Native Seeds

by Catherine Wells
Novella, 19,132 Words
Published in the November 2017 issue
of Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Edited by Trevor Quachri

After the Food Wars and a series of global storms and other cataclysms force the evacuation of Earth, two small bands of survivors remain behind. The Men on the Mountain depend on left-over tech, including ships that allow them to raid far-flung ruins for supplies and materials. The village of The People lives in harmony with The Mother Earth, using only those things She provides.

Each group believes the other perished decades ago. Each group struggles with the necessities of survival for their small band. When the two groups cross paths, the leaders of each have different ideas on how to pursue the best outcome for all.

Catherine Wells is not new to storytelling, but this is my first time reading her work. Her characters are strong and well-defined. Alfonso’s wisdom, Ruben’s courage, Chico’s resentment all ring true. I could put myself in any of their shoes and understand why they reacted the way they did, or at least see enough evidence of that sort of behavior in the world around me to know its portrayal is realistic. Artfully placed narrative clues about characters, backstory, and a few surprising twists all made for a richer reading experience.

The encounter between the surviving bands happens early, and Wells lingers over the ensuing relations between them in good storytelling style. The tale felt to me a microcosmic example of issues human societies face today. And if humanity continues in its current direction as far as development of tech with too little concern for the long-term effects on our ecosystem, the scenario she sets could certainly serve as a warning of what our own future might hold, if we don’t change our ways.

In all, I found Native Seeds to be a delightful tale.

The Faraway Nearby

By Rebecca Solnit
Penguin Books, © 2014
ISBN 978-0143125495, 272 pages

Like I said before, I don’t usually read memoirs. At least, I haven’t in the past. This is my second one this month, and I have to say I may be changing my mind. Though I have to say that this isn’t exactly a memoir. It is, but not really. When you read it, you’ll see what I mean.

From stories of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s to her own brush with cancer, the author weaves an intimate narrative about personal trauma and family relationships in such a way that we see the beauty amid the chaos, the poetry in the pain. Solnit’s ability to connect seemingly random and disparate elements amazed me, as did her insight. She seems to see right to the heart of things, touching the delicate pulse of truth beneath layers of superfluous camouflage with surprising power and sensitivity. More than once I would have sworn she was speaking directly to me; her words were that apropos to my own experience, that synchronistic to my own journey. Each time I felt her at my shoulder and had to put the book down for a while, so that I might fully absorb the impact of her words.

Throughout the book, Solnit demonstrates the importance in our lives of the stories we tell ourselves. With a true sense of artistry, she lays words like breadcrumbs that lead us toward understanding. Gently, she challenges us as readers to examine our own stories, to recognize their power to nurture love or fear, forgiveness or spite, empathy or anger, recovery or suffering. Her words coax us to believe that perhaps, if we are willing to see our stories for what they are and what they bring to our worlds, we can make new stories that bridge the extremes and lead to healing.

This is not an easy read. Its subject matter is far too thought-provoking. The Faraway Nearby is more a book to savor slowly, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, perhaps on a quiet balcony or in a comfortable nook. And when you’ve finished it and put it down, keep it handy. It reveals itself in layers as you go, and will likely offer different insights with each pass, so you’ll want to read it again and again.

Bumbling Into Body Hair

By Everett Maroon
First Ed. Booktrope, © 2012, ISBN 9781935961338, 250 pages
Second Ed. Smashwords, © 2016, ISBN 9781370241484

I don’t usually read memoirs, as a rule. I never thought they would interest me. I was wrong. Bumbling Into Body Hair is a story of the author’s transition from Jenifer to Everett, and all the emotional, social and psychological transitions that accompanied him along the way.

Told with remarkable humor and poignant honesty, Everett’s tale is sometimes raw, frequently hilarious, always moving. The thing that shines brightest on every page is his courage. Throughout the process, despite his self-doubt and the resistance from his partner and some of his best friends, Everett persists in doing what is right for himself – which sometimes required him to slow down. Be sure. Think this thing through. Seemed prudent to me, and to his therapist, who is a true gem in this story.

I read with anger, horror, and flat-out shock some of the reactions of people around Everett during his transition. One person on the street literally spit in his face. His bowling league manager asked him to use a special bathroom so as to not upset the other patrons of the alley. A cis-male passenger on the metro stood over him shouting, “Are you a man or a woman?” To each of these painful and awkward moments, Everett brought his own special brand of humor, like shouting back at the guy on the metro, “Are you an idiot? Or an asshole?” I think I actually cheered at that.

It seemed to me that his biggest fear was telling his co-workers, friends and family. How would they react? I won’t spoil it by telling you who said or did what, but I will say that not everyone handled the news well, and I can only imagine the betrayal Everett must have felt from people whose support he needed during an already difficult and confusing time. And yet, through faltering relationships and rude strangers and resurrected breasts, the rollercoaster ride of T creams, disastrous experiments with plastic wrap, and learning to use a “packy” (hint: don’t lay it on the radiator), he maintains his sense of humor and hope for a better life.

But Everett’s gender is only one thread in the larger tapestry of his story. At its heart, Bumbling Into Body Hair is a snapshot, a single episode in a much larger story. Because Life doesn’t hit the pause button while we figure these things out, the daily grind continued to throw the usual obstacles at him throughout his journey of discovery. Every reader, no matter their gender, can find some relatable element of Everett’s story, whether it’s his hectic work schedules, his financial struggles, his tendency to be accident-prone, his social adventures and romantic ups and downs. His first date with Susanne was especially endearing, given that we are riding on Everett’s shoulder and feel with him the awkwardness, his certainty that he will do something to screw it up.

My biggest takeaway from this memoir was that those things that matter most to us must be pursued. Despite opposition. Despite fear. Despite self-doubt. Each person’s journey is unique, and while others travel with us, alongside us, each of our journeys are undertaken essentially alone. Everett’s determination to bring his outside into agreement with his inside, no matter what, made me stand up and cheer.

The Traitor’s Kiss

(Traitor’s Trilogy, Book 1)
by Erin Beaty
Imprint, ©2017
ISBN 978-1-250-11794-6
Hardback, 352 pages

Sixteen-year-old Sage Fowler would rather live off the land than submit to a traditional arranged marriage, despite her uncle’s wishes. After she is apprenticed as an assistant—and part-time spy—to the head matchmaker, the two of them set out across Demora with a group of young women toward the king’s stronghold, where the young brides-to-be will be paired with appropriate husbands, and wed at mid-summer. Sage is just happy she’s not one of them.

Newly promoted Captain Alex Quinn must prove he’s worthy to lead by escorting the women on the months-long journey. Frustrated at what he considers a babysitting job, Quinn soon notices signs that all is not well in Demora. Barbarian squads filter across the borders, moving in strategic directions. Quinn knows something is very wrong, but with a whole caravan of women and the crown prince under his protection, his options are limited.

Sage finds the Captain cold, aloof. Quinn finds Sage rebellious, and far too curious in a suspicious way. As the secrets and lies pile up, neither knows who to trust. When assassins and traitors close the trap around them, they must make hard choices with the lives of others, and Demora will never be the same.

There’s a lot going on in this young adult fantasy. Within the layout of a strange land and a well-developed, intricate social structure lie all the familiar landmarks we might expect: landed lords and commoners, far-flung strongholds connected by dangerous roads where horse-and-wagon travel is the norm, arranged marriages that cement political alliances and secure dowries. Old-world traditions regarding the roles of men and woman rule here, which has drawn criticism from some readers.

But The Traitor’s Kiss also offers a strong female protagonist who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or show her strength in the face of opposition, no small goal for a YA novel. Sage’s intelligence and curiosity make her an oddball to her fellow female travelers and occasionally get her into trouble; but these characteristics also make her an asset to the main plot. No few number of young readers (of any/all genders) will relate to Sage’s difference, and surely find inspiration and hope in her good use of it. Quinn, too, offers a good role-model for young readers with his paladin-like qualities: honor, chivalrous leadership, devotion to duty, refusal to surrender to what seems inevitable.

With more than a few steamy romance and fast-paced battle scenes, it was sometimes easy to forget that Traitor’s Kiss is intended for younger readers. Still, the author balanced the intensity well, I think; there’s nothing in here I wouldn’t want my own teens to read. As for descriptive detail, Beaty spends more time in the characters’ heads, exploring their thoughts and personalities, than she does describing scenery or frippery or architecture. Personally, I find it easier to “see” a scene with a bit more detail, but that’s just me. Even so, it didn’t matter. I was quickly too wrapped in Sage’s and Quinn’s struggles to notice any lack.

I truly enjoyed this story. Even if you aren’t a young adult (I’m certainly not!), this is a good fantasy set in a believable world. Traitor’s Kiss is the first book in the Traitor’s Trilogy. The second book, The Traitor’s Ruin, is due to be released in May of 2018. The third book’s release is scheduled for one year after that, but I can easily see how Beaty could carry this tale on for years, far beyond the current Sage-Quinn drama. I sincerely hope she does. It would be fun to watch how Demora and its people grow, evolve, change. But even if the Traitor’s Trilogy is all we see of this land and these characters, I’ll be watching for more fiction from Erin Beaty.

The Stone Sky

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2017
ISBN: 987-0316229241
Paperback, 464 pages

A change is coming. Whether for better or for worse, Essun cannot tell, but she has a plan to nudge astronomical events toward the side of humanity’s survival. She knows what it will mean for her, but no price is too great to pay. After a lifetime of anger and resentment and resistance, she has finally found a home among the ragged remnants of Castrima with people who care what happens to her.

Nassun also sesses the change. She, too, has a plan. But at the tender age of not-quite-eleven, Nassun has already learned that sometimes a broken thing cannot be fixed. Sometimes the best solution is to put an end to the suffering. She knows what it will mean for her, but after a lifetime of being used and mistreated and hated, Nassun believes wholeheartedly in a merciful resolution.

When mother and daughter come together on the other side of the world, the Change is imminent and the world hangs in the balance. The strange, white Moon looms overhead. Schaffa lays dying. Nassun has already set her plan in motion. And Essun must make the hardest decision of her life.

In this nail-biting conclusion to the Broken Earth Trilogy, Jemisin brings every thread from the complex Stillness narrative together in a seamless and breathtaking tapestry. From the ash-covered Rennanis high road to the deadly desert crossing, from the terrifying trip through the core of Father Earth to the clean, near-empty ruin of Corepoint, we travel alongside Essun, Nassun and Houwha as they hurtle toward convergence, the tipping point where the fate of all will be decided.

Scenes from the ancient past in Syl Anagist—where Life is sacred—lead inexorably to the breaking of the world, and the answers to all our questions. Not all at once, you understand; Jemisin metes them out in masterful storytelling style, a bit at a time, each piece full of promises that lead the reader further and further down the path to an exciting and not-quite-predictable end. By the time I reached the climax of the book, I could not put it down.

Stone Sky, and the entire Broken Earth trilogy, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of greed and self-absorption, of what happens when the advancement of the world rests solely on the repression of one group by another. The horror of the Seasons in the Stillness, and the shocking obscenities that occurred in Syl Anagist, remind us that building on the backs of others carries an inescapable price. Whether we pay it ourselves, or shunt it down the line to our ancestors, the scales will balance themselves. The only question is whether or not we are ready to accept responsibility, and do what is necessary to make things right.

Jemisin’s scenes are vivid, yes. But the thing I find most compelling about this trilogy—and this book in particular—is her visceral conveyance of emotion. When Hoa takes Essun’s offering, we feel her mixed emotions, her shift from revulsion to understanding, her sudden epiphany of where it will lead. When Nassun traverses the core of Father Earth, we share her terror and grief and loss, and the numbness that follows. When Essun faces Nassun at the climax of the book, we know what is in both their hearts, which makes the decision all the more painful for characters and readers alike. Stone Sky is a true vicarious escape into an adventure beyond anything I could ever experience here in my own world, and I am perhaps better for the journey.

Stone Sky is not a standalone tale. You must read the series from the beginning for it to make any sense. But believe me, that is not a hardship. The Broken Earth Series is an excellent tale, told in masterful style. I have no doubt that this newest book in the series will win its own Hugo, and probably others as well.

The Obelisk Gate

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2016
ISBN: 978-0316229265
Paperback, 448 pages

Essun never thought she’d want to settle anywhere for long. But Castrima sits like a jewel, deep underground, replete with air, lights, water, food, and a comm full of survivors in a land where the comless don’t survive a Season. Essun begins to think she may—may—find a home here. With Alabaster honing her skills, at least life has a point. Then an enemy approaches their gates and stirs the age-old hatreds, and suddenly Essun has more of a goal than she ever wanted.

To the South, Jija takes Nassun to be “cured.” But Nassun isn’t sick, and she knows it. Instead of “healing,” she finds the training to sharpen her already considerable orogeny, despite her father’s fear and growing hatred.

Essun knows what’s at stake. Nassun knows only that it’s all so pointless. Between them are the magical threads, the obelisks, and the Stone Eaters, whose motivations are as shadowy and hard to read as they are. With a seemingly innocent whisper, mother and daughter land in opposing camps in an ancient war whose winner will decide the fate of the human race.

In this, the second book in the Broken Earth series, Jemisin continues the excellent worldbuilding she began in The Fifth Season. Castrima over once again comes alive with boilbugs, falling ash and dying trees. Castrima under deepens with the layers of drama played out against the backdrop of its jutting points and crystalline shell. In Jekity and Found Moon, we see a satellite training station, unsanctioned by the Fulcrum, where the ashfall is still light and hope is not yet dead.

Most of the characters in this part of the tale are familiar, though Nassun and Jija we knew only by their connection to Essun in Fifth Season. Here, they are active participants whose threads begin to weave through the already complex storyline. It wasn’t hard to dislike Jija—look at what he left for Essun in the first pages of the last book—but here he fleshed out my contempt in spectacular fashion, and I found myself understanding why Nassun evolves the way she does, even empathizing with her, despite some alarming twists in her character. Schaffa surprised me most, I think; I saw some of Essun’s development coming, but not Schaffa’s. I’m quite intrigued to see where Jemisin will take him in book three.

So much happens in the pages of this book! Its intricate plot is layered with foreshadowing and peppered with details that each play their own role. Jemisin sets a masterful pace between the contemplative, slower passages and exhausting, nerve-wracking scenes, leaving this reader enthralled, and eager to read the next book. The Broken Earth series is no ordinary tale; it’s a sweeping dystopian epic and possibly a warning for our own times. Winner of the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel, The Obelisk Gate continues the tale in true Jemisin fashion. You won’t want to miss it.

The Fifth Season

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2015
ISBN: 987-0316229296
Paperback, 512 pages

In the Stillness, a land riddled with shakes and blows and hotspots, Father Earth never forgets his hatred for humans. Here, the world ends over and over in periodic Fifth Seasons, winters triggered by seismic events whose effects linger for months, years, even decades. Orogenes, trained by the Fulcrum in the art of manipulating kinetic and thermal energies, feared and hated almost universally, learn to deflect or even stop the shakes and blows as much as possible. But orogenes can’t be everywhere at once. And some orogenes don’t want to stop the destruction. They have other plans for the humans who have enslaved them.

When this Season begins, Essun saves her comm, but can’t save her son—an orogene, like her—from being killed by his own father. Now her murderous husband is missing, along with their daughter. Essun sets out through the ashfall and the end of the world to track him down and commit a murder of her own. She knows, as do other orogenes, that this Season won’t last a mere decade. This one will last a thousand years. This one is how the world ends, for the last time.

The first book in The Broken Earth series, The Fifth Season is absolutely captivating. Even though The Stillness is not a land with which we are familiar, it is enough like our own world that we can picture the landscapes and mountains and coastlines. We can relate to the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and the tragedies they sometimes bring. The Stillness might well be our own backyard. I could picture the cosmopolitan city of Yumenes and the provincial Tirimo. I could even imagine the island com of Meov, with its salt air and constant hiss of ocean sounds.

Every character is well defined, believable, and irretrievably woven into the story’s threads. Essun’s life unfolds throughout the book in various stages that jump back and forth between “before” and “after” the Season starts. Alabaster, a powerful orogene, develops in a more-or-less linear fashion through Essun’s interactions with him, yet he is still something of a mystery after the last page is turned. Alike in many ways, Essun and Alabaster are also opposites. Orogenes live precarious lives fraught with risk; some, like Alabaster, fracture under the pressure while others, like Essun, are tempered.

Other characters—humans, orogenes or stone eaters—fill realistic supporting roles that come together in complex ways, but it is always Essun we root for. She isn’t always likable, but that just made her more real. Her character develops in ways I didn’t see coming, but which made perfect sense as the story unfolded. At the end, I knew I’d seen only a hint of her power, that she was just getting warmed up.

Rich in detail and narrative tension, The Fifth Season is dystopian fantasy at its best, a masterpiece of storytelling that will draw you in and sweep you away. Jemisin absolutely deserves the Hugo award this book won for the best novel of 2016.

The Moon and the Other

By John Kessel
Saga Press, ©2017
Hardback, 608 pages

In the mid-22nd century, humans have colonized the Moon in multiple domed cities. One, the Society of Cousins, is notorious for its matriarchal social structure and free attitudes toward sexuality. Another, Persepolis, is the SoC’s opposite in every way that counts—government, use of space, attitudes toward gender and religion and business, and treatment of its citizens.

Erno, born in the SoC, rebelled at great cost and was exiled as a young man to make his own way in one of the patriarchal lunar cities. Mira came as a child with her mother to the SoC and, through a series of tragedies, is left alone and hostile to the status quo, as well as almost everyone she encounters. Carey is son to one of the SoC’s most esteemed women. Handsome, charming, athletic, he is one of the Society’s most sought-after lovers. Amestris is daughter to one of the richest, most powerful men in Persepolis and wants nothing more than to be respected for her own merits despite the fact that she’s a woman.

As the lives of these characters intersect and intertwine, tensions are growing in the SoC, where men are protesting their treatment as second-class citizens without even the right to vote. Factions clash politically, but when the patriarchal city-states send a committee to oversee the treatment of men in the SoC, the simmering cauldron erupts, changing all their lives forever.

I must admit it took me a little while to really get into this story; it starts out slow, building the societies, the settings, and the characters a little at a time. Later in my reading, I was glad for this. The Moon and the Other is a complex, detailed story with believable tech and settings that I could see in my mind, rich tapestries of social structure, and true-to-life characters with strengths and weaknesses that made them feel especially realistic. And humans being who they are, the events that unfolded in the SoC rang true to what could actually happen, given those circumstances. Perfection is a dream, even for the utopian Cousins. Still, I was charmed by their social structure. I could see myself living among them, easily.

Once I was hooked, I didn’t want to stop reading. It was clear that Kessel was leading me in a specific direction, and I wanted to know where and why. About a third of the way into it, I realized that Moon is a book of comparisons: matriarchy to patriarchy, all the varieties of human gender identity, sexual freedom with sexual repression, goddess devotion to monotheism (though these are undercurrents), open society to closed society, privilege and want, expectation and reality, and others besides. I liked this—it made the conflict even more obvious when I could see something of both sides and how the two would never, ever find common ground. It also seemed to me a fictional illustration of social issues we face right now, in 2017, and how the violence wrought by extremists colors everything that follows.

Personally, I found this book to be an excellent, if heavy, read. This ambitious sci-fi tale has left me wanting more. Even if Moon has no sequel—and I’m not sure whether it will—I’ll definitely check out Kessel’s other works.

Waking Gods: Book Two of the Themis Files

By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Ray/Random House. ©2016
ISBN: 9781101886717
Trade Paperback, 336 pages

Nine years have passed since the formation of the Earth Defense Corps. Themis, Kara and Vincent have become parade attractions, t-shirt slogans and action figures while the science team continues to probe Themis for new technologies. Everyone has begun to believe the creators of Themis haven’t noticed her discovery by humans. Everyone but the science team, and their nameless and intrepid behind-the-scenes friend. So when a second colossal robot appears in Regent’s Park in London, they are among the few who aren’t surprised.

Human nature takes only a few days to rear a fearful head; Londoners and politicians sniffing for any chance at an opening against their opponents call for decisive government action, even as calmer heads advise a wait-and-see attitude. When the fearmongers insist, British armed forces close on three sides of the park with disastrous consequences. Kara and Victor bring Themis to the rescue, to everyone’s relief.

But the reprieve is short-lived. Soon, Titans begin appearing in major cities around the world – thirteen in all. EDC leaders debate the best course of action even as the stakes rise higher with every passing day. Surely Themis is their best chance, but she can fight only one at a time. With the fate of humanity hanging by a slender thread, Victor and Kara must make life-altering choices if they are to have any chance at all.

I said after reading Sleeping Giants that it was the best book I’d read in a long time. Waking Gods carries on that same feeling. Neuvel’s transition into book two is smooth, believable, intriguing. Again, the tale is told in the form of recorded interviews, news reports, journal or log entries, and it works incredibly well. From the very beginning, tension mounts until I found myself unable to put it down. And just as with book one, Neuvel throws in a wicked twist on the very last page. Masterfully done.

Many of the same characters are continued from the first book, changed in believable ways that are consistent with the flow of the tale. A few new faces make their appearance, including little Eva, who is no ordinary child. She knows things she shouldn’t, and is much stronger than she looks, strong enough to face the Titans with no (okay, a little) fear. But when the story’s tension peaks, the path to salvation comes from a surprising source.

I learned after starting this series that the author intends it to be at least three books, so there’s a third book on the way. Not sure when it’s scheduled for release; Neuvel’s own website is pretty out of date. But Waking Gods at least ends on a solid note. There is definitely a cliff-hanger, but at least it isn’t one that will have me pacing the room until the new release. I will be watching for it, you can bet, that and the movie release. Neuvel has a real winner here. I strongly recommend it.

Sleeping Giants: Book One of the Themis Files

By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Ray/Random House. ©2016
ISBN: 9781101886717
Trade Paperback, 336 pages

11-year-old Rose Franklin sneaks out of her house to ride her new birthday bike and wakes the next morning in an enormous metal hand lying at the bottom of a deep, square hole whose walls glow turquoise light through intricate carvings. Seventeen years later, she’s the senior scientist on a team assigned to study the hand, whose every detail defies understanding. Experts discount carbon dating results, but Rose isn’t convinced. It isn’t just the age of the thing; it’s everything else. The metals of which it’s made. Its weight and design. The symbols in the hole where it was found. The turquoise light. Despite herculean efforts, the team is getting nowhere. Rose begins to believe the mystery will never be solved.

Chief Warrant Officer Kara Resnik pilots a Blackhawk helicopter on a nighttime secret mission over Syria. As she returns to Turkish airspace, she and her copilot spot strange lights in a dark field below. Moments later, her engine dies, and the chopper drops like a stone. Kara escapes from the wreckage to find an enormous metal artifact with turquoise veins of light webbing the surface. Turkey wants it. U.S. military officials claim the find is part of an old U.S. plane crash. Kara doesn’t care, either way.

But Rose does. She believes the artifacts are connected, and so do the U.S. Powers That Be. The race for control that follows changes the course of history, and upturns the lives of everyone involved.

This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time. The entire tale unfolds in bits and pieces of interviews, log entries and experiment reports which reveal details in a round-about way that worked quite well. Giants takes place on a believable global stage full of intrigue and conspiracy. Location is usually revealed at the beginning each interview, report or news article. Passage of time is revealed in the things the characters say, either to each other or in their log entries.

We are seldom in a character’s head; instead, we learn their thoughts through probing questions from the interviewer—who is never named, but who we learn is powerful enough to know connections and details he shouldn’t, who has friends in many places, and who has private conversations with the U.S. President (who’s a woman, by the way).

I thought at first that this storytelling approach would grow old fast, but I was wrong. Ironically, it seemed to make the scenes even more intimate. In fact, Neuvel weaves an artful connection between the characters that grows, adapts and evolves over the course of the book as Rose and Kara and the others spend endless hours working together to resolve the mystery of the artifacts. Breakthroughs and tragic accidents serve to bring them even closer, as well as heighten tension both for the characters and for the readers. By the end, I didn’t want to turn the last page.

It’s worth mentioning that Neuvel tried and failed to find a publisher for this excellent novel so many times that he eventually self-published. Response was so overwhelming, the publishers began to approach him, and before the book was even released, he’d already sold the movie rights. Not sure when it’s due out, but you can bet I’ll go see it.

Neuvel’s tale is so riveting, I started this book on a Tuesday morning and finished it the very next afternoon despite working a day job and numerous other interruptions. Sleeping Giants is thrilling sci-fi fantasy at its best. I can’t recommend it enough.