Amalgam (2021) by Alessio Zanelli.
Reviewed by Allen Ashley.
Prolific poet Alessio Zanelli will be familiar to many of you from the pages of Focus, BFS Horizons, Here Comes Everyone, etc. This new pamphlet collects together pieces from a wide variety of publications and has something of a sunrise to sunset flow. Opener “Kuramathi Dawn” transcends its travelogue feel with its arresting opening line: “The morning comes in shouting like a desert.” If it’s the job of the poet to disrupt or make one reconsider assumptions, that simile certainly does the trick. Equally thought-provoking is Zanelli’s closer “Cosmic Nemesis”, which depicts “a micro black hole” gradually swallowing “all the planets” as well as Sol itself, before proceeding “on its endless path / to where it all began”. Hence: a final sunset. One might quibble with the astrophysics at play here — the orbiting planets would not be neatly lined up like snooker balls — but the poem makes for a memorable if deterministic closer.
In between, there are many strong evocations of voyaging, particularly on the sea. The beautifully titled “Evernauts” cross the globe “constantly a league / ahead of the terminator”. The sea itself is in constant motion in “Seaclock”, its sound gorgeously described as a “wombal gurgle.” The longest piece on offer is “Seafarer” and cleverly conflates intellectual voyaging — “devouring books by London, Verne and Clarke” — along with cutting-edge physics and sub-atomics — “elusive bosons, steadfast fermions, strings”. At base, though, the equation is between the sea voyages of the European Age of Exploration and the potential space journeys of our outward-bound future. I was pleasantly reminded of that old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk quotes John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” (“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”). Zanelli’s poem reaffirms this connection and makes of the reader, the writer and all would-be spacefarers someone who is exploring “Just like Columbus did”; if one can focus on Columbus’s thirst for knowledge and not his cultural legacy.
Historical figures are present also in “Apparitions At 5 Pennine View”: the cast list includes Edgar Allan Poe, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Neil Armstrong, and Jon Lord — the late keyboard player from the band Deep Purple. More contemporary references are made in the closing line of “Kyoto” as Zanelli alliteratively notes, “The timer’s ticking. Treaties. Thunberg. Trump.”
There’s a certain snobbishness in some poetry circles against shaped poetry. In this book, however, Zanelli deploys the technique to good effect. “Sinkhole” begins with an enlarged, centred full stop and expands pyramid-shaped like a chasm opening out beneath one’s feet. “Land And Sea Breeze” is zigzagged like the approaching and receding tide. Most subtle of all, though, is the constriction on line width that the poet imposes on his pandemic reflecting “Quarantined”.
In contrast to that more recent concern, “The Flickering” takes those of us old enough to remember back to the three-day week of the industrial disputes of the 1970s, along with the resultant power cuts — “Quite a usual occurrence in those days”. Mortality is also a concern for the poet as he suggests that “Maybe memories move through me... both ways” (“The Arrow Of Time”), and at the close of the imagistic “Autumn”, finds himself (tongue in cheek) to be left with “Cracked flakes of staling bran. / Dried drops of bottled brine. / Loose scraps of withered brain.”
There are a couple of slight misfires amongst these twenty-four poems — the political pieces “About Colors” and “Haters” feel just a little didactic — and given Zanelli’s track record, one might have wished for more poems with overt genre content. But this trim volume comes with a lovely abstract cover by Andrea Schiavetta... and also comes “Recommended” by yours truly.
Review from BSFA Review 15 - Download your copy here.
Earlier this year the BSFA jointly organised an online mini-convention, ConSpire, with the Science Fiction Foundation, to coincide with our AGMs. Here are some videos from the event.
All the Tides of Fate by Adalyn Grace
(Titan Books, 2021)
Reviewed by Estelle Roberts
All the Tides of Fate is the sequel to the New York Times bestseller All the Stars and Teeth, but can be easily followed even if you haven’t read the previous novel. Visidia is a realm consisting of separate, and reasonably independent islands, which are under the ultimate rule of the monarchs of Arida. Differing types of magic are utilised throughout the land, generally each island specialises in a type, but individuals are prevented by the threat of extreme punishment and societal belief from practising more than one kind.
As the story begins, the main protagonist, Queen Amora, is on board ship returning to Arida after yet another attempt to break the curse placed on her during a previous climactic battle, which also saw her witness the death of her father. This curse has split her soul, which she now shares with Bastian, a pirate-like ship’s captain and a man to whom she was already attracted, and negated her magic. This is obviously something of a problem when you are the ruler of a magically inclined kingdom.
The novel then follows Amora as she tries to come to terms with her father’s death, and shows her initial attempts to govern the kingdom, which are not a success. This is probably not helped by the fact that, by her own admission, she would much rather be at sea. It is suggested that she might increase her popularity, and also make the kingdom more stable, if she were prepared to take a husband and produce an heir. She agrees to her mother’s suggestion of a tour of the islands to meet suitable potential partners, but only because this is a perfect cover for her real plan, which is to find an artefact which can, apparently, break the curse and restore her magic to her.
One fine day, therefore, she sets sail with her crew, which includes Bastian, from whom she cannot be parted because of the aforementioned curse, and a beautiful mermaid. We are now treated to some rather pleasant worldbuilding, as several of the numerous islands are visited in quick succession, giving Grace the opportunity to describe differing cultures, economies and religions, which she does rather well. Despite the seemingly large number of willing marriage candidates, the plot thickens with more than one attempt on the queen’s life, and several swift departures at dead of night in attempt to outrun danger.
The story is more than just a fantasy adventure. It is a coming-of-age tale, as a woman learns to accept the responsibilities thrust upon her at a young age and determines that the kingdom she now rules will advance and modernise. It is also about grief, coming to terms with the death of a parent, who sacrificed themselves for you, but at the same time having to accept that they were very far from perfect. She does have a cathartic dream like experience which is very well rendered and allows her to move forward in the grieving process. This is combined with the new knowledge that her family’s rule is historically based on the use of very dark soul magic and the deliberate holding back of magical and other developments across the islands. It is, of course, also partly about love, and the problems involved when you cannot wholly tell if your feelings are genuine or merely the result of magical skulduggery.
The novel is well paced and a fast read. Amora is a sympathetic protagonist, and you do feel her pain. Her crew are also well drawn and individual, and their relationships well explored. The elements of drama, adventure, grief, love, and the feeling that nothing, however good, lasts forever are mixed to enjoyable effect. It could be argued that it is essentially escapist, but, particularly at the moment, there is probably nothing wrong with that. So, if you are in the mood for a well written, enjoyable and reasonably intelligent magical fantasy, then this novel comes recommended.
Review from BSFA Review 14 - Download your copy here.
Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore
Reviewed by Anne F. Wilson
Queen Bitterblue of Monsea sets off on a diplomatic voyage to the far country of Winterkeep, where some of her people have disappeared. By the time her ship reaches port, she has vanished. This throws both the Monseans and their hosts into disarray. Does somebody, somewhere, know what has happened? Winterkeep is the fourth in the author’s young adult Graceling series. Each is a stand-alone, but characters recur, and it helps to have read the previous books. I had read these, but so long ago that I didn’t remember a lot about them, and the chapters dealing with the backstory of Monsea are a bit info-dumpy and stuffed with names that I kept having to look up in the character list.
However, the chapters dealing with the situation on Winterkeep and introducing an entirely new set of characters, were lively and entertaining, and as soon as the two sets of characters get together and start interacting the book really takes off. I say characters rather than people, because one of the great charms of the book is the set of non-human characters, from the grumpy monster at the bottom of the sea who is (definitely not!) the legendary Keeper, to the telepathic blue foxes who may adopt and communicate with a human if they really like them.
Monsea is part of the Royal Continent, where the realms have suffered under absolute monarchs for many years, and some of which, after revolutions, are developing new forms of government. Bitterblue herself and her court have suffered dreadfully through her father’s reign. But Winterkeep is a long-standing democracy. Surely everything here must be fair and above-board?
Lovisa Cavenda is a student at Winterkeep Academy. Her parents each represent one of the two main parties in Parliament, which is currently deadlocked over one issue. The Scholars want to keep Winterkeep free of industrial pollution (whilst selling polluting minerals to their neighbours). The Industrialists want the advantages of using the minerals themselves. This isn’t entirely logical, but then neither are the politics of energy and conservation in our world.
Lovisa is not an endearing character, being a sneak and a liar, but we come to appreciate how her character has been formed by her family’s disastrous dynamics, and that she is trying to do her best in very difficult circumstances. Gradually she realises that her family are not only dysfunctional, but involved in something dark and dangerous. What should she do? What, indeed, can she do?
Lovisa watches the people around her and their interactions and learns from them. She is starting to realise that people who are nice to you aren’t always your friends, and people who aren’t may be so for good reason. She watches and tries to keep the people that she cares for safe. But when it comes to the crunch, will she be able to act to change things?
A major theme of the book is abuse. How to survive it, and how, having survived, not to be deformed by it but to become a fully-developed human being (or fox, or undersea monster). Bitterblue is a survivor, but in Winterkeep she is forced back into a situation where she has no control. Will she be able to stay strong?
I really enjoyed this book. It has tremendous narrative drive, and a plot that kept me guessing. It is also cheering to read about societies where there is no obvious sexism, and where people’s sexuality depends on their own inclinations. Effective contraception is freely available, and there’s no societal prohibition on young people exploring sex. People are not classified based on their skin colour, though there are other prejudices, and poor people are always at the bottom of the pile. Cashore tries to portray people working towards a better society, and, if she has a message, it’s that people can change, if they choose to, and work at it.
Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
With Purgatory Mount, Adam Roberts has written a rather peculiar novel. This should not surprise anyone paying attention to Roberts’ SF career. Regular readers of his oeuvre may be bemused to discover that he has come up with yet another way to bamboozle and delight.
The book opens with a post-human space crew arriving at a peculiar alien artefact. The eponymous object extends far above the atmosphere of a planet with no other signs of habitation. The narrator makes a point of the distance in time and culture when the text says that using referents such as Pan, Apollo and Hades to name the crew are inevitably imprecise ‘cultural translations’. They have the delightful capability of changing their perceptions of time, dialling up or down at will. This allows the tedium of an interstellar journey to pass in weeks or months; or to speed up perception for active maintenance as required. Surely there is enough here to unpack into a novel, as the puzzle is investigated. Instead, we switch to the perspective of the pygs, part of the ship’s livestock, on whom four of the five crew feasted to celebrate arrival. Then we discover pyg is short for pygmy and that this is a belittling term describing their incredibly limited lifespan – mere decades. The pygs, hunting and farming, recall the decayed civilisation of Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958), living out generations on a starship’s journey. Yet they also refer to the system running the ship as “hal” and worship the crew, who barely move in a pyg’s lifetime, as gods.
Enough yet? Apparently not, as the book abruptly switches to the “United States of Amnesia” which fills three quarters of the pages. Now we are presented with a teenager in near future America, shot at whilst scavenging copper wire.
Otty and her friends are a kind of Famous Five. They have a private internet, to escape surveillance; but there is something in this network which The State and its opponents want for themselves. As they are pursued or arrested, the country falls apart in armed uprisings. There is bleak comedy and dulled tragedy as Otty is subjected to the casual horrors of a system prepared to misuse rules meant to protect the citizenry. Her incarceration slides into bureaucratic incompetence as her country collapses. Roberts’ sharp observations of the nature of our twenty-first century are always present. An example of this is the amnesia itself – the result of neonicotinoids. These pesticides are well known to cause honeybees to forget where their hives are. Weaponised against humans, they cause soldiers to forget. In Roberts’s 2010 novel New Model Army, connected technology augments citizen soldiers, creating a superorganism. Here, similar technology is needed just to enable much of the population to have any sense of self. Disconnected from their devices, they become thoughtless, mindless.
Enough? No! As this story reaches its denouement, revealing what is actually in the private network, we are whiplashed back to the starship at Planet Dante. This story takes an unexpected turn, if one which follows a thread established in the opening pages. Roberts provides one line to connect the ends to the middle but the protagonists of these sections have almost no cognisance of Otty’s world. There is a temptation to close the book in bafflement and let it fade into slipstreamy feelings.
And then there is the afterword. Here is a key to unlock the book, which claims not to be such a key. Roberts (or perhaps Dante’s Matilda, or even Beatrice) delivers a reward for the reader who has climbed to the top of Purgatory Mount. This note on the book’s construction suggests that it is only with the passing of time that we can have ‘story’; that purgatory is as much about ‘putting up with’ as persisting. By this reckoning, ‘story’ exists in sin, between the fear of damnation and the hope of redemption.
My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka
Reviewed by Matt Colborn
This subtle, satirical book by Czech author Martin Vopenka examines the consequences of a new Messiah, named Eli, in the twilight era of a failing near-future global civilisation. The story is told through the eyes of Eli’s brother, Marek.
The narrative moves between ‘New Vinohrady,’ a New Slav colony in Northern Greece in 2168 and early 22nd century Prague-Holesovice. In 2168, Marek the old man contemplates the life of his brother Eli, who was assassinated in Dubrovnik almost forty years previously. He lives with a sect of followers of the dead Messiah.
Marek and Eli were the sons of a bodyguard of Lifelong, the dictator. When they were children, the nations of the world put a diffraction grille in orbit to ‘diffuse some of the solar radiation’ falling on Earth. The aim was to gradually cool the atmosphere. Instead, it fosters a new ice age.
In the late 22nd century portion of the novel, a young woman moves in with Marek, causing dissent in the sect. Marek is pressured to reject her, but hungry for companionship, resists. The community sees Marek as the keeper of Eli’s words and theoretically above such basic human needs.
In the outside world, the birthrate has dropped catastrophically, as people struggle to conceive. No-one knows why. The followers of Eli seem exempt from this curse. Medical scientists are keen to perform medical tests on the followers, but Marek rejects this, recalling Eli’s claim that ‘the reign of humans is over.’
The style and tone of this novel contrasts significantly with some dominant voices in English-language SF. It’s instructive comparing Vopenka’s style with recent US utopian novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future (2020) and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017). The moral universe of the US novels seems broadly far less ambiguous than the one presented in My Brother the Messiah.
Both Robinson and Doctorow take the benefits of technology and scien fic materialism for granted. In Ministry, Robinson advocates geoengineering, whilst in Vopenka’s novel this sort of global, cooperative technocratic adventure has led to disaster. Technological utopianism, a key theme of Robinson’s and especially Doctorow’s works, is savaged by Vopenka and perhaps with good reason. In Eastern Europe technocratic, utopian impulses have historically had disastrous outcomes. Instead Vopenka foregrounds technological hubris.
Religion, too, is handled differently in My Brother the Messiah. Although Vopenka’s work is satirical, his approach to religion remains subtle and nuanced. This differs from the mechanistic, reductionist take in Robinson’s novel, where one character claims that ‘huge parts of the brain’ are devoted to religious emo on and that religious sensations are ‘explicable’ as activations of the temporal lobe.
By contrast, Vopenka is alive to the multi -layered complexity of religious movements, as well as the emotional interplay between belief and doubt that forms a key part of religious experience. Vopenka’s novel also concerns the sociological pull that religious or spiritual groups hold in nominally secular, technocratic societies. This is as often due to the failures and shortcomings of secular rationalism as it is to a need for transcendent belief. In Vopenka’s future, people understandably feel that science and technology has failed them. This sentiment is expressed several times in the novel. Eli states that ‘what we’ve created is evil,’ stating that ‘…science is to blame’ for the current situation. Eli also says that ‘…science will not save us. It’s too late for that.’
But in the end, religion proves as unreliable as technology. ‘Miracles’ remain elusive, or at least questionable. In Dejvice, Eli curses cars, which stop working. In New Vinohrady, a young woman has a vision of Eli, recalling Marian visions at Lourdes or Fatima. But according to Eli human immortality is not, it seems, an option. A wryly humorous, disturbing novel that refuses the pitfalls of either lazy rationalism or unthinking faith.
The Curie Society by Heather Einhorn, Adam Staffaroni, Janet Harvey and Sonia Liao
(The MIT Press, 2021)
Reviewed by David Lascelles
‘Charlie's Angels but more intellectual’ is my initial reaction to this fascinating experiment in female led comics. Three students - Maya, Taj and Simone – start their first year at Edmonds University in Virginia. Simone is a 16-year-old Biology prodigy with a fascination with ant colonies, Maya is an overachieving maths genius with pushy parents who want her to join MENSA and Taj is an engineer and computer scientist. Our three heroes end up together in the same dorm room and, very soon after arriving, a note is delivered to each of them with a puzzle to solve. The puzzle requires them to work together to find the location of the Curie Society headquarters in the grounds of the University where they discover they are the newest recruits.
The idea of a secret organisation of female scientist spies, founded by Marie Curie, working out of university campuses worldwide and helping to save the world is a solid and worthy one. And the comparison to Charlies Angels is relevant because these aren’t superpowered Avengers style comic book heroes who can blow up buildings with their minds, but rather ordinary and relatable people with incredible smarts and skills who happen to have access to advanced technology and an information network that allows them to intercept problems before they become international incidents. And, instead of being led by an old, white guy who communicates through a telephone, they’re led by someone who they absolutely have to get the actor who played Professor Maggie Walsh in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to play her when they make the movie. Oh, and this character has a prosthetic arm. The concept is one that definitely has legs and potential to be developed into something awesome.
The characters are grounded and realistic and represent a variety of demographics. We have different ethnicities, characters who are homosexual and (I think, it’s not really confirmed) one who at least presents as non-binary, if not actually being so. The plot is interesting in a ‘spy thriller with added science’ way, and though it does depend on some old tropes from the genre it does present them well and occasionally subverts them.
As far as flaws go, the main one is that it somewhat suffers from ‘first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation syndrome’ in that there are occasions where a normal narrative would insert conflict, but it is missing here. In a way this is good thing – it demonstrates positive interactions for solving differences rather than negative ones – but this can also lead things to being a little flat.
For example, an early incident where a character makes a mistake is handled a little too easily and loses potential to create character development. There is also a tendency to devote whole pages to scientific explanations of something the characters are doing or talking about. Which is great for the goal of educating readers (and which is at least partially the intent here) but can seem a bit preachy sometimes. However, this might be part of the appeal to younger readers.
Overall, this is good stuff and indicative of what ‘comics for girls’ should be rather than (as in the dim and distant past) stuff about romance and nursing. If you were looking for a comic to buy a young, female relative with an interest in science this may be the book you need to get. Over time, I am sure the creators will develop this into something even greater and take us further into the stories of Simone, Maya and Taj as they take up the mantles of full agents of the Curie Society and all the excitement that will entail.
(Titan Books, 2020)
Reviewed by Ivy Roberts
Genre boundaries are blurred in this spinoff of the popular SF podcast. Editors Mur Lafferty and S.B. Divya compile 15 stories consisting mostly of tried-and-true Escape Pod contributors. Escape Pod brings together short stories old and new in this science fiction anthology, featuring authors John Scalzi, N. K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Cory Doctorow, and Kameron Hurley, many of whom have been with the podcast since its inception in 2005. A foreword by Serah Eley, founder of the Escape Pod podcast, provides helpful context and background to the project. Helpful editor’s introductions precede each entry, providing context to the contributor’s individual style.
The anthology’s main thread incorporates genre mixing. “A Consideration of Trees” imagines a displaced tribe of fairies in a wildlife refuge on an orbiting space station. “Princess of Nigh- Space” blends horror, science fiction and fantasy genres. In it, Tim Pratt lands the titular Tasmin as an interdimensional refuge in our world, whose family lives in exile from an advanced, magical civilization that lies just behind a basement door. Indeed, fantasy, adventure, mystery, and drama populate the pages of this anthology. “Tiger Lawyer,” for example, depicts a courtroom drama populated by extraterrestrials and powers of transfiguration. Some of these stories would read quite mundane, were it not for the science-fictional novums.
Many of these stories address YA audiences, which highlights the juvenile tone in other essays. “Jaiden’s Weaver” takes place on a pioneer planet where the 13-year-old protagonist begs her parents for the outer space equivalent of a horse. “Lions and Tigers and Girlfriends” takes the form of a high schooler’s diary, albeit one who averts a mutiny on an intergalactic voyage. In such company, even Doctorow’s “Clockwork Fagin” comes across as juvenile, bringing life to a Dickensian orphanage, steampunk style.Doctorow’s tale, reprinted from a 2011 steampunk anthology, was also featured in an Escape Pod episode of the same year. This is one of the anthology’s longer reads.
Several stories incorporate humour to such a degree that they eventually seem juvenile, fittng into this volume as additionally light-hearted entries. Scalzi’s contribution, a reprint of a 2002 story, brings out the lighter side of the anthology, with a premise of an on-the-street segment inquiring about encounters with alien species. In a similar vein, “Report of Doctor Hollowas” depicts an interrogation following an incident on a spaceship that commences with comedic effect.
Social justice is featured heavily in this anthology, strong enough to stand out amid its otherwise inconsistent tone. “City of Refuge” confronts the prison industrial complex, garbed thinly in a science-fictional mise en scene. “Spaceship October,” like many other contributions to this volume, probes issues of social inequality through the lens of an interstellar voyage. “Citizens of Elsewhere” takes on issues of feminism and women’s rights under the guise of a time travel adventure. Among the featured authors, Jemesin’s “Give Me Cornbread” concludes the anthology with a story about dragons, exploring the social ramifications of drone warfare.
Still others address sophisticated SF readers. Ken Liu’s “Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition”, reprinted from his Paper Menagerie collection (2016) is one of the more sophisticated reads. Liu imagines a story told by father to daughter about her mother, an astronaut, is hauntingly beautiful. Mur Lafferty’s “Fourth Nail” accompanies the volume, providing a telling introduction to the author-editor’s larger oeuvre. Lafferty’s story develops a wild future populated by clones and dramatic social inequality. “The Machine that Would Rewild
Humanity” also dives into hard SF, telling a story of a post-human world populated by AI who ponder the ethical connotations of re-introducing an already-annihilated human race into the environment.
This volume would be appropriate for aficionados of science fiction, especially those geared toward SFFA and YA voices. The variety of stories compiled here are good for casual readers eager to dip into inconsistent, blended genre universes.
A review of James Cawthorn: The Stormbringer Sessions: Sketches for a Graphic Novel (Jayde Design/Savoy Books, 2021) Compiled by John Davey
Review by Andy Sawyer
A review of Nature’s Warnings: Classic Stories of Eco-Science Fiction
Review by Graham Andrews
67, James St.
Stoke on Trent,