Category: Science Fiction

Ocean’s Echo

Cover image for Ocean's Echo by Everina Maxwell

by Everina Maxwell

ISBN 9781250758866

“They were working together, they were rooming together, and every time he turned around, there was Tennal—unpredictable and razor-edged, crackling like the end of a live wire. Surit worked in a universe of fixed possibilities. Tennal was a chaos event. Surit was drawn to it like a gravity well.”

Tennalhin Halkana is a reader, capable of perceiving the emotions of those around him and even their thoughts if he pushes deeper. But deep reading is incredibly illegal in Orshan, and even a rebellious runaway like Tennal has moral limits. Unfortunately for Tennal, his powerful aunt will stop at nothing to bring him back into the fold. Conscripted under questionable orders into Orshan’s military, Tennal may find himself permanently bound to an architect who is charged with controlling his reader powers and bending them to their only acceptable use: navigating the maelstrom of chaotic space.

Lieutenant Surit Yeni is the son of an infamous traitor, his own so-far exemplary military career notwithstanding. Intent on securing a pension for his one surviving parent, Surit accepts a questionable transfer to the regulators for a salvage mission. While Surit is surprised by his orders to sync with a reader, he is shocked when he finds that the reader is neither a volunteer nor under a properly sanctioned court order for abuse of their powers. Surit believes the orders he has received are illegal, but when his superior officers refuse to listen, he and Tennal strike upon an unusual plan: fake a sync bond for as long as it takes to help Tennal escape.

Ocean’s Echo is set in the same universe as Winter’s Orbit, but otherwise stands alone with little crossover. Orshan, like Iskat, is part of the Resolution but wary of its influence. Neuromodified readers and architects are forbidden by the Resolution to leave Orshan space, and Orshan has done everything in its power to avoid drawing attention to their military use of these assets. In terms of genre, it’s neither entirely science fiction nor really romance, and I think this may be a sticking point for some readers as everyone will be looking for a different balance of these two elements. This installment has an even slower burn on the romance side than its predecessor, pushing the balance slightly towards science fiction.

I was initially rather confused by the world building surrounding readers and architects, and why it would be socially acceptable for architects to control people, but taboo for readers to perform even surface reading, which provides little more information than body language or tone of voice. It took the story going on a bit for it to become evident that this wasn’t a bug, but one of the central conflicts Maxwell was building the narrative around. Control is useful to governments, but readers have proven difficult to control and can access information the government would prefer to keep secret. Tennal, snarky chaos incarnate, is prime example of this difficulty, although his reader powers are honestly the least of his problems given his struggles with drugs and other self-destructive behaviour (full content warnings are available on the author’s site). As the primary POV character, it isn’t always easy being inside his head.

Tennal and Surit come to their relationship under the most fraught circumstances. Surit’s brief is to sync and control Tennal, but while his scruples prevent him from carrying out the order, he is still Tennal’s superior officer for as long as he is nominally in the military. In other circumstances, however, the power tilts in Tennal’s favour; he is the son of a powerful family, nephew of the Orshan Legislator, while Surit is the orphaned son of a traitor. It is no surprise, then, that the slow build towards deeper feelings is complex and fraught with both political and emotional landmines. And while Surit vows that he will never sync Tennal under any circumstances, events constantly conspire to push them towards this end, tempting them to seize the one tool at their disposal.

You might also like A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fiction

Today marks ten years since I launched this blog with a review of the YA novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Since then I’ve read and reviewed hundreds of books, but for the anniversary I wanted to round up some of my absolute favourites, beginning with fiction. All five books listed below are ones that I’ve read more than once. They stand up to rereading, and make reliable quick picks when someone has asked me to recommend a book as a gift or for their book group.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra

ISBN 9780770436407

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sonja escaped from war-torn Chechnya on a scholarship to study medicine in London. But she is pulled back home by the disappearance of her beautiful but troubled sister, Natasha, just in time to be trapped by the outbreak of the first Chechen war of independence. Against all odds, Sonja thrives, taking charge of a decrepit hospital and becoming a surgeon renowned by rebels and Feds alike. Miraculously, Natasha is returned to her, a shattered wreck rescued from a prostitution ring in Italy. They slowly begin to rebuild their lives, only to have them smashed again by a second war, and Natasha’s second disappearance. The story is an exercise in contrasts, filled with exquisite, lyrical prose counterpointed by brutal, senseless violence. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness. I discovered this novel after meeting the author at ALA Annual 2013, and it is a frequent recommendation for people who like books about sibling relationships.

Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St. John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

At a production of King Lear in Toronto, Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu that only days before seemed like a distant European epidemic. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that perform Shakespeare. When the Symphony arrives back in St. Deborah-by-the-Water after a two year absence, eagerly anticipating a reunion with two members of their group left behind there, they find the settlement irrevocably altered. A Prophet has taken over the town, driving many residents away, and bringing the rest under his sway. When the Prophet demands one of the Symphony’s young women to be his next wife, the Conductor and her people flee south into unknown territory. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines. I first read this book in 2016, when I discovered it on the Canada Reads longlist, but it has taken on a new resonance since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Canadian

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends? The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. This beautifully written short novel gripped me so thoroughly that I read it twice in a row, and listened to the audiobook as well.

Categories: Science Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662569

Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods, but immortals exact a terrible price. When I received a free ARC of this debut novel from the publisher in 2018, I was more struck by the cover art by Jun Shan Chang than anything else. I had no idea I was discovering one of my new favourite writers, who has since completed the Poppy War trilogy and gone on to write Babel.

Categories: Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 9780525521426

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. However it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that earns this novel a place on this list.

Categories: Historical Fiction, Canadian

Because this could easily have been a list composed entirely of fantasy novels, I’ll be back later this week with a genre-specific list!

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan #2)

Cover image for A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781250186461

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles–this they name empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” –Tacitus, quoting Calgacus, Agricola 30

In the midst of a coup, Lsel Ambassador Mahit Dzmare made a desperate bid to save her people from being swallowed by Teixcalaan by pointing the empire’s military might at a larger threat. On the edge of Teixcalaanli space, an alien threat has begun swallowing ships and planets. They are impossibly fast, impeccably coordinated, and seemingly impossible to communicate with. Military efforts to track and fight them have largely failed, prompting Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus to send for a diplomatic envoy from the Ministry of Information to try another approach. Former cultural liaison Three Seagrass seizes this opportunity, and dispatches herself to the front, stopping on Lsel Station only long enough to pick up the disgraced Ambassador Dzmare. It is not without resentment that Mahit answers Teixcalaan’s call, even as she is fleeing a fraught political situation on Lsel Station. Together Mahit and Three Seagrass will have many challenges to overcome—personal and political—if they hope to bring peace to the empire in this sequel to A Memory Called Empire.

A Desolation Called Peace continues the adventures of familiar characters such as Three Seagrass and Mahit Dzmare, as well as making some additions to the cast. Two of the most interesting new characters are the general Nine Hibiscus, and especially her adjutant Twenty Cicada who belongs to one of the empire’s religious minorities. Efficient and loyal, Twenty Cicada nevertheless has an unusual perspective that makes him something of an outsider among Teixcalaanlitzlim. A Desolation Called Peace also provides an increased role for Eight Antidote—the 90% clone of former Emperor Six Direction—who is heir to Teixcalaan. Although he is young, the coup has caused him to begin to recognize the reality of his future role, and cautiously, experimentally exercise some of his power. He is poised on the edge of a knife, young enough that few people take him seriously, but powerful enough that perhaps they should be paying more attention to the future emperor of Teixcalaan.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are interludes from the perspective of the collective we of the alien hivemind. Arkady Martine executes these with a dab hand, conveying an eerie otherness that often made my skin prickle. These alien ringships have appeared on the edge of Teixcalaan’s territory, and threaten Lsel Station as well. The Lsel council sees an opportunity to break Teixcalaan against a powerful enemy in order to ensure their own continued independence. This is a dangerous game, and not one Mahit necessarily supports, even as one of the councillors charges her to sabotage Three Seagrass’s mission. The alien interludes are relatively short, but on the whole the novel is made up of large, meaty chapters, though the character point of view shifts within each section. Eight Antidote in particular keeps the reader abreast of what is happening back in the capital, even though most of the action takes place at the frontier.

A Desolation Called Peace is in many respects a first contact story; Mahit and Three Seagrass are charged with the unenviable task of finding a way to communicate with the aliens, whose spoken language takes an audible form that makes Teixcalaanlitzlim and Stationers alike physically ill to listen to. Together they seek a diplomatic path, albeit one Mahit has been charged to undermine. Even without Lsel interference, Fleet politics also threaten to overtake their diplomatic overtures. One of the ship captains under Nine Hibiscus’s command, Sixteen Moonrise, has her own agenda, and it does not involve peace with the alien threat. However, the story also interrogates an important question: what is the difference between a human, a barbarian, and an alien? Who decides? Mahit and Twenty Cicada are particularly important to this exploration, as they in many ways sit outside the standard idea of a human or a Teixcalaanlitzlim, at least until they are juxtaposed with the new hivemind.   

A Desolation Called Peace is a complicated sequel with as much nuance as the initial installment of this series. The ending was more hopeful than I expected, but still bittersweet. It is the kind of book that does not pass easily away after you finish reading it, but continues to haunt your thoughts long after the final page.

You might also like This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Top 5 Fiction 2021

Although I took a blogging hiatus for much of 2021, I was still reading. This year featured a lot of comfort (re)reads, an unexpected dive into the romance genre, and lots of science fiction and fantasy. Here are my top five fiction titles read or reviewed–but not necessarily published–in 2021. Check back next week for my top non-fiction picks!

Boyfriend Material

Cover image for Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

by Alexis Hall

ISBN 9781728206141

Boyfriend Material is a fake dating romance featuring Luc the unmitigated disaster and Oliver the polished barrister. Lucien O’Donnell works for an obscure environmental non-profit but his real problem is his D-list celebrity fame as the son of two estranged rock stars. When the paparazzi snaps a compromising photo, Luc is forced to do damage control with the charity’s stodgy donors; he needs to find a respectable date for the annual fundraiser. Enter Oliver Blackwood, a criminal defense lawyer who also needs a date for a big event—his parents’ upcoming ruby wedding anniversary garden party. The secret sauce of this romance is that under his polished exterior Oliver is, in his own way, just as much of a disaster as Luc, with a string of failed romances behind him and a tense relationship with his family. But their chaos is complimentary, which is perhaps why their mutual friend Bridget has been trying to set them up for years (though Luc insists it is because they are her only two gay friends). I liked this romance so much I read it not once but twice in the last year and enjoyed it just as much the second time through. I’m really looking forward to the sequel, Husband Material, due to be published in the summer of 2022!

Tags: Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ+

The Heart Principle

Cover image for The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

by Helen Hoang

ISBN 9780451490841

Anna Sun’s life seems to be in free-fall. After burning out in her musical career as violinist following an unexpected bout of YouTube fame, she feels adrift. Then her boyfriend tells her that he wants an open relationship before they decide if they should marry. Steeling her nerve, Anna decides that if her boyfriend is going to sleep around, she can too. And this time she won’t pick a man just because her family approves. The Heart Principle is the third in Helen Hoang’s series of romances featuring people with autism as heroines or love interests; the first was 2018’s The Kiss Quotient. The series is tied together, and love interest Quan Diep is the business partner of Michael Phan, the love interest from the first book. With his motorcycle and tattoos, Quan is nothing Anna’s parents would ever approve of, but when a crisis strikes in Anna’s family, Quan is there for her in ways that are more than she ever could have expected from a fling. In fact, it feels a lot like love. Unlike the other installments in the series, The Heart Principle is written in the first person, lending a heart-wrenching immediacy to Anna’s struggle with her burnout, paralyzing repetitive behaviours, and controlling family. Despite this darker element when I was generally turning to romance for heart-warming fluff, I absolutely ripped through this book, and it may be my favourite novel in the series.

Tags: Fiction, Romance

The Jasmine Throne

Cover image for The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538527

Tasha Suri’s first adult fantasy is dark political intrigue rife with magic. The Jasmine Throne employs a large and complex cast of characters with competing interests, and the point of view shifts frequently. However, the two central characters are Malini and Priya. Malini is a princess of Parijat, but she has been exiled to an outlying province by her brother the emperor for refusing to go willingly to the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods. Priya is a maidservant in the household of Ahiranya’s colonial governor, but once she was something more, a forbidden history that lies dormant and half-forgotten. When the exiled princess is imprison in the Hirana, Priya is among the members of the governor’s household sent to attend her and her jailer. Ahiranya chafes under Parijati rule, but the dissidents do not agree on how to regain autonomy. Ashok leads the guerilla rebels, while Bhumika, the governor’s Ahiranyi wife, has married the enemy to try to keep her people safe from the ravages of life under the thumb of the empire by more diplomatic means. These are subtle politics with no easy answers; everyone thinks that their way is the right way, that they alone have drawn the right lines in the sand. In the midst of all this, Malini and Priya are drawn into an unlikely romance, but is far from the centre of the story, which focuses around imperialism and colonial politics.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQ+

A Memory Called Empire

Cover image for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781529001587

It has been twenty years since Lsel Station sent an Ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, and fifteen years since that ambassador last visited home when suddenly the Emperor Six Direction demands a new Lsel Ambassador. Hurriedly implanted with the outdated imago-machine of her predecessor, Mahit Dzmare arrives at the heart of the empire to find that the former ambassador is dead, likely murdered. Guided by her cultural liaison Three Seagrass, and the shadow of Yskandr provided by his old, possibly sabotaged imago-machine, Mahit must uncover the truth even as Teixcalaan seethes on the edge of a succession crisis. The secret of the imago-machine may be Lsel Station’s salvation, or it’s undoing. A Memory Called Empire provides a unique and well-built world, and a mystery that is steeped in religion, politics, and technology crafted by a writer who knows what she is about—Martine has degrees in history, religion, and city planning. Teixcalaan is a pervasive military and cultural juggernaut with hints of both the Byzantine and Aztec empires, among others. The threat of cultural if not political assimilation looms constantly over Lsel Station. After studying Teixcalaanli language, literature, and history all her life Mahit finally gets to experience the culture she dreamed of, only to confront the fact that to the Teixcalaanlitzim, she will never be more than a barbarian.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

This is How You Lose the Time War

Cover image for This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either faction being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. To say I was obsessed with this book this year is an understatement; I read it twice through and listened to the excellent audiobook as well!

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

What were your favourite fiction reads during 2021? Any unexpected trends in your reading this year?

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Mini Reviews

Daughter of the Moon Goddess

Cover image for Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

by Sue Lynn Tan

ISBN 9780063031302

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

As the daughter of the moon goddess Chang’e, Xingyin grows up in exile, her very existence hidden from the vengeful Celestial Emperor and his court. When her existence is discovered, Xingyin must flee the moon palace, descending to the Celestial Realm to make her way alone. There she finds herself in an unexpected friendship with Liwei, a young man who turns out to be the son of her parents’ (im)mortal enemies. As Xingyin learns to harness her magic and serves the very Celestial Kingdom that banished her mother, she holds out hope that by proving herself in the Celestial army, she can win back her mother’s freedom. Daughter of the Moon Goddess is a mythical romance and adventure, in which Xingyin finds herself caught between Prince Liwei, who is promised to another, and Captain Wenzhi, a fellow soldier who has risen through the ranks from nothing. But though her heart pulls her in multiple directions, throughout Xingyin is bound to her familial legacy, hoping to free her mother, and learn her mortal father’s fate. Sue Lynn Tan draws on Chinese mythology in this first volume of the Celestial Kingdom duology, using the legend of Chang’e and Houyi as the basis for her debut novel.

Expected publication: January 11, 2022

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy tale retellings

The Jasmine Throne

Cover image for The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538527

Tasha Suri’s first adult fantasy is dark political intrigue rife with magic. The Jasmine Throne employs a large and complex cast of characters with competing interests, and the point of view shifts frequently. However, the two central characters are Malini and Priya. Malini is a princess of Parijat, but she has been exiled to an outlying province by her brother the emperor for refusing to go willingly to the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods. Priya is a maidservant in the household of Ahiranya’s colonial governor, but once she was something more, a forbidden history that lies dormant and half-forgotten. When the exiled princess is imprison in the Hirana, Priya is among the members of the governor’s household sent to attend her and her jailer. Ahiranya chafes under Parijati rule, but the dissidents do not agree on how to regain autonomy. Ashok leads the guerilla rebels, while Bhumika, the governor’s Ahiranyi wife, has married the enemy to try to keep her people safe from the ravages of life under the thumb of the empire by more diplomatic means. These are subtle politics with no easy answers; everyone thinks that their way is the right way, that they have drawn the right lines in the sand. In the midst of all this, Malini and Priya are drawn into an unlikely romance, but is far from the centre of the story, which focuses around imperialism and colonial politics. The Jasmine Throne is book one of the Burning Kingdoms series, with The Oleander Sword expected to be published in 2022.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQ+

A Memory Called Empire

Cover image for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781529001587

It has been twenty years since Lsel Station sent an Ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, and fifteen years since that ambassador last visited home when suddenly the Emperor Six Direction demands a new Lsel Ambassador. Hurriedly implanted with the outdated imago-machine of her predecessor, Mahit Dzmare arrives at the heart of the empire to find that the former ambassador is dead, likely murdered. Guided by her cultural liaison Three Seagrass, and the shadow of Yskandr provided by his old, possibly sabotaged imago-machine, Mahit must uncover the truth even as Teixcalaan seethes on the edge of a succession crisis. The secret of the imago-machine may be Lsel Station’s salvation, or it’s undoing. A Memory Called Empire provides a unique and well-built world, and a mystery that is steeped in religion, politics, and technology crafted by a writer who knows what she is about—Martine has degrees in history, religion, and city planning. Teixcalaan is a pervasive military and cultural juggernaut with hints of both the Byzantine and Aztec empires, among others. The threat of cultural if not political assimilation looms constantly over Lsel Station. After studying Teixcalaanli language, literature, and history all her life Mahit finally gets to experience the culture she dreamed of, only to confront the fact that to the Teixcalaanlitzim, she will never be more than a barbarian.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

Winter’s Orbit

Cover image for Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

by Everina Maxwell

ISBN 9781250758835

On the eve of crucial intergalactic treaty negotiations, the Emperor of Iskat summons her erstwhile grandson and commands him to renew a marriage alliance with Thea after the unexpected death of Prince Taam. Without Taam, there is no sealed alliance between Iskat and the rebellious outlying planet of Thea, and so Kiem must step into his cousin’s shoes and marry his widower. Affable Prince Kiem and reserved Count Jainan make a political match at the emperor’s bidding, but neither is expecting the simmering sexual tension that complicates what should have been a straightforward arrangement. Jainan strives to do his duty to bind Thea to the Iskat empire, while Kiem tiptoes around Jainan’s loss, unsure of exactly how deep the relationship between Prince Taam and Jainan may or may not have been. However, Jainan and Kiem’s public relationship comes under scrutiny when Taam’s death is deemed suspicious, and Jainan is identified as a person of interest. A slowly unraveling political mystery paired with a series of revelations about Jainan’s relationship with his dead husband kept me invested despite the slow burn between Jainan and Kiem. Winter’s Orbit is currently billed as a standalone, but I would absolutely read more in this world.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

Iron Widow

Cover image for Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

by Xiran Jay Zhao

ISBN 9780735269941

“Maybe, if things were different, I could get used to this. Being cradled in his warmth and light. Being cherished. Being loved. But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance.”

When Wu Ruyi volunteered for Huaxia’s military as a Chrysalis concubine-pilot, her near-certain death in battle against the alien Hunduns was supposed to buy a better life for her family back on the frontier. When a male pilot kills Ruyi before she ever sees battle, the family receives no money for a death in service, and suddenly the second daughter, Wu Zetian, is facing pressure to either enlist or marry to help her family’s position. But her jiejie’s death only fans the flame of Zetian’s rage against the system that sacrifices scores of girls, while the boys who are their counterparts in piloting the mechas are national heroes. Zetian hatches a plan to enlist in order to get close to Yang Guang, the pilot of the famous Nine-Tailed Fox, and take her revenge for the death of her sister. But Zetian’s plan goes awry when she is dragged into battle by Yang Guang before she ever gets the opportunity to kill him. Against all odds, Zetian emerges from the Nine-Tailed Fox an Iron Widow, the rare girl who is capable of killing the boy in the yang seat rather than dying in the yin seat herself. Instead of killing her, the military assigns Zetian to Li Shimin, a convicted murderer who killed his own family, and was only spared only because his unusually high spirit pressure made him a valuable but volatile military resource, much like Zetian herself.

Iron Widow takes place in Huaxia, a science fiction setting that draws inspiration from ancient China. Huaxia hunkers behind the Great Wall, a defensive perimeter guarded by the Chrysalises in order to keep the alien Hunduns at bay. Many characters draw on famous historical figures in this science fiction context, including Wu Zetian herself, who takes her name from the Tang dynasty figure who was the only woman to ever rule China as emperor. However, the vibes here are much more mecha anime than historical fantasy, and the main body of the story follows Zetian and Shimin as they become the most powerful and most reviled pilot pair in Huaxia.

While being a fast-paced science fiction adventure, Iron Widow also reflects significantly on patriarchy and on how women can be complicit in the systems that oppress them. Zetian clashes with her fellow pilots from the moment she enters training. She encounters jealousy from the other new recruits because she has a high spirit pressure reading, and she is immediately assigned the rank of “consort” rather than “concubine.” Zetian also receives a less than warm welcome from some of the Iron Princesses, the elite women pilots who are part of a rare “balanced match” that means they are less likely to die in battle. Zetian has been subjected to foot binding, and her feet were broken and bound by her own grandmother to improve her marriageability. Every step she takes is painful, and the presence or absence of this pain becomes the way that she recognizes whether she is in reality, or the dreamlike mind-realm of piloting a Chrysalis.

Although piloting a Chrysalis involves a gender-based system derived from principles in Chinese medicine, Xiran Jay Zhao signals early on that they are not here to reinforce the gender binary. Rather, the entirety of Iron Widow is about questioning these divisions. Early in the novel, Zetian is in the woods with her friend Gao Yizhi—a rich city boy with whom she has formed a secret and unlikely bond—they see a butterfly with an unusual colour pattern. Yizhi has been teaching Zetian to look up information on his tablet—a device that is only permitted to men—and through this research she discovers that “biological sex has all sorts of variations in nature.” This lays the groundwork for Zetian to question the entire piloting system. Nor is this the only way in which Iron Widow is unusual; after setting up both Yizhi and Shimin as potential love interests, rather than rivalry the novel sees the three taking tentative steps into a polyamorous triad which notably does not just focus on Zetian but also develops the relationship between Yizhi and Shimin.

Over the course of the narrative, Zetian begins to move past the idea of personal revenge and turns her eyes towards the system that enabled her sister’s death. As she discovers the power to pilot she begins to feel responsible not just for avenging her jiejie, but for the lives of all the girls that will die if nothing changes. But she still doesn’t have the full picture of the world they are operating in, as is made clear by two important revelations that result from the battle to retake Zhou province from the Hunduns at the climax of the book. This new information sets the stage for Zetian, Yizhi, and Shimin to rock the very foundations of Huaxia in the untitled sequel expected to be published in 2022.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

“It occurs to me to dwell on what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I. The physics of us. An action and an equal and opposite reaction.”

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends?

The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. Between the exchanges lurks the Seeker, a mysterious figure that seems to be tracking Red and Blue’s correspondence, yet not betraying it to either the Commandant or Garden. They work opposite sides of the same missions, and spend other years never crossing paths, but always there is another letter, another conflict, another battle to be won or lost. Both sides are beautifully written—Red by Max Gladstone, and Blue by Amal El-Mohtar—so that while it was a relatively short read, I spent quite a lot of time on it, just luxuriating in the distinct voices and the beautiful prose.

This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either side being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. There are relatively few other significant characters, though both agents come face to face with the heads of their respective factions at critical junctures. They both work largely alone, and while they may embed themselves in a single strand of history for a while, it inevitably comes time to move on to the next mission. They become the singular most consistent point in one another’s lives, even as they never interact directly, always keeping their distance, ever mindful of being watched by their respective commanders.

The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Both Red and Blue have unique traits that make them especially good agents, but also set them slightly apart from their fellows. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. While they are naturally competitive, their romance slowly wins out over rivalry until they are forced into a final confrontation. The ending is hopeful, but as loosely defined as the time war itself, and the worlds of Agency and Garden, leaving the reader free to imagine what they will.

Canada Reads Along 2020: Radicalized

Cover image for Radicalized by Cory Doctorowby Cory Doctorow

ISBN 978-1-250-22858-1

Content Warnings: Racism, xenophobia, medical horror, police brutality.

 “They’re kids. If they understood risks, they wouldn’t join uprisings and march in the streets and the world would be a simpler place. Not a better one, of course. But simpler.”

Radicalized is a collection of four novellas by author, editor, and technology activist Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born writer who lives in the United States. His fiction is typically set in the U.S. and deals with issues through an American lens, but with nods and references to Canada. The featured works deal with issues including the circumvention of copyright controls, racial bias in predictive policing software, healthcare insurance loopholes, and survivalist billionaires with more money than they know what to do with. That last story takes on a particular new resonance in the age of COVID-19.

The first novella, “Unauthorized Bread” is an Internet-of-Things horror story about a young immigrant who finds herself on the wrong side of copyright law after jailbreaking her internet-connected toaster, which will only toast bread made by authorized bakeries. This story can be read online for free at Ars Technica if you want to get a taste of Radicalized, and is currently under development as both a graphic novel and a television show. It is a story about the small inconveniences and humiliations of poverty, and being controlled by the technology we supposedly own.

Although these are works of fiction, Doctorow’s subjects generally find their inspiration in real life. The most speculative of the stories is “Model Minority,” a sort of Superman fan fiction about a super hero known as the American Eagle. He has a billionaire playboy defense contractor frenemy named Bruce, and an investigative reporter paramour named Lois. However, the story gets very real when the American Eagle decides to take a stand against a group of racist cops who give a Black man a paralyzing beating, enabled by the justification of predictive policing software. An alien among humans, the Eagle is forced to confront human xenophobia, and consider what price he is willing to pay if he draws this line in the sand.

The darkest story in the collection might be the titular Radicalized, which follows a career man named Joe who learns that his wife is dying of cancer on his 36th birthday. He becomes angry and sullen, especially when their insurance refuses to pay for a treatment the company deems too experimental. Soon he finds an internet message board full of other angry men who have lost wives and children despite being insured. Doctorow’s stories typically feature citizens using privacy technologies to empower themselves against overreaching corporations and governments, but this story follows a plotline whereby the Tor privacy browser and the dark web enable aggrieved citizens to plan acts of terrorism under the cloak of anonymity.

The collection closes with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a post-apocalyptic dystopian short about a billionaire who builds a doomsday bunker in the wilds of Arizona for his chosen few. The central character is Martin, a decidedly unlikeable protagonist who comes to hold the power of life and death over the people he has taken under his dubious protection when a pandemic strikes. Unwilling to contribute to rebuilding, Martin instead focuses on hoarding and protecting resources, fancying that this makes him a good leader. When I read this story in early February, I had little idea how relevant it would soon feel. The tagline of the collection, “Dystopia is now” could hardly be more accurate.

Overall, the stories are less than subtle, and often fairly didactic. For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Wye gives Salima an impromptu two page tutorial on public-key cryptography while the two women are riding the train. This is a pet issue of Doctorow’s that also feature prominently in his YA novel Little Brother, and if you want to contact him securely, you can find his public key in his Twitter bio.  In “Model Minority,” Lois delivers a two and a half page diatribe about racial bias in predictive policing, which the author even has her acknowledge as such in the text. The only justification for this is that, while didactic, there are certainly people who will find it more palatable to learn these concepts via fiction, which they might not otherwise seek out or consider. However, many science fiction fans will already be thinking about these issues.

After being postponed in March due to COVID-19, the Canada Reads debates began today in a near-empty Toronto studio with host Ali Hassan and defenders Akil Augustine, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel on-site, while George Canyon and Alayna Fender joined via video link from their homes in Calgary and Vancouver respectively. Radicalized was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by host and producer Akil Augustine, who is known for his work with the Toronto Raptors.

Radicalized was unique at the table in being a collection of novellas, facing off against two memoirs and two novels. Augustine seemed to anticipate that this might be an issue for his book, arguing in his opening statement that one singular story cannot tie together all the many necessary perspectives in the way that a collection can. However, this did not prove to be the focus of his opponent’s arguments. Actor Amanda Brugel brought the first critique, pointing out that three of the four stories in Radicalized were told through the perspectives of angry men, while the one woman of colour protagonist seemed less central to her own story than the toaster (see “Unauthorized Bread”). Indeed, the issue of gender became a flashpoint in the debate, with Augustine arguing that the men in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club were not well-written and felt flat to him.

The theme for Canada Reads 2020 is “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and host Ali Hassan’s Day One questions focused on asking the defenders how well their books exemplified that theme, and which book at the table was least successful in their opinion. Once again, the debate quickly homed in on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while the other three books were much less the center of discussion. Skating under the radar on Day One and avoiding an early elimination can be just as critical as a successful defense. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether Radicalized was sufficiently Canadian came up, a common critique in past Canada Reads debates. While Augustine argued that his book helped us to see how the issues we are facing in Canada are part of broader global issues to which we are connected in the modern world, both Alayna Fender and Kaniehtiio Horn argued that the book was not successful at bringing Canada into focus.

When the time came to cast the ballots, the panel split along gender lines, with Akil Augustine and George Canyon voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together against Radicalized, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. Akil Augustine remains at the table as this year’s first free agent.