The SFF Librarian Reviews, Apr. 2021
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so every month in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s find strange new worlds together!
Science fiction and fantasy have a happy habit of taking us out of our own heads, out of the never-ending news cycle of real life, and out of the messy and complicated world in which we all live. That is not nothing, by any means – escapism is psychologically and imaginatively important to our existence. Reality can be hard, after all, and who would blame a single one among us for wanting to occasionally run away to a different world where the greatest problems might be dragons, or evil space empires brought down by well-aimed proton torpedo shots, or quests of clear, pure heroism to destroy a magic ring and put a good king upon the throne?
At the same time, though, the SF&F genres have a long tradition of training their fantastical lenses upon the messy complications and tragedies of real life. They may not make those tragedies more palatable, but they can make them more emotionally approachable. Such a work is E. Lily Yu’s haunting and frequently devastating On Fragile Waves (Erewhon, 2021, $25.95). Yu gives her readers a modern fairy tale, complete with a child in danger making her way through a confusing and threatening world, monsters, kind companions, and a quest to find a home. It is a modern immigrant story with an air of magical realism, and it is both beautiful and sad.
“Once there was/Once there wasn’t a daughter” (3) begins the novel, and we are introduced to Firuzah, a young girl who with her family is fleeing war and death in their native Afghanistan. Buoyed by stories her father tells, Firuzah and her brother Nour travel from their home through Pakistan to Indonesia, and finally aboard a perilous trip by ramshackle boat to reach freedom and safety in Australia. The sea voyage is nightmarish, ending with a typhoon that causes the death of Firuzeh’s new friend and fellow refugee Nasima. The survivors end up on the island of Nauru, site of an immigrant detention facility run by the Australian government.
Waves is, for the most part, set in our tragic real world, where desperate immigrants risk their lives (and too often lose them) trying to cross borders in search of safety and where nations like Australia (or my own) too often shame themselves by treating refugees as criminals or penning them in detention camps. It is a confusing, jarring world for a child like Firuzeh, who in so many ways must grow up so very fast. The fantastical element of the book is a small yet recurring one, centered around Nasima, who continually appears to Firuzeh in the image of her drowned self – skin pale and cold, hair braided with kelp. Whether Nasima is “real” in any sense is really up to the reader and almost beside the point; the important thing is that she is a counselor and a warning to Firuzeh about the hostile world around her. Some of the most heart-touching parts of the novel involve conversations between the two, as this one, worth quoting at length:
Nasima said, There’s something about beginnings and endings. That polishes them so smooth you can nearly see your face in them. Then you open your hands and let them go, and the current pulls you onward and away. Behind you, those stones sink down to the mud, where no one will ever find them.
Or maybe I’ve gone crazy from not sleeping, Firuzeh said. That happened to one of my cousins during the war. Forty days without sleep, he was so scared, Atay said. Then he ran screaming out of his house and into the street. They shot him immediately. No one knows which side, but it doesn’t matter…Tell me what Australia will be like.
Cruel, but a different kind of cruelty. Lonely. Harder than you could ever imagine.
Are you sure? Have you been there?
I can hear my parents dreaming from a great distance. Like a few notes of a song you half remember when you hear someone humming it somewhere.
They’re giving us visas called T-P-Vs. The V stands for visa. I think a T-P is a kind of home.
Nasima said: I don’t remember what home means anymore.
Firuzeh said: Home is where you’re safe, but sometimes it’s not safe. Sometimes it’s not yours, but you can shut your eyes and pretend it is. And your family is there, and you fight and kiss. There’s a bar on the gates, so no one can walk in unless you invite them. And when you do invite them, you offer them tea. And home is your school and your friends and your town.
That sounds nice, Nasima said, and was silent again.
Fairy tales are like stories everywhere, in that they invite readers to consider the issues, societies, and terrors of the age in which they’re written, observed through the veil of the supernatural. Waves is no different, giving us a sadly not unusual tale of a desperate immigrant family confronting the everyday prejudices and dramatic injustices that hinder them from finding new lives such as Firuzeh describes above. The second half of the book deals with Firuzeh’s unstable immigrant life under a Temporary Protection Visa in Melbourne, she having escaped from the inhumane hell of Nauru as a fairy tale heroine eventually escapes her sleeping spell, her tower, her wicked stepmother. But in escaping, that heroine too often plunges into a deep dark forest with hidden dangers, that require her to draw on new reserves of strength and adaptability. Firuzeh is a fitting addition to this corps of involuntary adventuresses – a redoubtable young woman for whom her native stories are part of her arsenal and her baggage. As Nasima notes, “Stories go where people go…[i]n dreams, in fresh tellings, in memories.” (251)
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And speaking of fairy tales, one recurring feature of the genre is the inescapability of one’s past. Decisions that people made in the long past have a nasty habit of returning to impact the current generation – a pregnant mother desires some rapunzel from a witch’s garden, and her daughter is cursed to live forever in a tower. A widower remarries to an evil woman, and his child is marked for death and must flee to the woods. A man plucks a rose in a mysterious palace, and his beautiful daughter is given over as a bride to a Beast. (Fairy tales are particularly hard on women, one may note.) Likewise All The Murmuring Bones (Titan Books, 2021, $15.95) by A.G. Slatter features a protagonist, Miren O’Malley, trapped in a destiny shaped for her by others but too independent to be held down. Like her sister-in-Gothic-tradition Jane Eyre, Miren is no bird, and no net ensnares her. (Although given the book’s setting and her family’s past, it might be more appropriate to call her an unsnareable fish rather than a bird.)
Bones is drenched in Gothic fantasy goodness, built around a narrative framework as familiar as any fairy tale – a woman travelling through an unknown landscape, encountering magical perils that test her determination and intelligence along the way. Miren lives with her grandparents in a decaying cliffside mansion overlooking the sea; that oceanic location is no accident. The O’Malley trading family are beneficiaries in a long-time bargain with the aquatic mer people; the mer grant them prosperity and safety for their merchant vessels, in return for which the O’Malleys sacrifice a child to the mer every generation. A soulless arrangement that views the family as the highest good (indeed, the *only* good), the bargain has eroded over the years as the O’Malleys fail to produce suitable heirs and thus, their fortunes have decayed to almost nothing. The curious and independent Miren is the key to the return of O’Malley economic dominance – to prepare her for her fateful role, steps have been taken outside her control and knowledge, including the choosing as her husband a ruthless and abusive cousin who views Miren, as do her grandparents, as a means to an end and nothing more.
All of us hear voices from our past experiences (our pasts are the skeletons that support and frame what we are and what we end up becoming), telling us to go one way or another: Miren must decide over the course of the novel which murmurs she chooses to hear. The metaphorical bones that murmur for Miren throughout the book are the bones of her family history, the bones of her familial obligations, and the bones of the free and autonomous person she wants to become. In all the miles Miren covers across the narrative in her attempts to escape what others would make of her, the very land she walks on is rich with them: with long-ago things that refuse to stay silent. (To name just one example, in one harrowing chapter quite reminiscent of quest stories, Miren is forced by three hungry ghosts to solve a riddle about their fates, lest they consume her. She triumphs with the wit and cleverness of a natural heroine straight from the tales.) Bones, in the end, is a story of liberation – like the most remembered fairy tales and odysseys, the heroine or hero after enduring long suffering and battling monsters worldly and otherworldly alike, finds safe harbor in a new existence and new future. The old bones are silenced and new ones given flesh. Side note: Many of the book’s stories-within-the-story are, in fact, versions of tales from Slatter’s collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, which is a lovely little bonus for Slatter fans. You don’t have to have read these books to enjoy Murmuring Bones, but then again, you should read them simply because her writing is absolutely gorgeous.
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Imagine A Canticle for Leibowitz, but with a healthy dollop of claustrophobia, and you would have a reasonable idea of Andrew Kelly Stewart’s short novel We Shall Sing A Song Into The Deep (Tor.com, 2021, $13.99). That blurbishness sells the book short, admittedly; it really is much more that. We Shall Sing is a story of how noxious and dangerous beliefs can twist, curdle, and fossilize in an atmosphere of total isolation. When fanatics are given total control over a group of people within an inescapable environment where information is strictly one-way…well, history has certainly demonstrated over and over the disastrous outcome.
And Stewart tells of a situation more disastrous than most: decades after a devastating nuclear war, an aging American nuclear submarine travels the ocean depths. All but one of its missiles having been launched during the war, the Leviathan is sailing aimlessly (but for occasional surfacing to launch piratical attacks on passing boats of ‘Topsiders”), awaiting the sacred moment when it might fire that last missile and bring on the End of Days. The sub’s crew has been converted into a strange hybrid of Catholic monastery and fundamentalist apocalyptic cult. Elders – the former ship’s officers, led by the Caplain (a portmanteau of “captain” and “chaplain”) – direct onboard life according to traditional liturgical hours. The brothers – the crew – desperately try to keep the boat moving and the crumbling equipment functioning. The Forgotten – prisoners and punished crew members – are sentenced to a lingering death by working in the sub’s nuclear reactor room. And the Choristers are the choir of young boys, castrated so that they may sing sweetly up to Heaven. Every man on board lives for the inevitable coming of the end.
Every man, and otherwise. For the story’s narrator, Remy, is a Chorister with a secret – she is the only girl on the boat. Over the course of the novel, concealing that identity, which isolates Remy from her friends, provides her with the mental space and conditioning she needs to hold other secrets that come her way, some of them literally world-ending.
Any story set aboard a submarine is going to feel close, this one being no exception. Murphy expertly makes the reader feel the inevitable cabin fever of people at intensely close quarters with no means of escape. The unease at knowing only an aging metal shell separates you from the crushing depths of the ocean. The constant fear of having to rely on malfunctioning machinery to keep you from death. The never-ending internal worries about one’s place in the divine order of things. And, for Remy, the sense of oneself as an interloper, an aberration, an error. We Shall Sing is altogether a deeply unsettling read, but one, gratefully, tempered by moments of hope and light. As the Benedictus canticle notes, “And thou, Child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest/for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways…/To give light to them that sit in darkness.”
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Finally moving from the sea into space, but preserving the theme of oppressive religious structures, we meet The First Sister (Skybound Books, 2020, $26.00) by Linden A. Lewis. Lewis’s book is an effective weaving of multiple strands: it is a far-future space opera, a tale of political intrigue, an exploration of genderqueer relationships, and a study of the emotional traumas inherent to betrayal. That’s a great many balls to keep juggling in the air, but Lewis manages it ably and gracefully.
The story is set in a war-torn Solar System divided between the Icarii (descendants of human colonists of Mercury and Venus) and the Geans (those centered on Earth and Mars), with a third group trying its best to make its way in the shifting order – the Asters, the descendants of humans genetically engineered to survive in the harsh conditions of the Asteroid Belt. Three characters share their stories – most notably First Sister (her assigned name – her birth name is never given), the future’s version of a comfort woman serving on board the warship Juno. First Sister is an acolyte of a dominating and politically powerful religious order, that strips her of authentic autonomy, and commits her both to silence and to providing sexual release for the soldiers under her watch. It is a gray, fruitless life: as she notes, “Smile and act, smile and act, smile and act. But it is a hollow game played with puppets…Be what they want. Be what they need. Be everything for them, so that they will leave your chambers without sadness, without guilt, without lust. No distractions while they’re on duty.” (84) Her tale opens with an unexpected rejection by Juno’s outgoing captain for a new life together with her, forcing First Sister to remain on board to serve the new captain, Saito Ren, who holds her own secrets close. First Sister’s story is highly introspective, as befits one forbidden to express herself in spoken words.
The second protagonist is the enigmatic, nonbinary Hiro val Akira, a rich man’s child, soldier and deep cover operative. Finally, there is fellow soldier Lito sol Lucius, a warrior who fought his way up from the humblest of circumstances, on a mission in search of his missing comrade Hiro. Lewis skillfully strings these three disparate characters – each one marked by different levels of exposure to different levels of a secretive, objectifying society – together in a story that delves into the limits that humans endure in order to establish a place of safety, comfort, and agency, and to find warmth in a cold universe. The book is the first of an eventual trilogy, and I, for one, will be anxiously awaiting the fallout from the dramatic disruptions of an unjust social and political order that Lewis brings the reader with such flair, pace, and emotional depth.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. The author and editor have worked together in the past on another publication. No review copies were arranged by ARB.
The cover image is by Tomáš Matouš.