Review – The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

The Arrival of Missives novel by Aliya Whiteley

published by Unsung Stories, 9 May 2016

Fantasy/Science Fiction/Literary

Review by Joel Schanke

Destiny. Free will. These are concepts that can only be perceived by a human mind, yet we have trouble fully comprehending the significance of our destinies, and the importance of our choices. The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley, explores these issues with a firm grasp on our species’ misunderstanding of the two concepts, and how one simple choice can change the course of your destiny forever.

In The Arrival of Missives, a young girl, Shirley, is overcome with an overpowering affection for her school-teacher in a post-war English countryside. Her affection leads her down a mysterious and abnormal journey to help the wounded Mr. Tiller fight for the future of the Earth. The Earth is, as Mr. Tiller eventually explains to Shirley, only secure from looming destruction if she follows his instructions (or the instructions given to him from an extraterrestrial rock ingrained into his stomach during the war). She is expected to marry another boy from the town, Daniel. The reasoning behind this order is that if Shirley doesn’t accept Daniel’s advances, then he will marry another girl in town—and their children will bring about the end of the Earth.

Throughout the book, Shirley’s choices are muddled with blind obedience to the man she trusts over anything else, her teacher. This is a theme that Whiteley wanted to get across to her readers as well: teachers have influence over their student’s future, and sometimes they take advantage of the minds that they’re responsible for molding. For Shirley, her free will is dependent on what Mr. Tiller determines for her, which begs the question: has her destiny already been secured? Or, can she break free of the grasp of her teacher and learn to make her own choices, like she has always thought of doing? It’s ironic, however, that she breaks free of her parents’ plan for her only to be used as a pawn in somebody else’s plot.

The message runs deep throughout the novel, and almost every character has their part to play within the intricately woven science fiction-fantasy novel. The characters are consistently changing, showing that certain circumstances alter their perspective. Whiteley demonstrates to her readers that her characters have their own unique personalities, but these personalities are tested—and sometimes broken in the most unexpected of ways. This, to me, is exemplary of an exceptional writing style. Not just because her characters evolve as they should in any novel, but because they are so perfectly invested into a situation which they do not fully understand. Mr. Tiller follows the rock’s instructions, as Shirley follows his, yet they (and we the readers) never understand where these rocks come from, and why Mr. Tiller should be obeying their demands as blindly as Shirley follows his. It would appear that nothing is truly set in stone.

The Arrival of Missives is not just a novel about fate, free will, and the influence of teachers; it’s also a novel of romantic choices. I had reservations about Whiteley including romance in a novel that, at first, appeared to be forcing the subject upon me. I was pleased when I discovered that this overused concept was a necessary aspect of the novel in order to expand on relationships between Mr. Tiller, Daniel, and Shirley; advance the plot; and further the themes that I found myself so engaged in analyzing. For without romance, Shirley would most likely be a normal school-girl struggling to break free from her destiny.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone who holds a place in their hearts for thought provoking science fiction-fantasy. For exceptional writing, strong characters, important messages, and an interesting mixture of science fiction and fantasy, I give The Arrival of Missives four stars out of five.

Review – The Map of Bones by Francesca Haig

091246-FCTThe Map of Bones novel by Francesca Haig

published by Harper Voyager, 2016

Fantasy

Review by Terry Morris

 

Francesca Haig’s The Map of Bones, is the sequel to The Fire Sermon, a post-apocalyptic novel.

400 years after the earth has been destroyed by fire much of the land is still broken and covered in ash. Humanity survives, barely. A human population remains, and manages to breed. A curious thing has happened, though: Everyone is now born as a twin. One of the twins, known as the Alpha, is healthy and whole, the other, the Omega, is disabled by the poison of the world. Whatever the disability may be, though, the lives of the two are bound together. When one dies, so too, instantly, does the other.

Despite the bond between them, the Alphas treat their Omega siblings badly, branding them and sending them out to scratch a living as best they can in the infertile lands. The Omegas are despised, tithed, or taxed, to starvation, and driven out to worse lands. Given the life-bond between them, this isn’t rational behaviour on the part of the Alphas.

The Fire Sermon takes up this thread, without actually mentioning irrationality, and suggests that most power is held by just a few Alphas who push the anti-Omega agenda, and consider the deaths of any unimportant Alphas who die as a result to be of no consequence.

Not all disabilities are physical, though. A few are seers. They can see the future, presumably, if they can see past the fires that destroyed their world, and if the constant nightmares of those flames don’t drive them mad. A lot of people would view prophecy as a superpower, but the Alphas, being irrational, view it as different and therefore bad. Besides, seers tend to go mad and die young, which is very bad from the Alphas’ point of view, and Omegas are infertile, which proves they are ‘not meant to be.’

The story’s narrator is a seer. Of course her name is Cass.

The Map of Bones takes up, in part, the question of why it is that seers must begin by seeing the past. The answer to that raises yet more questions, and by itself would be enough for a further book of the political, wheels-within-wheels kind. Haig, however, having suggested these questions of politics and morality in both The Fire Sermon and The Map of Bones, takes us instead on a rollicking adventure of the physical kind. In the case of The Map of Bones, after spending considerable time trudging across barren landscapes, hiding from Alpha guards and seeking the remnants of the resistance, there is virtually a dungeon crawl through a long, narrow space.

The adventure part of the book concerns the ways that Alphas can deal with the Omegas, maybe by putting them all in tanks where they can be kept alive but not living, just conscious enough, apparently, that their Alpha counterpart can live without falling unconscious. This is the idea that Cass and her friends primarily resist.

If there is a criticism to be made of the book it is that most of the personality is in the minor characters. Often, when reading tracts of dialogue between the main characters, it is necessary refer back to find out who is speaking. The main characters don’t have particular quirks, lines of argument, or mannerisms that make their speech distinctive. It’s as if Cass is just talking to herself.

Worldbuilding-wise, there’s a lot that, on the whole, doesn’t quite yet feel solid. Presumably further books will reveal the foundation on which it is all set, answering the questions of why there are twins in the first place, why the Alphas hate and fear the Omegas, and why powers of telepathy and prophecy are emerging among them.

Despite the adventure component of the stories, these are books that require patience, and we won’t know until the final book is read whether that patience will have been worth it.

 

 

 

Review – I, Vampire by Jody Scott

Inline image 1

I, Vampire a novel by Jody Scott

Published by Digital Parchment Services, 2016 (First published 1984)

Slipstream

Release Date: March 2016

Review by Catherine Moller

After thirty years out of print, Jody Scott’s strange and vitriolic feminist science fiction series, The Benaroya Chronicles, is enjoying new life in a new print run from Digital Parchment Services. The first novel in the series, Passing for Human, has already been released. Now I, Vampire, the second novel in the series, is enjoying a reprint. This new edition comes with an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon.

Sterling O’Blivion is a centuries-old vampire living in 1980’s Chicago where she manages a dance studio dedicated to ripping off vulnerable middle-aged capitalists. For fun, and because she could, she built herself a time machine. Sterling is less morally conflicted about her vampirism then about her job, but she takes a circumspect perspective of the whole endeavor, though she is taking a dim view of her current rut. It seems that life has lost its pizzazz – at least until her old crush, Virginia Woolf shows up. Except it’s not Virginia Woolf, it’s an alien dolphin wearing Woolf’s shape, and she needs Sterling’s help. It seems humanity has, though its own mass of failings, doomed itself to corruption. Woolf – Benaroya – has a complicated plan to save humanity from itself, and from the villainous Sajorians who plan to feed off humanity’s baser instincts. Sterling, drawn by Woolf’s charisma and strange, down-home yet other-worldly charm, finds herself questioning her ethics as she is pulled into Woolf’s bizarre scheme.

Sterling is a character of contradictions – strong yet vulnerable, wilful yet reticent, flirtatious yet gun-shy. Her voice is chaotic, sarcastic, and wonderfully acerbic. Scott uses her as a scattershot; there is nothing in modern society Sterling does not have an opinion on, often outrageous, always remarkably astute. Scott, through Sterling, demonstrates a slick capacity to effortlessly move from one social critique to another without drawing breath. Contrasted to Sterling is Benaroya: expansive, charismatic, outspoken, yet strangely artless. And also a space-dolphin.

This really is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. Several times I had to stop reading just to process what was going on. It’s clear Scott felt unrestricted by genre or convention, yet she handles unconventionality with a ridiculous, infectious glee. It’s outrageously fun, at least when you’re not tying your brain into knots keeping up with her.

That said, it’s an acquired taste. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys the weird, sideways style of Vonnegut at his least lucid, Scott’s madcap style will probably work for you; if you like your fiction a little less post-modern, I, Vampire will taste sour. Even still, it is artfully done. If you are looking for a dose of the weird and intellectual, or if you are already a fan of Scott’s work, this new edition will enrich your e-reader.

Review – City of Masks by Ashley Capes

City of Masks, a novel by Ashley Capes

Published by Snapping Turtle Books, 2014

Fantasy

Release Date: May 2014

Review by Wayne J. Harris

 

City of Masks is set in a world where masks are carved from bones – including three Great Masks that have enormous but unidentified power.  Each of these masks are in the possession of one of the three great Houses of Anaskia.

Sofia, a high born daughter of Falco House, discovers that her brother is lost at sea.  As she is now the last surviving child of her House, she must cease being a mask maker and become a fighting Protector of the prince, Oson.  As part of her responsibilities she must learn to communicate with her family’s Great Mask, Argeon, but it is almost impossible for her to get the mask’s attention and so call on its powers.  The palace politics are complex and brutal, with violence common.  Prince Oson makes his move and forces Sofia’s father to disappear, leaving Sofia on her own. In great danger, with insufficient preparation, Sophia must fight for herself, her House, and Argeon’s safety.

Notch is a mercenary unjustly accused of killing a girl. In prison awaiting his execution, he is rescued just in time by his friend Flir, a small woman with paradoxically enormous strength, and rather than run away, he decides for hidden reasons and at enormous risk to stay in the city and clear his name.

Ain, a Pathfinder, must set out to find the Sea Shrine – a fabled device which will provide the means to save his people from being oppressed by the Anaskia. But every Pathfinder sent on the quest before has either died, come back a failure or disappeared entirely. Ain must find the Sea Shrine and learn how to use it where countless Pathfinders have failed before.

These three disparate threads gradually come together for the final climax.

City of Masks is well written, but many of the escapes from dire situations are more by luck rather than by cleverness or strength of character.  This is particularly true for Notch, who is able to move around the city easily, hidden by nothing more than a hood despite the numerous posters offering a reward for his capture.

The novel also lacks the small details that create the feeling of an immersive and complex world. There are so many fantasy novels these days that a story has to have some very special quality to make it unique and, while it is entertaining, interesting and well written, I feel City of Masks does not quite manage to stand out from the crowd.

I give it four wands out of five for appropriately subdued use of magic, three named swords for decent fight scenes and one parchment map for weak world building.

The Lost Mask, book 2 of the Bone Mask trilogy was released in 2015; Greatmask, the final book, will be released in 2016.

Making Contact

This Easter long weekend saw the Australian National Convention (NatCon) return to Queensland for the first time in a decade. ASIM Reviews Editor Catherine Moller shares her experience.

Contact

I’m not normally a convention sort of person – forced socialisation isn’t really my thing, so I was more than a little apprehensive about attending my first proper con. My friends briefed me on what to expect, but I don’t think I was truly ready for it. Four days of madness, running in and out of panels, talking to strange new people, reconnecting with strange familiar people, excited discussions about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, angry discussions about Puppies and the relative Sad-ness thereof.  I’m utterly exhausted, but it’s a good exhaustion.

So many awesome things went on over the weekend that it’s hard to break the convention down into manageable chunks. I’m still trying to parse my experiences. But in the spirit of timeliness, here’s my rough-n-ready write-up of Contact2016.

 

GUESTS
Ben Aaronovitch (author of the bestselling The Rivers of London) was in expansive attendance, brightening every panel he was on with his particularly English brand of understated yet ridiculous humour. Balancing him out was the American Jill Pantozzi (former editor-in-chief of The Mary Sue, current blogger at The Nerdy Bird), with her easy-going yet insightful geek feminism. Both Ben and Jill were fantastic and insightful to listen to. On the national front, special guests included Keri Arthur (author of the bestselling Riley Jenson Guardian series); long-time fan K A Barker (author of The Book of Days); and debut novelist Maria Lewis (author of Who’s Afraid?). I’m sad to say I didn’t see much of Keri Arthur or K A Barker, but I managed to catch a few panels with Maria Lewis, who I’d been looking forward to seeing ever since I got hold of Who’s Afraid? If I hadn’t known she was a debut author before the con, I wouldn’t have believed it: she was confident, outspoken, and hilarious, and one of my favourite panelists to watch. Plus she owned a never-ending supply of spangly jumpsuits.

 

PANELS
The real bread and butter of a convention is the program of panels, and in this area Contact did not disappoint. There were plenty of options for every kind of fan and interest, from panels on the fantastic city to eroticism in space to sci fi musicals (handily helped along by Damon Cavalchini’s absurd library of science fiction disco themes – you haven’t lived ‘till you’ve grooved to the Imperial March). Accompanying the standard discussion-style panels were a few short academic lectures on speculative fiction – I attended one of these by Dr Kim Wilkins, contrasting the worldbuilding of Tolkien and Martin. The program also included a few kaffeklatsches, which were small one-on-one discussion sessions with authors.

I was pleased to see a deliberate emphasis on diversity and representation in panel discussion. Issues of gender, race, sexuality and disability were repeatedly raised and discussed in relation to fan culture and speculative fiction. It was heartening to see genial discussion on how the Aussie speculative fiction community talks about diversity – particularly in the wake of Gamergate and Sad/Rabid Puppies.

 

AWARDS
The other major part of Contact programming was the awards. Both the Ditmar and Aurealis awards were presented during Contact – Aurealis on Good Friday, and the Ditmars on Easter Sunday. Sad to say I wasn’t able to attend the Aurealis ceremony (it was a separate, ticketed event, and I may have spent all my money on books), but I did get to go to the Ditmars. We’ve already posted a list of the Ditmar winners here on the Andromeda Spaceways blog.

 

BOOK HAUL

As is usual where books are sold, I came away with a huge stack to add to my already overflowing ‘to read’ pile. The dealers room had a small handful of publishers and booksellers among them, including Pulp Fiction, Twelfth Planet, FableCroft, and Andromeda Spaceways. It’s the second fortnight in a row I’ve blown my paycheck on books, and I have no regrets. In my shopping bag I have The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Ditmar winner Angela Slatter; The Female Factory, also by Angela Slatter, co-written by fellow Ditmar winner Lisa L. Hannett; the multiple Ditmar-nominated Cherry Crow Children by Deborah Kalin; To Spin a Darker Stair by Faith Mudge and Catherynne M Valente; The Rebirth of Rapunzel by Kate Forsyth; Norma K Hemming Prize-winner The Orchid Nursery by Louise Katz; and Age of Ambrosium by Victoria McGlynn.

 

GENERAL OVERVIEW

I had a fantastic time, and I say that as someone socialisation-averse. There was an exciting, frenetic atmosphere that you couldn’t help but be drawn in by – always something interesting happening, a book launch or a panel or even a conversation. Above all, it was fun, in a way that introverted me did not expect. I’d like to think Queensland outdid itself – but then, I’m biased. What I do know is that if all NatCons are like Contact, I’ll definitely be going again. But maybe after I catch up on all that sleep I missed.

 

As a final word: all my thanks and appreciation go to the Contact board, who worked their asses off all weekend. I don’t think I saw a single member of the board sit down once, yet they all managed to be consistently helpful and friendly. They ruled, and they threw one hell of a con. Thank you, folks. You rock.

Ditmar Awards 2016

The 48th annual Ditmar Award ceremony was held on the penultimate night of Contact this year, celebrating all things Australian speculative fiction. Members of this year and last year’s NatCon conventions were eligible to nominate works for the ballot and to vote, with the intention of awarding the popular vote to the finest works of the past year.

We’re pleased to say that several of the Ditmar winners this year are Andromeda Spaceways alumni. Kathleen Jennings, who won Best Short Story, Best Artwork, and Best Fan Artist, has illustrated and written for numerous issues of ASIM, while Tansy Rayner Roberts, who won Best Collected Work and Best Fan Publication, was one of ASIM’s founding members. We’re always thrilled to celebrate the successes of our contributors.

The full list of winners of the 2016 Ditmar awards are below:

Best Novel: Lament for the Afterlife, Lisa L. Hannett (ChiZine Publications)

Best Novella or Novelette: “Of Sorrow and Such”, Angela Slatter, in Of Sorrow and Such (Tor.com)

Best Short Story: “A Hedge of Yellow Roses”, Kathleen Jennings, in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications)

Best Collected Work: Cranky Ladies of History, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely (FableCroft Publishing)

Best Artwork: Cover and internal artwork, Kathleen Jennings, for Cranky Ladies of History (FableCroft Publishing)

Best Fan Writer: Grant Watson, for body of work, including reviews in The Angriest

Best Fan Artist: Kathleen Jennings, for body of work, including Illustration Friday

Best Fan Publication in Any Medium: Galactic Suburbia, Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Best New Talent: Rivqa Rafael

William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review: Letters to Tiptree, Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)

 

Congratulations to all the winners!

Review – Beltrunner by Sean O’Brien

Beltrunner by Sean O’BrienBeltrunner, a novel by Sean O’Brien

Published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2016

Science Fiction

Release Date: 22 February 2016 (Kindle Exclusive), 16 May 2016 (All E-books)

Review by Wayne Harris

 

Beltrunner opens in the style of the early masters of science fiction with a lone miner, Collier, racing against the might of the Corporation to claim an asteroid with hopefully lots of valuable minerals.  With his trusty computer sidekick, Sancho, Collier uses his intuition and experience to scratch a living by finding minerals on asteroids.  Collier is a typical spaceman hero as he uses his intelligence and knowledge of physics to win the race – he’s even described as craggy.  He’s up against the corporations which use their money and legal power to cheat and exploit the mining community.  And you find this out right from the beginning as Collier’s ex-girlfriend, a spaceship captain of the corporation, is following him to this asteroid. He must outwit her or be cheated of his claim.

It’s an excellent opening with pace and intrigue making you want to cheer for the hero and curse that nasty corporation and the people who work for it.

Collier and Sancho make an important discovery and are forced to travel to Ganymede to escape the predation of the corporation.  There they meet a very unusual community which causes the spaceman to review his motivations and feelings. The story slows down and becomes more introspective as it investigates the relationships between men and women and what it means to be conscious and self-aware. This part of the story is not a strength as Beltrunner works better as an action packed adventure rather than an immersive investigation of the human condition.  The story picks up the pace again toward the end but the final scene is disappointing when compared to how well the story started.

Overall, I recommend Beltrunner as a good read on a long journey, say between Alpha Centauri and Deneb, but not one to give you much to think about.  I give this story four out of five rockets for pace and one super nova for an exciting start.

Review – Winter by Dan Grace

Winter, a novella by Dan Grace

Published by Unsung Signals, 2016

Fantasy

Release Date: February 2016

Review by Terry Morris

 

Winter is a novella set in the silence of Scotland’s winter snows. In the near future, Adam and three friends flee northward from England to a now independent Scotland. At a border checkpoint there is a tragedy and only three of the friends are able to continue, two of them in a state of shock. They make it to the holiday home of Adam’s childhood, only to find two strangers already living there.

Adam and his friends are fleeing from the repercussions of their actions in London. They are part of an urban guerrilla organisation called Green Man. It’s never made entirely clear what Green Man’s goals are, but little excerpts from a book on the future history gives some indication of how it all turns out.

While Adam and his friends had been fighting to change the world, the two strangers had simply tried to find a way to live in it. Fleeing the violence of the times, they have wound up in Adam’s home. One of them, Mikhail, has unusual powers that are at once useful and frightening.

The chapters of Winter move between the present and the past, with both sets moving forward so that there is some overlap. Grace makes very spare use of language to create a sense of silence and snow, the lack of any distraction from the world outside the house: no phone, no internet, no newspaper.  Set against the silence is the idea of music. Often an individual begins to hum or sing, and other voices join in to make something new. Maybe the world itself is singing.

Unsung Signals, an imprint of Red Squirrel publishing, has been set up to publish stories that are too long to sell as short stories and too short to market as novels, while sister imprint Unsung Stories publishes novel-length fiction. It’s an idea that gives writers scope to make their tales as long or as short as they need to be. There’s no need to pad them out. Grace makes use of this freedom to give some passages a sense of poetry, to not spell things out but simply offer lines of suggestion such as what the green man is, or whether humanity’s fall, from a civilisation about to reach the stars, signifies failure or simply a change in direction, a chance to recognise old things stirring again.

The book isn’t flawless, but it does provide a pleasant few hours reading, a sense of the mystic, a promise of what Grace can produce in the future, and a very good reason to encourage the Unsung Stories Imprint for odd-length stories.