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Author: Brandon Crilly

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.

In 500 Words or Less Returns! Annihilation Aria by Michael R. Underwood

In 500 Words or Less Returns! Annihilation Aria by Michael R. Underwood

Annihilation Aria-smallAnnihilation Aria (The Space Operas #1)
By Michael R. Underwood
Parvus Press (400 pages, $15.99 trade paperback, July 21, 2020)

I love a space fantasy adventure. Maybe I’m missing release announcements, but I feel like we’re not getting as many of those novels these days. Hyper-realistic far-future SF like The Expanse or hard science fiction like Alastair Reynolds’ work is great, but sometimes I want FTL and myriad aliens and whatnot, like Tanya Huff’s Confederation novels or, really, Star Wars.

But those elements aren’t enough, since anyone can slap together a Star Wars rip-off and call it a day. The most important thing is characters to root for, who are more nuanced than just being a Han Solo stand-in.

Maybe all of that’s a tall order. If it is, then even more kudos to Michael R. Underwood, for producing exactly that kind of novel.

(I missed these rambling, context-setting intros before I ever mention what I’m reviewing. I really did.)

Annihilation Aria is basically Star Wars, Star Trek and Serenity mixed together, but with a plot closer to The Mummy (or The Mummy’s plot with Rick and Evelyn already a couple). Max, Lahra and Wheel are delightful as a found family in how different they are, and that those differences are what makes them endearing to each other. Lahra was the character who shone the most for me; her solar-powered weaponry is a nice solarpunk touch, and her people’s ability to use songs to focus in battle and subtly manipulate their encounters is varied and well-utilized. Plus, I love how it’s never explained as anything more than basically magic. Max can’t find a rational explanation but knows it has more power than Lahra realizes – like how you can’t always hear how you speak while you’re speaking.

One of the other things that stands out is Arek, our principle antagonist within the Vsenk Imperium. You get the almost monolithic Big Bad Empire at first, but then learn that it’s rife with ongoing political feuds, with Arek’s faction representing a more moderate ideology. What I found particularly cool is that Arek is progressive for a Vsenk. He’d never consider giving the lesser races complete freedom, but he sees the practical value of things like speaking respectfully toward subordinates and the police not using excessive force. It makes him seem much more natural as a character, and oddly made me more sympathetic toward him, even though the Vsenk in general are brutal subjugators.

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The Top Five Books I Read in 2019

The Top Five Books I Read in 2019

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Covers by Cliff Nielsen, Unusual Corporation, and Chris McGrath

Being semi-retired from my biweekly column doesn’t mean I’m off the hook from picking my Top Five reads from 2019! *The crowd goes wild*

Like with previous years — 2016-18; see below for links — I’m focusing specifically on fiction (sorry, non-fiction books) published sometime in 2019 (sorry, amazing older books I read – especially the Broken Earth trilogy). I’m also chickening out from ranking all five and only picking my top choice, with the rest in alphabetical order.

Drumroll, please…

Alice Payne Rides by Kate Heartfield (Tor Books, 176 pages, $14.99 paperback/$3.99 digital, March 5, 2019)

Fine, I’m just one of the multitude going on and on about how amazing this time travel duology has been. Sue me. I was concerned at the end of Alice Payne Arrives that retconning some of the story and resetting its core characters (a la time travel) would turn me off, but Heartfield maintains the core of Alice, Jayne, Zuniga and the others while putting them in even more harrowing scenarios. There’s a ton of genuine peril and some neat twists on what sometimes feels like the bloated genre of time travel stories, tied together somehow with a tidy conclusion.

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Nothing’s Perfect… Not Even Star Wars

Nothing’s Perfect… Not Even Star Wars

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I was chatting with one of my best friends after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, and as writers do inevitably, we critiqued it. She said something partway through the conversation that I think was meant half as a joke: “perfection is a myth created by the man to keep us line, Brandon.”

It’s rare to come across a story that’s close to perfect, and no Star Wars movie ever has been. I was reluctant to talk TROS here since online discussions of major fandoms are sometimes as vitriolic as anything else, especially when you want to resoundingly say, “That was awesome!” about a film while acknowledging the faults. But if the Resistance can face the First Order, I can face you, Internet. Because by Lucas, I agree with fellow columnist Bob Byrne that TROS was “an excellent ending to the epic cycle” that is Star Wars.

SPOILERS from here on out, folks. You’ve been warned.

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In 500 Words or Less: Lost Transmissions by Desirina Boskovich

In 500 Words or Less: Lost Transmissions by Desirina Boskovich

Lost Transmissions- The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy-small Lost Transmissions- The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy-back-small

Cover by Paul Lehr

Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy
By Desirina Boskovich
Abrams Image (304 pages, $29.99 hardcover, $13.99 eBook, September 10, 2019)

Did you know that Johannes Kepler wrote speculative fiction that got his mother imprisoned for witchcraft? Or that Weezer almost had an epic concept album to rival Pink Floyd and Rush? Or that Space Island One was even a thing?!

Maybe you did. We can’t quite use the excuse that an almost-thirty Millennial like myself obviously wouldn’t know a lot about the rich history of sci-fi and fantasy, however, since Lost Transmissions focuses on far more than the Golden Age. Desirina Boskovich has accumulated information on lesser-known SFF from across history, and I guarantee there are things in here you weren’t aware of. I had to tweet at Desirina while I was reading my ARC, for example, because the chapter “Speculative Music of the New Millennium” outlined artists and albums I’d never heard of, even though I should have grown up paying attention to them in the nineties and early 2000s. (My “To Listen” list doesn’t need to be any bigger, Desirina.)

My To-Read and To-Watch list doesn’t need to be any bigger, either, but too late now. After Charlie Jane Anders’ passionate and excited article about Space Island One, I’m determined to find a way to watch it, even though a DVD or streaming version doesn’t exist, apparently. Now that I’ve read the premise and background of Clair Noto’s The Tourist, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for a Netflix or Amazon adaptation. I need to look into the Mellon Chronicles to explore Lord of the Rings fandom. I want to find a group of people to try Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. And so on and so on and so on.

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In 500 Words or Less: Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

In 500 Words or Less: Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

oie_19192747vo7iIQCxCatfish Lullaby
By A.C. Wise
Broken Eye Books (118 pages, $14.99 paperback/eBook forthcoming, September 3, 2019)

You’d think stepping away from a regular column reviewing would make writing a new review easier, but apparently not. I’ve been struggling with how to start talking about A.C. Wise’s Catfish Lullaby because the first thing I want to start with how I didn’t get the story I expected from the back-cover blurb. But that sounds like a criticism, and it really isn’t; I loved the story I got, which feels like a tonal blend of Stranger Things and Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, set in the Bayou with more diverse characters.

Maybe we base too much of our expectations on the blurb. Lullaby’s focuses on Lewis, a “town of secrets,” and the character Caleb stepping into his father’s role of sheriff to unravel the mysteries of the Royce family and legendary monster Catfish John. That sets the expectation that you’ll mostly follow adult Caleb as he deals with his past. Instead, the novella spends most of its time on young Caleb, affected by the Royce family’s traumas and getting to know Cere, the youngest Royce child and survivor of her family’s apparent destruction, only moving ahead to adult Caleb for the last third.

Normally that sort of long dwelling on a character’s past would throw me, but not the case here. Wise builds this ongoing mystery that’s compelling, I think, for two reasons. One is the way that Caleb struggles to make sense of what’s affecting Cere and how to help her, as well as dealing with 1980s and 90s prejudice and later living up to his father’s name. He has a genuinely pre-teen attitude that most writers can’t pull off. He and Cere are immediately interesting and likeable characters, and so I kept reading to see what choice they’d make, regardless of whether the mystery got solved.

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Wordsmiths: Live Interview with Ada Palmer at ConFusion 2019!

Wordsmiths: Live Interview with Ada Palmer at ConFusion 2019!

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted a live interview! Back in January, I had the pleasure of attending ConFusion, Michigan’s annual conference for authors and fans of science fiction, fantasy and horror. If you’ve never been, I highly suggest you check it out; it’s become one of my top two U.S. cons for writers (alongside Readercon) and is always a ton of fun.

Like in 2018, the con-com let me sit down for a live interview with one of their GoHs, in this case the talented and insightful Ada Palmer. If you’re unfamiliar with her, Palmer is the author of the Terra Ignota series, which started in 2016 with Too Like the Lightning and is planned to conclude with book four, Perhaps the Stars, in 2020. Lightning earned Palmer the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2017, and it was also nominated for the Hugo. It is an intricate, literary exploration of a future Earth shaped by the end of nation states and a set of Universal Laws.

I’ve gotten very lucky in who I’ve been able to interview lately, but talking with Palmer was fascinating. In 50 minutes we barely scratched the surface of what I wanted to discuss, and we easily could have continued for another couple of hours, mostly so I could keep learning. I hope you enjoy the interview below and encourage you to check out her work.

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