Tag Archives: fantasy

New story: “Flightcraft”

New story!

Flightcraft, in Luna Station Quarterly
A romance in its beginning, an ancient craft, and an aeroplane named for a traitor.

Cat knows when she’s finished speaking that she must be flushed with emotion – it’s a practised spiel that nevertheless works its way through her body every time, like a form through canvas. But she looks up and Talitha is smiling at her, tentative, luminous.

“We could do this again,” Cat says, suddenly. “I mean, it’s nice to have company at lunchtimes. It’s been lonely since everyone up at the base started to leave.”

“I’d like that,” Talitha says, and she’s smiling again.

Novella: “Quarter Days”

This story is my first piece of longer fiction – at 25,000 words it’s a novella rather than a short story – and I’m very excited that it’s being published at last. As noted elsewhere, it is a story about magic, and also about major railway disasters, but mostly about coming home.

Station sign seen through lift: "Way Out and Temple station"Quarter Days, in GigaNotoSaurus (25,000w – available in epub and mobi at the link)
It’s the winter of 1919, and the war is over. Grace, Ned and Thanet have returned to the only world they’ve ever known: the magical courts of the City of London, the Temple gardens, and the river.

But while they were gone, it changed.

“It would be,” Ned said, with some difficulty, “grievous, for us to have fought so hard for – for what is ours. And then, after everything…”

Grace nodded, allowing him the time to finish that sentence, or choose not to. Ned lit another cigarette, and she waited, thinking of how she had kept the practice running even when the windows were blacked-up with crepe and Salt magic was as strictly regulated as sugar and petrol. She had written letters to Ned about it, and had them returned with “Not known” written on the envelopes, by order of the War Office, but in Ned’s own familiar hand. They had laughed about it, in their separate places, and afterwards.

“We go on,” Ned said, finally, “like we did before. We just go on.”

“Go on,” Grace echoed, and then fell silent, watching Ned’s hands move to his mouth, and the cigarette tip glowing in the darkness.

New story: “Nine Thousand Hours”

A story about magic and mayhem and words, but mostly about a colossal fuck-up, and a lighthouse. This one is published by Strange Horizons.

Nine Thousand Hours by Iona Sharma (5000 words)
You must understand: there wasn’t anything to do, at that time. You couldn’t go online, or read a book. You couldn’t check your email or read the news. So many people took up running that there were two London Marathons that year. And magic had become a primal thing – you could do it if you knew the working so well it was part of your body; you couldn’t look it up. And I remember people didn’t even do that: they were frightened, because of me, because of what I had done.


Book review: October Daye series, Seanan McGuire

Chimes At Midnight

I’ve just finished the October Daye books by Seanan McGuire, and enjoyed them very much. They’re kind of popcorn-candy books – one comes out every year – about a fairy private investigator in San Francisco. Really. It’s an original genre-smush, I’ll give it that, and McGuire’s got a passion for Irish fairy tales and myth that shines through clearky. Which is, you know, not my thing – I’m usually very resistant to Euro-centric depictions of fairies, and not at all interested in fairy tale retellings – and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed these.

What I like about the series is October, or Toby, herself. Oh, Toby! She is such the hard-boiled PI – grim narration, unwise caffeine and doughnut choices, prone to making sweeping generalisations about Just How Crappy Everything Is. I would find this terribly annoying, were it not for a number of major, game-changing factors. Firstly, there’s the faerie setting. (Much as it pains me, I will adopt McGuire’s spelling of that word for the rest of this post.) McGuire has done her research and her worldbuilding, and is very aware of how those aren’t the same thing. She gives us a slew of interesting races of people and cultures that sound like real cultures, complex and silly by turns: and with them, she gives us a genuinely fresh setting for what might be otherwise quite pedestrian murder-solving and missing-child plots. Actually, she makes a strength out of them. Nothing to make you look at both genres with fresh eyes than seeing how interestingly they can be made to fit together. So we have Toby, who is a “changeling” – in this universe, person with part human blood, part faerie, with a particular set of abilities and inabilities, and well-realised complex social status – and can do magic that mostly involves blood; but we also have shapeshifters, teleporters, people who can turn technology into magic and back again, hedonistic magic healers, people who are part goat, people who can change the world through their dreams, it’s a long and creative list.

Secondly, McGuire’s doing something interesting with gender in both her genres (or alternatively, a refreshing lack of interesting? I’m not sure which). I had no idea how much I needed the pop-culture staple, the hard-edged cynic private investigator, to be a woman until I saw it done. Toby lurks in alleyways and acts casually self-destructive and it’s great. It’s great. What’s notable about the Philip Marlowes of this world is that while their personal lives leave much to be desired, their abilities as investigators are never questioned, and similarly, neither are Toby’s. She is what she is, without apology for womanhood (or motherhood). On the flipside, it’s nice to just have casually non-sexist fantasy. Toby’s other hat is Sir October Daye, Knight – not with jousting, but with swordfighting, and a squire – and it’s nice to have that story lurking in the background, neither the focus nor ignored. Toby’s not the first woman to be a knight and there’s nothing in this story about proving herself. All that’s done, and taken for granted. Relatedly, there’s casual, unremarkable queerness in this universe, which I approve of thoroughly. A half-dozen recurring characters are queer, and the narrative takes them again as read.

And thirdly! Like the best characters, Toby grows and learns. From being a self-confessed loner with self-destructive tendencies, who trusts no one but herself, slowly, slowly, Toby gains friends and allies, a partner, a household, a life. The first few books are uneven – partly, in my view, because Toby’s friendlessness makes them heavy on clunky interior monologue – but I liked them better when I realised it was meant to be a deliberate slow burn towards a specific goal. It’s a slow transition but it’s worth the wait: it comes together, finally, in Ashes of Honor, the sixth book in the series, and the best from where I’m sitting. Oh, Toby! I love her: she’s a hero for our age. Her liege lord, Sylvester Torquill, was a fairy tale hero for an earlier age, taking a sword upon the battlefields; Toby is one for now, taking her squashed VW Bug onto the mean, no-parking streets of San Francisco, and saving it from all manner of things while also doing laundry and dating and spending a lot of time at Starbucks. And as Sylvester mentored Toby, she does the same for her own squire, Quentin, which I love. Oh, I love Toby! Even after her arc of learning to love and be loved, she’s still what a friend calls a space toaster. She’s impulsive and ridiculous and takes herself far too seriously. She’s flawed and passionate and, for certain values, human.

The books are not perfect, by any means. They take a while to get going, several of them are weirdly-paced, and sometimes I wonder how Toby is not in therapy right now and forever more. (And on that note, I wonder what, if anything, the books are trying to say about mental illness. People don’t have mental illness in these stories, they go mad. And while “mad” isn’t necessarily correlated with evil – Sylvester has a dark time or two, even – I’m not sure it works even so. Toby drives her car, uses her cellphone, goes to her friends’ children’s birthday parties. There might be faerie folk abroad, but this is the modern world: I am surprised by madness without therapy, madness without medication, especially when Toby eats Tylenol like candy.) Similarly, I’m not very sure about what’s being done with all the  talk of blood. The faerie characters in the novels are either pureblooded, with no human parentage, or changelings, with some percentage human. Without spoiling the plot too much, the balance of Toby’s changeling blood changes over time and has major plot consequences; of the other characters, it’s often the first thing we learn about them. It’s not like, for example, in Harry Potter’s magical worldbuilding, where magical ability is linked with blood but it isn’t all important: here, it is all important. I don’t believe that this is a metaphor for race – there are non-white faerie characters, for one thing – but I wish the novels engaged more closely with the risk of it.

But! Taken as a whole, the books are lovely. Warm and moreish like popcorn, and full of fun and memorable characters. (Some of my favourites other than Toby, in no particular order: Sylvester, the brave man with a sword; Etienne, the brave man with a stick up his arse, and a sword; Quentin, brave with a sword, really likes eating, often exactly what Toby needs; the Luidaeg, the queer sea witch who’s getting less and less good at pretending she’s chaotic evil; May, the indestructible death omen with a taste for crap TV). Just lovely.

[The eighth book in the series, The Winter Long, comes out in September.]

Book review: The Oversight, Charlie Fletcher

The Oversight, cover

[This review has minor, but not major spoilers: not ones I think would ruin your enjoyment of the novel.]

I’ve actually been pretty excited by this one – I loved the io9 excerpt, and as a general thing I don’t do fantasy in totally fantasy worlds. (If it’s got a map inside the front cover, I put it back.) So a London-based fantasy is always a draw for me, and then I realised it was playing with a trope I love, a secret group of guardians and watchers – so I caved and begged for the review copy. And having read it in two days, I have reached the following conclusion: The Oversight is a children’s book. For adults. Bear with me.

So it’s never stated outright when the novel is set, but my guess is round about 1850. It’s a London that contains all kinds of supernatural haunts and hauntings, but hidden from the population (this isn’t Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, though the comparison is apt enough I guess), and the ordinary citizens are protected by the eponymous Oversight, a Free Company of the city of London whose responsibility it is to keep them safe. (I went to a school formerly run by one of the Worshipful Companies. I am charmed by this.) The Oversight, who must exist in multiples of five for their own safety, were once far greater in number and influence than they are now: they’re down to the last five, what they call the Last Hand. The quiet threat that runs through the book is what will happen, and what begins to happen, when the number drops below five.

The novel opens with a girl called Lucy Harker, a strange girl with covered hands, making her strange way into the Safe House of the Oversight, and being partly responsible for a sequence of chaotic events that threatens to overwhelm them completely. On the way from A to B we have all the elements of a certain kind of gothic fantasy, so mysterious creatures of evil who can’t cross running water, check; manus gloriae, the hand of glory, check; strange breath-stealing creatures and glamours and spells and people who can talk to animals, check! Occasionally it goes slightly off-piste and gives us travelling circuses and pirate battles, also! And that’s fine. That’s just fine: it rollicks along cheerfully and it takes you along with it. And, you know, it does have a lot of the textual artefacts you more often see in children’s books – very short chapters, a list of dramatis personae in the front cover – and I wondered for a while if that was it: that it was a short, slight, cheerful story, with lots of imagination but not quite the macabre depth the original backstory of the Oversight promised. (Not to imply that children’s books must only be slight! As I said: bear with me.)

The five members of the Last Hand are Cook, Sara Falk, Mr Sharp, Hodge and the Smith. To say more about some of them would be to ruin the story. But my favourites by a hair are Sara Falk and Mr Sharp, the two members of the Oversight with backstories that are tied together in some intriguingly non-specific way. Mr Sharp – and why is he Mr Sharp, though Sara Falk gets both her names and Hodge gets his last, as is more conventional? That’s just how it is, as with Miss Honey and Mister Tibbs, elsewhere – presents an interesting conundrum. He’s perhaps the most powerful of the five, and with it, most susceptible to being destroyed by that power; he has an understated compassion for humanity, including the Oversight’s golem, Emmet, whom he resists treating as a thing rather than as a person, but in that power he has a capacity for violence. It also interests me that one aspect of Sharp’s power is his ability to make anyone fall for him. (It’s the first thing we see him do: a passing sot named Bill Ketch falls “confusingly and irrevocably” in love at first sight.) There’s a nascent queerness in that idea that I like a lot – later, the novel does explicitly draw together queerness and magical ability – and it’s wound up, somehow, in difference, and vulnerability.

Because Mr Sharp, whose capacity for damage scares even him, is possibly in love, possibly unrequited, with Sara Falk, who is known in the neighbourhood as “the Jew”, or the granddaughter of the rabbi, also “the Jew”. Sara, too, is mostly contradictions – she came to the Oversight as a young, frightened girl, and is now the strongest in personality of all of them – and they both linger at the fringes of the society they live in, held apart from it by the fact of their membership of the Oversight but also by the fact of who they are. And perhaps they ought to be tied together by that bond, and perhaps they are, or were, before the chaotic opening to the novel: but we never know, not really. The narration is omniscient but also kind of enigmatic, distancing – so the motivations and relationships between the characters remain obscure most of the way through in the way adults’ motivations and relationships often do, in children’s books. They’re a mystery. But we know they can get hurt, and that, probably, is it: because what the five very different members of the Oversight have in common is just that vulnerability. They have property and secrets and power, but it’s individual power, not systemic: there are only five of them, they’re fundamentally different from the world around them, and they can be hurt.

And so, the stated theme of the book is that love conquers all, and that brings us around to children’s novels again, because that’s a fairy-tale thought, isn’t it, that the prince falls in love with Cinderella and they live happily ever after, amor vincit omnia. And maybe that’s true and it isn’t. But it took me a time to get to it, because this isn’t a book about the heart but the hand: the Last Hand, Sara’s hand of glory, Lucy Harker, the girl with the covered hands. It’s about doing things, rather than wishing them; things that are hopeless, often, things that are desperate, but must be done, because Lucy is a survivor; because the Oversight vowed to uphold their responsibilities, though they are themselves diminished; because, in the end, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. And that’s where the adulthood comes in. Because what is growing up, but realising that: that sometimes you have to do what you have to do. It’s a simple theme, and it’s beautifully executed; I recommend this one.

Stray thoughts (a conceit I am stealing gratefully from the AV Club):

-There’s a dead prostitute scene. Why, why, why. For the most part this annoys me because there are no damsels in distress in this book, otherwise! Ladies save ladies, or ladies save themselves, here.

-It’s the first of a trilogy. Until page 100 I dared to hope, then lost all hope thereafter. But unlike some, the novel does cohere and resolve neatly as a single novel, so there’s that. I will wait with bated breath for the next installment. (No title as yet? Though “Polydactyly” springs facetiously to mind.)

-And, lastly, if reading aloud, find a Scot or similar. The Oversight have oversight of “the Law and the Lore”, and trying to make those two words sound even the tiniest bit different in my non-rhotic accent has been hilarity for all the family. Law and lore. Law and lore. Ah, shut up.

[My review copy of this book was provided by Jenni Hill at Orbit. Thanks again!]

Book review: The Killing Moon, NK Jemisin

I’ve previously read NK Jemisin only a little – two short stories, Non Zero Probabilities and L’Alchimista, both very, very good – and I’d tried to read her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but given up. Not from any disgust, nor dislike, just of lack of inclination – I could see what she was trying to do and it was interesting, but didn’t keep my attention. And her two books after that are in the same series, so I let them alone.

And after that, I picked up The Killing Moon because I’d read in passing on io9 that it had different worldbuilding – and, notably, had a lot to say about dreams and lucid dreams, which is a major narrative kink for me. So I bought it and have read it piecemeal over the last week – piecemeal, although I had a transatlantic flight and two train journeys when felt more able to face reading, because it turned into one of those odd, immersive books where the story is all very well but you don’t really want to get to the end of it. Having finished it now, I’m unsure whether it’s a very, very good book, or just one that hits all my kinks; I’m thinking a bit of both.

So. The Killing Moon is a stand-alone novel (it really is! it’s published as “the first of a duology” – okaaay, but the two novels are in the same universe without being directly related, and why does all SFF have to come in installments, anyway) set in a fantasy world distantly akin to ancient Egypt. It’s got an edge of SF in that the world it’s set in does seem to be a moon travelling around a gas giant, but in practice, it’s magic and spells all the way. In the city-state of Gujaareh, which is presided over by the Hetawa, the rather fundamentalist church of the goddess Hananja, peace is the only law. What this means in practice is the goddess’s servants, the Gatherers, keep this peace: they travel the city by night, taking people’s dreams (which are used for healing magics), and in the process and almost incidentally, their lives. They are not killers in their own eyes: whosoever lives in Hananja’s City, they say, lives by Hananja’s Law. With this rather interesting viewpoint comes the Gatherer Ehiru, a man who, in the first few pages of the novel, does something unforgivable according to his own lights. He imposes penance on himself, locks himself in his room and resolves never to talk to anyone ever again. He’s an unlikely man to then start a war. He does: but a lot of things happen on the way there.

The thing is, the novel has a lot of things I hate about fantasy. Far too many made-up words (there’s a actual glossary which is actually helpful, sigh), and the style isn’t always terribly fluid – sometimes characters stand there and think about their feelings – but oddly I think that’s one of the novel’s strengths. It is an old-fashioned fantasy novel, with the building of a whole world. It fully intends to bring you in to the lives of these people and their large-canvas feelings, and not let you go.

And it works very well for the most part. There is a plot of some sort, but the important parts are the characters. Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri are the centre of it, and the relationship between them is so beautifully and lovingly realised that it alone is worth the price of admission: they are mentor and apprentice, but Nijiri becomes Ehiru’s apprentice soon after aforementioned unforgivable sin, and the balance between them is never quite right; and then there’s the small fact that Nijiri is in love with Ehiru, who has resolved not to take advantage of this, but accept it, and how well this is written floors me. There is also Sunandi, who is a foreigner and a spy and thinks of them as killers. How can you do this for your living, she asks; how can you lie, they return.

The point of it all is that neither and none of them are right: Ehiru, if anyone, is the moral compass of the novel, and yet we never see him as the happy and sane Gatherer he presumably once was; we hear about it rather than see it. Doing the right thing is something that causes a great deal of pain to him, and it’s still not black and white that he does what’s right or just what he’s always known. (Which is, by the way, not to imply manpain – in a lot of interesting ways, Ehiru subverts that trope. Pretty much his raison d’etre is that no one dies to give him character development.)

Now here’s the thing about the Gatherer Ehiru that in another world, perhaps wouldn’t need to be stated outright: he is a brown person. So is his apprentice. So is their antagonist spy, although they are all different types of brown people. It’s a whole world of brown people. It does my heart good.

There is also Jemisin’s short story, The Narcomancer, which again, I recommend unreservedly: it’s a stand alone story, set in the same universe many hundreds of years earlier, mostly concerned with another Gatherer. It’s thoughtful and passionate and has stuff to say about sex, gender and power, but it can usefully be summarised as “the Gatherer Cet’s terrible, horrible, no good very bad day”. Cet is another interesting protagonist, but I’m not going to spoil that story at all when you can just go and read it.

(His being named Cet makes my mind conflate him with Cat Chant, which… no, because, hell, Diana Wynne Jones is the sort of thing you need this sort of antidote to, if that hasn’t ceased to make any sense. Brown people fantasy which does not make the brown people themselves the fantastic – yes.)

There is a second novel, The Shadowed Sun, which I haven’t read, but would have bought today if it hadn’t been Easter Sunday. As it is Easter Sunday, I think I will just have to go into town and buy it tomorrow. Yes, she’s that good.