publishes August 31, 2015
Where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Subterranean!)
Speak Easy is a jazz age retelling of the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (a tale you’re familiar with if you’ve read Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at The Kingfisher Club). Told in a series of vignettes that follow the residents of the hotel Artemesia, we watch as they each see something they want, and are lured to go after it. The final twist, however, involves a magic far older than the Brothers Grimm originally imagined.
The words that best describes this novella are sculptural and musical. The short chapters are titled with the room numbers in which the characters reside. It’s as if, with each vignette, with each character introduction and peek into their lives, Valente is carving the story, word by word and room by room out of a massive, hotel shaped slab of marble. It’s like those ancient temples that have been carved out of stone or into cliff faces. Someone had to carve out all those rooms. Just like Valente is carving out the rooms of the hotel residents. One of the first rooms we visit is the infamous 1550, home of Zelda Fair, Olive Bay, Opal Lunet and Oleander Coy. Four women who live by their own set of rules, share their apartment with a pelican, and keep their own secrets. Although Speak Easy is an ensemble piece, Zelda quickly becomes the celestial body that other characters orbit.
I also mentioned the word musical,didn’t I? It’s the voice of the narrator. Confident, cheeky, and bordering on scat singing, the narrator is having a conversation with the reader, luring you in, teasing you with slang, entendres, and bawdy jokes. The narrator can tell you who in this hotel is sleeping with someone they aren’t married to, wouldn’t you like know what other juicy secrets she might be enticed to share?
published in 1992
where I got it: paperback swap
If Robin Hobb wrote a mash-up of Les Miserables, Downton Abbey, and Memoirs of a Geisha, she might end up with something like Paula Volsky’s Illusion. Magic meets a society in turmoil, in which a bloody revolution is followed by chaos, all told from the point of view of a incredibly sheltered young woman.
Raised in wealth and privilege in the outer provinces, Eliste vo Derrivalle knows she’s above the common people. Because of course she is, she’s Exalted. A class above the wealthy and prosperous, the Exalted have a natural magic, and naturally, all other people exist to serve the Exalted. It’s not Eliste’s fault she’s been raised to believe this. Not only is it the culture in which she was raised, it is the culture of the entire Kingdom.
Shortly after the opening chapters, Eliste and her maid travel to the capital, where she is to live with her aunt and learn the finer qualities of being a noble lady. She’s been chosen to be a lady in waiting (of sorts) to the Queen. Being a lady in waiting is more along the lines of servitude, and accepting gifts and favors usually requires something in return. Eliste is so damn naive and in denial of what’s happening around her, that it is nearly tragically comic.
While Eliste is enjoying champagne and leftover pastries for lunch with the other ladies, a revolution is brewing. The second half of the novel takes a very dark turn, with a revolutionary leader whose fervor for a new world is only matched by his paranoia, and magical mechanical creatures that no one can control.
published June 2015
where I got it: purchased new
After a few sluggish, slow reads, it was such a pleasure to pick something up and be sucked in right away. At just shy of 200 pages, Slow Bullets is a fast read, and paced absolutely perfectly. Not a moment feels slow, nor does anything feel rushed. Other than the first segment, Scur is telling her story to someone, someone who knows how her story ends. It’s as if she’s an aged grandmother telling the neighborhood kids about what happened once upon a time. The person she’s talking to knows the sordid details, but the reader will have to wait until Scur gets to those details in her own time. Don’t worry, she will. Eventually, she’ll tell you everything.
Scur was a soldier in an interstellar war, and just as a ceasefire is being announced she’s been captured by the opposing side. Captured by a sadist, he shoots a slow burrowing bullet into her leg. When it reaches her heart, she’ll die.
Instead, she wakes up on a prison ship. The situation is pretty bleak – one crew member is still alive, the ship’s AI has gone wonky, and no one seems to be in control. Remember the cult sci-fi movie Cube? The first half of Slow Bullets feels quite a bit like that – with people asking what they did to deserve being on the prison ship, trying to figure out where they’re going, trying to find out if they will ever see their families again, trying to understand how to fix the ship’s computer.
So, what are a few hundred bloodthirsty soldiers aboard a prison ship to do? This is a ship with no captain, no functioning navigation, and they planet they are orbiting doesn’t look familiar.
published in 1998
where i got it: paperback swap
I’ve been hearing about C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore for a number of years now. Thanks to paperback swap (which sadly is no longer free) I was able to get a copy. At over 500 pages, this book is not a fast read. It’s not a fast read for other reasons, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
I loved the premise of the novel. Earth has developed deep space travel, allowing us to colonize as many planets as we can find. But there’s a price. The travel changes our DNA, causing certain genes to reassert themselves, giving entire colonies what many Terrans define as physical and or developmental birth defects. At a time when Earth glorified genes that were free of any type of defects, we learn our path to the stars is rife with them. Contact was cut off from the colonies, forcing the newly planetbound to survive if they could.
This Alien Shore takes place hundreds of years later. Many of the colonies have thrived, turning genetic concerns to their own advantage. Called “variants”, the story is populated with “aliens” who are humanoid in shape, but physically, mentally, and socially completely alien to Terrans. It lets Friedman have fun aliens without having to worry about what an alien looks like. One such genetic defect allows humans to pilot through the dangerous subspace ainniq. Their secrets are held close, allowing their Guild to hold a monopoly over space travel. Earth is seen as a backwards and ignorant backwater. (maybe it’s just me, but I fould it impossible to avoid comparing this novel to Dune. I hear “space travel guild that holds a monopoly over travel and holds the secrets of their travel abilities secret”, and all I can think is Spacing Guild!)
There are two intertwining plot lines in This Alien Shore – a shiny loud one that thinks it is the main plot, and a quiet one that isn’t interested in your attention but in the end is the more interesting. Let me unpack that a little, because my reaction to how these plotlines are treated was actually more interesting than the actual plots.
Zachary Jernigan’s debut novel No Return received plenty of outstanding press. Reviewers compared it to the epic scale of Frank Herbert’s Dune and the surreal strangeness of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, describing it as daring, hypnotic, and raising the bar. The sequel to No Return, Shower of Stones, hits bookstore shelves on July 7th. Zachary was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about his work.
Little Red Reviewer: No Return has been described as genre-defying, hypnotic, and a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. What inspired you to write No Return? Was it a challenge to blend genres and to have wizards and astronauts in the same world?
Zachary Jernigan: First off, thank you so much for having me! It means the world to be interviewed by invested fans and critics of the genre.
In answer to your question, my inspiration has always been other people’s writing. Authors like Samuel Delany, Roger Zelanzy, and Cordwainer Smith, specifically, are points of reference. With No Return, I wanted to re-create for a reader the same sense of wonder and possibility that I experience reading work that deals in big, world-shattering themes without restricting itself to just science fiction or fantasy. I love cool-looking characters doing impossible things in crazy places, but I also like those narratives to be written well. Hopefully, I’m paying proper homage to my literary idols and not embarrassing myself.
And yes, it was definitely a challenge. I mean, writing is always a challenge for me, but world-building is particularly taxing — perhaps especially so when mixing genres so obviously. Keeping all that crazy stuff consistent, in my own head but also within the story, was kinda hellish. Fun, but still hellish.
Some writers love all that creation and it doesn’t stress them out. I love it, too, but accounting for everything stresses me out.
I read this stuff:
I’m in the middle of reading this:
of those, here are the books I’ve already written reviews for:
oh, none of them? blergh.
published June 20, 2015
where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Apex!)
Almost exactly a year ago, in an interview with Jason Sizemore, I politely asked him how Apex Magazine was born. He must have realized what I was really asking was “were you absolutely crazy?”, because he answered tersely and politely. We both knew there was a lot more to that story. For Exposure is the rest of the story.
We all know I don’t read much non-fiction, which is it’s own tragedy. So, a chance to read non-fiction, and learn about the dark underbelly and weird secrets behind the birth of Apex Publications? Sign me up!
Full Disclosure: I am a contributor at Apex Magazine, and Jason is a personal friend of mine. What does that mean for you? Not much, except that I’ve met most of people mentioned in For Exposure, yet I still missed half the jokes.
For Exposure starts with Jason’s childhood – his religious upbringing, watching horror movies with his mom, and falling in love with reading science fiction, horror, and fantasy. That little boy grew up, got a job in IT, had the worst 30th birthday ever, and decided there had to be something better than this. He dreamed big, and Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest was born. Shortly after that, Jason attended his first fandom convention with the goal of putting a promotional copy of Apex Digest into the hands of anyone at the con who would stand still long enough to talk to him. Didn’t he realize that con-goers love a)free stuff and b)con virgins? Also? Strange glitter covered ladies found in elevators should always be trusted and mysterious alcoholic drinks shouldn’t ever be trusted. If you’re a con-goer yourself, you’ll get a chuckle out of these chapters. If you’re not a con-goer your mileage may vary.
For Exposure is full of the ups and downs of Apex, how it phoenixed through awful contracts, doomed distribution models, badly timed illnesses, the joy of socializing with amazing people at conventions, finding the right people for your team, and watching your risky decisions pay off. Apex Magazine has been nominated for a Best Semi-Prozine Hugo three times, and novels, short stories, poetry and artwork published through Apex have won the Nebula, Aurealis, Rhysling, Stoker, and Chelsea. So you tell me if you think the risks Jason took have paid off.