A Night in the Lonesome October — Roger Zelazny

Cover of A Night in the Lonesome October

A Night in the Lonesome October
Roger Zelazny
280 pages
published in 1993

A Night in the Lonesome October took me all of October to read, not because it was such a long or difficult book, but because I read each chapter on the day it took place. This has been an ancient tradition in online fandom, or at least it was when I was hanging around rec.arts.sf.written in the late nineties (and I see Andrew Wheeler at least remembers this tradition too). It’s an interesting way to read a novel you’d otherwise read in a day or so. It also constituted my (semi) annual allowed read of a new Zelazny novel; I ration my reading of a “new” Zelazny as he’s one of my favourite authors and the supply is after all limited.

A Night in the Lonesome October in fact is the last solo novel he completed before his death two years later. Sadly to say, it’s also one of his few late novels that’s any good, unlike say his collaborations with Robert Sheckley. Like so many other grandmasters Zelazny had declined somewhat in his later years, for a variety of reasons, but A Night in the Lonesome October was a return to form. Witty, well written and with the characteristic inventiveness of Zelazny’s best work; it’s no wonder it became a cult favourite.

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The Dreamblood Duology — N. K. Jemisin

Cover of The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon & The Shadowed Sun
N. K. Jemisin
415/504 pages
published in 2012

Have you ever reached that point where you’ve read twothirds of a fantasy trilogy, quite like the writer but don’t want to read the last novel because it would mean rereading the first two? Yeah, that happened to me with N. K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy, so instead I read her new series, The Dreamblood duology. Both The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun were published in 2012 and can be read as standalones, though you’ll miss a lot of the background if you only read The Shadowed Sun.

One of my ongoing frustrations with fantasy in general is how few novels take their inspiration from anything but medieval Europe. Medievaloid worlds as filtered through Tolkien and his imitators — where you can find pipe smoking peasants eating potoes with their turkey but few people of colour –are a dime a dozen, but books with Egypt as a source of worldbuilding are rare. In fact, The Dreamblood duology is the first series I can remember reading with Egypt as the inspiration for its setting, polytheism, annual flooding river surrounded by desert, powersharing between the priesthood and nominal god-king and all. What’s more, Jemisin was also inspired by Egypt’s historical relationship with Kush, the kingdom to the south of it in what’s now Sudan, who shared its culture and at times actually ruled it. In short, this is one fantasy in which pale Northern European heroes are in short supply.

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Styx — Bavo Dhooge

Cover of Styx

Bavo Dhooge
295 pages
published in 2014

I hadn’t heard of Bavo Dhooge before I saw this book spotlighted in the Amsterdam public Library in their new additions section, near to where you hand in your borrowed books. It was the cover blurb saying that this was going to published in America that drew me to it and the back cover blurb that sold me on it. Raphaël Styx, a corrupt and aggressive chief inspector in the Oostende police, is chasing a notorious serial killer, the Stuffer, who murders young women, takes out their organs and stuffs the bodies full of sand. So far, so predictable, but then it comes to a confrontation between Styx and the Stuffer and Styx is killed … only to raise the next day as a zombie cop. Now he has to trust his successor, the Congolese-Belgium dandy Joachim Delacroix, to help him bring the Stuffer to justice.

Zombie cop taking revenge on his killer is not a concept I’d seen before, though John Meaney’s Bone Song is set up along similar lines. That on it’s own was good enough to take a punt on, with the icing on the cake being the setting. Oostende is one of Belgium’s grand old seaside resorts, being the favourite haunts of its first two kings, but having declined a lot in the second half of the 20th century. It also was the centre of Belgian surrealism, something that turns out to be important in Styx.

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Ter Ziele — Esther Scherpenisse

Cover of Ter Ziele

Ter Ziele
Esther Scherpenisse
93 pages
published in 2014

Esther Scherpenisse is an up and coming Dutch fantasy writer, whose debut “Het prismaproject” in 2005 won the Paul Harland Prize in the best new writer category. Last year she managed to win the Paul Harland Prize again, but now for overall best story with “Ter Ziele”. For those unfamiliar with it, the Paul Harland Prize is an annual open competition for Dutch language science fiction, fantasy and horror stories; past winners include Thomas Olde Heuvelt, who went on to get two Hugo nominations this year and last. That last story is now available electronically as a chapbook, together with another of her short stories, “In de Mist”. That’s one of the advantages of ebooks, that you can publish chapbooks for a reasonable price rather than as expensive collectables, ideal to sample a new author.

Which is why I bought it yesterday after Esther tweeted that it was available. I’m still finding my way through the Dutch fantastika landscape after decades of not paying anything that didn’t come out in English. When I started investigating, Esther was one of the writers who had a critical buzz going for them and judging by the two stories here, that buzz is justified. These are well written stories that are as good as any published in English and I hope these will be translated sooner rather than later.

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Otherbound — Corinne Duyvis

Cover of Otherbound

Corinne Duyvis
387 pages
published in 2014

It was thanks to The SKiffy and Fanty Show that I got to know about Dutch author Corinne Duyvis and her début novel Otherbound, when they had an interview with her about her book. This interview intrigued me enough to buy the ebook and start reading it immediately, because Duyvis was saying smart things about diversity and disability; it also helped that in the Dutch SF round table was raving about this book. And they were right to. This is a smart, well written fantasy novel with a clever, original idea at the heart of it that deserves to be a huge success.

Nolan would be just a normal high school kid, where it not for his crippling epileptic seizures. Amara is a servant girl, her only job to keep the fugitive princess Cilla safe, functioning as the lightning rod for the princess’ curse. Any drop of her blood spilled will attract the world’s vengeance on her, so instead Amara has to draw the curse to her, because she has a healing power that will allow the curse to do its worst and still leave her alive. As a side effect of her “gift”, Nolan was dragged into her world, her mind, seeing and experiencing Amara’s life every time he closes his eyes, every time he blinks. So when Cilla’s protector and Amara’s overseer, Jorn, punishes Amara for her neglicence by thrusting her arms into a fire, Nolan feels the pain alongside her. It’s this what’s really behind his epilepsy, this loss of control as he’s sucked into Amara’s world and can’t pay attention to his own.

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The Mirror Empire — Kameron Hurley

Cover of The Mirror Empire

The Mirror Empire
Kameron Hurley
540 pages
published in 2014

Kameron Hurley’s debut novel Gods War had an impact many other writers would envy her for, only equalled by the buzz generated by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice last year. It wasn’t just an accomplished debut novel, it also helped revitalise science fiction at a time when it started to grow a bit stale again. Expectations are therefore high for Hurley’s new novel, The Mirror Empire, the first in a new series and the first fantasy novel she has published. Would it be as good and inventive as her previous series, would she be as good at writing fantasy as science fiction?

Halfway through Mirror Empire I finally realised what it reminded me off: Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. Not so much in setting or plot, but rather in complexity and willingness of both authors to throw all sorts of interesting ideas into their novels, ideas you may not expect in what at first glance seems to be a standard epic fantasy series. Where they differ is that Hurley is much better at inclueing the reader about who all these people are and how everything fits together, where Erikson had a magnificent disdain for the reading, leaving them to sink or swim on their own. Hurley is … more forgiving but still requires you to pay attention. This is not a novel to read with your brain in standby.

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Why not have a Eurovision Science Fiction Contest?

Over at Europa SF, Dutch writer and critic Peter Kaptein explores the possibility of a pan-European organisation/movement for the fantastic in its broadest form:

We are not just writers

I do not believe in an European Writers Association. I don’t believe in a movement that focuses on only one aspect of our branch of art.

I do believe in an European Speculative Arts Association (or European Fantastika Creators or European Creators of Fantastika Association as it might be called).

Because we are more than just writers. We are also scholars, movie makers, animators, comic book artists, illustrators, sculptors, street artists, musicians, theatre makers and festival organizers.

We should not cut off the many possibilities for collaboration that can propel European SF, Fantasy and Horror to creative heights far beyond what the American and British market have reached until now.

What Kaptein is proposing is a way to structure and strengthen the ties between the various national science fiction/fantasy scenes throughout Europe without necessarily assimilating them into the Anglo-American juggernaut. What we have currently is that each country is influenced by what happens in English language science fiction, be it movies, novels, computer games or whatever, that a few writers and other creators get translated and assimilated, but that cross pollination between local European scenes is rare: both Belgian and Bulgarian writers are influenced by the American or British writers they read, but they don’t influence each other.

At the same time, while the Anglo-American science fiction world is becoming more open to outside influences, it’s still a process in which selected writers “break through” and become part of that world, but there isn’t yet a systemic interchange of ideas and influences, certainly not on any basis of equality. Projects like Clarkesworld’s Chinese science fiction translation project help a bit, but aren’t nearly enough to redress the balance.

So it makes sense to look for ways in which we can create a truly international, pan-European form of science fiction, where Polish writers are read in France and are inspired by the work of artists from Spain who in turn admire the radical works of Croatian film makers. How to go about this though? Do we need some sort of international organisation, something akin to an European SFWA but broader, as Kaptein is looking for?

Perhaps. There’s already the European Science Fiction Society, which organises Eurocons and the European science fiction awards, but that’s more rooted in fandom; it’s mission could be extended if the will is there. Perhaps we need a more European way of recognising worthwhile authors and other creators in foreign languages, perhaps we need a Eurovision Science Fiction Contest instead. Imagine having e.g. short stories from every country in Europe compete with each other, voted on by fans all over the continent. Wouldn’t it be great to discover Polish or Romanian authors that way?

Ironically, in whatever way we want to strengthen and create a truly pan-European science fiction scene, we will remain dependent on English in order for Dutch fans to be able to communicate with e.g. Greek ones (or indeed, considering both Kaptein and I are Dutch, each other). Like it or not, English is and will remain the lingua franca of the speculative fiction community. Not there’s anything wrong with that, as long as we non-native speakers also get a chance to have our say…

Should the WFA use Butler instead of Lovecraft?

I understand the impulse behind this petition, but I don’t understand the need to replace H. P. Lovecraft with Octavia Butler:

Octavia Butler contributed a rich, nuanced, complex body of work during her lifetime. Her novels, essays and short stories changed the entire genre of speculative fiction by complicating our notions of power, race and gender. Her characters were vivid and deeply human and her prose was sharp. She wrote masterfully across the imaginative genres, from science fiction to historical fantasy to horror.

While HP Lovecraft, whose head the current award is modeled after, did leave a lasting mark on speculative fiction, he was also an avowed racist and a terrible wordsmith. Many writers have spoken out about their discomfort with winning an award that lauds someone with such hideous opinions, most notably Nnedi Okorafor. It’s time to stop co-signing his bigotry and move sci-fi/fantasy out of the past.

What strikes me here, as it did Nick Mamatas, who spent some time refuting it, is the gratitious dig at Lovecraft’s writing, which is irrelevant to the purpose of the petition. That Lovecraft was a racist and that his racism was often integral to his stories should be enough; his writing qualities do not enter into it.

It also strikes me as odd to propose Octavia Butler as a replacement. She was a science fiction writer, not a fantasy writer. Just because she’s about the only deceased, prominent black science fiction or fantasy writer people actually know doesn’t make her suitable as figurehead for this particular award. It’s not as if science fiction has no awards named after horrible racists that could do with a bit of a cleanup, frex both the Campbell awards, named after an editior whose racism shaped science fiction far more and for far longer than Lovecraft’s ever did.

Blood Trail — Tanya Huff

Cover of Blood Trail

Blood Trail
Tanya Huff
304 pages
published in 1992

What do you call urban fantasy when it moves to the countryside? Because that’s what happens in Blood Trail as Vicky Nelson, ex police officer turned private dick and her vampire partner Henry Fitzroy trade the familiarity of Toronto for the charming wonders of the Canadian countryside. Vicky had met Fitzroy in the first novel of the Blood series, Blood Price, now in the second — as seems to be de rigeour in urban fantasy — she gets involved with werewolves. But these aren’t your average, shirt ripping, feauding with vampires werewolves: these are sheepfarmer werewolves, leading a quiet existence near London, Ontario, just another Dutch-Canadian family. Until somebody starts killing them, somebody who seems to know that they’re werewolves.

Which is when they call Henry Fitzroy, who first met the Heerkens wolf clan during WWII, when he was a member of the British secret service and they were in the Dutch resistance. Because the wer could obviously not involve the police without their secret getting known and since they’re mistrustful of outsiders anyway, Henry was their only option. And Henry of course in turn wanted Vicky to come along and use her investigative talents. Meanwhile, back in Toronto detective Mike Celluci, Vicky’s ex-colleague and still occasional love interest is convinced Henry is hiding something. Of course not knowning he’s a vampire, it may just be jealousy that’s driving his investigation…

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Hugo Awards: Best Fan Writer

Oh boy this is a hard category. Some very deserving people have been nominated this year, many of whom I’d already been following. This is another category in which whoever it wins will have deserved it, though I still have opinions. One of which is that we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the ballot is 4/5ths female, as in my experience most of the interesting voices last year were female, some of which, but by no means all, represented here. At least two of the nominees (Hurley and Meadows) have been involved in driving the debate about gender, harassment and feminism in science fiction fandom and it’s good to see this rewarded.

  1. Kameron Hurley is one of those wretched pros slumming in fandom and some nitwit will surely raise an outcry if she’s nominated, but she deserves to win this category if only for we have always fought.
  2. Abigail Nussbaum is perhaps the best, most incisive critic and reviewer in science fiction today.
  3. Foz Meadows, like Kameron Hurley, has written a lot about feminism and sexism in fandom as well as reviewing all sorts of science fiction, written or otherwise. It’s telling of how serious an issue sexism in fandom was and still is that top ten posts of 2013 are devoted to it.
  4. Liz Bourke is another great critic/reviewer for Tor.com and Strange Horizons; I tend to run across her reviews when writing my own.
  5. Mark Oshiro does readings/reviews of sf and fantasy books. What he does, he does very well, but I still think he’s the weakest of the nominees, though it’s a tight race

So yeah, all of these are people worth following.