Reviews: New SFF, the cities we live in, and drama

The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 ed. Jonathan Strahan. 5/5
An excellent collection of short SFF stories from writers who are now very well known and others who deserve to be. What’s especially nice about this anthology is the inclusion of stories by famous authors that haven’t been widely anthologized elsewhere, and that play against the author’s type a little bit. Strahan’s introduction is long and repetitive, and could have used considerable editing, but you can skip it and get right to the stories.

The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan. 1/5
In this mannered, 1950s-styled novel, a Bletchley Park alumna-turned-informal-spy and her husband, reunited after WWII, seek out a Soviet spy amidst the churches of London. The woman has poor communication skills, loves churches more than her husband, and is oblivious about many things, despite being called a person with great observation and pattern-finding skills; her husband is jealous, a chauvinist, and has poor communication skills; this is not a functional relationship and throughout I kept telling the woman to leave, but she didn’t. There is a lot of pressing of hands and bodies before dramatic turning away from each other, all very 1940s novels kinds of things. The spy hunt also lacks drama or much interest, and of course the spy is found to be close to home for the protagonists.

The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister. 1/5
In this novel, told through a courtroom drama and flashbacks, a young woman is in trial for the death of one of her companions in a catastrophically bad expedition to the Arctic. Virginia Reeves is hired by a wealthy woman whose husband and his crew have disappeared in the Arctic. Reeves’s background is as a guide for colonists in the American West, which does not make her the right person to lead this expedition, as the novel shows: she’s not a good leader or planner in almost every situation the author throws at her. Ultimately, members of the expedition die, Reeves is charged, and as her trial takes place, various secrets come to light. For a book about the Arctic, there’s remarkably little about the expedition’s time there; and there’s nothing that gives us any indication of why Reeves gets her nickname of “The Arctic Fury.” There’s even less about most of the other expedition members, and not nearly enough about their relationships to get any real sense of how they all operated together, or why these relationships cause such hand-wringing in Reeves’s mind. In short, this is a novel trying, perhaps, to be a bit gothic, but which just left me wondering why all of the characters were so incompetent and why I should care about any of them.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. 5/5
Black Sun is the first in a series, a powerful and compelling introduction to a SFF world based on the cultures, cities, and religions of indigenous, Pre-Columbian American civilizations. Full of detail and depth and complex, conflicted characters, it is written with great skill and beautiful timing and plotting. Everything about this feels real and immediate, and there is so much more I can’t wait to learn about the cultures presented here, the characters, and, of course, what happens next. The book ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, albeit one constructed so well that it also feels like an appropriate point to pause, so be prepared. But go read it, right now.

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars; Kurt Kohlstedt. 3/5
A nicely illustrated overview of basic architectural and civil engineering objects and design in use in modern cities, this book offers short histories and vignettes about relay stations, urban reuse, warning symbols, manhole covers, and other things we encounter in daily city life. The histories are interesting enough, but rarely include the systemic issues that have contributed to the reasons for why many things as they are; a notable omission is the fact that overpasses across the Southern State Parkway were designed to keep buses (implicitly only used by BIPOC) from accessing the beaches the Parkway went to. A section on water fountains focuses on those in the UK, sidestepping discussion of the segregated fountains of Jim Crow America. Coverage of claiming stakes in the 1800s in the US briefly mentions that the “government began to force indigenous peoples into an area called Indian Territory [….] later, tribes were again forced to relocate.” This wasn’t relocation: it was genocide. There *is* a section of curb cuts, a major accessibility issue, but it treats disability activists as inspiration porn. Overall, this is a pleasant and interesting but a bit superficial book; those who enjoy it will want to search out more detailed and nuanced materials for further reading.

Warmaidens by Kelly Coon. 2/5
I really enjoyed Coon’s Gravemaidens, the first book in this series, so I eagerly anticipated this sequel. It was, however, a disappointment. The plot is a a bit of a retread of the first book–remove the evil despot–and the characters are universally flat. They’ve all been saddled with new abilities as well as each now having a more significant flaw, but it feels like these attributes have been added as if the characters leveled up, like in D&D. The characters experience failure after failure, and while failure is great for plot, the characters need to be learning from those failures–and these never seem to do that, which is enormously frustrating. While it’s good to see that the feminist ethos of the first book is still very present, it feels much more self-conscious in this volume, often expressed through interior character monologues rather than by actions and actual conversations between characters. In addition, readers will not be able to understand what’s happening in this book, from plot to character development and relationships, without having read the first book.

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