Sword and Sonnet – A. Doyle et. al – 7.5/10

Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones and E. Catherine Tobler, is a short story collection, largely made up of fantasy but with a smattering of science fiction, centring around female and non-binary warrior-poets. This is exciting enough as a prospect by itself, but what makes the collection special is the unique perspectives that each author brings to what it is to be a poet, what it is to be a warrior, and what it is to be a warrior-poet. Most of the stories are also accompanied with authors’ notes, which provides a more personal touch and a fascinating insight into the creative processes at work.

500px-SwordSonnetThe stories span traditions and subgenres, from the folkloric tale of jealousy, “The Other Foot”, by Margo Lanagan, to the ecological parable, “Eight-Step Köan”, by Anya Ow, to Kira Lees’ vampiric political intrigue tale, “Her Poems Are Inked in Tears and Blood,” to the amusing and thought-provoking “This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers”, courtesy of Carlie St. George. They also tackle hard-hitting emotional topics; great examples of these are Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali’s “She Searches For God in the Storm Within”, which concerns an escape from an abusive relationship, Osahon Ize-Iyamu’s treatment of self-esteem and sexual predators in slam-poem form in “A Voice In Many Different Forms”, and the exploration of grief and the reconciliation of the darker aspects of loved ones in “Dulce et Decorum”, by S. L. Luang. Samantha Henderson’s “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World” likewise sensitively examines the lengths people can be willing to go to to save a life, even if it involves forces they don’t fully understand. It’s a well-crafted collection of stories that complement each other well, and there is definitely something for fans of fantasy and science-fiction of all stripes. A few highlights are:

Words in an Unfinished Poem – A. C. Wise

In this redemptive and bittersweet Weird Western, an immortal gunslinger who writes poems with bullets which have exactly the right to kill their target etched on them, takes on a contract that will change their life.

A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin – Hayley Stone

Hayley Stone plays with the idea of what it is to be monstrous beautifully in this tale of a woman who kills with poetry coming to terms with who she is, and trying to rewrite themselves into something new.

As For Peace, Call It Murder – C. S. E. Cooney

In a rousing story of a near-future military coup, a poet’s power to change the world is displayed with its full majesty, even if she is unable to save herself. One of the best stories in the collection, and bonus points for the AI corvid drones.

She Calls Down the Future in the Footprints Left Behind – Setsu Uzumé

Setsu Uzumé’s exploration of the limitations of oral tradition and the needs for cultures to adapt even at the cost of tradition is thought-provoking and moving. It also brings a dash of variety to the collection in the form of shamanistic magic, and a focus on the cultic and religious power of poetry that was especially powerful in such societies.

Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring – Suzanne J. Willis

One of the other gems in Sword and Sonnet, this account of a rebellion against the outlawing of the written word in an attempt to control the population is at once rousing and disturbing. It has an inspirational vein without being saccharine – the losses are real, the risks are real, and the battle is not short or easily won. In many ways, it is a parable for our times, at once a warning and an encouragement.

The Bone Poet and God – Matt Dovey

Also one of the best stories in the anthology, this is a heart-warming tale of self-discovery. It also has anthropomorphic bear shamans, and if that isn’t a selling point, I don’t know what is.

Siren – Alex Acks

In this space opera, Alex Acks explores how anger can be used as a catalyst both for destruction and for positive change, and the ways in which the potential for both can reside within a single being. His handling of the protagonist’s two warring personalities is especially deft. Like “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring”, this story feels very timely, and one to draw encouragement from in Interesting Times.

With twenty-three high-quality stories on offer, Sword and Sonnet is a fine addition to the collection of any reader who enjoys the fantastical, the wondrous, and the bittersweet.

Space Unicorn Blues – T. J. Berry – 7/10

Space Unicorn Blues, by T. J. Berry, is a novel that defies genre boundaries, blending science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale and space opera together into a concoction that stands out as one of the more interesting science-fantasy novels to cross my path in recent years. The sensitivities of Becky Chambers meets a healthy dose of morally-ambiguous grit, a dysfunctionality reminiscent of Red Dwarf, and the absurdity of Douglas Adams.

SpaceUnicornBlues_144dpi-1-400x606Especially arresting is Berry’s world-building. The population of the galaxy being largely bala, faerie races drawn from folklore, is fun, and provides an opportunity for human self-reflection. The way that humanity responds to longer-lived, less adaptable creatures whose very bodies are exploitable resources (especially the semi-divine unicorns, whose horn is the only fuel that can power faster-than-light travel) is deeply uncomfortable. The parallels with the rise of modern-day fascism are clear, and though Berry’s treatment of this could be considered a tad black-and-white or heavy-handed, this is entirely consistent both with the folklore she draws from and, frankly, the ways we can observe mankind behaving when at its worst, and most self-obsessed. Berry is also capable at injecting lighter shades into an otherwise cynical picture, playing with fantastical and sci-fi tropes to comic effect. Singularity pie provides a memorable (if slightly stomach-churning) example of this, as do the

The greatest strength of Space Unicorn Blues, however, is the well-crafted characters. Ricky Tang, for example, is a lot of fun, all sass and wheeler-dealing, as well as being a sensitive depiction of a trans woman. She is someone who always manages to land on her feet, because she’s had to learn to do so to survive. In contrast, Cowboy Jim is, simply put, intensely unlikeable; a toxic man who has pushed everyone away with his own bitterness. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge his own failings, and to accept the differences of others, is perhaps a little overwrought, but is necessary to act as a counterpoint to the central relationship of the novel: that between Jenny and Gary Cobalt.

Jenny is a fantastic example of a disabled Maori woman who strives both to overcome her disadvantages and also, and crucially, to improve her own flaws. Hers is a journey of self-recognition and coming to accept the wrongs she has down others in the past. Gary, in contrast, is half-unicorn half-human, living a liminal existence attempting to hide his horn from those who would use him for it – as Jenny did in the past, leading to an incident that lands Gary in prison for ten years and the eternal enmity of Cowboy Jim. His release from prison at the beginning of the book, and his falling in with his former captors and enslavers for mutual benefit, forms the crux of the narrative. The journey of Jenny and Gary, both war heroes from different sides of the same conflict, former captor and captive, is a nuanced depiction of forgiveness. There is no great reconciliation, no hugging or emotional declarations. It is simply two people coming to a mutual recognition of their past wrongs and doing their best to move forward. This is given more poignancy by the backdrop of the lack of cooperation between human and bala, with the great summit of omniscient beings who have charged the two species to set aside their differences or face the consequences looming. While individuals are capable of setting aside differences, are races? Nations? Species? This is the uncomfortable question of Space Unicorn Blues, and its answer is not an easy one.

Ultimately, Space Unicorn Blues is a space opera with a great premise and a fresh new twist on the synthesis of fairy-tale fantasy and science fiction. It loses its way somewhat towards the end, in the way that great ideas often do, but this doesn’t mean that the ride is any less fun. The fact that the seeds of a sequel are shown makes the future of science-fantasy all the more exciting.

Nexhuman – Francesco Verso – 7/10

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman (translated from Italian by Sally McCorry) is many things. It is gritty, it is uncomfortable and thought-provoking, and it is absorbing.

Nexhuman-Generic_776xIt is also a finely-crafted transhumanist dystopian tale with strong ecological and anti-capitalist themes; a society so overrun by its own waste that the entire economy seems dependent on it provides the backdrop to Verso’s characters. It is a theme that has unsettling parallels to the present day, especially with the implication that the world could be cleaned up, with improvements to the lives of many, if it wasn’t economically inconvenient to the companies that deal with humanity’s effluvia. The complex barter economy that builds around this situation, and which very much drives the characters, is an additional detail that makes Verso’s world-building so compelling.

The environmental catastrophe unfolding across the fifteen years that Nexhuman spans is evocative of the deeper, and central, theme: what is it to be human? This is clearest in the titular Nexhumans, the android bodies into which the consciousnesses of the rich and powerful are uploaded that their lives may be extended. Are they still human? And, if human, are they the same person? Is it right that personal finances are the only apparent measure of worth for the next best thing to immortality? Likewise the protagonist, Peter, is arguably semi-human in the eyes of some, having a prosthetic arm and leg; though these aid him in his work of upcycling the “kipple” from the gargantuan rubbish-pits, there is a sense that his incompleteness shames him.

And this idea of incomplete, or apparent lack of, inhumanity is key to the relationships in Nexhuman. In a world where refuse is the only resource open to most people, many have ceased to treat others as people. The domineering Charlie uses and abuses those around him, friend and family alike, first as gang-leader, later as family patriarch. Other members of Charlies gang, as representatives of wider society, (and this is a Big Content Warning) indulge in necrophilia, casual violence, even murder, especially of the rich and nebulously-alive Nexhumans. The refuse-gatherers whom society has cast aside must scratch a living, and this is especially true of Ion, whose memories of working for a major tech company are forcibly taken from him. Kiko, Peter’s eventual partner, appears to be using him only for the trappings and kudos of a relationship. There is no love or affection, and where there is, it appears to be another commodity.

This brings us to the central relationship of Nexhuman: Peter’s love for Alba, the Nexhuman woman whom he saw murdered when he was fifteen, whose head he salvages and whose body he makes it his quest to rebuild and resurrect. In a world where he has no purpose, Peter finds meaning in Alba. Whether this purpose, this obsession, is healthy is rarely explored; although it is difficult to see who a character who has never been shown affection (except by Alba, on occasion) can articulate love in a healthy way.

Ultimately, Nexhuman is a story about striving to create something out of nothingness, or out of discarded remnants of somethings. The central quest is framed uncomfortably in terms of the objectification of Alba’s body, but it is a world in which nothing is comfortable. Not all of the twists and turns hit home, but the overall story is compelling and leaves the reader with much to think about.

(This review was given in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)

Robot Dinosaur Fiction! – 7.5/10

One recent sci-fi delight that crossed my path was the Robot Dinosaur Fiction project masterminded by A Merc Rustad. The artwork alone of the blog (on which all the stories are free to read) promises much – and the stories very much deliver on these promises.

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Kelsey Ligget’s banner-art encapsulates the spirit of the project. And who can resist it?

 A collection of flash fictions centred around the theme of robot dinosaurs runs the risk of being overly silly, or violent, or shallow. Robots and dinosaurs are staples of speculative fiction, both of the serious and not-so-serious stripes, but both bring their own associations of children playing imaginative games with action figures. Rustad and company certainly tap into this nostalgia and whimsy (as stories like Rexatron 3000, Private Eye by Mina Li attest), but do so with delicacy and emotional gut-punches that elevate the collection into something special. Stories like Five Functions of Your Bionosaur (Rachael K. Jones) and The Dinosaur Graveyard (Aidan Moher) – which bookend the collection if read in order – along with The Caretaker Noticed (Katie Spina) and When I Was Made (Kathryn Kania) provide truly moving emotional clout. Only a cold-hearted raptor could fail to be brought near heart-warming tears.

Other stories take a rather more serious, ecological approach. Hunting on Ethera (M Rauolee) is a fun, and thought-provoking, take on the issues of biodiversity, while Robo-Lipleurodon! (Darcie Little Badger) and Twenty-Fifth Named Storm (Alina Sichevaya) tackle ecological issues in more direct, unsettling ways.

In many ways, many of these stories excel when the focus is not the Robot Dinosaurs, but the people around them and what these dinosaurs mean to them. The true strength of Robot Dinosaur Fiction is its ability to use its titular bionic sauropods to explore the human condition. Twenty-Fifth Named Storm is a particularly touching example of this, exploring the tenderness of human relationships; “Sphexa, Start Dinosaur!” (Nibedita Sen) is another adorable example of this, while Small Things Pieced Together (Ginger Weil) is a fantastic portrayal of a relationship at breaking point, as well as being another highlight of the site (also, IKEA take note. Robot dinosaur kits. I would buy one). Be A Thunder, Release A Roar (Osahon Ize-Iyamu) and Taiyesha’s Fist (Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali) critique the way the educational system can fail children. As a grad student, Research Lab Electricity Usage Timesheet Reporting (Ada Hoffman) was a more accurate depiction of higher education than I would like to admit (and frankly some manic raptor servants of my own would be very welcome).

Alongside the writing, mention must me made of the fantastic illustrations by a range of talented artists: Rhiannon R-S, Kelsey Liggett, Kit Leighton, Rica March, Kosmic Arts, Lars Weiler, Vincent Konrad, Rekka Jay, Jennifer Rossman, and James Kurella. All bring their own personal style to the site, and complement the stories well.

Though the Kickstarter intended to bring these stories, amongst others, to ebook form failed to fund, the quality of the work is there for all to see, and is well worth enjoying. And with rumblings of a second attempt, hopefully Robot Dinosaur Fiction will receive more of the recognition that it deserves and return with a triumphant RAWR. Read the site, check out the authors. You won’t be disappointed.