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Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2019, 283 p. Published in Interzone 282, Jul-Aug 2019.

 Beneath the World, A Sea cover

“The ground of one world is the sky of the world below” runs one of the myths and legends of the Submundo Delta, the most inaccessible place on Earth, the Delta Beneath the World. A place of magenta trees with spiral leaves and flowers with bright pink mouths, overhung by a huge sun and moon as if inside a magnifying bubble, and not really below the outside world, it can be accessed only from South America via a long boat trip on the (perhaps too obviously named) River Lethe, passing through the Zona de Ovido, the Zone of Forgetfulness, all memories of which disappear the moment you leave it. The Delta has no radio communication with elsewhere, aeroplanes which try to penetrate its airspace all crash.

Such a cut-off world is a staple of fantastical fiction of course – fairyland, hollow hills, parallel worlds, alien planets and so on – but Beckett’s vision is a fresh take on the sub-genre even if the Delta is a slightly recycled though embellished version of the Caramel Forest of the planet Lutania in the same author’s collection The Peacock Cloak.

The Delta’s local human inhabitants are called Mundinos, and are descended from a group tricked into going there by a Baron Valente in the semi-distant past, long enough ago for them to have developed their own gods in the benign Iya, whose idol adorns every Mundino household, and the less indulgent Boca. More recent incomers are scientists and adventurers or hippie types plus the odd business man on the lookout for profitable exploitation.

Following a UN decree that a Delta life-form known as duendes, grey long-limbed, frog-like flaccid creatures with black button eyes, (somewhat reminiscent of the goblins of Lutania’s Caramel Forest) and which may be the offspring of trees – with which they perhaps form a single dimorphic species – are ‘persons’ entitled to the protection of the law, police Inspector Ben Ronson has been delegated from London to investigate their endemic killing by Mundinos. Duendes can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds, “‘Things already inside your head ….. become as powerful as things you normally choose to focus on,’” and build enigmatic structures called castelos. Despite their persecution the duendes keep intruding on Mundinos’ space.

What makes all this SF rather than fantasy is the attempt at scientific rationale. “‘There’s no DNA equivalent. No ‘animals’ or ‘plants’ in the delta,’” Ronson is told. “It seemed to him that it was just about possible to imagine that a completely different form of life might not only have a different chemistry and different anatomy, but might even involve the mind-stuff itself being configured in some manner unfamiliar to human beings,” while, “‘the trees and the harts and the duendes and so on aren’t competing against each other … any more than our blood cells are competing against our bone cells,’” but quite why the story is set in nineteen ninety is not clear. The Delta is obviously not quite of this world, making the tale an alternative history does not add to that.

Beckett also undercuts expectations. Despite the set-up what we have here is not a police procedural, nor a straightforward crime novel with a clear-cut resolution, nor indeed an action adventure. The author is more interested in the psychological aspects of isolation, the effect a strange environment has on human behaviour and particularly the influence the Zona might have on motivations and actions. Ronson is almost paralysed by the thought of what he might have done during those four days he cannot remember but is reluctant to consult the notebooks he compiled while in transit.

There are faint echoes here of other odd worlds, perhaps even a nod to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a touch of Ballard in the detachment of many of the characters. We do not have the complete isolation that applied to the inhabitants of Beckett’s Dark Eden, nor the genetic paucity of that environment, and the existence of the duendes adds a distinctive flavour but at the end the nature of the enigma they represent is not unravelled. Perhaps Beckett intends to return to the Delta.

That might be a misstep, though. Beneath the World, A Sea is not really concerned with its backdrop. Instead it uses that backdrop to question how much a person can know of him- or her- self. While not in the highest rank – the characters indulge in too much self-examination for that – like all the best fiction it explores the nature of humanity.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “whose contents, she learnt, turned yellow and shrank as it dried” (as they dried.) “Their only child, wherever she went inside the house, she was surrounded by” (that second comma distorts the meaning and should be removed,) outside of (outside, just outside, no ‘of’,) “before continuing towards to the west” (either “towards” or “to”, not both,) “a posse of men and woman” (it’s possible only one woman was involved but it reads oddly,) “for hundreds of millions of year” (years,) automatons (automata,) “‘take it out in the duendes’” (on the duendes,) ambiance (ambience,) a tendency to use ‘her’ and ‘him’ where ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more grammatical, “for goodness’ sake” (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be goodness’s, best to leave it out altogether,) “‘she’ll always being able to support herself’” (always be able.) “There were also a number of” (there was a number,) “all the holes on the ground” (in the ground,) “‘a range of tawdry attractions are duly provided for them’” (a range of tawdry attractions is duly provided,) epicentre (centre,) “cheer fully” (was split over two lines without the necessary hyphen when “cheerfully” was meant,) “‘to see if Rico’s turned up If you run into him’” (needs a full stop after “up,”) “three young woman were smoking” (women,) engrained (ingrained.) “He had a mango in there He’d bought at the last village” (No capital H after “there”, ‘he’d bought’.)

For Interzone 288: Hope Island

 Hope Island cover

My latest book to review for Interzone will be Hope Island by Tim Major.

I read his previous novel Snakeskins earlier this year.

I must admit to being surprised when the book fell on the doormat this morning. The list of possible review books for Iz 288 was only sent out a couple of days ago. I’ll get onto it as soon as possible.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, 2019 , 485 p. Published in Interzone 282, May-Jun 2019.

 The City in the Middle of the Night cover

We start with a “Translator’s Note” telling us terms have been rendered into Peak English. This both frames the narrative and explains the use of “archaic Earth terms” for alien creatures and the recognisability of characters’ names.

The story itself takes place on January, a planet tide-locked to its star. Its human occupants, who still regard the arrangements on the Mother Ship that brought them there as significant, inhabit the narrow band between scorching Day and freezing Night (wherein monsters lurk.) The ship’s technology that at first sustained them has long been failing though and there are signs the environment is beginning to collapse – corrosive alkaline rain, sudden tornados. The novel’s events are situated mainly in Xiosphant – a repressive rules-based city, “nothing in this city is ever supposed to change” – and Argelo, which is much looser in organization and attitudes (“the city that never sleeps,”) with some scenes in the wildernesses between. Within the book’s seven parts alternate chapters see events from the first person, present tense viewpoint of Sophie, a would-be revolutionary in Xiosphant, and the third person, past tense perspective of Mouth, who thinks she is the last survivor of a society of Travellers known as the Citizens and is lately a member of a band of smugglers calling themselves the Resourceful Couriers, so knows the ways between the cities.

Sophie takes the blame for a theft by Bianca, her friend for whom it is obvious to the reader (though not spelled out in the narrative till near the end) she has deep feelings. As punishment, Xiosphant’s Police Force ejects Sophie from the city into the night to die. A strange encounter with a creature known to January’s humans as a crocodile (though its physical characteristics are very different from that Earth animal) saves her. During this she is somehow enabled to see the creature’s memories, including one of a complex city situated somewhere out in the night.

Mouth is exercised by the destruction of the Citizens, which she witnessed from a distance, especially since it was before they could bestow a name on her. Her attempt to secure their book of customs from Xiosphant’s Palace coincides with the failure of the revolutionaries’ take-over. She, Sophie, Bianca and others have to flee across the Sea of Murder to reach Argelo. This involves curiously cursory action scenes accompanied by extended, and hence unconvincing, dialogue. Sophie’s connection to the crocodiles (whom she names the Gelet) helps save most of them and she receives a bracelet which thereafter keeps drawing her to the night and the Gelet.

The contrast between life in Xiosphant and Argelo is marked but Mouth learns more of her background from a former Citizen, Barnabas, who left the group after achieving enlightenment, “‘The point of religion is to keep trying to reach someplace, the last thing you want is for someone to feel like they’ve reached it.’”

As far as the Science-Fictional meat of all this goes Sophie and Mouth eventually do arrive at the city in the middle of the night – but not until almost four-fifths of the way through the book. In the city they learn of the importance of the Gelet to January’s bio-friendliness – not just from transmitted memories but from a recording left by one of January’s earliest humans, “‘These natives seem to regard geoengineering and bioengineering as two branches of the same discipline.’” A tidal-locked planet would require an air-conditioning system to circulate hot air from the near side to the far side to avoid weather instability and atmospheric disruption. “‘These creatures seem to have created something better, using networked chains of flora and fauna.’” Also revealed is the crucial role the useful substance, known to the Citizens as nightfire since it glowed in the dark, played in stabilising the planet’s biosphere and in the Citizens’ demise. The Gelet’s interest in Sophie is to use her as a bridge between civilisations. She willingly accepts the sacrifice required.

A thought that speaks perhaps to the twenty-first century reader’s awareness is, “‘Progress requires us to curate the past, to remove from history things that aren’t ‘constructive.’ I don’t know if our power to forget makes humans stronger, more self-destructive, or maybe both.’”

The novel starts off intriguingly but it becomes clearer as we go on that the author’s interest is not so much in her imagined world, or her plot, as in the societies and interactions she is depicting – good stuff, but lacking something in urgency. And the book doesn’t so much end as just stop. Perhaps, at a touch under 500 pages, Anders decided she had delighted us long enough.

The following did not appear in the published review:
The sentence, “Here’s what Mouth learned about Sasha from eavesdropping,” ought to have been removed by a decent editing process.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian. Otherwise; “something makes me stop and examine closer” (examine more closely,) “I notice someone who seems out of place … They turn their head” (‘someone’ is singular, therefore not ‘they’, in this case ‘she turns her head’,) “now a few s cattered memories” (a few scattered memories,) “a group of students … argue about” (a group argues.) “‘He’s been making a fortune speculating on sour cherries’” (‘speculating in’ something might lead to a fortune, ‘speculating on’ it is just wool-gathering,) “a group of musicians hunch” (a group hunches.) “‘We lay there’” (We lie there; elsewhere Anders shows she does know the difference between lay and lie,) “open maw” (it’s not a mouth!) “their heads almost exploded” (used once, this phrase for an eye-opening experience appears fresh and striking; used again, not so much,) “‘I don’t even know if any Gelet ever want to meet me again’” (if any Gelet ever wants to meet me.) A chapter begins, “Ignore the buzzing from my right wrist, and I take Bianca’s wrist,” (‘I ignore’ makes more sense. This typo probably occurred because the first word of a chapter is always in a much larger font size than the others,) envelopes (envelops,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) “which stunk just as much as she’d expected” (stank.)

Issue 287 of Interzone

The latest issue of Interzone arrived today. Number 287. It has a great wraparound cover:-

Interzone 287 cover

This is the one which contains my reviews of The City We Became by N K Jemisin and Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards.

I note that one story inside is titled Make America Great Again. Hmmm.

2020 Hugo Awards Shortlists

The shortlists for this year’s Hugo Awards have been announced. Amazingly I have actually read some of these (the ones in bold the one also in italics as an extract only, in the BSFA Awards 2019 booklet) – partly due to Interzone, but also becasue I read Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation towards the end of last year.

Since the Worldcon (at which these awards are presented) which was to take place in New Zealand has been cancelled for attendees I assume the ceremony will now have to be virtual, as will the con itself.

The nominations are:-

Best Novel

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)

Best Novella

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))
The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga Press/Gallery)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Saga Press; Jo Fletcher Books)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)

Best Novelette

“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, April 2019)
“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine: Disabled People Destroy Fantasy Special Issue, September/October 2019)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, July-August 2019)
Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (Forward Collection (Amazon))
“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, 10 July 2019)
“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))

Best Short Story

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, 9 September 2019)
“As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang (Tor.com, 23 October 2019)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, 24 July 2019)
“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2019)
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2019)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, May 2019)

Best Series

The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
InCryptid, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Luna, by Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
Planetfall series, by Emma Newman (Ace; Gollancz)
Winternight Trilogy, by Katherine Arden (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
The Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

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

Jo Fletcher Books, 2019, 203 p. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 This is How You Lose the Time War cover

On behalf of the Agency, Red travels upthread into the past and downthread to the future to effect changes in the different Strands of the worlds, (“so many Atlantises,”) waging an eternal time war against Garden, tweaking conditions here, ensuring individuals thrive there, so that they may be in a position to affect history in the Agency’s favour.

At the end of one such mission Red finds a letter which should not be there and on which is inscribed the instruction, “burn before reading.” Despite knowing that it is a trap designed perhaps to kill her, to convert her to the other side, or to compromise her with her own, she decides to comply with the instruction and reads the message. It is from her adversary, Blue; an acknowledgement of her part in making Blue raise her own game, an expression of admiration, a declaration of inevitable victory. Red responds with a letter of her own.

So begins a long correspondence achieved through an increasingly bizarre series of dead drops in which the two agents’ regard for one another deepens and grows into something else.

The book’s narrative is carried via sequences describing Red’s and Blue’s endeavours to change different strands’ histories, each followed by the contents of a letter written to one by the other. Only in one instance is this strict authorial practice not followed and that is where Blue’s letter is encoded in six seeds but Red only swallows three of them and so only gets part of the whole message. (This makes sense in the context of the novel.) Their letters are studded with recommendations, allusions and digressions and embellished by postscripts, PPS’s and even at times PPPS’s.

In all but the first (and the three ante-penultimate) non-epistolary sections the reader is vouchsafed a line or two at the end wherein a seeker manages to reconstitute the letter we are about to read for ourselves. Red becomes aware of this pursuer and is continually looking over her shoulder to see if she can catch her shadower and therefore also wary of contact with her Commandant in case she is suspected of treason. So too, Blue with Garden.
The deployment of various Science Fiction tropes is essential to the novel’s overall effect but to begin with they are merely there, as a kind of exotic background; none of the strands or missions is explored in any detail, there is no mechanism ascribed to the ability to travel in time, Red and Blue are just able to do it. Up to its denouement the plot could have been akin, say, to the jockeyings of John le Carré’s Smiley and Karla but its resolution and the identity of the mysterious seeker are thoroughly dependent on the story’s premise.

All this is laced with the occasional piece of sly humour – a group of participants at the assassination of Julius Caesar (or, rather, a Julius Caesar) seems to consist entirely of agents known to Red – and allusions such as “hoarse Trojans” and “across half a dozen strands, of mice, of men, plans, canals, Panama.” Add in references to Ozymandias, Mrs Leavitt’s Guide to Etiquette and Correspondence, Bess of Hardwick and an exhortation by Blue to Red for her to read Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (of which we are later given a short critique) and the reading experience becomes a rich one. The letters are a particular delight. Necessarily so, for they are the narrative’s focus, the means by which we come to understand and appreciate the relationship between Red and Blue, and their mutual goals.

This is a book which eschews the flash, bang, wallop of much of the modern SF genre, containing SF of an enquiring and knowing kind, yet playful with it. Discursive, though relatively short, it is still economic, packing a lot into its 199 pages. It deserves a wide audience.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:-“knew one other” (one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres,) “it amuses Blue to no end” (that would mean ‘without purpose’; ‘it amuses Blue no end’ is the phrase required.) “Adaption is the price of victory” (Adaptation is the..,) “colour” but “humor” (does one of the authors use USian spellings while the other doesn’t?) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) proboscides (it is the Greek plural of proboscis – the ‘English’ plural is proboscises – but I’ve only ever seen probosces before. Apparently that has a specialised use in biology.)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2019

British Science Fiction Association, 2020, 72 p.

 BSFA Awards 2019 cover

Four of the six “stories” in the short fiction category are extracts from longer works.
The first To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers1 is couched in the form of a report from one of the first human expeditions to an exoplanet back to an Earth fourteen light-years distant. There are some aspects of Chambers’s writing which have improved since I read her first novel but still in evidence here was that impulse to dump unnecessary information. For example, why give us an account of the (Earthly) life cycle of a metamorphic insect? By all means mention it; but to expound on the detail? Similarly authors ought to avoid formulations like, “If enzyme patches are still used medically, you know this already,” providing the example of an insulin patch for diabetics. On reading this I had the thought that Chambers is either still writing amateur fiction or else writing Science Fiction for people who don’t read Science Fiction.
Jolene by Fiona Moore2 I read in Interzone 283.
Ragged Alice by Gareth L Powell3 is again an extract. Set on the west coast of Wales we are following the investigation of female detective Holly Craig who has the ability to see people’s inner light, or darkness. This deals with information dumping much more subtly and more naturally than did Becky Chambers.
The Survival of Molly Southborne by Tade Thompson (an extract again) is one of those “many lives” narratives which have become common. Here drops from Molly Southborne’s blood can generate genetically identical duplicates of her. These usually turn on her and try to kill her. The story is narrated by the last one, whom Molly has trained to survive her own death in a fire.
For Your Own Good by Ian Whates4 is about a man who has spent his life working towards AI rights waking up in different virtual realities. The moment when his car’s AI adds a vocative, “Dave,” to its sentence when first addressing him is chillingly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also acts as a foreshadowing emphasised by its later phrase, “‘It’s for your own good, Dave.’”
I read This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone5 for review in Interzone 283 (see link above.) I don’t usually post those reviews here till a year has gone by but will make an exception in this case in my next post. Suffice to say I thought it was excellent.

As to the non-fiction:-
In Chapter 6 of “The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein” by Farah Mendlesohn (reprinted here) the author argues that Heinlein’s support of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment’s ‘right to bear arms’ is, as evidenced by his fiction, more nuanced than people usually allow, as such carrying is shown as being almost useless.
The introduction to “Sideways in time: Critical Essays on Alternate History” by Glyn Morgan and C Palmer-Patela featured here says the form is not merely a sub-genre of SF, illustrates its long history distinguishes between the counterfactual (academically accepted,) and fiction and outlines three different kinds of altered history stories, the nexus, the true altered history and the parallel worlds story.
The extract from “About Writing” by Gareth L Powell boils down to ‘just do it’.
H G Wells: A Literary Life by Adam Roberts looks in detail at Wells’s A Modern Utopia.
Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit by Jo Lindsay-Waltonb discusses the role of work in Star Trek’s post-scarcity utopia.

I won’t get round to the two novels I’ve not yet read and I’m not too enthused about any of the art works nominated this year.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“The closest access I had to nature were the hydroponic planters” (closest access … was the …,) “soft-ware … neighbour-hood” (why the hyphens?) “How can anyone be expected to care about the questions of worlds above when the questions of the world you’re stuck on those most vital criteria of home and heath and safety – remain unanswered?” (needs a comma after ‘stuck on’.) “It didn’t matter where you from” (where you were from.) 2This has the sort of underlining used in manuscripts to denote when a word is to appear in italics in the final version, “to lay over top of it” (over the tp of it,) it’s set in Britain and narrated by a Brit so why the use of ‘pickup’ for a truck and ‘veterinarian’ for a vet? 3whiskey (it was a single malt, so, whisky. The second time ‘whiskey’ appeared may have been referring to Jack Daniel’s, so I’ll let it off,) “he tended to avoid the alcoholic binges which tended to follow team matches” (one ‘tended’ too many inside the space of eight words,) the text also mentions “a recently laid-off teacher” (such a teacher would have to have done something major to have been dismissed, lay-offs are highly unusual.) 4Ballearics (Balearics,) sprung (sprang.) “‘Humankind will be made aware of how far beyond them we are,’” (how far beyond it we are.) “‘Humanity must believe they can continue to trust us,’” (believe it can continue to trust us.) 5“knew one other” (knew one another,) “fleeing with child” (with a child,) centimeters (centimetres.)
aascendency (ascendancy.) b“That is is” (only one ‘is’ required,) “making a Data a slave” (making Data a slave,) Keynes’ (x7, Keynes’s,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s – used later,) “becomes freighted cognitive and emotional significance” (is missing a ‘with’ before cognitive.)

Two More From Interzone

 Echo Cycle cover
 The City We Became   cover

Thursday’s post brought two more goodies from Interzone. (Well I hope they’re goodies.)

The first was The City We Became by N K Jemisin. Jemisin won the Hugo Award for best novel three times in a row with the components of her Broken Earth series of books.

The second is from a writer new to me, Patrick Edwards. His novel is titled Echo Cycle. The reviews ought to appear in issue 287.

Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020

TTA Press, 96 p.

Interzone 285 cover

Guest Editorial this time is taken by Andy Dudak (who has a story elsewhere in the issue) and he relates how his experience as a translator and reader of translated fiction has affected his own.
Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted investigates how SF/fantasy/weird writers are responding to the greed, corruption and flagrant abuse of power in the modern-day world. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories ranges over theme-park rides, maps and films as well as books in contemplating how transporting a story can be and how it’s never the same on each subsequent experience of it.
Book Zone starts with my reviews of Aliya Whiteley’s Skein Island and Menace from Farsidea by Ian McDonald. I had some minor reservations about the first but none about the second. John Howardb finds the collection of essays on altered History stories Sideways in Time edited by Glyn Morgan and C Palmer-Patel brisk, lively and illuminating. Maureen Kincaid Spellerc welcomes the “long-needed biography” that is John Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns, which increased her respect for the man and his writing. Stephen Theaker says Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock is interesting and thoughtful, keeping readers engaged throughout, and the review is followed by an interview with the author. Andy Hedgecockd lauds The Crying Machine by Greg Chivers as an entertaining romp with an unexpected degree of thematic complexity, flawed but promising.

In the fiction:
Each Cell a Throne1 by Gregor Hartmann contains a fair bit of intrusive information dumping. The story concerns an off-duty cop who has been hired to persuade an old man not to let his personality be uploaded into a datasphere.
Flyover Country2 by Julie C Day is a love story in which the caretaker of an extremely little used airfield falls for one of the operatives of the firm AeroFix (which to British eyes looks very like a miniature modelling kit manufacturer,) which sprays cures for logic illnesses.
In Frankie3 by Daniel Bennett the titular character never appears though some of the posts from his popular website, written as reflections on his terminal illness and which always end in -ah death followed by the date, do. His brother has come back from the front in the (unspecified) country’s ongoing war to visit the shack where they lived in their youth. The shack is now all-but besieged by Frankie’s followers.
Since the expansion of the universe is caused by it being observed, a millennium ago all humans bar those travelling through space were turned inward (frozen in time) by aliens in Salvage4 by Andy Dudak. Aristy Safewither is a soul salvager, illegally extracting the thoughts of the frozen on the planet New Ce. This all gets mixed up with the tale of the planet’s dictator at the time of turning inward.
The Dead Man’s Coffee5 by John Possidente is an odd piece where a journalist on a small space habitat learns (at least second-hand) from a conversation in a coffee bar about a planet where photovores – humans who can photosynthsesise – fall foul of a mandatory fasting-during-day-time rule.

Pedant’s corner- a“is a novella is set in a” (quite where that extraneous ‘is’ crept in I have no idea. I have checked all three files in which I keep my Iz reviews [the original, the one for sending and the one where I stack them to be posted here] and it appears in none of them.) bAldiss’ (Aldiss’s,) “silences and onmissions that … marginalises many” (marginalise – it was a quote from the original text though,) Sales’ (Sales’s.) cParkes’ (Parkes’s,) Binns’ (Binns’s.) dChivers’ (Chivers’s.)
1Written in USian. 2convey (convoy,) “both stylus and table” (stylus and tablet.) 3None of us have the time (none of us has the time.) 4personal affects (effects,) “opened hellish geothermal maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.) 5Written in USian.

The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan

Hodder and Stoughton, 2019, 407 p. Published in Interzone 280, Mar-Apr 2019

 The Orphanage of Gods cover

The first thing to be said of this novel is that Coggan writes well. She has an eye for character and plot, and builds layer on layer of complication and betrayal. Don’t expect to see much of the titular orphanage however, as it is offstage for most of the book, though it does provide the setting for a final confrontation.

In this world some humans, called gods, have developed strange abilities, known as demesnes. One of the demesnes, of which gods may have one or several, is premonition. But, ‘Premonitions are evil, sneaky things. They leave out the important stuff.’ It is not only in that where godhood seems a diffuse and random attribute, handy for story-telling though it may be.

These gods became feared and were overthrown in a revolution 20 years before the events of the novel, the remnants being persecuted or forced into hiding. Any foundling children since then have been suspect and kept in the orphanage at Amareth under the watchful eye of the Guard till eighteen years after they were found, when they are tested. Godhood shows up in blood which has a silvery appearance, but not until a child matures. Some orphans manage to hide their demesne till test day but others’ powers manifest themselves before they can hide them. Those discovered are said to be taken north to a place named Elida.

Narrator Hero, plus Joshua and Kestrel, were allocated to a triple room in the orphanage. Hero is a healer and can sense heartbeats, Joshua can manipulate light and heat. Kestrel is a normal human but loves Joshua (and also Hero as a sister.) We take up the story with Hero and Joshua escaped from the orphanage – the first ever to do so – but only because Kestrel sacrificed her own freedom in the process. Hero is trying to keep Joshua safe so that they can make their way north in order to rescue Kestrel from where the Guard has surely taken her – to Elida, as bait. The book’s first scene is set in a disused tavern, but the Guard has patrol cars complete with sirens and tyres, which makes that word seem an archaic choice. But it is in keeping with the rest of the world here which, barring the patrol cars and a powered boat, is mostly non-technological, presumably regressed, though this is not really spelled out.

Hero refers to herself as a half-breed, though since she actually has a demesne the distinction is so fine as to be useless. In an encounter in the dark with a Guard patrol, with Joshua hiding, one of them cuts her and drinks her blood, failing to recognise its taste as godly. (Blood will saturate this book.) She and Joshua are free to travel onwards, meeting suspicion and horror in a village called Seabourne and an offshoot resistance group whose help they spurn.

For other authors the quest for Kestrel would have taken up most of the tale but Coggan has more for us. The tower in which other gods, and Kestrel, are held in Elida is a dark and ominous place, the activities the Guard carries on there hideous. Hero and Joshua finally penetrate the tower and effect the rescue but only by jumping from its highest point into the sea, which breaks Kestrel’s neck. Gaining land, they are surrounded by the Guard but saved by the resistance group, one of whom can teleport – others as well as himself.

Narration duties then devolve to Raven, a child god whose demesne is shape-shifting. Her innocence is intended to be the key to reconciling normal humans with gods. The resistance group’s leader, Cairn, calls her mala kralovna. (Slovak for ‘be queen’ I discovered.) Raven is as yet too young for her assigned role, though desperate to take part in actions against the Guard. Before the group makes contact with the bulk of the resistance both Cairn and Joshua are captured by the Guard.

The book’s final, longest, section is narrated by Kestrel, healed by dint of Hero’s power. The resistance leader, Anthony Abernathy, turns out to be less than enthused by the prospect of Raven as a saviour. Joshua’s return shows he has been made mad by his experiences, as, in effect, is Anthony when the Guard discovers the camp and overruns it. The methods he then resorts to in revenge are no better than his opponents.

The book is riddled with violence as well as blood but does emphasise that, once wielded, power is difficult to eschew. Godly powers possibly the more so.

One factor about dark fantasy such as this never fails to puzzle me. Why does it always have to be blood? Granted here Coggan provides a rationale of sorts, but it is usually pretty thin stuff.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Throughout, the Guard and the resistance are treated as plural. Otherwise; despite the orphanage’s inmates being given triple rooms Hero tells us she one night went to that of another inmate who seems to be alone there. “When the first generation of gods were born” (when the first generation of gods was born.) “‘Bar the door if you want to live’” (three pages earlier the door had already been barred, [that was possibly from the outside but others are now clamouring to get in.]) “Yes I do. Idiot. Heartbeats.” (the Idiot is clumsy.) “We get there” – the coast – “near midnight . There’s a fishing town about ten miles west of us,” (fishing towns are usually on the coast.) “I feel nothing just weary resignation” (needs a comma after nothing,) offence (in British English – and this reads as British – it’s attack.) “Neither of the others speak.” (Neither of the others speaks, but there were more than two others, so it should have been, “None of the others speaks”,) “she’s is a monster” (either she is, or, she’s, not she’s is.) “The crowd are separating” (The crowd is separating,) “half of them are cheering” (half .. is cheering,) “the other half are screaming for Eliza” (the other half is screaming.) “Anthony’s battered army crawl like insects” (Anthony’s battered army crawls,) “into away from the city” (either into or away from, not both,) the crowd walk away (the crowd walks away.) “There’s a white–hot thread of power into her voice” (in her voice, or, “A white–hot thread of power has come into her voice.)

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