Keeper of the Dawn – Dianna Gunn

Novella CoverFirst Published: 18th April, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Lai has trained all her life to become a priestess, like her mother and grandmother before her. When she fails the test, she runs away and finds her people aren’t the only ones with that religion.

This is a novella of unfortunate implications. That’s going to take some explaining, so I’ll start with the simpler stuff. I’m also not talking about much which isn’t in the book description, but I’d note the official description covers most of the plot.

One thing I did like is the two cultures with the same religion are both shown as being equally religious. Often in these situations, there will be one group who are the true believers and one group with a corrupted version. Here, the goddesses are watching over them both. There isn’t one true version of the religion and they both have holes in their history knowledge.

The writing flowed along well enough. Though the story was predictable, that’s not always a bad thing for a light read. It has some adventure and some romance, which is what it promised. It did tend to jump huge chunks of time, which left gaps in the relationships and worldbuilding. None of that would have been that bad, if it wasn’t for the rest.

There’s a black/white means bad/good thing going on from the start, though it’s more subtle at the beginning. Lai is attacked by someone with black hair, when Lai has white-blond hair (described as silver and as blond at various points). The community is mostly lighter people, so the darker-haired antagonist is noticeable. Given a choice of horses, Lai chooses the white one as superior to the brown and black ones. On their own, these things might not register, but then Lai is off visiting the lands to the north, and the unfortunate implications really get going.

To understand my reservations, there needs to be some understanding of a group of connected stereotypes. They’re connected by superficial similarities in appearance, rather than the groups involved having much else in common. Often tanned, curly dark hair, hooked nose, sometimes with other features like large ears, thick lips, or tiny eyes. Things that set a person apart as different compared to lighter Northern Europeans. They can’t be trusted, they’re greedy, the men will lust after women, the women are temptresses, and they’re probably all doing some dark magic on the side. There are some variations on the theme, but it’s often difficult to separate exactly which group is being targeted, because it’s a combination of all of them. Commonly included are Jewish people, Romani people, and pagans / witches. The last of those makes more sense knowing that the early inhabitants of the British Isles had darker complexions, with pale blonds moving in later. So, with some vague handwaving to justify it, obviously all people with darker complexions are doing evil witchcraft. At a minimum, they’re very bad people.

When Lai crosses the border, she ends up working for a man called Calvin. He is a travelling merchant and is shifty from the start. I was thinking Romani stereotypes at this point. He also makes suggestive comments to Lai, despite him being married and her being a teen. This could be falling into the Romani men lusting after pure white women thing (and it happens again later, with a travelling bard, because you can’t trust travellers). But the lust thing can also be applied to Jewish men. Which brings me to how he’s really rich and hoarding wealth, which is a common Jewish stereotype. This is reinforced by northerners being monotheists. To finish off, the magic in the north has shady stuff like blood oaths going on, which comes back to the paganism and witchcraft connections.

This is all tied up with the physical side. There aren’t any hooked noses here, but there are beady eyes and northerners are overall darker (especially compared to white-blond Lai). Calvin is also fat, and described as a disgusting and gluttonous eater. An anti-fatness stereotype in itself, but one that is frequently associated with the greedy Jewish stereotypes.

I’d also note the trainee in Lai’s new home who is violently against her also happens to be the one with curly black hair. Everyone described as having black hair is antagonistic to Lai in some way.

These things are so common they’re often not noticed. Or when they are, people argue that they’re too general to pin down to one specific group as the target, so they’re not really targeting anyone. I agree the former can be tricky, as it often covers a mashup of different stereotypes. I’m sure people can pick out some I missed. But it doesn’t make the latter true. It just means the targets are widespread.

More obvious as an eyebrow-raiser is she’s a desert nomad from a culture that made amazing Ancient Near East / Rome inspired structures, and her favourite weapon appears to be Chinese butterfly knives under another name, but people from those cultures aren’t in the story. The cultural aspects are there, but not the people.

The reason I picked up the book is Lai is asexual, which is what I thought I’d be talking about. Instead, you got a long ramble about the ways stereotypes interact. But this is partly because being asexual didn’t come into it much until later. I’d have liked more tell than show here, because showing meant creepy sexual situations. Men tried to get Lai to have sex with them. The new community happens to have a fertility festival where people are supposed to have sex. It’s sort of optional, but not really, as Lai has to go to impress people and she’s coerced into dancing. The positive side is she isn’t coerced into sex and her romantic partner is okay with it once explained, though it does come with the statement that normal couples have sex. Not wanting sex was okay, but also abnormal. This was a mixed bag for me as a result. I’d have liked it a whole lot more without the creepy stuff and normality statements.

I didn’t note any disabled characters, but it’d be a bad world to be disabled, as health and fitness are assumed to be because of the gods. Priestesses have to be able to win battles to prove they’re favoured. Disease is assumed to be a divine punishment.

The worldbuilding is very binary, as men do this, and women do that, and it’s innate rather than simply being culturally enforced. In short, I don’t have a place in this world, except perhaps as the beady-eyed villain. But it does have two women in a relationship and one’s asexual, and for some readers, that might be enough.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Fourth World – Lyssa Chiavari

Fourth World CoverSeries: The Iamos Trilogy, #1
First Published: 28th December, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Isaak lives on Mars and discovers something that hints at the history of the planet. Nadin lives on Iamos and her people are threatened with destruction.

The beginning of the book focuses on Isaak, with Nadin coming into it later on. It’s clear from the start that they’re both on Mars in different times. Isaak is literally digging up Nadin’s history, as he assists on a geology dig site.

I liked the worldbuilding of Iamos. Its culture has hints of ancient Earth civilisations, but it isn’t exactly like any one of those. There’s a strict caste system, eugenics, and other markings of a totalitarian regime presenting itself as being for the good of the people.

Mars is not so strong. It felt very present day, from pop culture references to technology. I shouldn’t be able to recognise everything in a book set in the future, because there should have been new things appearing during the passage of time. Even if that’s just a new band or book series that’s the current big thing.

I enjoyed the overall story, as it focuses on how corporations and governments keep things from people for the benefit of those at the top. It’s a slow build at first as Isaak and friends figure out what’s happening, then speeds up once Nadin’s part gets going. There are some resolutions at the end, but this isn’t really a standalone story.

The cast is generally diverse when it comes to race and sexuality. Isaak is Latino and Nadin is non-white. The supporting characters are various races, and one of Isaak’s friends has two mothers. There’s some bigotry, such as slurs aimed at one of Isaak’s friends, but mostly these things are accepted without much comment.

Isaak is demisexual, which is made clear later on as he says it directly. Given that, I did wonder at Isaak suddenly going off on love and sex being what makes people human. Nadin is asexual but is still figuring it out and thinks of herself as broken. There’s some forced intimate contact (hugs and kisses). It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, as asexual people can internalise the message that love/sex are required to be human and something is wrong with them. Sexual assault is a common risk, along with blaming the asexual person for viewing it as assault. But it’s not really a portrayal with happy endings, at least as far as this book goes. It’s possible it’ll come around in future books in the series. I hope it does, because this would be a bad place to leave things.

Disability isn’t touched on in a major way. Where it’s referenced, it isn’t positive. Words like lame, spaz and moron are used. Crazy and psycho are aimed at people who might be dangerous. Isaak’s mother has motion sickness, but it’s not described that way. Instead, “she always insisted VR gave her motion sickness.” The wording casts doubt on that, as it isn’t that she has motion sickness, it’s that she says she does. As someone who gets motion sick frequently, I can assure readers that the vomit googles really do cause issues, and motion sickness is really real.

This is an entertaining read. The plot interested me enough to want to know what happens next. However, I’m cautious about where the relationships are going. The asexual experiences weren’t unrealistic, but they were realistic in a rather sad way, so there’s a lot resting on how the series resolves that.

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time – Hope Nicholson (editor)

Anthology CoverFirst Published: 24th August, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Grace L. Dillon; Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair; Richard Van Camp; Cherie Dimaline; David A. Robertson; Daniel Heath Justice; Darcie Little Badger; Gwen Benaway; Mari Kurisato; Nathan Adler; Cleo Keahna
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This anthology focuses on Native American two-spirit and QUILTBAG stories. All authors are Native, but not all of them are QUILTBAG. It opens with an introduction from the editor, followed by two pieces that introduce the theme and a little bit about the history of two-spirit people. There are eight stories and one poem, so it’s a relatively short anthology.

There are a number of reoccurring themes. Nations sending out colonists into space is one, and is handled differently in each story that raises it. Another is what makes someone a member of a tribe. “Valediction at the Star View Motel ” (Nathan Adler) has a white girl who was adopted as a child, and “Imposter Syndrome” (Mari Kurisato) is about a non-human trying to get on a colony ship. Both stories share a similar theme, of the tribe viewing a person as a member for being part of the community, and the outside not wanting to acknowledge that. I also liked that “Imposter Syndrome” has an asexual aromantic character. It’s clear this is not because she’s non-human, as another non-human wants a relationship.

A number of the stories are romances. “Né łe!” (Darcie Little Badger) was my favourite of these, as it was about slowly getting to know someone, rather than love at first sight. The concept of transporting pet dogs for wealthy colonists was also fun. A more serious note to the story is about sovereignty, and the contrast between tribes when it comes to being able to maintain it. The Navajo Nation has its own space colony. Whereas the protagonist is Lipan Apache, and her family is forced to leave their farm, with no new home in the stars.

I liked the focus on a parent and child relationship in “Legends Are Made, Not Born” (Cherie Dimaline). Auntie Dave is raising the protagonist, which includes training in two-spirit community responsibilities. It shows ties between two-spirit people outside of sexual relationships, which really shouldn’t be as rare as it is in stories.

Though there are a lot of positive things, I didn’t like “Aliens” (Richard Van Camp). Unfortunately, this was the first story, so wasn’t a good start to the anthology for me. I did like how it was told as people verbally tell stories, but I had some concerns when it was suggested that Jimmy being a gentle person who wasn’t having relationships would mean his life was forgettable. As though it’s not a proper life without sexual relationships. And then once he does have a relationship, the shift is to making fun of his genitals. It’s implied he’s intersex, though even if that wasn’t the specific identity intended, he’s still going to be in one of the groups that frequently gets reduced to being a set of genitals. Those jokes do not feel like jokes to the person constantly on the receiving end of them. Had the story been told from Jimmy’s perspective, and not treated like it was funny, I might have reacted differently. But it was from the perspective of the people doing the laughing. It was presented as a warm and positive thing. Fortunately, it’s the only story in the anthology that isn’t from the perspective of a two-spirit person.

There is some representation across the QUILTBAG, though it’s stronger on LGT than the rest. Lesbians are particularly well represented. Others are less so. I do wish the one possible intersex character had not been handled that way. The binary-gendered language of some of the stories also stood out. This is talking about both genders, rather than all genders. It’s having male roles and female roles, but no room for other roles. Which is an odd choice when the focus is on two-spirit people.

Note that some stories contain descriptions of rape and assault (particularly “Imposter Syndrome”). The term halfbreed is used in a few stories. It’s in a reclaiming context, rather than being used as an insult, but still something mixed race people might want to know is coming in advance.

It’s generally a strong anthology, with a range of approaches to speculative fiction. There are stories where the speculative elements are very light, space adventures, and fantasy. It has cultural representations that do not fall into stereotypes and othering. The QUILTBAG content was mostly good, but there were areas where it was spotty.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Texture Like Sun – Ils Greyhart

Texture Like Sun CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 21st March, 2016
Genre: Fantasy Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Liang is a painter who can pull colours from the world around him. Xerxes is an incubus, who visits people’s dreams to feed off their sexual energy. When Xerxes visits Liang’s dreams, he’s confused. All Liang wants to do is give him a comfy sweater.

Liang has been kept a prisoner for several years while he finishes a large commission. The early part introduces that situation, along with his gift of making paints from nature. But the painting plotline fades into the background most of the time. It’s mainly about his discussions with Xerxes, until it’s time for him to escape. I can’t say much about the setting as a result. The person hiring Liang is described as a Sheik. The guards wear veils. Liang comes from a country to the Northeast. There’s not a whole lot more depth to the setting, as it’s mostly glossed over and not described.

The potential unfortunate implications of the setup are mainly avoided. Incubi don’t aim to kill people. They visit dreams, have consensual dream sex for the energy, and the person wakes up tired the next day. So Xerxes isn’t running around mass murdering when he’s not visiting Liang. Xerxes also doesn’t try to force his interest after the initial advances are rejected. Once he decides he’s going to keep visiting, he accepts that it’s not going to be sexual as part of the deal.

Using exact labels won’t always come up in a story, but it would have been a lot less convoluted in this case. They have a discussion where Xerxes says he’s an incubus and explains it. Liang vaguely refers to people like him and explains it. Labelling the incubus and not the asexual person came across oddly.

It was a premise with potential, but I don’t think it hit it. I’d have liked the painting plot to have more development, including a little more action in the escape scene. The relationship was generally as cute as dressing an incubus in a sweater so he doesn’t get cold suggests it will be. But the initial humour of that imagery isn’t enough to carry a whole story.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]