Spelling the Hours – Rose Lemberg (editor)

Spelling the Hours CoverFull Title: Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology
First Published: 18th July, 2016
Genre: Science Poetry / Poetry Collection
Poets: Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas; Mary Alexandra Agner; Michele Bannister; Lisa M. Bradley; Sofia Samatar; Sonya Taaffe; Bogi Takács; A.J. Odasso; Lev Mirov; Mari Ness; na’amen
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This poetry collection contains twelve poems about marginalised people in science and technology. Each poem also has notes about the scientists featured in the poem, to provide some context.

“noble, nobel” (na’amen) and “Augur Effect” (A.J. Odasso) are an interesting contrast, as they cover the same three women (Lise Meiter, Chien-Shiung Wu and Jocelyn Bell Burnell). The former poem is longer and considers the specific work of each involved. I liked the shifting rhythms as it goes from areas with short lines to longer passages. The latter poem takes a more personal approach, linking the poet’s overlooked contributions to those of others, and how the poet was also part of erasing the names (however unknowingly) when writing about science. I do like that both poems were included, rather than trying to stick to one poem per scientist, as they provide very different approaches.

My favourite poem was “Madrepore” (Mari Ness). Aquarium ecology interests me as a fishkeeper, but I also liked the connections back and forth between Anna Thynne’s work and her family. Science doesn’t happen in isolation from the rest of life.

Another strong poem was “Never Cease” (Bogi Takács), which focuses on Rózsa Péter. This also handles how science interacts with life, but on a wider political scale. Rózsa was barred from her profession due to being Jewish. This is a bilingual poem in English and Hungarian.

One of the most interesting structures was “Girl Hours” (Sofia Samatar), as it’s like a scientific report in reverse. This one doesn’t have addition notes at the end, as the notes come first as part of the poem. It wasn’t my favourite in the collection, but I did like the choice of arrangement.

Some of the poems focus on named individuals. Other poems focus on anonymous contributions, such as the women employed as computers and the Nahua artists who illustrated the Florentine Codex. People included as central figures in the poems are Alan Turing, Christopher Morcom, Priscilla Fairfield Bok, Bart Bok, Anna Thynne, Agnes Pockels, Paris Pişmiş, Lise Meiter, Chien-Shiung Wu, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, James Barry, Axiothea of Phlios, Rózsa Péter and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. The cover features Mary Alice McWhinnie.

The introduction by editor Rose Lemberg comments that the poets tended to write about people they already knew about, and had some meaning for them, rather than finding out about the people they didn’t know. This did produce a range of responses, though I’d also be interested in who we might find by wandering in search of stories we didn’t know existed. An area that didn’t surface in the poems, despite some set during older history, were the accomplishments outside Europe before the impact of colonialism.

It’s a strong collection which will appeal to those who enjoy poetry with scientific themes. It delivered on its promise of highlighting marginalised people in science and technology, including a few who were new to me.

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

Chameleon Moon – RoAnna Sylver

Series: Chameleon Moon, #1
First Published: 1st October, 2014
Genre: Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

People with superpowers are kept in quarantine in the city of Parole. When an assassination goes wrong, Regan is left with amnesia, and it might have something to do with the larger issues of the city.

It’s debatable in an ensemble cast whether anyone is a main character. I’m loosely saying they’re Regan and Evelyn, as a lot of the plot and scenes revolve around their stories, even if they’re from someone else’s perspective. But other characters also have large roles, so it’s open to interpretation. This is the second edition of the book.

Regan ends up with amnesia early in the story. It’s a good handling of amnesia in general, such as Regan processing how he feels about not remembering anything, and the way the memories trickle back. If he did have his memories, the plot wouldn’t be solved in five seconds, so it’s not used in that way. The personal impact of not remembering things like his family is the primary focus.

What I wasn’t fond of was the reason for the amnesia, because it’s caused by Hans. I disliked the scenes he was in and hoped they’d be over quickly, which unfortunately, they never were. One issue is that Hans has mind powers which mean he can give people amnesia, control their minds, and is generally unstoppable. Which makes it hard for other characters to stand up to him. Hence when he’s in a scene, it’s all about him, and it’s not going to end quickly.

Part of Regan’s struggle to remember his past reveals he may be asexual, as he realises he doesn’t find others sexually attractive. He’s also a lizard person with PTSD and anxiety.

Evelyn is a superhero with singing powers. She’s a trans woman and is in a poly relationship with two other women. I’m assuming she’s non-white as her skin is described as brown. One of the things she has to face is her past. She left her birth family behind, but ends up having to return. Evelyn is misgendered by one of her family, though these scenes are brief.

There’s a lot of diversity in the cast, including a non-binary person with they pronouns, someone with a double leg amputation, and multiple non-white people (though I was uncertain of exact races). PTSD is common, along with anxiety and depression. There are some references to suicide as part of this. It’s not clear whether the characters in relationships view themselves as gay, lesbian, bi, pan and so forth. Regan’s sexuality is the only one explicitly discussed. However, the relationships tend towards same gender or binary gender with non-binary.

Some of the books I’ve had recommended to me as lighter queer reads have turned out to have a constant threat of sexual violence. This one was noted to be somewhat darker, but it managed to avoid that particular issue. It has general violence, but that violence doesn’t focus around sexual violence.

On the issue of darkness, the characters may be living in a disaster zone, but the end tends towards the hopeful rather than the tragic. Named characters have a very good chance of survival. Unnamed characters may not be so lucky.

I enjoyed a lot of things about the book. Parole is an interesting setting and it was good to find out more about the mysteries surrounding it. There’s a lot of character time, as the characters talk and figure things out. I did feel it got confusing towards the end, in terms of exactly what was happening, and everyone’s locations. I also really didn’t like Hans, particularly because his powers made it hard for anyone to resist him. But my criticisms are minor, and for the most part, I’d be interested in seeing where it goes next.

Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

Series: Wayward Children, #1
First Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Nancy has spent the last few years in the Halls of the Dead, an underworld where stillness is valued. When she returns, she ends up at a boarding school for other teenagers like her, who are longing to return to their worlds.

Contrary to the book’s official description, it’s not about children who are spat out by their portal worlds when their potential is used up. Some can return to their worlds if they find another door. Some will go back and forth many times. Which is a pity, because I liked the idea of draining children of their miracle powers like some sort of portal world vampire, but there you go.

There’s obviously a deeper system going on here, with the worlds mapped out in directions like Nonsense and Logic, but this never really gets developed. Most of the interesting setup is dropped once the murder mystery begins. Speculative murder mysteries are my thing, but this one really didn’t work for me. I figured they’d go around finding out about everyone’s worlds, in the hopes of finding clues to the killer. What actually happens is they don’t do a lot of investigating, ignore the very obvious clues, then have the answer fall into their laps at the end. Note that this is a darker mystery, so the deaths are gory and the bodies are described in detail.

Nancy is a romantic asexual person. The book attempts to explain asexuality in basic terms, but in a way that is impersonal to Nancy. It’s like a definition for someone who hasn’t heard of asexuality. Which makes it a problem when asexuality is being defined as not having a desire for sex, rather than not feeling sexual attraction. This is true for Nancy, but not for all asexual people, so it would have been better if she’d made the description personal.

The discussion of romance is rather more confused. She makes it clear she did enjoy dating when she was young enough that there wasn’t pressure for sex. She directly states she’s not aromantic. Then she goes on to describe people as being like paintings, so she doesn’t want to date because she wouldn’t date a painting. In other words, she doesn’t get into romantic relationships with people she’s not sexually attracted to, which is no one, so therefore she doesn’t date. I’m not really sure what all that was about. Maybe Nancy was confused. Maybe the author was confused. I couldn’t tell which.

However, my biggest issue with her asexuality is that it’s portrayed as a bigger problem than having returned from the Halls of the Dead. Her parents push her to date and she thinks it’s inevitable in relationships that she’ll be pressured into sex. Nancy was put into sexually awkward situations just to show her being uncomfortable, like her roommate wanting to know if Nancy wanted sex with someone, and if she could masturbate whilst Nancy was in the room. The overall feel is that it would be impossible for Nancy to exist in society as an asexual person, and so she turns her back on society.

There’s an attempt to distance Nancy’s death and stillness from asexuality, by saying a lot of people in the Halls of the Dead were sexual. Which would work better if being asexual wasn’t a reason for her to want to return there and retreat from society forever.

Nancy states she doesn’t have an eating disorder, but that’s not how it looks. She’s attempting to survive on the food that sustained her in the Halls of the Dead. That means mostly fruit juice. It’s a fantastical eating disorder for an unusual reason, but she’s still restricting her portion sizes, and this is still going to kill her. However, as it isn’t addressed as an eating disorder, there aren’t any downsides. It’s shown as rather ethereal and mysterious, which was getting a little too close to glamourising eating disorders for my liking.

One of Nancy’s new friends is Kade, who is a trans boy. He was kicked out of his world when they realised he wasn’t a girl, his parents rejected him for it, and he also faces bigoted comments at the school. The anti-trans themes weren’t unrealistic, but were rather a downer, especially considering he’s the only one who couldn’t have the happily-ever-after of going back to his perfect world.

Jack and Jill are identical twins. It avoids some tropes (they’re not telepathic linked or treated as being identical people), but does fall into others (when one twin is good the other must be bad).

There are a few non-white characters. Sumi is Japanese. Christopher is Latino. The former doesn’t get much development time, it grated that she constantly called people stupid, and I didn’t like how her story ended. The latter has some development, though I noted his world was rather Day of the Dead, linking the world to his roots in a way that doesn’t happen for the white characters. These characters exist, but it’s the white characters who are centred.

There’s an attempt to make the school mostly being girls sound less binary by blaming it on imposed gender roles, but this didn’t work for me. Nothing about “boys will be boys” would stop them disappearing through a door in an instant. It’s possible this was intended to sound ridiculous, and Kade’s experiences would suggest the portal worlds prefer girls because they’re bigots rather than there being a real gender difference. But no character challenges this at all.

Also, I never did like the trope that adults are so vastly different from children, except for old people who are just like children. This is used to justify why adults (except for old adults) can’t cope with nonsense.

I liked the concept for this a lot more than the actual story. It’s a great idea. There’s some lovely writing in places and some of the worlds were very imaginative. But it doesn’t really come together as a whole. The inclusion reads too much like it’s there to explain terms for people who don’t know them, and has some implications I don’t like very much. This is tied up in a murder mystery that isn’t very mysterious.

The Seafarer’s Kiss – Julia Ember

Seafarer's Kiss CoverFirst Published: 4nd May, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Ersel dreams of life beyond the constrictive rules of her merfolk clan. Then she finds a human stranded on the ice.

This is a retelling of The Little Mermaid following the sea witch. It’s set in colder waters with a Norse mythology feel. It follows Ersel’s developing relationship with Ragna, the young woman she finds on the ice, and the deals Ersel makes with Loki to attempt to get what she wants.

One thing that bothers me in mermaid stories is when they’re written as though they take place on land. One moment someone is swimming, and the next they’re doing something that wouldn’t work underwater. This is one of those stories. The great hall is set out like a cafeteria with tables, benches and people carrying food on trays. A bowl is thrown at someone with force. People sit and lie down the way they would on land. I did consider the option of there being some air spaces, but the only one mentioned is in the great hall, and would be above the action. A spoofy story might get away with this, but it doesn’t work when there’s an attempt at realism.

A lot of animal references are thrown in to make it sound more underwatery. This came across as superficial, rather than the way someone who lived in the water would speak. They were mainly restricted to commonly known species, rather than showing a knowledge that goes beyond what the average land person would know. Some of them also didn’t really fit the setting. For example, the simile “as fast as a zebra fish”. Zebra fish usually refers to zebra danios, which are indeed known for fast speed and darting movements. Zebra danios are tropical freshwater fish. The most likely saltwater fish are lionfish, known for their fancy fins and being venomous. These are also tropical fish. Neither really fits well into an arctic setting, and the fast-moving one is a fish merfolk wouldn’t have seen.

Merfolk culture is a restrictive patriarchy with binary gender roles. Young mermaids are rated on their fertility and considered broken if they’re infertile. The mermaids lay eggs, but the social and biological implications of that aren’t really considered. This is another time when things felt more like they took place on land, as the eggs are incubated more like bird eggs, rather than fish eggs. One of the big issues underwater is eggs rotting, so there are different considerations for fish nests.

Ersel is bisexual, which is one thing that isn’t seen as a problem in merfolk society. I wouldn’t say the relationships shown are particularly healthy. Havamal is controlling, which is addressed. Ragna and Ersel end up attacking each other. The abusive dynamic of this isn’t really addressed. It also felt like Ragna and Ersel’s relationship was mainly physical. They don’t really talk that much nor have time to form an emotional bond. It’s more about how hot it is to kiss and have sex.

Loki is genderfluid. This fits how they’re shown in mythology, but the way this is handled is not good. Loki is not the average trickster type, who can help and hinder, and is rather morally grey. Loki is evil all the way down. They’re known as the god of lies to the merfolk and everything they do is intended to be as cruel as possible. They’re the only genderfluid character in a story filled with strict binaries, and they’re the villain attempting to harm all the binary gender folk. I also disliked the strong focus on trying to gender their body anytime they appeared. Ersel sees women as having soft curves and men as having rippling muscles, so Loki’s gender is constantly being judged by those standards. This behaviour does also suggest a person isn’t really non-binary if they don’t have a body deemed to look non-binary (or the ability to shapeshift between bodies).

The story is mixed when it comes to body positivity. Ersel is fat and that’s shown as a good thing as it keeps her warm. Fat shaming isn’t a thing in merfolk society. But when she’s a human, she suddenly has slender legs. What goes for a mermaid’s body doesn’t seem to apply for a human. There’s acceptance both of Ersel’s body changes during the story, and a character who has an amputation, but the king is said to be getting ugly on the outside to match his cruel inside. So the narrative doesn’t get away from shaming bodies when someone isn’t liked.

There are a number of mute characters, though most aren’t really explored in depth. Loki is the main one, who steals voices to replace their own. Unlike the gender issues, there are other mute characters (the people who have voices taken by Loki and one other). That means it doesn’t come across as saying all mute people want to steal voices. However, I’d still have liked more depth on some of them. One in particular only appears when convenient to the plot and could have been introduced earlier.

Outside of my worldbuilding and character issues, there were parts of the story I liked. Once it got going, with Ersel trying to beat Loki at their own games, it got a lot more interesting. It wasn’t enough to overcome the other issues for me, but it did improve a lot in the second half. It was good that Ersel’s not-like-other-girls thing is eventually addressed. She’s not actually the only one who feels restricted by the society, so she’s a lot more like other girls than she realises.

I’m tougher than most on underwater books getting being underwater right, but even without that, there were issues. The portrayal of genderfluid people as liars and the abusive relationship dynamics were not good. The setting idea was potentially interesting, and nothing stood out as a major problem with the bisexual representation, but that wasn’t enough to carry it for me. Note there are off-screen rapes and pregnancy body horror, among other darker themes.

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

Pantomime – Laura Lam

Pantomime CoverSeries: Micah Grey, #1
First Published: 5th February, 2013
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Gene is the daughter of a noble family who has a secret. Micah is a runaway who joins the circus. They’re both the same person, because Gene/Micah is intersex.

There are two timelines in the book. Gene’s starts in the events leading to her running away. Micah’s starts when he visits the circus, and eventually ends up getting a job as a trainee aerialist. Often in stories like this, it’s apparent which name and pronouns are the preferred ones of the person. It isn’t in this case. Both Gene and Micah are identities put on for necessity, and neither is the whole truth. There’s a strong theme of working out how gender roles and sexuality apply. I liked that Micah’s journey was handled as something that wasn’t clear cut and that varied over time, as things like gender and sexuality are not necessarily things that are obvious and set in stone for all people. It did tend to stray into “both male and female” territory, but Micah’s society doesn’t really have a concept of non-binary anything, so it did fit as the best Micah had to describe himself. It reminded me of the ways I’d try to describe myself when I was younger.

The plot was engaging and I enjoyed reading about the circus community. The pacing was mostly there, though I did drift when the pantomime performance began. It’s difficult to make a stage play work in novel format, and I don’t feel this really did it, but it was a short part of the book.

I also liked the world. It’s relatively low tech, but there are devices left from the civilisation of the past. No one knows how they work, so once they run out of power, they can no longer be used. This also links in to a past of other species and human hybrids of various kinds. I had reservations about exactly how this was applied to Micah, but the general idea was good.

There were some areas where it didn’t work for me. A big one is Micah’s presentation as an intersex person. He runs away to avoid invasive surgery designed to make him conform to a binary sex. Micah’s problems are shown sympathetically and it’s clear that forced surgery is not the right choice. The nature of the story means that Micah manages to escape and decide what he wants, which is a positive message. The broad idea wasn’t a bad one, and does cover issues that intersex people can face. But I wasn’t too comfortable with the rest.

I haven’t found many intersex characters in speculative fiction, but where I have, they’re usually a reimagining of what humans would be like if one person could perform all reproductive processes. Technically, this is a form of ovotestes, but this isn’t how it usually looks in real life. Ovotestes doesn’t dictate a certain appearance and doesn’t mean a person can perform all reproductive processes. On the contrary, this would be extremely rare in a human. Speculative fiction usually gets around this with a handwave of magic or genetic engineering. I’m not saying this type of character should never be written, but it does seem like it’s written so often that it becomes the one true representation.

Micah is very much a fantasy intersex character. He belongs to a magical species where everyone is like Micah. This means he is not human and he is not an intersex member of his species. I’ve kept the label, and discussed Micah as belonging to that label, because it’s how he’s usually categorised in book discussions. I also think the character would be of interest to people wanting to look at intersex characters. But it’s not what I was hoping for when I read the book.

There’s an uncomfortable focus on Micah’s body. People would just happen to feel Micah’s genitals or he’d show them to people rather than explaining (and it certainly wasn’t a culture where nakedness among friends would be viewed as commonplace). It felt rather like Micah was on display to the reader. I’d also note that Micah’s concerns for being rejected due to his body don’t extend to empathy for others. Micah is rather negative about the appearance of the woman with a moustache, for example.

The choice of which circus members would be major supporting characters also didn’t sit well. The freakshow characters are there so Micah could feel bad about showing people as freaks, but they didn’t get character development. Tauro in particular stood out to me, because as well as looking a bit like a minotaur, he appears to have a developmental disability of some sort. The acrobats are non-white and don’t speak the same language as Micah, which means they’re not included in anything. The first time they appear, their movements are likened to wolves, which further removes them from being referred to as human.

The people who get the most development are white, with one of Micah’s potential love interests also being from a wealthy background. So there’s a lot of background diversity, but it only tends to come into the foreground when it’s about being QUILTBAG.

Despite all this, I generally enjoyed the book, and thought it had an interesting world and accessible writing style. It’s also still somewhat rare to have a bisexual lead or to look at gender outside of a binary framework. But it didn’t really fit what I was hoping for when it came to having an intersex character, and I wish some of the background characters had been a little less in the background. Note that there are some sexual assault themes, including an implied rape in someone’s backstory, as well as general violence.