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Author: Brandon Crilly

Life Beyond Us Kickstarter closes May 12!

Life Beyond Us Kickstarter closes May 12!

Hey there, Black Gate people! Breaking from my usual pattern of reviews and interviews to let you know about an awesome anthology being Kickstarted right now: Life Beyond Us: An Original Anthology of SF Stories and Science Essays. Award-winning Canadian publisher Laksa Media has partnered with the European Astrobiology Institute (EAI) and the European Science Foundation to bring this to life, and they are so close to being funded. The Kickstarter closes May 12th, so there’s only a few days left to get in on this project and help it succeed!

Editors Julie Nováková, Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law are at the helm of this one. The ToC for this anthology combines authors and essayists from a variety of scientific fields, and people at the top of the science fiction game: Eugen Bacon, Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, Tobias S. Buckell, Eric Choi, Julie E. Czerneda, Tessa Fisher, Simone Heller, Valentin Ivanov, Mary Robinette Kowal, Geoffrey A. Landis, Rich Larson, Lucie Lukačovičová, Premee Mohamed, G. David Nordley, Malka Older, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Tomáš Petrásek, Arula Ratnakar, DA Xiaolin Spires, Bogi Takács, and Peter Watts.

It feels like the past year has seen a ton of excellent anthologies on Kickstarter, and not all of them have made it, unfortunately. Besides the ToC, I love the motivation behind the anthology and the backer rewards being offered. If you can, please consider backing the Kickstarter or signal boosting it to your friends!

Here’s some more info, direct from the editors.

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In 500 Words or Less: Alias Space and Other Stories by Kelly Robson

In 500 Words or Less: Alias Space and Other Stories by Kelly Robson

Alias Space and Other Stories
By Kelly Robson
Subterranean Press (400 pages, $40 hardcover/$4.99 eBook, April 30, 2021)
Cover by Lauren Saint-Onge

If there’s one thing that characterizes Kelly Robson’s stories, I think it’s the love and care that you can see in each one. It’s hard to describe in words, but it’s like I can see how she’s built each world around her characters in a way that either supports or challenges them, oftentimes both. Take Zhang Lei in “A Study in Oils,” surrounded by strangers he can’t trust but who are best placed to understand the pain he’s running from and his need to hide from an interconnected world, and to support him when he’s finally free. Or creche manager Jules, who has to face her past on Luna, no matter how much she wants to forget it, because of the choices everyone else makes around her in “Intervention.” Even fleeing a dragon in “La Vitesse” forces mother-daughter duo Bea and Rosie to understand each other better. Plus dragons!

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In 500 Words or Less: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

In 500 Words or Less: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1)
By C.L. Clark
Orbit (544 pages, $16.99 paperback/$9.99 eBook, March 23, 2021)
Cover by Lauren Panepinto and Tommy Arnold

Typically when I read an ARC I’m definitely going to review, I take notes. Simple stuff like this is a cool moment to mention or I think the author is going for X that help frame my five hundred words when I sit down to write.

For The Unbroken, I wrote ABSOLUTELY NOTHING while reading because at no point did I want to break my journey through this narrative. Somehow I knew that as soon as I finished, I’d be at my computer typing. Which is what I’m doing right now.

One thing that sets an excellent fantasy novel apart for me these days is gut punches. You’re thrown into a world with a set of expectations for certain characters, and how quickly the author twists that around tells me the kind of ride I’m being taken on. In the first chapters of The Unbroken, Clark gives us a suite of amazing characters and a clear narrative trajectory – then suddenly one of those characters is gone, and another’s world is turned upside down, and the trajectory changes. And then halfway through it changes again, as the destination looming in the background turns out to be impossible, and you need to pivot alongside characters trying to navigate a changing, complex world.

There are no easy fixes or apologies between Clark’s characters, either. Decisions leave a permanent mark, much like in real life, and people need to navigate a new understanding of each other much like navigating the world. Touraine and Luca’s relationship is complex, and an example of what readers talk about when they say they want realistic, flawed, problematic women in their fiction. Wanting to root for them or keep shipping them almost feels wrong at times, as each makes decisions I can’t blame the other for not forgiving, no matter how badly they want to. Gut punches, like I said.

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Wordsmiths: Interview with Zig Zag Claybourne

Wordsmiths: Interview with Zig Zag Claybourne

Courtesy: ZZ Claybourne

You’ve hopefully seen him around the Interwebs, or had the chance to take in his smiling face and genuine warmth back when we went to in-person cons. If you haven’t, then I hope you’ve at least heard of Zig Zag Claybourne or one of his pseudonyms. If you can’t even say that… let this be an introduction, and then go check out his work. Because you really need to.

Claybourne’s latest work is Afro Puffs are the Antennae of the Universe, sequel to The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan. He describes it as “four women accidentally create an AI goddess then destroy capitalism with the help of a telepathic octopus.” But there is so much more to the world he’s created, which we discuss a bit in my interview below. You can also find Claybourne’s writing in the anthology If There’s Anyone Left: Volume 1.

1) Who’s more dangerous: the Thoom, the Nonrich, the Vamphyr, or Disney?

That’s a tough one. The Thoom are powerful but scattershot, Nonrich is omnipresent, subtle, and sharp as a shiv, the Vamphyr tend to be too disdainful to want the burden of controlling humanity… but Disney, Disney works from the bottom up, gets ‘em young…

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In 500 Words or Less: Glitter + Ashes, edited by dave ring

In 500 Words or Less: Glitter + Ashes, edited by dave ring

Cover by Grace P. Fong

Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn’t Die
Edited by dave ring
Neon Hemlock Press (256 pages, $17.99 paperback, Sept 15, 2020)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there have been a lot of horrible and stressful things about 2020, but one thing getting me through is the sheer amount of awesome SFF that’s being published right now. Particularly in short fiction, and particularly by smaller presses outside the Big Five (or Big Four, now).

Case in point, Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn’t Die. Like the editors of the Disabled People Destroy series and New Suns, dave ring has put together an anthology that’s pretty straightforward: queer writers and post-apocalyptic stories. What resonated with me, unsurprisingly, is how inherently optimistic and sometimes funny these stories are. I think I expected most to be dark or depressing, but instead the opening story, “Wrath of a Queer God” by Anthony Moll, takes the “queer agenda” and makes it a literal monster rampaging through town like Godzilla, carrying all the straight people away in their wake.

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In 500 Words or Less: Icarus by Gregory A. Wilson et al

In 500 Words or Less: Icarus by Gregory A. Wilson et al

Icarus Gregory Wilson-smallIcarus (The Longest Fall #1)
By Gregory A. Wilson (author), Keith R.A. DeCandido (script), Athila Fabbio (illustration), Kris Siuda (lettering)
Atthis Arts (130 pages, $24.99 paperback, $11.99 eBook, Nov 10, 2020)

A lot of speculative fiction these days is focusing on class conflict and subjugation, especially out of the United States – and rightfully so. With Icarus, Gregory A. Wilson and his co-creators present Vol, a world where magisters with arcane powers are the tyrants, fire demons and lava floes are the daily hazards, and digging for flamepetals is the factory or labor work offering basic subsistence.

Jellinek the flamepetal digger is our window into this struggle, and it’s through him that we meet angel-winged savior Icarus, who arrives with no memory but an impulsive drive to learn about Vol and stand up to its bullies. It’s a familiar concept but one that strikes a chord with a lot of us, I think, as we look for people and symbols to get us through difficult times.

There are nuances to the way Wilson and scriptwriter Keith R.A. DeCandido explore these familiar concepts through these characters. Icarus has some innocence to him as he approaches truth and justice, but he’s far from a wet blanket, especially as he learns more about his role in Vol’s history.

Jellinek’s wisdom and pragmatism get them through some tricky situations, but he’s willing to go down fighting after “living half-afraid” and stands up for things the way a lot of people probably wish they could. Throw in some intense action and adventure, and I’m hooked.

The artwork in both books is particularly striking. I love the balance between reds and blues that Fabbio and Pizzatto use to separate different aspects of this world, especially the way they show that even the antagonists are still grounders (Vol natives) and separate from Icarus.

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In 500 Words or Less: The Language of Beasts by Jonathan Oliver

In 500 Words or Less: The Language of Beasts by Jonathan Oliver

The Language of Beasts-small The Language of Beasts-back-small

The Language of Beasts
By Jonathan Oliver
Black Shuck Books (392 pages, $25.99 hardcover, $8.99 eBook, October 1, 2020)
Cover by Simon Parr

We’re approaching Halloween, so let’s talk horror and the weird! I was looking at earlier reviews of Jonathan Oliver’s debut collection The Language of Beasts and what I found interesting is how often it’s described as both horrific but heartfelt – keeping people up at night by speaking to our humanity. And it’s true. (All of it, Han.) There have been so many accolades already for this collection that I’m not even sure what else I can add, but I’ll try.

One of my issues with modern horror is how creators keep leaning into the freaky, bloody, disgusting parts of the genre, which isn’t my thing. Jon’s stories do the opposite; you could replace the horrific with something else “spec” and the core of the story would be the same. They’re about characters with deep backstories that affect their entire life; people facing some of the worst traumas imaginable, made worse because they’re experiences we know are too common. “Tea and Sympathy” starts with a young woman whose husband dies suddenly of a heart defect, and then leads to his spirit returning to her using men who are near death. The body-snatching and haunting isn’t the part that got to me: it’s the knowing that, at barely thirty-one, if something happens to me I would want to do everything in my power to make sure my partner was okay, even at the expense of the soon-to-be-deceased. That’s a startling realization to grapple with, but making you consider things like that is one of the most powerful aspects of Jon’s writing.

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In 500 Words or Less: Dominion: An Anthology, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

In 500 Words or Less: Dominion: An Anthology, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Dominion An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora-smallDominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and and the African Diaspora (Volume 1)
Edited By Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Aurelia Leo (270 pages, $18.99 paperback, $8.99 eBook, August 17, 2020)
Cover by Henrique DLD

Dominion is a tough one to accurately summarize. During the Kickstarter way back, the editors said they were looking for speculative fiction about “the legacy and future of Africa and the African diaspora.” As I read, I had to remind myself how complicated that legacy is – which is reflected in these myriad and complicated stories.

I should warn you that some of its stories are rough. I choose that word carefully, and for multiple reasons. There’s a lot of dark fantasy and horror in here, some of it graphic and hard to read. But it reflects horror and darkness that’s real, making for some powerful stories.

“The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh, for example, doesn’t pull its punches examining oppression of women, specifically through a problematic arranged marriage that can’t be easily escaped, even through supernatural means. Neither does Michael Boatman with “Thresher of Men” – a story that felt viscerally angry to me, channeled through a goddess of vengeance set upon an American town with a deep history of racist violence.

As a reviewer, it was interesting to find a balance of lighter stories, too – or at least stories where the issues the characters face are more microscopic and focused. Nicole Givens Kurtz ‘s “Trickin’” is still bloody but also kind of delightful, following a half-forgotten trickster looking for tributes on Halloween night. (Also love the mystery of the post-downturn city where it’s set – what happened there, Nicole?) “Sleep Pap, Sleep” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa is fabulous Africanjujuism (I believe “The Unclean” fits that genre, too), in this case weaving the understanding that you shouldn’t grave-robbing a blood relative with a young man’s guilt about his father’s death and how he treats his closest friend.

On the science fiction side, one of my favorites is Marian Denise Moore’s “A Mastery of German” about a young up-and-comer at a research firm, assigned to evaluate a project on transferring learned memories. There’s a neat implication discussed about ancestral memory and slavery, told through Candace’s relationship with her history-hunting father (which is an adorable sidebar, by the way). But the focus is mostly on ethics: is it all right to pay someone to take their memory of learning German (for example) and then do whatever you want with it? No easy answer there.

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In 500 Words or Less: The Book of Dragons, edited by Jonathan Strahan

In 500 Words or Less: The Book of Dragons, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The Book of Dragons-smallThe Book of Dragons
Edited By Jonathan Strahan; illustrated by Rovina Cai
Harper Voyager (576 pages, $35 hardcover, $16.99 eBook, July 7, 2020)

More than a year ago now, I was hanging out with Kelly Robson and she mentioned a new anthology she’d been invited to contribute to. The topic? Dragons. When was it coming out? 2020 sometime, probably, and we promptly moved on to talking about other things.

It’s now the middle of 2020 and that anthology is here, my friends.

Look at this freaking contributor list. You might think that an anthology about dragons is going to hit a few specific themes or styles, but you would be wrong and should know better, especially with Jonathan Strahan at the helm. I grinned with excitement reading JY Yang’s “The Exile” – dragons that terraform new worlds! (Also a poignant piece about loneliness and consequence.) Pretty sure I muttered a silent “ooooooh” at how Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky present bee-like dragons dealing with hive collapse in “We Continue.” Plus there’s Elle Katharine White’s story “Matriculation,” about a young woman with tuition debt, her machinework dragon and a kindly vampire bookseller, which I already described on Twitter as an emotional gut punch.

If I had to pick a thematic through line (not sure if that’s the right term, but I’m going with it) that seems to tie most of The Book of Dragons together, it would be family. In some cases, the focus is reforming bonds and learning to trust each other, like in Zen Cho’s “Hikayat Sri Bujang, or The Tale of the Naga Sage” or Kelly’s “La Vitesse” – an epic ride of Alberta school bus vs dragon. Or it’s about the loss and heartache that sometimes comes with family – like the adopted human watching the hive collapse in “We Continue,” or in R.F. Kuang’s story “The Nine Curves River,” about someone escorting their younger sister to be sacrificed to end a drought. Or the idea of found family, which Seanan McGuire captures brilliantly with “Hoard,” about a long-lived dragon who cares for foster kids close to aging out the way others care about gold.

The idea of gold or treasure comes up often, too. Sometimes as more of an addendum than a focus, like in Sarah Gailey’s “We Don’t Talk About the Dragon.” The real story there is a young girl growing up in a harsh, abusive family – though there’s also a dragon living in the barn.

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Wordsmiths: Interview with Charlie Jane Anders, Recorded Live at Can*Con 2019

Wordsmiths: Interview with Charlie Jane Anders, Recorded Live at Can*Con 2019

2019 feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? One of my other roles is Programming Lead for Can*Con, Ottawa’s annual conference on science fiction, fantasy and horror literature. I’ve had the great fortune to sit down for one-on-one interviews with a few Guests of Honor, most recently a fabulous conversation with Charlie Jane Anders at Can*Con 2019.

Charlie Jane is the author of The City in the Middle of the Night (Tor, 2019), co-host of the Hugo-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, and has contributed work to a variety of anthologies and collections. We get into her short fiction, her work with io9, her thoughts on genre and community, and more.

This was a blast, and I hope you enjoy it, too!


An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On SpecPulp Literature, Electric Athenaeum, and elsewhere. His latest publications include his first comic, “True Balance,” available on Comixology and DriveThruComics, and a reprint of his short story “Rainclouds,” in A Dying Planet from Flame Tree Press. You can follow Brandon at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.