Asexuality in Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

tash hearts tolstoy.jpg

I had meant to have this this piece up waaaaay earlier. Like, sometime in 2017.

I first read Tash Hearts Tolstoy last August. The book is, to my knowledge, the first YA novel published by Big Five imprint to feature an explicitly asexual protagonist. As an ace-spectrum/gray-ace person, I was curious to see how Tash’s asexuality would be portrayed, especially since the last book I read with an ace protagonist, Every Heart a Doorway, had people praising it ad infinitum for its representation of asexuality when, in reality, it sucked.

(Side note: I have no clue whether Tash Hearts Tolstoy is #ownvoices. I also don’t care that much whether it is or not, because Every Heart a Doorway was #ownvoices, and, well, see above. )

A quick summary: Tash is an aspiring film director who, along with her best friend Jack, is producing a web series adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina titled Unhappy Families, which has just gone viral thanks to a famous vlogger giving it a shout-out. Tash has also struck up an online friendship with Thom, a fellow vlogger, and soon they’re emailing and texting and bantering and flirting. Tash has the opportunity to meet him in person, thanks to the upcoming Golden Tuba web series awards, but now she’s facing the prospect of spending time with her crush in meatspace and feeling the pressure of whether to tell Thom she’s asexual.

Tash Hearts Tolstoy is an entertaining read overall. I especially enjoyed all the parts involving Unhappy Families and interfacing with fans and the Internet as content creators. My conclusion regarding the portrayal of Tash’s asexuality is that the book did a lot of things right, a couple things not right, and one thing that really ticked me off. The full breakdown of my thoughts is as follows: Continue reading

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My Favorite Reads of 2017

Another year, another best-of list.

When it came to writing and posting reviews this year, I fell down on the job, hard (although I am proud I was able to read and review all the freely available short fiction nominations for the Nebula and Hugo awards).

Nevertheless, I read a ton of incredible books this year. So without further ado, here’s my long, in-chronological-order-of-when-I-read-them, list of the best books I read in 2017.

the-devourers

 The Devourers by Indra Das
The first book I read in 2017, and I immediately knew upon finishing it that I would be including it in this very list. I love stories about stories and the creation of histories, narratives, mythologies, and peoples, and this three-part epic saga in which werewolves absorb the memories and histories of their prey masterfully combines all these things into an evocative, gruesome, and beautiful story.

 

 

 

newJimCrowBookCoverThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
I’m late to the party on this one, but glad I finally got around to joining. A thorough examination of the anti-black racist roots behind the U.S.’s criminal justice system, Michelle Alexander breaks down the racist origins of the War on Drugs, the militarization of the police, and the way each element of the criminal justice system—apprehension by the cops, charges pressed, the prosecutors’ demands, the composition of the jury, time served inside prison, and the parole system for those released—is consciously, deliberately, consistently meant to arrest and imprison black Americans and Latinos. I learned a lot, and I finished this book with a better understanding of the racism inherent in the U.S. criminal justice system and a long list of Supreme Court cases I copied from the book summarizing all the curtailed civil rights of civilians and inordinate liberties granted to cops.

downloadThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I’m not sure what to say about this book that hasn’t already been said, but here goes—it’s good. It’s really fucking good. Starr Carter was with her childhood friend Khalil when a white police officer pulls them over and shoots Khalil, killing him. Now Star has to survive the aftermath, at home, in her neighborhood, and at her mostly-white prep school, all while speaking out against the police and to tell the true story of what happened that night. Starr is a fantastic protagonist (really every single character is fully fleshed-out and alive), the writing and interconnection of every plot element is flawless, and everything about the story—especially Starr’s family—is filled with so much love it hurts. It is 100% a perfect and perfectly written book.

3027951432565582Dreadnought and Sovereign by April Daniels
Superhero books aren’t typically my jam. On the other hand, all other superhero books don’t feature a teenage trans girl named Danny Tozer who a) became a superhero when the then-Dreadnought died and b) in addition to getting his superpowers, had her entire body transformed via Superpowered Gender Confirmation Surgery in the process. Hooray! No more dysphoria! All that’s left for her to deal with are her transphobic and abusive parents, lack of entry into the city’s ultimate superhero fighting league, figuring out how her superpowers work, brand-new friends in the form of a vigilante named Calamity Jane and a mad scientist named Doc Impossible, and various nemeses who want to download all of humanity into the internet, kill all “men” in a fit of TERF rage, and rule the universe, respectively. I loved the writing and world-building, the too-real relatability of Danny’s teenage thoughts and reactions, and—well, I have an essay’s worth of words in me about how I loved the portrayal of Danny’s trans-ness and the way she’s trans as a superhero but also trans as herself, but suffice to say, I loved everything about that.

29939270Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
This book reminds me mostly of The Devourers, despite the fact that subject, setting, and character, and writing style–wise, these two books are nothing alike. What Amberlough does have in common with the above book (aside from being excellent in all of the above characteristics) is color, otherworldliness (despite there being no magic whatsoever), complicated gender and sexuality explorations, and a grimness and brutality that offsets and emphasizes the moments of beauty and hope. Set in an alt-universe version of the 1930s-era Weimar Republic, complete with vibrant artistic scene and fashionable modernity, two men—a modern man–type spy and a flamboyant cabaret emcee slash smuggler, who are lovers—and a striking, street-savvy female dancer play an intricate game inside and outside each other’s orbits as they attempt to save themselves and each other under the growing shadow of the powerful, new fascist political party.

31915219A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Any best-of list written by me is required to contain a Frances Hardinge book. I don’t make the rules, it’s simply the truth. And A Face Like Glass has somehow, incredibly, among all of the other excellent books she’s written, become my favorite. In the underground world of Caverna, where its inhabitants are masters of creating enticing, intoxicating delicacies, as well as court intrigue and assassination, Neverfell, a young girl with no memory of her past and who’s seemingly more than a bit mad, is like no other person in Caverna. You see, she has more than three or five or fifty facial expressions at her disposal. Unlike everyone else, she can manipulate her face at will, to infinity, and without even trying. In a world where deception is required for survival and prosperity, Neverfell’s transparency will shake the foundations of Caverna to its very core. Everything I’ve written about Frances Hardinge’s writing in the past is true here, and in this book her imagination is fully on display, and oh, how magical and exciting and scary and full of hidden depths and wondrous it is.

2604276729808780The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
The reason these two books are excellent is because the characters are nice to each other. Also the writing is good and the world-building is fun and I loved all the different alien species and their different physiologies, cultures, and languages, as well as the way Becky Chambers writes A.I. characters as their own entities who aren’t computer program copies of humans. But the reason I really and truly love these books is because all the main characters—human, alien, and A.I.—form kind, caring, and supportive friendships and families with each other where they figure out how to live and work alongside each other both despite and because of their differences, making jokes and working through misunderstandings along the way. This kind of science fiction, and this kind of storytelling, is soothing to my soul.

25657130All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
The first book I’ve read of Jason Reynolds and not the last. (I went on to read two more of his books this year, both of which are included in my “Honorable Mentions” list.) This story of police brutality is told from two perspectives—Rashad, a black teenager who was brutally beaten on a cop for allegedly stealing something in a convenience store, and Quinn, a white classmate of Rashad’s who witnessed the beating and who knows the cop by virtue of being best friends with his brother. Both Rashad and Quinn struggle to come to terms with the unexpectedness of the police brutality and what it means for them, individually and for the rest of their town. Reading Quinn’s POV as a white person hit close to home. His story goes beyond a simplistic “Hey, what happened to Rashad was because of racism, and racism is bad!”and has him actively struggle to find words to describe what happened, and then struggle to actually say them out loud, both among his white friends and family and his basketball teammates who are friends with Rashad. At its core, All American Boys is about voice and communication—conversation, art, and protest being only a few examples—and Rashad and Quinn learning how best to use them in order to speak about what happened to Rashad.

ninefox gambit30691976Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
The irony is that last year Ninefox Gambit was on my “Honorable Mentions” list because I couldn’t follow what was going on, but when I re-read it in preparation for reading Raven Stratagem, I freaking loved it. I love the world-building behind the hexarchate, the sardonic sense of humor (Mikodez is going to get shot one day due to excessive driving-his-subordinates-and-everyone-around-him-crazy behavior), and I love the twisted paths Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao’s arcs have taken them. I cannot wait for Revenant Gun in 2018.

28458598When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
I am exceptionally critical when it comes to the portrayal of romance in popular media, especially YA, so the fact that this is one of the best books I read this year says a lot about just how good it is. Our heroine and hero are Dimple Shah, a snarky, aspiring tech developer who is totally not into her parents’ attempts to find her an “ideal Indian husband” and Rishi Patel, a self-effacing closet artist who is totally into meeting his supposedly future wife—Dimple—at the web developers summer program they’ll both be attending. Their “meet-cute” moment is pitch-perfect, and the resulting budding relationship is built off of a shared sense of humor, learning about each other, shared interests and experiences, working through differences, and moments of vulnerability and intimacy. It’s a fun, comforting, and satisfying read.

24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
While I didn’t fully enjoy every single story in this collection, the vast majority were very, very good such that the collection is on this list. I love the way Ken Liu uses Chinese, Japanese, and American history, collective memory, culture, language, and social mores to tell both intricate and heartfelt stories, and that many of them are about the creation, use, and response to the collection and dissemination of knowledge and the resulting construction of stories and narratives and memory, particularly through the lens of nineteenth and twentieth-century history.

 

25978892The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller
This is probably the hardest book I read this year, not just because the subject matter is difficult for me to read anyway (the physical reality of eating disorders has always freaked me the fuck out), but because the story, in which a gay, Jewish teenager named Matt living in small-town upstate New York seemingly develops superpowers as the result of his eating disorder, is so incredibly raw. Matt’s pain, fear, anger, loneliness, gallows humor, and absolutely unhealthy thought processes are on full display, and it is real as heck. This is the kind of book with no clear-cut or happy ending, but one that’s a process in learning to figure out how begin to see yourself as someone with value and deserving of respect and love, from others and from yourself.

31817749The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
The conclusion to N. K. Jemisin’s Ston Earth trilogy is both excellent and a fitting end to all that came before. I don’t want to say much more due to spoilers, but we learn the origin of the Stillness and the Stone Eaters, and Essun, Nassun, and Hoa each undertake the final leg of their arduous journeys to do what must be done—save the Stillness, kill the Stillness, destroy what came before, and start again, anew.

 

 

32735037An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
In the midst of the traditional, deadly contest of duels between New York City’s leading magician families for the House that will lead them in the coming years rises a newcomer with a plan to win and an agenda to fulfill, concerning the future of magic, which will irrevocably change the nature and the balance of power held by all magicians. In two books, Kat Howard has become an auto-read for me. She writes similar kinds of stories to Neil Gaiman and has a similar manner in which she writes the intersection of the magical with the mundane, except her stories and her writing are far, far better.

 

26810460The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne M. Valente can seemingly write a story about anything, and I’ll fall in love with it. A fantasy novel in which the Brontë siblings as children are transported into their shared make-believe universe of Glasstown (which I learned is actually a real make-believe world the Brontës created while growing up!) seemed like a hokey premise when I first read about it. But because this is Catherynne M. Valente, The Glass Town Game ended up being charming and and witty and clever and oh-so-creative and full of imagination.

 

Honorable Mentions

  • Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
  • Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer
  • The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley
  • A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab
  • Clariel by Garth Nix
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells
  • American War by Omar El Akkad
  • The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
  • The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
  • Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds
  • Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells
  • More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
  • Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
  • Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
  • Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
  • Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
  • A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
  • Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

Same as last year, my goal was for fifty percent of all books I read in 2017 to be written by PoC authors. This year I read 83 books total (includes fiction, nonfiction, and novellas), and 40 were by PoC authors (48%). Honestly I’m astounded this number is higher than last year’s (43%). I did a good job for most of the year averaging one book by a PoC author for every book by a white author, but sometime during the fall I dropped the ball and mostly read books by white authors, some of which was due to scrambling to fit in reading some fall releases before the end of the year. My goal for 2018 is to continue to aim for a 50-50 parity between white authors and PoC authors. I’m also going to start paying attention to the individual races of PoC authors of books I read to see if I’m inadvertently reading more books by authors of one race and fewer books by authors of another race.

In the beginning of the year I tried to read more nonfiction and ended up crapping out because there are always too many fiction books I want to read, and reading fiction takes a much easier kind of brain energy for me than reading nonfiction. As a result, my total read this year was a measly 6 books. I’m going to try again in 2018 and read more nonfiction, but I’m not holding myself to any hard promises.

Aaaaand that’s about it. Happy new year everyone, and I hope everyone has the best 2018 that they can.

2017 Hugo Nomination Thoughts: Novellas

Theme I’ve noticed this yearthe Hugo ballots more closely match the Nebula ballot than previous years (ignoring the past two years of Puppy-rigged ballots), and no more so is this the case than the Hugo ballot. I barely had anything new to read at all! This seems to speak to some amount of consensus among the “popular” and the “professional” categories of voters that make up the two awards about the best works published in 2016.

Unfortunately I was not able to finish reading all the nominations before the awards tonight (namely Penric’s Demon). (Seriously, what is up with conventions like WorldCon and RCCC occurring one month earlier than usual?) Aside from this one discrepancy, behold the novella ballot review.

  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, (Tor.com Publishing)

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, (Tor.com Publishing)

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, (Tor.com Publishing)

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold, (Spectrum Literary Agency)

Did not finish in time; intrigued by the bit I read.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

  • This Census Taker by China Miéville (Del Ray/Picador)

I don’t care that this is written by China Miéville, and I don’t care that everything he writes is supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. I have way too large a TBR pile and too little time to waste on books that bore me and my god, was this fucking boring. I gave up 70 pages in. Theoretically there’s a story buried underneath all the words put on paper to look and sound pretty and create setting, but I don’t have the time or interest to slog through and see if there is.

(I have enjoyed several of Miéville’s novels in the past, but he remains one of those authors whose writing I feel obligated to like because the Literary Establishment—both SFF and otherwise—have indicated that he can do no wrong, and even if he does do wrong it’s still brilliant anyway.)

My vote: A Taste of Honey

2017 Hugo Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

Next up, novelette time, aka “Emily frantically rushes to finish reading all the Hugo nominations before the actual award ceremony.”

(The Rabid Puppy slate pick is not being reviewed.)

A quiet, literary science fiction story. Emily, the head housekeeper of a hotel where a team of astronauts will be staying before leaving on a mission to settle Mars, juggles caring for her fuzzy-brained mother who she calls Moolie and imagining/researching the identity of her father. Tying together Emily, Moolie, Emily’s musings on her father, and the astronauts’ impending mission is a wonder of space and its possibilities, the momentous feeling of being part of something grand and larger than yourself, even with inevitable, costly, and deadly failures.

Nina Allen’s writing reminds me of Jo Walton’s, with a bit more of an artistic flair on the word-smithing level, with lines like “It’s all still inside, I know it—everything she was, everything she knows, still packed tight inside her head like old newspapers packed into the eaves of an old house. Yellowing and crumpled, yes, but still telling their stories.” The story has a nice homey, neighborly feel to it and the writing is lovely, but overall it’s a bit loosey-goosey for my taste. I appreciate the craft and composition more than my experience reading and having read it.

  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde, (Tor.com Publishing)

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

More American Southwest, desert-y world building. Set in the same universe and starring the same Grandma Harken last seen in the Nebula Award-winning short story “Jackalope Wives”, Grandma is out to determine just who or what is stealing her newly ripened tomatoes. The answer is far more complicated than it seems. To stop the thief and free those he’s trapped, Grandma Harken takes a journey across a desert containing train gods, coyotes, gila monster dragons, and more.

Ursula Vernon has a knack for writing layered world-building filled with sensory details and characters (and stories themselves) with a penchant for dry, sardonic humor. I loved the hints of desert lore intertwined with the straightforward, engaging storytelling, and I enjoyed Grandma Harken’s down-to-earth toughness and love of the simple things in life, such as tomato sandwiches.

An alien invasion story crossed with a good old-fashioned American road trip. A middle-aged itinerant driver named Avery takes a job transporting to St. Louis an alien—whose species has zero consciousness yet are far more knowledgeable than humans can ever be—and his human translator named Lionel. His and Lionel’s relationship is parasitical—on behalf of the alien. The more the alien experiences consciousness through Lionel, the more he dies.

It’s a thought-provoking story, unique and mind-boggling while grounded in the realism of small-town America and sincere questions of what it means and feels like to be conscious and have awareness. Carolyn Ives Gilman does a good job balancing the thought experiment elements with the storytelling and forward momentum of the narrative. I enjoyed trying to wrap my brain around the ideas of life with and without conscious thought, and I’d be curious to learn which and how many of the ideas and suppositions presented are based in scientific fact or reasonability.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

My vote: Almost all of these entries are strong, and I can make a case for why each of them should or might win. My vote lies with “The Tomato Thief”, though my hunch is that “The Art of Space Travel will take the prize.

I’m going to try as hard as I can to get my post for the Hugo novellas up before the end of next week. I only just obtained a copy of This Census Taker and still don’t have a copy of the Bujold entry, so we’ll see what happens.

2017 Hugo Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

Oof, I started this series of posts late. It’s just two weeks until Worldcon! (Not that I’m going, though I’d love to this year for Helsinki).

Better late than never though. Without further ado, the Hugo-nominated short stories.

(The Rabid Puppy slate pick is not being reviewed.)

I love this story.

No, I don’t think you understand. I LOVE THIS STORY.

A homeless black teen is gearing up to act as midwife to the city of New York, to birth it into being, and to defend it against the Cthulhu-like Enemy lying in wait to kill it. This story pulses with life and sensation and voice and imagination. The way N. K. Jemisin writes the birth of the city and incorporates the elements that make New York its one-of-a-kind self is poetry. I love the juxtaposition of someone who is one of the most disenfranchised, vulnerable people in the city is the one destined to birth and become one with a city characterized by wealth and power, but also heterogeneity. People within the city think he’s worthless—especially the cops, especially the Cthulhu-infused cops—
yet his love for New York is as big as the city itself. I loved this story when I first read last September and I loved it again reading it a second time.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

Previously reviewed elsewhere.

Interesting premise—two warring peoples have recently brokered a piece. The Gaant are telepaths; the Enithi are not. Calla, an Enithi nurse and former war prisoner, goes to visit the Gaantish Captain Valk, himself a war prisoner before he became Calla’s warden in turn. Together they play a game of chess that reflects not just the differences between the two of them and their peoples, but adaptations, and communication and connection.

For a story rooted in war, it’s unusually quiet, kind, and peaceful. The Enithi’s blase acceptance of their inability to hide their thoughts, and so not attempting to do so at all, is a different take than any I’ve read before, and it inherently changes the way the Enithi and Gaant fight, but also communicate. Their differences aren’t the reason these people fought, but they open possible doors for nurturing the tentative peace that now exists between them. A thoughtful, thought-provoking story.

My vote: “The City Born Great”, no question.

2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novellas

Novellas are normally my favorite of the short fiction categories on award ballots. This year’s Nebula ballot ended up being less enjoyable for me than usual due to two reasons: 1) I had a HUGE, HUGE problem with an aspect of one of the nominees and 2) I have never read a word of Lovecraft’s fiction in my life and I couldn’t care less about his oeuvre if I tried, and there were not one, but two novellas directly inspired and in conversation with Lovecraft stories on this ballot.

Trooper that I am, I soldiered on.

  • Runtime by S. B. Divya, (Tor.com Publishing)

I read this novella about a year ago when it was first released, and I enjoyed it upon reread as much as I did the first time. The story is set in a near-future U.S. where internal and external physical augmentations are the norm and immigrants and their children are classified as “unlicensed” and denied all government services. Marmeg, an unlicensed teenager with no money and castoff/black market augmentations, competes in the Minerva Sierra Challenge, an arduous day-long race across the Sierra Nevadas, so she can win enough money to pay for college and licenses for herself and her siblings. The world-building is both prescient (sadly) in terms of social policies and intriguing with regards to norms surrounding bodies, abilities, and personal identities. Marmeg is a tough, empathetic character fighting both to win within and game against the system in order to survive. The story is tightly paced and tense, and there is so much potential for a larger story.

  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, (Tor.com Publishing)

Kij Johnson’s novella is a reworking of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In this version, Vellitt Boe, a middle-aged university professor at Ulthar Women’s College, embarks on an epic journey across the dream lands to find a wayward student who’s escaped into the waking world. After the initial plot-establishing event and immediacy established by Vellitt’s need to get the student back, the tension slacks and the novella takes on more of a travelogue-esque nature, which I would have been fine with if I hadn’t needed to already be familiar with the Lovecraft mythology, setting, creatures, etc. The story is solidly written, the imagery is great, and I loved the Lewis Carol-ized words like “glibbering” and “meep”. Otherwise I did not feel like I was the intended audience, and my overall reading experience reflected this gap.

  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, (Tor.com Publishing)

Lovecraft-reworking number two! This one tackles “The Horror at Red Hook,” which, Google tells me, is a xenophobic, racist screed of a story, even for Lovecraft. This reworking follows Charles Thomas Tester, a Black man from Harlem and street musician who hustles odd jobs on the side. One of those jobs, in which he’s hired to deliver a book containing an ancient, powerful alphabet to an old woman and in doing so catches the eyes of an old, eccentric gentleman named Robert Suydam, brings him into the sphere, and then into the realm, of elder gods and chaotic magic. Compared to Johnson’s novella, LaValle’s stands on its own, as its own story, much better, though I still preferred the historical fiction portions more than the Lovecraftian horror ones. The story does some really interesting things with invisibility and facades and the power that Tommy, as a Black man in 1920s New York, uses to his own advantage and has used against him.

  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, (Tor.com Publishing)

Miss Eleanor runs a boarding school for Wayward Children, for those who discovered doors to magic worlds where they felt like they belonged but were unceremoniously returned years later to the “real” world, to parents who love them but think they’re broken. Nancy is recently returned from the Halls of the Dead and has just arrived at Miss Eleanor’s, where she not only finds others like her, some friendly and others not, but a murderer who is killing the students one by one.

Sigh. I love almost everything about this novella. It’s fun, it’s dark, it’s imaginative, and the world-building for the kinds of portal worlds that exist is fascinating, and full of potential. The dialogue leans overly heavy on the quippy side, but it’s still fun. Nancy, Kade, and Sumi are great characters, though dapper, mad scientist Jack is my fave.

However, this novella has a major issue, and that is the portrayal of Nancy’s asexuality.

“You’re celibate?”
“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.”

“I can appreciate how beautiful someone is, and I can be attracted to them romantically, but that’s as far as it goes with me.”

I personally could have done without the 101 explanation—Nancy could have just said, “Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual.” I realize we’re still in the “early” stages of ace representation in fiction, but I am already beyond ready to move past the “explain new queer-related terms to people who don’t have those identities” phase.

An additional takeaway from the quote above is that Nancy does not identify herself as aromantic. But then there’s this quote:

Apparently Nancy wasn’t the only one who found Kade beautiful, although she would have been willing to bet that she was the only one who found his beauty more aesthetic than romantic.

Here we have the first conflation of asexuality and aromanticism in this book. In the very first quote, Nancy says she experiences both aesthetic and romantic attraction towards other people. It doesn’t make sense here for Nancy to make the distinction that she would be the only person in the room who isn’t attracted to Kade romantically. The only thing she would not feel for Kade is sexual attraction, since she is, in fact, asexual.

It is possible to take this quote at face-value—that Nancy solely thinks Kade is aesthetically attractive, and she isn’t romantically or sexually attracted to him. But then later on when Nancy and Kade are holding hands, she thinks the following:

This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school… and she had always found those relationships completely satisfying…. She wanted to spend hours sitting with [Kade] and talking about pointless things. She wanted to feel his hand against her skin, to know that his presence was absolute and focused entirely on her. The trouble was, it never seemed to end there, and that was as far as she was willing to go.

So here, Nancy is romantically attracted to Kade, and is actively interested in romance/romantic activities, and in doing them with him. She even more clearly identifies herself in this quote as not being aromantic. But then why in the second quote does she firmly identify her attraction as different than that of her classmates because hers is self-reportedly not romantic?

The next quote muddles things even further:

“I don’t want to go on a date with anyone. People are pretty, sure, and I like to look at pretty things, but I don’t want to go on a date with a painting.”

So, Nancy is interested in romantic activities described in the third quote, but not in going on dates? It’s stated in-text other places that she didn’t like going on dates before she went to the Halls of the Dead because of expectations that she reciprocate sexual attraction and the desire to act on it with the other person. But here, Nancy isn’t talking about that—she’s talking about the actual act of going on a date in and of itself. By saying that she doesn’t want to go on dates with people the same way she doesn’t want to go on dates with paintings, she’s emphasizing her experiencing aesthetic attraction towards people. But dates are typical romantic activities, even when there is no expectation of sex or sexual activity. And so the text once again gives the impression that Nancy isn’t interested in romance. But the only thing Nancy has ever explicitly said she isn’t interested in is sex.

These sloppy characterizations of the kinds of attraction Nancy does and does not experience and in what manner are all the more aggravating because 1) I “should” be happy there exists another entry to add to the minute pile of books with ace protagonists and 2) it feels like everyone in the universe has been recc’ing this novella on the basis of Nancy’s asexuality (among other things). But conflating asexuality and aromanticism, even unintentionally, does more harm than good. It leads to greater misunderstandings about what it may mean for someone to identify as one or the other, or both. It’s plain old not accurate. The text even goes so far as to say there’s a difference between asexuality and aromanticism, and yet doesn’t do the work to actually demonstrate what those differences are for Nancy. For me, being both asexual and aromantic, it’s infuriating. And it makes me upset that people are upholding this book as a positive example of ace representation without realizing or understanding how it throws aromanticism and aro people under the bus because of this kind of conflation.

  • “The Liar” by John P. Murphy (F&SF, March/April 2016)

Free version unavailable

  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson, (Tor.com Publishing)

A second novella set in Kai Ashante Wilson’s secondary fantasy universe where gods walk amongst humans and have Arthur C. Clarke powers (i.e. “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) that, like The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, centers around the complicated love of two men of color. Aqib bmg Sadiqi is fourth cousin to the Royal family of Olorum, both close to and far away from the center of power and influence. Upon meeting a soldier named Lucrio during a Daluçan ambassadorial visit to Olorum, Aqib falls in love for the first time. Because of the overwhelming condemnation of his family and religion and culture, Aqib and Lucrio’s love may or may not survive. Only time will tell.

I always have to take a sideways approach towards Kai Ashante Wilson’s prose—it’s written just so that I can’t smoothly read it and need to take my time with each turn of phrase and arrangement of certain words. This can make his writing somewhat off-putting for me, but that doesn’t take away from how skillfully crafted it is. A Taste of Honey further develops the already-fantastic world building in The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and explores the contours of a lovely, angsty romance between Aqib, a man ashamed of his effeminacy and conscious of his family’s need to rise socially, and Lucrio, a sweetheart of a commoner with perceptive eyes to the truth of a thing. There’s a HUGE twist concerning the story’s structure, the passage of time, and path Aqib’s life takes, and I enjoyed those scenes less than the ones with Aqib and Lucrio. Still, the twist is ambitious, and it works for what it sets out to do. Overall, a complex, multifaceted story rooted in the down-to-earth feelings and relationships of its protagonists.

My vote: For being my personal favorite, I’d choose Runtime. For technique, craft, and prose, I’d go with A Taste of Honey.

2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

  • “The Long Fall Up” by William Ledbetter (F&SF, May/June 2016)

Free version unavailable.

A quiet, banter-y story that takes place soon after an apocalypse of some sort. The rich and famous live on vast ships out at sea and have commandeered all available resources and amenities, leaving the rest to eke out a living as they can. When an impulsive, talkative rock star from one of those ships washes ashore, she’s the first human being the taciturn, scavenger Bay has seen or spoken to in years. These two women may be like oil and water, but together they might find something they’ve each been without—connection. Like Sarah Pinker’s award-winning novelette from last year, there’s enough story and world-building and potential for a longer story that I would have preferred reading over the shorter novelette version. Otherwise this was a pleasant, engaging read.

WOW.

This story is written in one of my favorite genres: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In a far-off future, damage to the earth and environment is a thing of the past, thanks to grains that are programmed to monitor and protect the land and anchors, grain-imbued humans that act as their proxy and are rooted to the land they come from, unlike the day-farers, who are grain-free and obligated to always travel and never settle. Frere-Jones has been an anchor all her life, and she has lost her husband and son for daring to rebel against the grains’ ironclad will. Now, for protecting day-farers from the grains’ wrath, she’ll pay a terrible price—and maybe make a difference.

I loved this story. It has a unique original concept that’s excellently executed, it’s gripping and filled with tension, and has enough pathos to make you really feel it, tinted with just the right amount of hope that maybe things will change. I also loved the Golden Bough-esque world-building and the way the grains both draw their power and motivation from memories and monitor and compartmentalize them to manipulate the anchors into fulfilling their programmed goals. All of the world-building is top-notch, and Frere’s dilemma is perfectly realized within the context of the world she inhabits.

  • The Orangery” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, December 2016)

This novelette draws inspiration from the many women in Greek mythology who are turned into trees for refusing the attentions of a deity. A guardian has tended the Orangery, a sanctuary of sorts housing all the trees who were formerly women, for years on end, alone, until Apollo breaks in to take back Daphne for good. Interspersed within the main narrative are the stories of three women-turned-trees, told by a guide who used to a tree herself. It’s an intriguing take on agency and choice, and what kind of agency and options a woman has when the only way for her to escape the attentions of a man is to cease being human. A solid entry.

  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde, (Tor.com Publishing)

I bounced hard off this one. In a kingdom with magical jewels where royalty are known themselves as “Jewels” and have lapidaries who can hear the jewels’ voices and wield their powers, the princess Lin and her lapidary Sumi, the only ones to survive a palace-wide betrayal that left everyone but them dead, must fight to save their kingdom from a conquering army and commander before it’s too late. The neck-breaking pace of this novelette read as though the story believed itself to be a full-length novel, except it wasn’t. The result was a story jammed in to fit a length that felt way too confining, whose world-building consisted of simplistic details about how the jewels worked and repetition of the rules binding Jewels and lapidaries. Pass.

Alyssa Wong never writes the same story or kind of story twice, and each one feels distinctly unique and fundamentally hers. A weird west story about a boy named Ellis who can channel the power of the desert and resurrect the bones of the dead, Marisol, his best friend and the one he loves, the man who wants to exploit the dead for his own profit, and the thin line between death and resurrection and desiccation and rebirth. The written setting is fantastic, the prose and imagery are lovely, and the story makes similarly excellent use of pathos and hints of change as “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”. It’s also perfect for fans of Pretty Deadly.

My vote: The story of my heart on this ballot, and my first choice, is “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories.” “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” is runner-up.

2017 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

It’s that (late) time of year again, in which I read through the Nebula short fiction nominees!

(I also plan on doing the Hugo’s this year, since this current ballot is not a trash fire.)

In reverse order of what I did last year, I’m reviewing the short stories first. An important caveat concerning my response to two of these stories, both of which were hugely popular upon publication, is that I am a cranky agender person who is still working through feelings about feeling obligated to relate to stories “about” “female experiences” (especially gendered violence). They’re lovely stories, but they’re not for me.

The above caveat applies. Prose-wise, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” to be a beautifully-forged weapon of a story. Brooke Bolander is a fierce, forceful writer with a supreme grasp of how to wield words and language like a metaphysical sword.

The above caveat applies. This fairytale, which intertwines the stories, and love, of a woman condemned to walk the world until she wears through the soles of seven metal shoes and a princess self-imprisoned on top of a glass hill, is a solid entry. Amal El-Mohtar’s prose is consistently lovely and elegantly crafted.

  • Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff, (Clockwork Phoenix 5, ed. Mike Allan)

A Prohibition-era story that amiably ambles along up to the very end, a coming-together that illuminates all that came before it. Malka, a nine-year-old Jewish girl, starts a budding friendship with David, an almost-thirteen-year-old African American boy. Despite her father’s irreligiousness, Malka invites David over the next night for Shabbat dinner, which causes her father to embark on a quest to obtain kosher wine in a time when alcohol has become scarce. An ostensibly simple, quiet story that ties together loss, racism and hegemonic brutality, and memory.

Sam J. Miller’s stories are trippy, constantly overflowing with seemingly disparate ideas and concepts and images that somehow fit together into a “this shouldn’t work but somehow it does and it feels right” kind of whole. Also like his other stories, “Things With Beards” is wholly rooted in the real world, with the speculative hiding in its very midst. A story of a white gay man who pretends to be masculine straight man, who suspects he has a monster hidden inside him, a story of New York City in the 1980s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis changing those infected from the inside out, the story of ongoing, never-ending police brutality against Black people, a story of being hidden, of monsters being hidden. It’s thinky and gut-punchy and real, it works really well, and it’s my favorite of the nominees.

A cute, brief story of a young child writing letters over the years imploring that the Gatekeeper reopen the door to a magical world where their best friend Zera lives. It’s sweet, if not substantive.

Alyssa Wong’s prose isn’t flashy or poetic—it just is. In this short story about two sisters who share powers to manipulate the weather and rearrange the future, Wong seemingly effortlessly captures the texture of grief, despair, futility, and loss as Hannah endlessly destroying the universe in order to keep Melanie alive and in this world. The story itself is ethereal, almost too much so, but damn that prose.

You have a weird rash on your arm, so you head to the medical clinic in search of a cure. In your way stand impenetrable bureaucracy, predatory aliens, nurses with a penchant for amputation, and your own mortal clock ticking towards your death. Good luck. Normally I’m not a fan of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-inspired stories. Caroline M. Yoachim’s version worked for me because it retains a somewhat linear narrative and meta-narratively taunts the reader for following—or failing to follow—the directions. A fun, quick read.

My vote: I am fully on Team “Things With Beards.” I suspect the actual outcome will be a toss-up between “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, and “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers.”

Review: Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

crossroads of canopy

Setting a fantasy novel in a rainforest is, with the benefit of hindsight, a genius idea, due to the genre’s historical love of stratified societies and hierarchical social structures.

Canopy is home to those who worship the thirteen gods and goddesses of their pantheon. Residents are closest to the sunlight, have more access to resources, and are the safest from the creatures that roam the forest, thanks to the magical barrier that separates Canopy from Understorey and Floor. This barrier also traps those who live in Understorey to the mercy of harsher, more dangerous living conditions and fewer resources. To those in Canopy, Understorians are savages fit only for slavery.

Unar, a Canopian born and bred, knows she has a powerful destiny. At the age of twelve she ran away from home to avoid being sold by her impoverished parents and gained entry to the Garden of Audblayin, the Waker of Senses and the goddess of birth and life. There she easily masters the magic that lies in Audblayin’s province, arrogant in her knowledge she was meant to serve one day as the bodyguard for her patron deity’s next incarnation.

Instead, Unar’s plan is thwarted again and again. Refused to ascend in rank in the Garden, entangled in promises and debts to a family of slaves, Unar’s destiny takes her beneath the barrier into Understorey. There she learns of another, powerful type of magic, and discovers an organized plot to overthrow Canopy—a plot that Unar has the power to aid or destroy, at the cost of everything she’s striven for.

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Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

allegedly

I was ready to give Allegedly five stars. It’s a gut-wrenching thriller that hammers with pinpoint precision at the status quo and the intersection of the criminal justice system, bodily autonomy, racism, mental illness, and child abuse, as well as the struggles and roadblocks that prevent the most vulnerable and in need of help from ever getting any. The writing is tight. The plot is gripping. All of the characters have depth beyond their first impression. Also it turned my emotions into a bloody mess.

And then the last five pages happened. And I want to unpack my response.

(This will be a SPOILERY review).

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