula award wining story “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” originally published in The Starlit Wood.

Amal opened by telling the origin of the tale, which was dedicated to her niece Laura West. When Laura was seven, she asked Amal to tell her a fairy tale. Amal couldn’t think of a single one that passed the Bechtel-Wallace test — in other words, a fairy tale in which two girls talked to each other. So she created one. She mashed the elements of two different fairy tales together: a glass hill, and iron shoes.

The genius of “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is the way it constantly confounds expectations. The opening is pure fairy tale, with knights and a princess and a curse and a plucky hero. Amal adds a clever twist, the princess who awaits her champion is rescued by a girl, and suddenly it’s a gender flipped fairy tale and a tender love story. But then the story twists again, veering off orthogonal to all expectations, and you follow it almost breathless, wondering where it’s headed. Read it and find out. The story just won the Locus Award for Best Short Story last week.

For the second half of her reading, Amal invited Max Gladstone to the stage to perform a joint reading of their collaborative tale. It’s an epistolary Spy vs. Spy novella, set in a universe where time is a braid, and two timelines exist simultaneously. One where consciousness is embedded, one where it is more abstract. (Think of them as a technologically advanced timeline, and a more natural world.) Both timelines are unstable. There’s a time war between the two realities, and two opposing agents, Red and Blue. At the end of a successful and bloody opp, Red finds a letter left for her by her enemy that reads “Burn before reading. ” She knows it’s a trap, but it’s also a thrown gauntlet, and she cannot resist. Soon she’s leaving her own notes in response.

What starts as inquisitive taunts at mysterious opponents gradually become much sharper, funnier and more poignant as the two take their game — and their taunts — to higher and higher levels. All the while hiding their correspondence from their superiors, and gradually learning at least grudging respect for each other. Once again, the audience got only a tantalizing snippet of a wider story, but it was a fascinating one.

The story is tentatively titled “These Violent Delights.” It does not yet have a publisher.

Revenge of Mecha Miscreants and Municipal Mysticism at Wiscon 2017-small

Mark Oshiro, Annalee Newitz, Charlie Jane Anders, Sunny Moraine, and Claire Light

Revenge of Mecha Miscreants and Municipal Mysticism

Sat, 4:00–5:15 pm
Once again, we read our bewitching blend of robot action and urban fantasy thrills. Can you handle the excitement?
Charlie Jane Anders, Claire Light, Sunny Moraine, Annalee Newitz, Mark Oshiro

Annalee Newitz Autonomous-small“Mecha Miscreants” was the sequel to a mecha-themed reading from a previous Wiscon. Charlie Jane Anders opened by reading from a recently finished work, set in a far future of motherships, new worlds, alien leopards with touch telepathy, and a group of humans who stumble across a recording made by a long-dead alien prisoner: a warning about what the leopards plan to do to their prisoners. It was exciting, enigmatic, and marvelously well written. I don’t have any details about publication date (or even a title!) but I’m definitely keeping my eyes open for this one.

Claire Light read next, from an urban fantasy novel she’s been working on for three years. She describes it as a paranormal detective story with POC characters. The narrator is a shapeshifter with Asian features and golden eyes who finds a job in a bookstore. When her crush walks into the store where she works looking for help from her employer, she discovers there’s a lot more to him than she thought. The narrator is funny, cynical, and very observant, and although not much happens in the excerpt, I was still very charmed. This one was my favorite of the session.

Sunny Moraine read next, an excerpt from a new story — a savage satire about a woman who has a one night stand with a drone. She is a “dronesexual,” a member of a secret community sexually attracted to drones, who share their stories on private blogs and in secret chat rooms. “When something is around that much, when it knows that much, sooner or later you wonder what it would like to have it inside you… Drones are incredibly mobile, and they don’t respect borders. You couldn’t fight them off, even if you wanted to.” When the drone she hooks up with spends the night, hovering sleeplessly in her bedroom, the narrator makes it breakfast in the morning. They fight, and when it flies out the window, she begs it to call her (and it does). Moraine had hands-down the most impressive prose style of anyone I heard from on Saturday (with the possible exception of C.S.E. Cooney). Do yourself a favor and keep your eyes open for her.

Annalee Newitz read an excerpt from her novel Autonomous, coming out from Tor.com in September. The novel’s editor, Liz Gorinsky, was sitting next to me in the audience, and when she realized what excerpt Annalee was about to read, she burst out laughing. The section featured Elias and his partner Paladin, a big mecha bot. While on a gun range, Paladin allows his human partner to climb on his back and guide his weapon targeting, and is surprised at the embarrassing physiological reaction Elias experiences while directing all that firepower. By the end of her brief reading Annalee had the audience in stiches. I’m not sure the excerpt was intended to be funny, but Annalee’s deadpan delivery sure made it funny. Another book well worth a look.

I wasn’t familiar with Mark Oshiro, but I really enjoyed his reading. It was taken from his young adult novel about fighting state violence and falling in love, which will be released next year. The scene he read was a sweet tale of teen romance, in which a boy tells his mother about his upcoming first date. The sweetness of the scene was leavened by hints of political unrest and some pretty dark foreshadowing, which heightened the tension considerably.

The Persistent Rats Liz Argall, David D. Levine, Jennifer Stevenson, Jan Suzukawa at Wiscon 2017-small

The Persistent Rats: Jennifer Stevenson, Jan Suzukawa, David D. Levine, and Liz Argall

The Persistent Rats

Sat, 10:30–11:45 pm
“We’ve suffered for our art, and now it’s your turn.”
Liz Argall, David D. Levine, Jennifer Stevenson, Jan Suzukawa

Arabella and the Battle of Venus-smallAs we moved into Saturday night, I was joined in my reading pilgrimage by Katie Redding, who was a great companion. We sat in the back row and whispered about The Persistent Rats and their many surprises.

David Levine opened the reading with the tale of how his writing group got their name. It sprang from David’s days as an unpublished writer, when he ran into Asimov’s SF editor Gardner Dozois in an elevator at a convention. Riffing on that famous psychology study about rats, David jokingly asked Gardner what happened to rats who got a rejection letter every time they press a lever. “The persistent rat gets published,” Gardner said, before stepping out of the elevator.

Jan Suzukawa read an excerpt from her Califia Trilogy, a male-on-male romance set in a future matriarchy. The story takes place in a Queendom determined not to repeat the mistakes of governance that led to a near-apocalypse centuries ago. Two rivals, on opposite sides of a political battle about men’s rights, are ordered to marry each other. Jan read the tale of their first encounter in a bar, a scene rife with hostility and unexpected sexual tension. After the reading I tracked down Jan’s books on Amazon. The Califia Trilogy was published by Bell River Publishing on May 9, 2017, in a single volume edition that collects three full-length novels: Rebellion, The Hunt and Queen of Califia.

David read from Arabella and the Battle of Venus, the unpublished sequel to Arabella of Mars, which just won the Andre Norton Award. In the new novel, Captain Prakash Singh has been captured by Napoleon and is being held on Venus, and Arabella sets out to rescue him. The scene David read described an entertaining and funny ritual the crew of the ship performed as their ship crosses the orbit of Earth. Arabella and the Battle of Venus will be published in hardcover by Tor Books on July 18.

Liz Argall stood up to sing “Love Letter to Earth 418,” which she described as a love song to inanimate objects. I’ve never heard a love song about forks before. She also read from her novel in progress, For Want of a Knife. Liz has a deep appreciation of utensils, apparently. The latter was a dark tale of two people fumbling towards intimacy and friendship in a harsh setting, and it triggered a powerful reaction from the audience. I found the setting particularly compelling: Post Apocalypse, after the Large Hadron Collider has punctured a hole in reality and caused The First Incursion War. Things we don’t really understand have invaded, and we’re in a fight for our reality. Traumatized children are conduits to enormous power in this war. and The Forge is where these children are trained as child soldiers and turned into humanity’s defenders.

Coed Demon Sluts 1-smallJennifer Stevenson wrapped up The Persistent Rats presentation with a reading well suited to late Saturday night: an excerpt from the first novel in her 6-volume series Coed Demon Sluts.

Beth, a mother dumped by her husband and unwanted by her kids, is living in a hotel and out of money. She’s trying to get drunk enough to kill herself when she meets Delilah, who has an interesting proposition for her. She’s offered a young new body, wealth, and lots of perks, if she’ll agree to seduce a certain quota of men as a succubus from Hell.

The catch? Hell no longer buys souls (outsourcing to contractors is cheaper than full time employees). Beth can quit any time she wants… but succubi tend to enjoy their work. By the time she tires of seducing men and decides to move on, Delilah warns her, decades or centuries may have passed. The world will have changed. Her children may well be dead… and in any case, they’ll never recognize her in her new body.

Beth is so consumed with anger, so anxious to find some outlet for her rage, that she agrees. Her first target, of course, is her ex-husband. But before she can go to work on Blake, she meets her fellow succubi, a diverse group of women with assorted baggage, and is transformed into her young new body.

Stevenson’s prose is funny and insightful, and the situations and characters in her book are refreshingly real. I expected to be rolling my eyes every two minutes at a series titled Coed Demon Sluts, but the opposite happened, and I was very quickly hooked. God help me, but I really, genuinely want to read this series. Give it a chance, and I think you will too.

All six novels in the series were published simultaneously. Order them at jenniferstevenson.com.

My last detailed Wison reading report was way back in 2012:

A Wiscon Reading Report: The Best in Upcoming Fantasy (2012)

But we’ve reported extensively about Wison in the past:

WISCON FRIDAY: In Which the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood Crashes A Zeppelin Into the State Capital by C.S.E. Cooney (2011)
WISCON SATURDAY: In Which We Encounter Monsters, Tacos, Traveling Fates & Faerieland by Patty Templeton (2011)
WISCON SUNDAY: In Which Goblins, Floomps, Flying Spaghetti Monsters and Ice Cream Robot Kings Abound by C.S.E. Cooney (2011)
WisCon Ho! by Elizabeth Cady (2014)

See all of our recent convention reports here.

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R.K. Robinson

Way off topic, I guess, but Happy Fourth of July to you (if you celebrate it in your neck of the woods).

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