Review: Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

Over the last several years, many prominent titles in the SFF space have taken HP Lovecraft’s work, carved out the virulent racism and left what remains of old Howard Phillips in a pile of bloody viscera on the floor. What’s left is all the Good Stuff: cosmic horror, eldritch abominations with unpronounceable names, and the encroaching death of the universe under the nightmarish rule of ancient evils.

Premee Mohamed’s Beneath the Rising is the Good Stuff.

Nick — who has the misfortune of being a Pakistani male in a world immediately post-9/11– has a best friend, Joanna “Johnny” Chambers. Johnny is a refreshing kind of Child Prodigy trope, closer to the Vivian Liao’s of fiction and less like the Musks and Jobses of reality: a powerful woman with great ideas, a big heart, and absolutely the capability to succumb to the evil that comes with holding wealth, power, and privilege from a shockingly young age. Johnny has been inventing things for a long time, but is still a teenager, and the reasons for this surprised me in the best way.

Johnny’s friendship with Nick, a mostly-platonic-except-for-some-Feelings dynamic, drives the story, and flies it across the world because, after her latest invention, unspeakable abominations and old gods pop into the neighborhood ready to wreck shop. This kicks off a genuinely thrilling adventure, and these two messed up kids make many mistakes, work some magic, and go through a realistic, sometimes crushing arc. Johnny has skyrocketed to fame, is beloved around the world, while Nick is a streetsmart everyman with a good heart and a sensible head. The way they revolve around one another, pushing and pulling at one another, makes for a brilliant book that’s a little fantasy, a little horror, a tiny bit sci-fi, and wholly excellent.

Among what I love the most about Beneath the Rising is how it is set just after September 11, 2001, not as an affectation, but as an account of real-feeling people during  a tumultuous era. The Two Towers movie is not out yet and Nick and Johnny anticipate some hilarious things about Ents. There are cell- but not smart-phones, no GPS, and lots of wonderful things Only Nineties Kids Will Understand. These two almost-adults, one a genius but the other smart, scour the globe for invisible libraries and magic and bring a lot (a lot) of baggage with them. Traveling abroad is, of course, fraught with the potential for a demonic presence to emerge Agent Smithlike from any passerby, something Nick is already familiar with by virtue of being brown in the West in the early aughts.

If, like me, you had read none or very little of Premee Mohamed, this is a great place to start!

Review: Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

In the early chapters of Stormblood, one of the characters delivers my favorite Ambrose Bierce quote: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”

I’ve always taken this to have two meanings. First, and probably the intended interpretation, that this book is too long and that much space between its covers is a reading crime. But I prefer the second, and the one that applies to Jeremy Szal’s Stormblood: I’ve started this book, and I’m mad at the last page from being so far from the first, because I cannot put it down.

In short: this frenetic, grisly sucker-punch of a book manages to be everything you could want from sci-fi, while also carving out its own niche with a rusty slingshiv.

Vakov Fukasawa is a former Reaper who drinks with his techie friend Grim, has some family issues to sort through, and happens to be implanted with stormtech, a permanent resident in his body and an alien drug, which presents as a stormy blue presence swirling beneath his skin.

This stormtech drives the core narrative and the meat of the worldbuilding. Here’s a drug that, in the right dose, enhances someone’s physical abilities, with a high potential for a frankly terrifying addiction. Stormtech is powerful, fascinating, and extremely dangerous, a relic of a long-dead alien race, so of course people want to see what happens when we shoot it up. Stormblood demonstrates the galactic consequences of such a powerful and unknown force on the populace, and deals considerably with its effects on everyday people: civilians struggling with addiction, victims of the blooming drug trade, or former soldiers trying to adjust to life after a war that, in some ways, never truly ended. What happens when a market is created for exploitable citizens already struggling to get their life sorted? How do you take responsibility for its existence when you suddenly have an epidemic of people “blueing out” from taking modified iterations of the drug? And when that epidemic hits, how do you take down an entire drug trafficking empire, one that spans the galaxy?

The care given to these questions and the depiction of stormtech, paired with Szal’s knack for setting a scene, build a vibrant galaxy that manages to be a cyberpunk thriller and a space opera and a great speculative read. There’s a lot to enjoy on the surface level. The guns are cool, the body armor is cool, and the ships are cool. I enjoyed the various “skins,” for medical and stealth and casualwear purposes, which feel appropriately techy and cumbersome and at times just a little gross.

I enjoyed how often (and how many!) characters cried freely in this book, from joy and sadness and anguish; no machismo suppression of feelings here. There is a subtle one-off mention that in New Vladi, Vakov’s homeland, nudity is not a taboo. There is a true sense of place on the hollowed-out asteroid where most of the book is set, and in tandem with that are the trappings of great sci-fi. You’ve got seedy bars and aliens, obstinate ones and nerdy ones and frightening ones. You’ve got funky tech and plenty of weirdos willing to use it; one particularly memorable scene involves a character whose office is, essentially, his own body. While it is (perhaps realistically) depressing to see this future world depicted with all the capitalist, consumer-driven hierarchy we have today, the Common feels like a place I could walk around (but not alone).

What I appreciate most about Stormblood’s tone is the unrelenting positivity of its ethos. Life can be brutal and unfair and will throw everything at you, but this never devolves into fatalistic grimdark action scenes or gratuitous horror. There is hope for our characters, although they certainly have to earn it.

This read was a great way to kick off the new year, and I look forward to everything Szal puts out.

The Reads: 2017

I am almost incapable of relaxation. My default state is one of mental excitement, and this time, Christmas to me and “The Holidays” for some, is one of the few times during the year my mind signs off on its own disorder.

Apropos of none of that, here are my top 4(!) books of 2017.

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I greatly enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge feature. For one, they let rereads qualify this year. Mostly though, the organization and data is fun and useful for me, who is naturally bad at both. For a while I met last year’s goal of 50 books read and was at the same 54/50, and then for reasons unknown to myself, decided to read Crime and Punishment, my longest book of the challenge, and surprisingly one of the better ones.

Side-note: I read enough books in 2017 that were actually released in 2017 that my arbitrary top 4 will cover those.

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

aosLikely unsurprising, given that I had an actual entire post reviewing this incredible book. But I love it because it’s not your typical “borderline fantasy eating disorder queer YA” book–you know, that tired old genre. It doesn’t sugarcoat the world, but neither does it drown the reader in bleakness. I don’t read a ton of YA, but the books that I do read follows similar, if not predictable than perhaps publishable patterns, and it is endlessly refreshing to see a book break away from that to tell its own story, and tell it aggressively and unflinchingly. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

Sam J. Miller is already a stellar talent in the short form, and I was immediately excited when I learned of this book coming out. I pulled all the strings I had to acquire a review copy of this book–I failed. (Likely because I lack the strings.) Nonetheless release day came and I have been and will continue to be a champion of this book.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
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There are some writers whose prose will continually sink a hook into you and rip you along, regardless of the story they tell. Sometimes it will be easy going, sometimes not. With Kai Ashante Wilson, it’s not always a smooth journey, but I find myself craving every word published by this author.

A Taste of Honey is a novella following up, in world and chronology but not necessarily location or characters, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which stunned a few people but may have been undersung (it won the 2016 Crawford Award.) A Taste of Honey was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, rightly so. The story follows Aqib bgm Sadiqi and his affair with the soldier Lucrio. Aqib has family expectations. He is expected to marry the right woman, not some soldier passing through. He is expected to have a family, build a life.

It’s not just this tale, familiar and spun to be heartbreaking in its own right by Wilson’s storytelling, but the fantastical elements that once again bring the novella far above and beyond what is usually seen in high and even epic fantasy. It’s hard to go on without spoiling, but I will say I’ll read a story of any length set in this world, for the prose if not the characters, for the ideas if not the richness in detail.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 7.03.01 AMIt’s a rare book to make me fall back in love with a genre. Even rarer when that genre is post-apocalyptic biotech fantasy. Then again, when you’re Jeff Vandermeer, author of Wonderbook (which I read for the second time this year), and your post-apocalyptic biotech fantasy has a psychotic flying bear, I’m basically sold.

Thing is, I have particular reading habits. I’ll go through any (legal) lengths to acquire a book on Kindle or from a library, without purchase if necessary, and if I enjoy it, purchase the nicest copy to grace my shelf that I can find. The standout books are the ones I end up buying or acquiring twice. Rereading a book physically that was first experienced digitally has a great visceral feel; Borne, also, induces intense visceral feelings. This is a story of a horror-Ghibli-esque blob of biotech, of Rachel the scavenger, of hope and survival in a brutal and terrifyingly realized world–I couldn’t put it down and cannot wait to pick it up a second time.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan
Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 6.50.18 AMIn last year’s Reads post I was hesitant to review incomplete series. To me it’s hard to give a complete opinion of a story when I’ve only read 2 out of 3, or 4 out of 5, and so I excluded Ninefox Gambit, the Craft Sequence, and a series I have quietly fallen in love with, Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent, which conclude in The Sanctuary of Wings.

Being the last in a five-book series, it’s hard to specify what I enjoy about this book; I will say I applaud Brennan for developing a unique Victorian-style voice for her narrator and adhering to that voice while managing to develop it across the entire series. Isabella Trent’s world is also my favorite type of fantasy: palette swap (see also: Dragon Age). Scirland  is kind-of-but-not-exactly England, while other countries are similarly comparable to, say, China or Russia; the metaphor is used to highlight specific plot problems like the sexism Isabella faces when she tries to advance in arenas dominated by men, which allows for the reader to draw the right insight to real world cultures, without necessarily appropriating them.

Beyond that, it was good to have a series to come back to each year for a while. I enjoyed watching the lore and worldbuilding develop over five books, rich with adventure (and a little action), excellent characterization, and what is perhaps hardest to accomplish the longer a series goes on: a satisfying ending. I’ll miss it, but just the right amount.

Honorable Mention: Ursula K. Le Guin
I will leave this here, extracted from Goodreads’ handy reading challenge overview. In the same way the Top 4 is in no particular order, putting Le Guin at the end is not an indication of lesser or superior quality, but a special note. It would be hard to pick just one book of hers I read this year, although I will say I enjoyed the Dispossessed far more than I expected to–and I was expecting quite a lot.
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Another year, more books, and ever more on the way! Now my mind can relax a bit, and get into yet more words. But first–holiday music.

Story Release! “Cut From Cracked Ice” out at IGMS

I’m beyond excited to have a new story out in the latest issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show. This piece, “Cut From Cracked Ice” has an interesting history, but first, let’s take a look:

This is a snapshot available to non-subscribers (an annual fee to see IGMS content)

The artwork is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a story of hurt minds and healing, of the walls we build around ourselves, of problems deep but fixable. Anna Repp‘s illustration captures this so wonderfully.

I’m proud of this story, and glad it found a good home at IGMS. I’m also pretty attached to the character of Renei, who not only comes from a larger body of fiction, but is my Dragon Age 2 character. She’s a first, in that sense: the first time I made a character in an RPG who wasn’t modeled after myself (bearded white dude with my name, making the choices I’d make fitting my moral/social/emotional matrix). So what started as Purple Hawke with spells from the Elemental and Arcane trees, slaying fools as the Champion of Kirkwall in the name of love and large explosions, turned into one of the more cathartic characters to write.

But I’ll let her speak for herself. This story is behind a paywall, but there’s some truly great fiction in IGMS. For not that much, you get a year’s worth of reading and complete access to *all* of their content, past and present,  online or ebook. (Plus you can, you know, read my story.) In terms of dollar value, it’s probably among the best you can get from a pro venue.

My name, on a thing! Next to other very good stories!

At any rate, I hope you read it, and enjoy it. In the larger ‘verse of my short and long SFF work, this is Renei’s origin story. Those are still popular, right? Hopefully it’s not the last time you’ll see her.

Review: If Not, Winter

Hashtag Thursday thoughts, transcribed into late-Friday sustenance:

  • Recently finish reading If Not, Winter by Sappho (further praiselavishing down below)*
  • Be doubly bemused, as the least tech-literate millennial you’ll ever meet, at two new features of my constant Internet haunts: (1) That the Kindle Highlights page has moved to a new, mostly more intuitive layout.
  • (2)That now, after reading a book, Goodreads asks me if I want to share these highlights, start a discussion.
  • Ignore the latter as spam, as another way my (mostly opt-in) automation and integration processes are backfiring on me and no, Goodreads, only notify me when a real person is interacting!
  • Reconsider: I actually use Kindle Highlights… a lot.

While not necessarily the definitive mark of a book’s quality, as a reader with ADD, it’s fascinating to go back to a book, months or years later, and check its highlights (digital or otherwise) and see what jumped out to me at that point. Particularly for Kindle’s features, it tells you how many highlights a particular title has. And, again, this isn’t a mark of quality–I had to mark up a lot of Hemingway and James Fenimore Cooper and Systems Theory books for college, and they’re not on my top shelves.

Side-note: one reason I do try to keep my reading localized on one platform is to make things easier for me memory-wise, highlight-wise, and because I generally rent before buying. I’m a habitual window-shopper and thrive on my library. The fact that my Kindle notes stay when I purchase a digital copy is a great feature. And to me, the mark of a favorite title is getting that physical copy, to earn the privilege of tactile handling and further marking.

But I have nonfiction and writing books with dozens of passages I want to keep for later. Entire neighborhoods of words I knew I’d forget, or decided I’m not allowed to. The first time I read Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, I didn’t want to know more than I needed to, about apartheid and South Africa and the TRC. At the end of the course, I had over 30 highlights. The same goes for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. 

If I were to use this metric to define quality, the big hitters would be Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia and Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, closing out their highlight counts with upwards of 60-70 passages. And both phenomenal books! I do go back to those collections of notes, regularly. Are they my favorites, though? Not really. I keep the information at a remove, ready for dissection. Where do I want to return? What stories and knowledge, in the moment, do I want to keep?

More to the point–compare these to novels. Books I’ll consume by the dozen every year, (short fiction, by the many hundreds): Typically speculative, with fully formed worlds, characters, histories, a plot baked in, prose that sings; and often (one hopes) these stories will either or speak to me, or at least entertain, or teach me something. But if you were to analyze them via highlights, it’s really just those passages that make me stop and go, “Ha, that’s neat.”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Plenty of fiction I’ve loved gets marked up out of joy and awe at so many talented authors. It’s only–the book that can do both is such a rare beast. Which brings me back to If Not, Winter.

Sappho’s poetry reminded me of that sensation. Starting a book uncertainly, unable to highlight or (like some animal) fold or write in the margins); I can only take phone pictures, I can only scribble the parts that speak to me. Until I wonder how many pictures and scribbles I have of this wonderful, haunting book of fragmented poetry, made not just from her voice, but of brackets and white space and aching emptiness I want to know more, I want to see within the bracketed white space. I want to meet this author.

I want to highlight across the distances, but can’t. In this age of information from places vast, infinite, instant, these missing pieces will always never be there. Anne Carson confirms it and I remain bewildered.

So I get to that point most serial borrowers will: realizing I’m just gonna buy this book, forever digesting that no amount of digital convenience or notes or ebook renewals can enrich the reading experience, can teach me anything  beyond this fragmentary perfection.