Catalyst by Brandon Crilly (Atthis Arts, October 11, 2022). Cover artist uncredited.
Hello, Black Gate folks! Normally I spend my time here raving about other people’s books, but this time I’m in the very weird position of talking about my own. Yikes. Catalyst is my debut fantasy novel, releasing in October from Atthis Arts, and John has graciously invited me to talk a bit about the world of the book.
Catalyst centers on three estranged friends: Mavrin, a street magician who doesn’t believe in real magic, other than what the Aspects provide; Eyasu, labeled a heretic by the Aspects’ followers but determined to prove a secret history everyone else rejects; and Deyeri, a retired soldier whose adopted city is threatened by forces tied to that history. They begin the story in different corners of Aelda, a world that split apart at its core a little over three centuries earlier, and would have been destroyed completely if not for the intervention of the Aspects: massive, cephalopod-like beings the people of Aelda believe to be their gods, who have been circling the planet ever since providing atmosphere and holding what remains of Aelda together.
Becoming Crone by Lydia M. Hawke, Mickey7 by Edward Ashton, and Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales
of Insatiable Darkness, edited by dave ring. Covers by Deranged Doctor Design, uncredited, and Robin Ha
Back by popular demand! As you might have noticed, I’ve been on a serious reviewing hiatus lately due to busy (and exciting) times in both writing and teaching. But I love discussing new books and signal boosting works I think deserve some more attention, so I’m back!
With a caveat, however, that I’m changing my format slightly moving forward. Instead of a regular column discussing one book in five hundred words or less, I’ll be doing a round-up a couple times per year, similar to what I’ve done for my year-end posts. How many books can I mention in five hundred words…? We’ll see. And nobody count, in case I go over.
Thanks as always for reading and for the folks who asked, “when’s your next column, dude?” If you enjoy any of the books I mention, be sure to give them a review of your own on your platform of choice and feel free to let me know here.
In alphabetical order, please enjoy my reading picks for the first half of 2022!
So… it’s about freaking time we have one of these, right?
Having already demonstrated impressive editing chops with Dominion (co-edited with Zelda Knight), Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki has created an even greater anthology with this Year’s Best, distilling twenty-nine stories into one of the most cohesive anthologies I’ve ever read. Common threads make this feel like so much more than just a “here’s who we think are the top authors” sort of Year’s Best. We’re being shown part of what African SF is saying right now, and honestly, we should feel lucky to be given this insight.
Plague Birds by Jason Sanford Apex Publications (274 pages, $16.95 paperback/$6.99 eBook, Sept 21, 2021) Cover by Marcela Bolívar
I remember not long ago when CRISPR was on the tip of a lot of people’s tongues, among science fiction writers as well as the general public. Obviously we’re focused on other topics in science and medicine right now, but sooner or later people will come back to asking whether gene editing should be allowed, what should be permissible, and the possibilities if this branch of science is allowed to run unchecked.
Jason Sanford deals with that last point in Plague Birds, by jumping ahead thousands of years after a total societal collapse caused in part by conflict between genetically modified humans. The set-up and frame here is pretty cool: millennia after this collapse, humans live in isolated settlements and mostly stay away from each other, protected by AIs that are gradually weeding out the “crisper” inside their DNA. We get to see a lot of how the world has changed, but the real focus is on Crista, a young woman forced to become one of the “plague birds” who essentially root out the most heinous wrongdoers among the settlements – though it often isn’t a simple job.
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.