the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for the ‘Sofia Samatar’ Category

2014 has been a pretty good year for me.  Personally, I’m damn impressed with how many of these books were actually published in 2014. As a bonus, there’s even a few novellas and short stories in here. In no particular order, here are my favorite reads of 2014!

Favorite Novels:

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City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014) – that this book is on my list should surprise no one. And if you haven’t read it yet, seriously, get with the program. This is one of those amazing books that defies genre categorization, it just *is*.  To give you a big picture without spoiling anything, it’s about watching your worldview dissolve before your eyes, and understanding that games can be played with many sets of rules. Also? it’s simply fucking amazing.

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Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (2014) – This is probably the most important book I read in 2014. Remember when Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother took high school government classes by storm? I wish the same for this book.  Gemsigns touches on enforced marginalization, building (and breaking down) cultures of racism and classism and fear, and religiously and politically promoted hatred, and handles it in a blunt and emotional way. Also? fucking awesome. And for what it’s worth, I cried at the end.

vandermeer annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer  (2014) –  I’ve been a Vandermeer fan for a long, long time (yet somehow I can still eat mushrooms). Annihilation was strange, surreal, and seemed to be magnetically attuned to me. The words in the tunnel rang for me like a tuning fork. And there was just something about characters who don’t have names. I am a jerk, however, because I own but haven’t yet read the third book in the series.

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kaleidoscope anthoKaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios

published in August 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the editors (Thanks Alisa and Julia!)

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The tagline for Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios’s new anthology Kaleidoscope is “Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy stories”, but what’s in this collection goes much deeper than that.  I really wasn’t sure what to expect, and I very much appreciated the depth of variety of the stories, everything from contemporary fantasy, to parallel universe, to futuristic schools for shapeshifters, to ancient Chinese mythology, to accidental humor,  to a superhero story, and to one so ambiguous it could take place anywhere or anytime. As promised, the characters are diverse, (mostly female, some are queer, some with disabilities or disorders, many are ethnic minorities), and while some of them have already found acceptance, others have a tougher road to travel. A number of the stories deal with being an ethnic and/or racial minority, and being torn between doing whatever it takes to be accepted by your peers, and keeping to the traditions of your parents. Even as horrible things are sometimes happening and characters are in dark places, these are incredibly hopeful, optimistic stories.

 

I think many readers will agree that the two finest  stories in the collection are “The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon” by Ken Liu and “Walkdog” by Sofia Samatar.  Multiple award winning Ken Liu is with good reason famous for his short fiction, and Sofia Samatar is a rising star, and in fact just won the Campbell Award.  In Liu’s “The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon”, Yuan and Jing are struggling with saying goodbye as Jing’s family prepares to move away. The two young women “fall” into the Chinese story of Zhinu and Niulang, who fell in love and were then forced to live apart (their stars are on the opposite side of the Milky Way). The story of the ancient lovers is beautiful in a way only Ken Liu can do, and if you’ve never read him, this is a wonderful introduction to the magic he does with words.  “The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon” is a story of first love, and how to accept that your first love isn’t forever.

 

When I stop to think about it, Sofia Samatar’s “Walkdog” is also a story of first love, or at least about realizing you care deeply for another human being.  Yolanda is writing a paper for school, and you’re going to get a smile on your face reading this, because it looks like every research paper everything 9th grader has every had to write, complete with introduction, thesis statement, discussion of research and conclusion. Samatar has left in all of Yolanda’s spelling errors, unnecessary footnotes, and other errata, which just adds to the fun. So you’re smiling, and maybe laughing, and you wonder why Yolanda keeps going on this tangent about her classmate Andy, when her paper is supposed to be about the urban legend creature the Walkdog, which steals kids. This is not a very long story, and Yolanda realizes what’s happening as she’s writing the research paper, and she’s practically begging her teacher to help her, asking why someone didn’t do something earlier so the horrible thing didn’t have to happen. How can something that starts off so goofy turn so tragic so quickly? A testament to Samatar’s prowess, “Walkdog” will be on my Hugo nominations next year.

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stranger in olondriaA Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

published in 2013

Where I got it: purchased new

Sofia Samatar is nominated for the Campbell Award in this year’s Hugo Awards.

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So I’ve got good news and bad news about A Stranger In Olondria. The good news is that this is some of the most beautifully poetic writing I’ve ever come across. Open the book to any random page, choose any random paragraph, and you’ll be floored by the writing.  The bad news is that the story had absolutely zero hook for me. It took far too long for me to feel pulled into to what was happening.  It was a strange combination of dazzling poetry skillfully disguised as paragraphs, and a muddled plot where the scenes sluggishly melted into each other.  I imagine if Guy Gavriel Kay and Catherynne Valente teamed up to rewrite one year of The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, it might read something like A Stranger in Olondria.

 

Jevick’s family is from the southern island of Tinimavet. His father wants him to grow up to be a merchant of a new generation, so ensures the boy has an Olondrian tutor, someone to teach him the language and customs of that massive country to the north. Lunre teaches Jevick more than just writing and reading, he shares his immense collection of books, and is suspiciously silent about his past.  Tinimavet does not have a written language, which makes the learning of a different one even more magical for Jevick. Before taking ship to Olondria, he has already experienced the fountains in the squares, the bustling ports, the languorous rivers, the women who pull in admirers with a flick of the scarf on their wrists.  Jevick knows all of this through the books of prose and poetry that Lunre reads to him.

 

When the time comes for Jevick to go to Olondria, Lunre refuses to go with him. What broke that man’s heart so completely? His love for his homeland the people who reside there is obvious, why does he refuse to return?  On the ship, Jevick meets a sickly girl, Jissavet, who is from a neighboring island. They share a common language and religion. Her family has spent everything they have in hopes that healers in Olondria can cure her disease.

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I’m posting my thoughts on the Hugo nominated short stories all week.  You can read Sofia Samatar’s nominated short story “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” over at Strange Horizons.  Click here to see how far I’ve gotten in my Hugo reading.

here’s what I thought:

She knows all the stories, the one where he hides her skin in a locked trunk, the one where it’s hidden in the attic, the one where it’s in his knapsack. And always in the end, the Selkie finds her skin and returns to the sea. Our narrator knows these stories like the back of her hand, yet she adamantly refuses to share them with her closest friend Mona. And since her Mom left, she could really use a friend who isn’t interested in Selkie stories.
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There was that magical moment when I realized exactly what the title was referring to. In Selkie stories, the reader is always meant to feel sorry for the Selkie who is trapped on land, and such stories reach their end when the Selkie finds their skin and returns to their underwater family. We’re rarely shown the other side of the equation.  It’s not “loser” as in “shape of an L on her forehead”, it’s “loser” as in the one who lost something, the one who found themselves on the losing side of a conflict, of history, of the law, of magic.
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She’s a little jealous of the Selkies in the stories, I think. That they inevitably return to their families like nothing ever happened, and that their families want them back. Everyone in “Selkie Stories are for Losers” seems to have something they are trying to return to, and failing. Here on land, we don’t have a choice – life marches on, leaving us behind.
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I loved the unpretentious, fearless, nothing-to-prove writing style. Like the best magical realism, this could be the narrator’s exact experience, or it could be a coping mechanism for what’s happened in her life. Sometimes when reading magical realism, I really do think about the possibility that an unreliable narrator has come up with a coping mechanism. That’s not meant as an insult to the character or the story or the author, it’s just an added dimension for me when reading magical realism. It’s fun for me to think about what’s really happening in the context of the story, and what the narrator is just making up.
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I read the story a few times, and never did learn the name of the narrator.  On the one hand, unnamed narrators are a pet peeve of mine, but on the other hand it means she could be anyone – my neighbor, the waitress at that little diner, the girl giggling with her friend at the corner store.

long hidden anthologyLong Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

published May 2014

where I got it: Received review copy from the publisher. (Thanks Crossed Genres!)

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I’ve tried for a few days to write an introduction to this anthology that beats around the bush, that avoids the politics. Beating around the bush has proved impossible in the short span of time i give myself to write reviews.

 

So I will be blunt.

 

Unless you live under a rock, you know that historically the vast majority of speculative fiction published in the English speaking world has been written by straight white dudes, and what they wrote and published reflected their worldview.  I have nothing against their worldview, it’s just that I know there are about a billion other (six billion, working on seven, actually) worldviews out there, including my own.  I’d like to hear those voices too.  We (and by we, I mean me, and people like me: white, midwestern, don’t know any language but English) are getting points of view we have never seen before. Our eyes are being opened, and there is a blinding rainbow to be seen.

 

And I couldn’t be happier.  The world’s cultural  history doesn’t belong to just one group, so why should our speculative fiction?  Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History offers over two dozen diverse stories about those who have been brushed aside, marginalized, been told that people aren’t interested in their stories, in too many cases been told to go away and shut up. Well, I might be a white girl from the midwest who led the easiest life you can imagine, but damnit, I am interested in these stories.

 

Yes, this is speculative fiction, but it is also historical fiction. Along with beautiful and sometimes haunting artwork,  each story in Long Hidden is subtitled by a place and a year, connecting and cementing everything that happens in this book with events that shaped history, many of which circle around colonialism, exploitation, slavery, and institutionalized dehumanization. Geographically, the stories range from India to Denmark, to China and Guatemala, and everywhere inbetween, offering a literal planetary scope of points of view. Dazzling prose, fascinating characters, and nearly everything I read had me running to the internet, Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia, typing in places, dates, names, and events. The internet isn’t an ideal source to be sure, but a collection of stories that has me asking myself “what was happening around this story? What is the context, why are these people so afraid, what else is happening here?” and instantly wanting to know more of the non-fiction that the fiction pointed to, that certainly that had to be one of the many purposes of this collection. I hope that you too will be interesting in doing further reading on your own, to further understand the contexts of these stories.  Because without context? it’s just a story. And nothing in Long Hidden is just a story. And that’s the point.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.