Ask a published writer at any level and they’ll tell you writing is, in some respect, a colossal pain in the ass. (Can’t remember if I’m allowed to say “ass” here but let’s leave it and see what happens.) Superstar authors with massive advances and multi-book deals rightfully claim that it’s tough to maintain the passion when writing becomes the day job. Folks at the opposite end of that career spectrum point out how demoralizing it is trying to break in. We’re all at the mercy of luck, circumstance, editor whims, etc, and it can be tough. But we’re passionate about telling stories, so we keep doing it anyway.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again (before this column dies the hero of Black Gate or lives long enough to become its villain): I love a novel that’s about conflict resolution through words.
When I was at Kelly Robson’s launch for Alias Space and Other Stories, she got the inevitable question, “What are you working on next?” And she surprised everyone (or at least me) by revealing she’d been working on a stage play with fellow Canadian authors A.M. Dellamonica and Amal El-Mohtar, to be performed by actor/playwright Margo MacDonald. Even better, it would premiere as part of this year’s Ottawa Fringe Festival – which is happening right now!
Full disclosure, I’ve known the three authors behind Dressed As People for years, so I went into this with the sort of jittery excitement you get in Writer Land when your friends announce cool things. And I was not disappointed. This “triptych of uncanny abduction” is so good, courtesy of the care and attention to detail Kelly, A.M. and Amal put into their work and Margo’s stunningly amazing performances.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
Icarus (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.
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.