Tag Archives: speculative fiction

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.

Book review: Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

[This review has minor spoilers for Ancillary Sword and major ones for Ancillary Justice.]

About a year ago, I read a review copy of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and did a positive but measured write-up of it, guardedly talking about how much I’d enjoyed the ideas explored in it and why those ideas should win it the Hugo. Not quite a year later, Ancillary Justice is the only novel in history to have won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and I’ve just read the newly-published sequel. The series is now called Imperial Raadch, and the new book picks up right where the last one left off, with Breq, now working for (one half of) Anaander Mianaai, on a mission to a place called Athoek Station to protect the sister of Lieutenant Awn.

The thing is, I enjoyed Ancillary Justice and very much respected its projects, and my review at the time reflected that, talking about all the stuff I and everyone have written about already: about the worldbuilding, the fascinating themes of identity, bodies and difference; the way the Radchaai inhabit an entirely female linguistic universe. And all those things are still in evidence, especially the last, which, aaah, is still as remarkable as it was and maybe even more so for being the second book that does it. It is psychologically warming in a way I can’t even articulate to read a whole novel that doesn’t use “he”; to have everything, every plot, every romance, every good deed and bad deed and minor detail be a thing that a woman does, or could be doing.

But Ancillary Sword is different. To me it reads as though two things have happened: that Leckie has become more comfortable in this universe, and that Breq has, too. This is the middle book in the series and Leckie has the time and space to play, and while I enjoyed Ancillary Justice, I loved Ancillary Sword and want to make everyone read it immediately, which is a slightly different thing. Possibly, though, this may be more because of me and my taste for small-scale worldbuilding than the novel, but let’s see. As above, Ancillary Sword picks up right where Ancillary Justice left off, on the way to Athoek Station – Breq heads out there with Seivarden, her former drug-addict companion and now loyal lieutenant, on board Mercy of Kalr, a ship just like Breq used to be when she was Justice of Toren. One of Breq’s soldiers, Kalr Five, is nervous about expressing it but still adamant: if they’re heading out into space, they need good china. This very rapidly transforms into a running gag about Breq wondering who actually gets to eat off said good china. In the meantime, Seivarden is ineptly-but-charmingly flirting with Breq; the rest of the crew have discovered Breq sings when she’s happy and have, themselves, begun singing when they’re happy; and seventeen-year-old Lieutenant Tisarwat, Breq’s youngest officer, is nervous as hell and wants to throw up a lot. And Mercy of Kalr, the ship, watches over the whole thing with a somewhat ironic eye. Of course, typically of Leckie, there’s a lot more to all of this than meets the eye – the good china is a mark of social status; seen from without, the crew are the agents of a terrifying imperial force; there are many more reasons than the obvious why Lieutenant Tisarwat is a nervous baby lieutenant. But at the same time, there doesn’t have to be more to this than meets the eye, and I was reminded very incongruously of George McDonald Fraser’s McAuslan books, in which a young officer gets used to his rank and file soldiers (who treat him exactly as Tisarwat’s treat hers) and starts figuring out some stuff about the world he lives in, as well. It’s a small-scale story against a giant space opera backdrop.

And, obviously, that’s my favourite thing: small-scale stories in an SFF setting is totally my jam, and this novel delivers beautifully. Breq’s quest in this novel is to make amends to Basnaaid, Awn’s sister, a very little human story, compared to her quest for revenge in the last book. Tisarwat’s growing up. Seivarden is learning how to be a good officer. In treating them with the same care and attention that she treats epic, galaxy-spanning battles for dominance, Leckie is telling us that these things matter. I think that’s a powerful idea in itself, but even more so for a story with a protagonist like this. Breq is Justice of Toren. She was a ship; she was a warship; she was responsible for the deaths of millions. As we know from the first novel, the thing that broke her was her being ordered to kill Lieutenant Awn in cold blood and carrying out that order; Breq has come by who she is the hard, hard, hard way. Which is why Breq’s kindness is a hard thing, too: Breq’s kindness to Tisarwat starts out so hard you don’t even know that it’s kindness. Her compassion for Basnaaid is terrifying. And there is another character in the novel, Queter, who points this out – who tells Breq that she was an imperialist and a warmonger, that she can only bring violence. That kindness is no longer something she can offer. Breq neither accepts nor denies this; she is who she is, because she can’t be anything else. She is who she is, she is what she’s done, and this is all she can do, now.

In the same way, I think the most powerful moment in the novel is close to the end, a last moment of connection between Kalr Twelve, Lieutenant Tisarwat and Breq. To explain it would be to spoil it, but again, the themes are evident: because unlike in the first novel, Breq can admit to the fact that she loved Lieutenant Awn, that she saved Seivarden from the snow because she felt sorry for her; and that she desperately misses the ship she used to be. In this novel, such small stories have the same power as the big ones. And so, Mercy of Kalr and its crew can do their best to help. The new ship isn’t like Justice of Toren – Breq isn’t one intelligence, encompassing all these people. But Mercy of Kalr and its crew, who sing their songs with her, who share what they are with her – they’ll do.

Book review: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

ancilliaryjusticeThis review contains minor spoilers, though nothing that I think would ruin your enjoyment of this novel.

I have to admit, I was not originally impressed by Ancillary Justice. I read it piecemeal, which didn’t help: I got the vague impression of some large space operatic plot, with doppelgangers and space battles that ends, as all speculative fiction first novels must do these days, in the set-up for the sequel and thence the trilogy. But then it lingered and lingered, full of imagery and ideas, until I picked it back up: hence this slightly delayed review.

The protagonist of this novel – and heroine, though she would undoubtedly disdain the descriptor – is Breq, who is perhaps a woman who lives in what is undoubtedly a space opera world. Although she is not one of them, she is allied to the Radch – a galaxy-spanning civilisation whose raison d’etre is to conquer new worlds. They absorb new territories by means of officers on sentient ships, whose manpower is provided by officers, and “ancillaries” – the corpses of the dead, reanimated with the ship’s own consciousness. (So far, so kind of creepy.) Whether Breq is a woman is debatable for a number of reasons: she certainly refers to herself as “she”, but in the Radchaai linguistic universe, everyone is “she”. And even if it weren’t for that, Breq is an ancillary – the last one – for a ship that was once named Justice of Toren. She is the ship, all that is left of it.  Whether the ship has gender, or humanity, is a question – but not a question Breq is interested in answering. She has a job to do. The novel is split between two different threads, one covering the story of what happened years ago to transform Justice of Toren into Breq, which in turn provides illumination for the “current” story, of what Breq’s mission is.

And that in itself would be interesting: a non-human sentience who is utterly uninterested in humanity. Breq is not Pinocchio or Commander Data: she is who she is. But then in the first pages of the novel, Breq, on the edge of completing her mission, spends time and money she doesn’t have on saving a drug-addicted former officer of hers named Seivarden, literally dragging her out of the snow. (Seivarden is, perhaps, male: the novel indicates she might be, but this is Breq’s story, so she remains she.) Why she does this, she does not understand – as she complains bitterly to herself, she didn’t even like Seivarden – and why she continues to look after Seivaarden, healing her, getting her clothes and food, seeing her through her addiction, remains a mystery to Breq. It shouldn’t remain too much of a mystery to the reader, not for long. In the past, when Breq belonged to Justice of Toren’s first rank of ancillaries, One Esk, she was attached to a human officer, Lieutenant Awn; in the past, One Esk was known for its love of music and singing. Breq has no interest in humanity, but humanity is changing her;  Breq is not human, but to be a ship is not to be nothing. Breq, in her loyalty to Seivarden, inspires Seivarden’s loyalty to her. On the flipside, Breq’s quest is for revenge – a human desire with the single-mindedness of a ship’s intelligence. What Ancillary Justice is doing is telling us about the ways that exist, not even to be human, but to be a person. Justice of Toren was a multiple intelligence, divided between the many ancillaries and the ship; Breq is a ship’s intelligence in a single human body; Seivaarden is a washed-up former aristocrat re-learning to be who she is; long ago, Justice of Toren did something for Lieutenant Awn that it could not not do, and continue to be what it was. There is a beautiful, telling moment late in the novel, that underlines it all: Breq is addressed, for the first time in years, as “Justice of Toren”, and she cries: because she is not human, but who she is is still who she is, and was, and will be.

And many things have been said about gender in this novel – about how everyone from Breq’s point of view is marked female whether they are or not, about “he” as a default is tiresome non-SFF reality but how interesting it becomes that Breq’s default pronouns are always she, her, hers – but I would argue that it’s the same thing writ on a different canvas. How to be a person is also how to occupy space, how to occupy a body. Breq’s point of view gives us a universe where to be female, to be a woman, is the default state of being. All people occupy female bodies, no matter the shape and size of those bodies are. To occupy space itself is to be female. For Breq, that’s not a political act – let us not forget that Breq, as she was, was an imperialist on the vanguard of invasion; she had power beyond imagining – but for the SFF reader and writer, of course it is. Breq is a character archetype so often coded male in speculative fiction – the revenge-driven, stoic lone wolf – and for her to live in this female universe is a subversion and a celebration of the trope. It’s beautifully done.

Oh, and it’s beautifully done in general, of course: the ice-covered worlds, the great ravines, the green marshlands and ancient temples and the dead things singing children’s songs! All immaculately and crisply imagined. It becomes an action novel towards the end, which surprised me somewhat – in many ways, the style and worldbuilding reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s meandering novels of ideas – and I almost think that’s the weakest part of the novel, the action plot which is perfectly serviceable but perhaps contributed to my initial impression that the novel was nothing special, because the ideas were obscured by keeping track of everything that happens and who everyone is (and in a world where people can be more than one person, this is more complex than it sounds). But despite that, I hope very much that the novel wins the Best Novel Hugo, because I want more stories like this: kind and mind-expanding, all at once, with diversity of identity built into the stuff of them.

[My review copy of this novel was provided by Jenni Hill from Orbit – thank you kindly!]

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.

Luna Station Quarterly: Issue 13

I am an assistant editor on Luna Station Quarterly, an online magazine devoted to the vast and varied talents of female speculative fiction writers. Issue 13, the first issue I’ve been involved with, has just gone online, and I’m very pleased to be a part of it. The stories are all worth reading, but the stand-out is “The Warrior’s Dance” by Sandi Leibowitz, a warm, engaging, compelling window into another world. It shows off, with grace and assurance, what great truths you can unfold in the genre. I liked it very, very much.

Another one I liked particularly was the short, sweet, delightful, “Entry #92” by Tara Abrahams, and “The Colours of Apple“, which is a perfectly little fairy tale.