Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

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Anthony laughed. “You bring in what you put out. Lagos …” He patted Agu and Adaora on the shoulders and dropped into Pidgin English. “‘Lasgidi’ you dey call am, right? Eko? Isn’t that what you people call Lagos? Place of belle-sweet, gidi gidi, kata kata, isu, and wahala. Lagos is energy. It never stops.

Lagoon is Nnedi Okorafor’s first science fiction novel, written in an entirely Nnedi Okorafor-esque way—it’s a first contact story of aliens landing on Earth, written in the context of collision of modernity and change with tradition, folklore, and mythology.

In the middle of the night, an alien ship lands in the lagoon outside the city of Lagos. These aliens don’t just bring with them the promise of change—they are change. Thousands of Lagosians witness or are a part of this change, from the people on the street, to the members of the church, to the military, to regular creatures, to strange creatures, to the gods of old. The city explodes as a result of this change. Nothing will ever be the same. And leading the way is Adaora, a marine biologist; Agu; a soldier; and Anthony Dey Craze, a famous Ghanaian rapper, the first three people to witness the aliens’ arrival and the first to be changed by it.

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2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novellas

(I know, I know, the Nebula ballot is yesterday’s news now that the Hugo nominations were released yesterday, but I refuse to touch at least half of that ballot with a ten-foot pole.)

I’ve been slowly making my way through the Nebula ballot in the short fiction categories. I always intend to do it every year, and sometimes I even achieve it! This year I’m actually on track to finish, hopefully before the awards themselves are presented.

So far I’ve read through all the nominated novellas and novelettes (with the exception of a couple that were either unavailable in a free version or inaccessible.) This post will go through my Nebula novella thoughts of those that I’ve read, and the next one will cover the novelettes.

  • Wings of Sorrow and Bone by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse)
    (Free version unavailable. Will potentially try to read after finishing everything else.)
  • The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
    A beautifully written fairytale combining elements of “The Two Sisters,” “Juniper Tree,” and “The Pied Piper.” It has a intriguing narrator in the form of Maurice the rat, a cunning and entertainingly vulgar individual who acts as both observer and participant in this story’s shenanigans. The word that most describes this novella for me is “solid.” It was a delightful and fun read, and probably the most straightforward of all the novellas nominated. I don’t really have much more thoughts beyond that, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the writing.
  • The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer (Asimov’s 4-5/15)
    The most traditionally-written SFF story of the bunch, this novella is a “what-if” story whose premise lies in a new and curious genetic condition, spread via sexual contact, that causes women to be able to reproduce asexually every time they ovulate and causes men to become sterile. Tessa, a reporter and a lesbian who’s halfway through her pregnancy, seeks to write an article covering the issue from scientific, political, and social angles, all of which take on a more personal meaning for Tessa as she sorts through her feelings of her own IVF pregnancy and the prospect of raising a child.

If you’re going to write a story in which men are potentially threatened with extinction, you might as well write it this way—Fischer’s story effectively highlights how a drastic upheaval in the way human reproduction works, one that renders men obsolete in the act of propagation, would likely be received in the context of the United States’ current turmoil over gender equality, reproductive rights, and the legal definition of a human being. This story is a bit short on character and very heavy on the “what-if” scenario, and the writing itself leans towards overly describing the setting several times, but the “what-if” scenario is realized enough to carry the story.

  • The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik (Tor.com, 4/22/16)
    This novella blew my mind. A story-within-a-story in which a Pakistani-American man who was raised on his Gramps’ stories of his childhood travels to Northern Pakistan for the first time, seeking to uncover the truth behind Gramps’ story of the Pauper Princess and her jinn who lived inside a eucalyptus tree, it mixes magic and science and mysticism and history and folklore and math and religion and cultural identity in equal measure. It’s beautifully written, and the ending comes together in a mind-bendingly satisfying way.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
    It’s a novella written by Nnedi Okorafor, therefore I would have bought and read it regardless of whether it appeared on the ballot (which in fact I did, a month or so before it was released.) Binti is going to be the first person from the Himba people to go to space. Against her family’s wishes, she’ll attend Oomza University, a school of great cultural renown run by the Khoush, the majority ethnic group. Halfway to the university, Binti and her fellow travelers are attacked by the Meduse, jellyfish-like aliens looking to confront the university for stealing a vital item of cultural significance from their leader. Again, a solidly-written story mixing action and adventure with questions about cultural interaction, appropriation, and imperialism.
  • Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson (Tor.com, 6/10/15)
    I’m not even sure how to compare this novella to the others on the ballot. It’s a light, hilarious yet touching story of a French soldier-turned-courtier with plumbing problems. He’s installed toilets all over Versailles, and every noble is clamoring to have this latest fashionable contraption. Powering this vast network of plumbing is a mischievous, child-like nixie, who may or may not be interested in doing the job Sylvain has set her to do. It’s strange and unusual and ridiculous (as is appropriate for a story set in the court of Versailles), and it’s also clever and tightly-plotted, and why am I having all these feelings for an “Enlightenment-era French slut” (author’s own words)?

My vote: If I had the ability to cast a vote, I’d pick “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” All the novellas I read were strong in their own ways, but Usman T. Malik’s story stands out for me as one that will continue to have an impact upon re-read and will stand the test of time the best. If I were going solely by enjoyment factor, I’d probably pick “Waters of Versailles” since it pushes all my buttons, and again I must ask why I have so many feelings about a story about MAGICAL PLUMBING?

My Favorite Reads of 2015

I read a lot of really good books in 2015, to the point that it was annoyingly difficult to put together a “Best of” list, or even a “Favorite Books Read This Year” list. But I did manage to make some hard decisions and cobble together a list of some titles that unequivocally blew my mind. Note: not all of them were published in 2015. Links are provided for my reviews if they’re available.

Listed in chronological order of when I read them:

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

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The story of a young girl who wakes up one day to concerned parents, an insatiable hunger, cobwebs for tears, and a screaming younger sister who swears that thing isn’t human. The story of a changeling child fighting for life and to save her counterpart at the cost of her own life. Frances Hardinge’s writing is as clever and beautiful as always, and her stories are consistently top-notch.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

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The story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in Prohibition-era twenties’ jazz clubs? Devastating writing and storytelling that’s brutal in its economy and how much it conveys in so few words? Hard-hearted female protagonists who make hard decisions to protect her sisters and because no one else can? Fairytale mystery and grandiose allure juxtaposed with city, real-life grittiness, drama, sweat, fear, and danger? Yes, yes, yes. Yes to it all.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

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The fantasy/science fiction story of a woman born and trapped in a skyscraper, a genetic experiment whose skin can burn brighter and hotter than her captors ever dreamed, a story rooted in various African peoples’ stories and magics and histories, a story rooted in anti-colonialism and survival, fear, love, and rage. Entry #1 in “Women Full of Rage Who Destroy the World.”

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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The story of a world wracked by cataclysmic earthquakes, where apocalypses are common occurrences. The story of three women with the power to manipulate the forces of the earth, hated by everyone around them, forced to submit their bodies and their power to a body that tells them they are sub-human, isolated and controlled for their and everyone’s protection. This is a story of endings—the world itself and the individual worlds of all three women. First entry in a trilogy, and Entry #2 in “Women Full of Rage Who Destroy the World.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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A deeply personal letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son Samori about the ins and outs of being a black man in the United States and the violent history and logic behind race and anti-black racism in the United States. It’s about a story white people have created and continue to believe and enforce, and it’s a story Coates tells his son in order for him to understand whilst condemning the necessity of the telling.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

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The story of Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe, leader of England’s Society of Unnatural Philosophers in Napoleonic England, and his erstwhile student, the polite hellion Prunella Gentleman. A hilarious and pointed Regency tale of racial, gender, and class politics, fairies, international diplomacy, manners, and Polite Society, written in pitch-perfect Regency-esque language. Fun for the whole family.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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The story of Alison Bechdel’s exploration of her identity through the lens of her relationship with her deceased father. A beautifully and sophisticatedly written nonlinear, multi-narrative memoir that encompasses Alison’s childhood, her father and mother’s courtship, the house she grew up in and her father’s pride and joy, her father’s complicated relationship to his sexuality and sense of self, Alison’s coming out as a lesbian, and her father’s subsequent death. The book of the year where I had no clue how much it would blow me away.

Ancillary Mercy By Ann Leckie

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The conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy and the story we were all waiting for of how Breq, Seivarden, Tisarwat, Mercy of Kalr, and Presger Translator Zeiat integrate themselves into Athoek Station and thoroughly subvert Anandaar Minaai. Having loved the other two books to bits, this one was the perfect conclusion and I am still crying that this trilogy is over.

The Shadows Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn

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The story of Chloe, the youngest of the three Fates who spin, measure, and slice all mortals’ life threads. The story of how she falls in love with Aglaia, a mortal girl with a beautiful life thread, and the devastating truths she and her sisters learn when they entangle themselves in the fates of mortals. Written with prose that’s so crystal-clear I want to tear my hair out at how good it is. Entry #3 in “Women Who Destroy the World.

And because this year was such a good reading year for me, here’s another list of books I really enjoyed reading:

  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford
  • Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
  • Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
  • Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
  • About a Girl by Sarah McCarry
  • Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
  • Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

One other thing I’m pleased by is how much re-reading I was able to accomplish this year. In addition to re-reading the Circle of Magic and Circle Opens quartet for Mark Reads, I re-read Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (in preparation for the third book), and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

Earlier this year I had committed myself to K.Tempest Bradford’s challenge to not read any books by cis straight white men for an entire year. I mostly succeeded—I slipped up a few times here and there (6 times to be exact), but the majority of authors I read did not fall into all four categories.

I also specifically tried to read more authors of color. Approximately a third of the books I read were authored by people of color, as were a third of the actual authors in question. When I started this blog, my goal was for half the books I reviewed to have been written by authors of color. In this I was not successful—only 5 of the 13 books I reviewed were written by authors of color—so my goal next year is to actually achieve and maintain equal parity.

On a professional level book-wise, I also had a good year. I worked on several books for Ooligan Press this year, including the recently-published YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers by Eliot Treichel and the upcoming 2016 short story collection Siblings by Kait Heacock. Most excitingly for me, Allison Green’s travel memoir The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, whose publishing team I joined last fall, came out this past June. Leading up to and after the launch, I got to do publicity outreach, proofreading, and designing of the epub version of the book. The highlight of 2015 was being able to cross off “appearing on the radio” from my bucket list—in addition to arranging for Allison Green to be interviewed on the radio show Bookworm, I briefly appeared alongside her to talk about Ooligan.

Personally, I did have some setbacks. I kept getting sick the first third of the year and my mental health decided to take a hike a few months later. Thankfully the latter has been on the mend recently. (I would say the former was getting better too if not for the fact I’m currently stuck in bed with a bad cold and fever on the very last day of the year. Go figure.)

Things I’m looking forward to next year? Finishing my Master’s program and graduating (I’m ignoring for now the part where I’ll be frantically applying for jobs in the meantime.) Working on the publication of Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s as-yet untitled third entry in her YA Jewish-historical fiction-time travel series. (I’ve already read the manuscript and it’s going to be awesome.) Re-reading even more books than this past year, and maybe even throwing in some more literary and nonfiction titles amidst my fantasy, sci-fi, and YA reads.

May your 2016 not be too terrible (it’s Election Year after all) and may it be filled with lots of good books and friends in the meantime.