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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Well, I should get at least one blog post out this month–sorry this is coming so late. June tends to be a busy month for me, and this was more so, with a kidney stone procedure (blegh), job search drama (only in so far as I was waiting to see what would happen), and packing and prepping now that I’ve accepted a one year position at Gustavus Adolphus college (those of you who have been around will remember that I taught there for another one year position back in 2012-13). Whew. Lots going on. But after my Sweden trip in May (yes, I should probably post about that later…) I have been doing some more digging into the world of Nordic science fiction and fantasy, and this led me to one new source. Consider this a supplement to my previous post on the topic, except not limited to just Swedish (actually, just expanding to include Finnish here…), and now I’m focused on what you can find online for free, here and now. 🙂  (Incidentally, illustrations here are just random examples of my own sci-fi/fantasy sketches–go to the linked websites for their own art…)

Inktober 10 19 16 Vista by CallegoThe surprise discovery for me was the online magazine Brev från Cosmos (Letters from Cosmos), put out by Club Cosmos, a science fiction society out of Göteborg, Sweden. The issues are all available for free online. All in Swedish, I’m afraid–except the story “Sixty thousand and one” in issue 4, so you non-Swedish readers can check that one out if you want. To a degree it does feel like a club publication, a product of fandom, but I recognize at least a few of the authors as those who have been publishing short stories in the various Swedish collections out there, along with a few published novelists, so I think it is really just indicative of the fact that in smaller, non-Anglophone countries the fandom side of genre fiction and the professional side are much more closely intertwined and interdependent. How’s the quality? Well, I think I have to repeat my impression of the speculative short fiction collections I’ve reviewed in Swedish–a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes within the same story, though I’m waiting until a second read to make up my mind about some of them. Generally this magazine seems focused on science fiction, largely confined to the usual tropes, though at least one of the stories I read, Liv Vistisen-Rörby’s Nattramn (Night Raven, though using a dialectical or archaic Swedish word for Raven…) feels like it would fit in well with the creepier side of the Finnish Weird. Anyway, if you read Swedish, or are learning, and are, as they say, a geek (I am), you ought to check these out. But as noted in my previous post on this topic, if you are looking for more a more consistent quality and a higher one, better to check out the examples I give of more mainstream/”literary” authors who, for whatever reason, have decided to go “slumming” (sorry, that’s a bad metaphor to use…) in the speculative fiction ghetto–Vallgren, Gustafsson, etc. I personally feel like Swedish literature has an unusual number of great stories in this latter category, and this unfortunately makes it difficult (as I approach these stories, at least) for this new wave of more dedicated speculative fiction writers to shine in comparison. But I’ve seen some great stories out there, and I hope they will continue to rise to the challenge.

Two by Moonlight by CallegoI’ve mentioned the Finnish online magazine (also free) Finnish Weird before, but it fits our topic here, so I’ll mention it again. It is obvious from the start that a lot more money has been put into this publication, so it is a bit of an unfair comparison with the Swedish magazine above–like comparing a pro-magazine with a semi-pro mag or fanzine (I believe that is the terminology used by SFWA…). I have not read every story in each of the issues, but generally I think it’s comparable to the quality you would get in an Anglophone magazine at the pro-level (pro vs semi pro is determined by the amount paid to the authors, but I am thinking in terms of literary quality–according to my own opinion, of course…). The Finnish Weird is also, as the name suggests, more about that mingling of fantasy and horror that we find in the old Weird Tales and related magazines, more recently revived as a more sophisticated “New Weird”, a term then appropriated by Johanna Sinisalo to describe this particular literary movement growing out of Finnish speculative fiction/pop culture fandom.

Finnish Weird is in English, so apologies to those who wanted to practice their Finnish. I’ve found a few stories (one Swedish, two Finnish) on Strange Horizons and its new extension Samovar (which publishes translations), so here are a few more stories in English for you:

Palimpsest by Anders Åslund is dystopian sci-fi, and while I haven’t nailed down what it is that makes Swedish sci-fi Swedish, I will note that this story feels similar to those I’ve read in the Swedish collections–one of the better quality ones, of course. And you know, dystopias are pretty big in Swedish lit… of course, they are everywhere, but for some reason I see the theme returning in the Swedish stories in a way that feels similar… Well, dystopia is prominent in Swedish literary history, with such heavy-hitters like Karin Boye’s Kallocain and Harry Martinson’s Aniara, plus there is a contemporary dystopian feel to all that crime fiction that Swedes love so much, so maybe there is a genealogy to trace here… I will have to work on it. 🙂

The Dying Embers by Inkeri Kontro is weird enough even for Finnish Weird, with a sauna as a narrator. A steamy story, in more ways than one. Fits well with the weirdness that Strange Horizons so often publishes (I mean that as a compliment, for the record), so I hope to see more Finnish Weird on their site. Though of course, now that will probably end up on Samovar, their translation site–which is where we find our next story.

Wither and Blossom, by Suvi Kauppila, a dark fairy tale with a lovely podcast version read beautifully by Anaea Lay. Be sure to read the interview with Suvi as well!

Angry Tomte by CallegoA little prelude to the differences between the Finnish vs the Swedish material–not so much riffing on identifiably Swedish culture in these stories, versus a more conspicuous interest in that sort of thing in (many but not all of) the Finnish stories. While I’ve posted my “Angry Tomte” picture here, I’ve been surprised to find so little Swedish fantasy riffing on traditional Swedish folklore/culture–possibly an aversion to anything that might look reactionary? I think the appropriation of traditional Germanic/Scandinavian culture by white supremacists has, along with just being shitty and evil, made it difficult for folks to bring, say, Swedish folk creatures into their stories without having to somehow mark that they are not trying to make a white supremacist argument by doing so (according to a paper I heard several years ago, this is also a problem faced by Swedish folk musicians). Personally I think there is a lot of potential for digging into the traditional material in a subversive and progressive way–but to be honest, I think the lack of this in the Swedish material is more a matter of Swedish fandom being more engaged with the tropes and styles of Anglophone spec fic–to get away from that, you have to go to the “mainstream” authors, as I’ve noted.

I do like that the Finnish Weird is more of a defined literary movement–not that you need to be a defined literary movement to be good and interesting, but I think that it is clear from the stories I’ve read that there is something local (specific to Finland), thoughtful, relatively coherent and unique, that is coming out of that milieu (well, could just be excellent branding, but hey…)–the ‘local flavor’ of my post title, and something that works very well in this particular case, whether it is simply the general “Finnish grimness/melancholy” that you get in many of these stories, or the use of local material within this international genre (for example, Sinisalo’s novel about a troll, or Kontro’s story about a sauna). The fantasy and science fiction I’ve read in Swedish (again, focusing on this current–90s-2010s–crop of genre authors) may be good, bad, or amazing depending on the story/novel, but for the most part seems simply to be a part of these international genres, rather than a more localized and unique contribution to that world scene–but I expect to find some more specifically Swedish tendencies as I go. And of course, the Swedish Steampunk I’ve read (so far primarily the collection I varje ångetag, though I’ve started a more recent collection now) has as a particular strength its focus on an alternate steam-power Sweden, versus the focus on reimagined Britains and Americas in Anglophone (and so more visible and internationally accessible) steampunk. That’s probably another blog post though…

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Not that we should confine our celebration of authors of the African diaspora to just one month (belated happy Black History Month!), but to close out February I thought I would highlight some African American authors I’ve either been reading recently or have loved for a long time (and maybe a few I’m still looking forward to reading). But to open–there’s a new Afrofuturist short fiction magazine out there called FIYAH, and it looks great! As has been pointed out lately, the world of speculative fiction is not immune to racism structural or otherwise, and black authors have suffered in the short fiction market as a result. The establishment of FIYAH does not let us off the hook, of course–the goal (or a goal) with this journal and its predecessor Fire!! of the Harlem Renaissance is for the larger discourse (or more concretely, you and I and all concrete individuals engaged in this as readers, writers, editors, etc) to see and repent its(/our) complicity in the marginalization of black voices.

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Delany has been one of my favorites for a while now. Note the cover for Babel-17, which does feature a female protagonist, but an Asian one. Ursula LeGuin had similar problems with her EarthSea characters being portrayed as white on the covers of her books.

The two authors always brought up in a discussion of black science fiction and fantasy are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and that will be the case here as well, though I do recognize that there were times when they were awkwardly bundled together solely for being the only black people in the room (which is not to say we can’t speak of them together as black authors–I’m doing that here, duh–but prioritizing that connection at random can certainly reinforce the marginalization we are trying to counter here). Delany, along with Ursula LeGuin, is one of the New Wave authors who became favorites of mine post-college (and to a degree post-Tolkien, or at least the point at which I embraced fantasy that was not just imitative of Professor Tollers). Delany’s science fiction writing is mostly confined to that period from the 60s to the 70s, followed by a foray into poststructuralist fantasy in the 80s, but to my tastes his early sci-fi remains fresh and original even next to the more avant-garde elements of today’s market. I especially love Nova, a novel which anticipates cyber-punk while remaining solidly in the genre of space opera, incorporates the Tarot in an interesting way (as does Calvino–lots of potential work meta-narrative moments there), and to my mind also has some nice echoes of Ahab and his white whale, though I wouldn’t push that too hard. Babel-17 is an interesting and trippy space opera with a linguistic novum at its heart, and to my mind a must-read for fans of the New Wave. Empire Star was apparently meant to be packaged with Babel-17, though this was only done more recently–equally trippy, and I hope to teach it one day. The meditations on cognition, intelligence, and the arts are all very worthwhile, and well-woven into the fabric of this weird but engaging story.

The late Octavia Butler I am less familiar with, I’m afraid, though I have been impressed with what I’ve read. I’d heard of her before, of course, but I was primarily turned on to her by Orson Scott Card’s in-depth analysis of her prose in his book on on writing science fiction and fantasy. What I’ve read of hers can be pretty uncomfortable–she had a knack for weaving the despicable and the morally ambiguous into disturbing but productive and interesting stories–but it is well worth it. I’ve been especially wanting to read her Lilith’s Brood novels for a long time, and will hopefully get to them soon!

There are two more recent authors I want to specifically mention here: N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. I’d read Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few months ago and have been meaning to write a review, but I like to have an illustration ready before I write reviews, and never got around to making one. Maybe after I’ve read another book of hers… In any case, THTK was a solid, entertaining, and highly original bit of fantasy, and I strongly recommend it. An original cosmology, a realistic and rich diversity of cultures, courtly intrigue, and a well-developed apotheosis–this book has got it all! Again, maybe a more thorough review later. I’ve read at least one short story of hers as well, but simply with regard to her novel writing have to note that she has been quite prolific since her debut. If her other books are even half as good as THTK they are well worth reading. Do yourself a favor and check her out! You can find her website here.

wp_20170228_12_55_34_proI discovered Nnedi Okorafor through her collection of short stories, Kabu Kabu (I’ve read several so far and gladly recommend the collection on their basis). While I love Jemisin’s work as well, I feel more kinship to Okorafor’s narrative style. Her first fantasy novel for adults, Who Fears Death, is a skillful blend of both science fictional and fantasy tropes, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa but primarily focused on a realistically drawn and ethnically complex society featuring supernatural elements and magic practitioners drawn (to what degree I am not qualified to say) from African culture. I’m still working through this–the story is quite dark in a lot of ways (that tends to slow me down), and we are clued in early on to the fact that there will be some tragedy involved in the conclusion, but don’t let that scare you. This is a beautifully written coming of age story as well as a fantasy of the somewhat “messianic” sort (think Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, etc). The prequel to this book came out in 2015–I wish it were a sequel, because then I would be able to pretend the tragic foreshadowing in WFD are red-herrings, but alas…

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch from when I reviewed the first book–not as cool as the covers for the actual book, alas.

Okorafor is (deservedly) getting the most attention at the moment for her novellas for Tor.com Publishing, centering around the young heroine Binti. I’ve read the first and am making my way through the second now. I’ve already reviewed the first in the series, so check that out! In sum–space opera, with a lushly developed far-future that, alas, can only be hinted at in a shorter work like this, but also a story which acknowledges the continued existence of marginal communities and nicely works the tension between globalization (or here, galacticization?) and local identity into the main plot. It is also a story about a university, so of course I like it. 🙂  I’ve noted before that the Binti series feels a bit YA to me, though I don’t believe it is being marketed as such. I think this is a function of the age of the protagonist (though the same could be said of Who Fears Death, but that has some clearly adult themes going on), Okorafor’s experience as a YA writer (that is where she started), and the shorter form of the novella. In any case, it is delightfully good, and I heartily recommend it! You can find Okorafor’s website here.

A couple of authors on my radar but whom I have not gotten to yet: Nalo Hopkinson, who has been a significant figure in speculative fiction for a while but who does not get as much press as some others mentioned here, and Kai Ashante Wilson, who has had two novellas published with Tor.com as well.  From what I have been hearing he is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in fantasy, so check him out now!

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