Category Archives: Reviews

Review: “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” (Short story)

I don’t normally review short stories because I read quite a few and I don’t often get time to reflect on them and write up those reflections here, but I’m making an exception, in part because this is a pretty exceptional story (and in part motivated by a tone-deaf review I read which seemed to miss the point of this story completely. I won’t link to it. If you’re desperate to know, trawl my Twitter feed for my reaction).

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies appears in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 13.

You can read it (or listen to it) here: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/talons-can-crush-galaxies/

issue13coverv2_large
(Cover art by Julie Dillon, www.juliedillonart.com)

I first read Brooke Bolander’s work with her rightfully acclaimed And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead, which was published in Lightspeed Issue 57 (Feb 2015). That story went on to be a finalist for Nebula and Hugo and set a high bar.

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead - illustration by Galen Dara
(Art by Galen Dara, 2015, which accompanied Bolander’s story in Lightspeed, 57)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies is a much different story, and much shorter, but it packs much of the same punch.

Bolander has a talent for an opening. In And You Shall Know Her… that was in a first paragraph with deep hooks in it. Here, she has boiled that down to one sentence:

“This is not the story of how he killed me, thank fuck.”

One of the most remarkable features of this story is how compact it is. It comes in at barely more than 1,000 words, but it’s full to the brim. It’s as lean and muscular as a prizefighter, not a word wasted.

Bolander’s opening paragraph makes the thematic purpose clear. For all the otherworldly elements, (copper feathers, wing stubs, immortality, multiple realities, black holes and parallel universes, to name but a few), this is a story about our world: a world in which the victims of violence become anonymised and the perpetrators become celebrities, where women’s brutalised bodies are ignored at best, displayed as warnings or entertainment at worst, and where excuses are found for nice boys from good families.

But while the reader can make connections between this story and the Stanford rapist, the Steubenville rapists, the likes of Ted Bundy, this is not a story about them. It’s a story which deliberately and explicitly ignores any temptation to sympathise with, or even to explain or understand, guys like that. It doesn’t want to tell their tale. This is someone else’s story; not theirs.

With theme established, Bolander delivers the main narrative in sparse but descriptive detail. Each piece of information is a bullet-point on a list, and we as readers must bring these discrete facts together. We co-create the narrative. I’m not always convinced by this as a story-telling form, but this proves that the technique–done well–carries power.

The final paragraphs bring it all back together, and broaden the scope from the gritty detail to the epic scale suggested by the title.

This is an excellent short story. A galaxy full of stars for it, from me, provided it is a small galaxy with 5 stars in it (or a crushed galaxy, perhaps, wherein 5 stars remain).

 

 


Review: ‘Road Brothers’ by Mark Lawrence

Disclaimer — All the way back in 2013, elsewhere on this site, I sung the praises of Mark Lawrence‘s Grimdark Fantasy trilogy, the books of the Thorns: Prince, King, Emperor. They’re very good. If you haven’t read them and you like that sort of thing, you should check them out. Unexpectedly, my faint voice of high praise reached Lawrence himself and he has such a commendably fine memory (or perhaps more commendably, fine record keeping practices) that he offered me the opportunity to read ‘Road Brothers’ a little earlier than many and for free. He didn’t specifically ask for a review (I don’t think), but I intend to give one and in the interests of open transparency, I felt you should know about how I came to read it. I judge this a fair & frank review, but you’re welcome to make your own judgement too.

First, the spoiler-free:
This is a collection of short stories set in Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ and featuring characters from the two series he has set in that world.
If you know these characters, you learn a lot more about them, get to spend more time with them, understand their histories, gain insights into the thoughts and motivations which inform their actions… all of which is great if you’ve read the earlier books. I have, and I enjoyed (most) of these stories largely for those reasons. More on that later.
I wouldn’t recommend this collection as an entry-point to Lawrence’s work, but in this I’m in accord with the author himself. It opens with the advice to people who haven’t read his earlier work, and who are picking this up without that existing familiarity with his world and characters, not to buy the book.
The author. Telling potential readers. Do not buy this book.

It’s a gutsy move, but consistent with a similarly gutsy decision Lawrence made at the end of his first series and explained in the postscript of Emperor.
So if you’ve read Lawrence’s other books, this is definitely worth your time and money. If not, look elsewhere first and come back to ‘Road Brothers‘ when you’re ready.
Spoilers ahead:
image via Goodreads

image via Goodreads

You’ve been warned
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.
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The positives:
Much of this is exactly what you are expecting, and that’s likely a good thing, because you’re expecting well crafted stories with a strong sense of character and a a bit of black humour and a hard edge and difficult moralities. This book delivers all that. Blood, betrayal, lies deception, the callous and banal cruelties of which humanity is so exceedingly capable. Weak men pretending at strength, strong men worn down, widowers and one-time fathers bearing the great burden of inconsolable grief.

Lawrence has a gift for metaphor and simile. He scatters quotable bon mots and wry observation throughout these stories. He often holds up a critical mirror to our own world in the world of his Broken Empire. He asks if ours is less Broken, after all.

To the complaints:

There are flawed and burdened and broken women here, but significantly fewer of them and cast in lesser roles. In some stories, none at all. In others stories perfunctory or peripheral appearances. This is ‘Road Brothers’ after all, but Lawrence’s female characters are so significant and complex and interesting in his novel-length trilogies that their absence (or at least their lack of centrality) is felt here. It’s not that he can’t write women well, it’s just that here he doesn’t seem as interested in their stories as in the stories of his men.
If binge-reading, these stories take on a sense which might be called ‘consistency’ but is perhaps more a sense of sameness. Again the village raided. Again the murdered family. Again the man’s need for revenge. Again the witty remark, the clever ploy, the fortunate hand of fate. Always, always, burning thatch. Lawrence here burns a hell of a lot of fictional thatch.
This complaint only occurred when I read several end-on-end. When I spaced things out, about a story a week, the problem wasn’t so apparent.
My top three stories (and an honourable mention):
Sleeping Beauty
Know Thyself
Rescue
Bad Seed
To the specifics:
Below, my thoughts story by story. I took these notes contemporaneously, sometimes immediately upon finishing the story, sometimes as I was reading. I’ve cleaned them up for spelling, grammar, etc, but they’re otherwise my thoughts as they occurred.
Rescue –  Makin’s story. Very short. Effectively three scenes and heavy on memories and Makin’s internal thoughts. It becomes, quickly, Jorg’s story, even while Jorg takes no action within it. Makin loses centrality in his own story. Does a good job explaining his back-story and his loyalty/connection to Jorg.
Sleeping Beauty– This was a strong story, and perhaps because of being back in Jorg’s head and in first-person it felt more familiar to the Broken Empire. I got Resident Evil vibes from the bunker. Lawrence intertwined sci-fi and fantasy elements well (as he does in his long form writing) with the additional thread of the fairytales. The Goldilocks diversion wasn’t necessary to the tale, but worked. The revelations about the hook briars was good, but does this retcon his scars from the novels?
Bad Seed – great first line drops always to a slow build, and the little play on the 6th Sense twist is obvious early but confirmed late (in the sense it was confirmed after being obvious to the reader for too long. Guessing the twist a moment before the reveal is exciting. Guessing it and waiting on the ever-more-obviously-inevitable reveal, less so). The gap between childhood and adulthood is well-written. The loss of the family in a manner repetitive to others (Makin’s notably) felt unnecessary. We had no real connection to wife/sons, so would a burnt house not be enough to set him off? If he’s a natural born killer, why does he need the family-loss motivation? Surely the soldiers’ arrivals are sufficient motivation. He wanted to go to war, but war came to him. The scene in the field was very good, but the latter fight (1 v 6) was best when it was general ‘he threw himself amongst them’, rather than the blow-by-blow which slowed things down and made it all a little overly described. This especially the case when those blows rang at odds with a farmer who had done no violence for years. Throwing the perfect sword stab, sliding and cutting…
The skill in the writing elevated the story. The passage on a farmer’s relationship to killing (as contrast to soldiers’), and on tendons and slaughter and such were all poignant and offered depth to the narrative.
The frisson of meeting Jorg through Red Kent was good fan-service, as was the explanation for the name as a growth from the Old Tongue. Unlike Makin’s this was Red Kent’s story throughout.
Nature of the Beast: Sabitha (as with Lynch’s Locke Lamora stories?) It’s interesting that Rike’s story is not in his head (as others have been). The author’s note at the end of the story addresses this. Afemale first person protagonist, but even with a view from within her head, she’s secondary. This is not her story; it’s Rike’s. More burning thatch. Stakes are suddenly life and death and why we should care about either is never well established. We’re not sure if we should care about her curse or her death, and we’re given no real reason why we should. The curse is the link back to the main books, but while thematically ambitious (that compassion is a curse and a cause of suffering) I would have loved more exploration of that theme. Without it, the curse loses some of its gravitas.
Select Mode:
I had read this before as stand-alone.
Now, as then, this seems an earlier effort. I’m not sure where it comes in ML’s writing chronology, but the prose seems an earlier iteration, less practised and assured than he becomes with experience. I like the concepts here, of slow time, of the post-apocalyptic ruins, of meaning created in misunderstanding. But overall, for reasons I’m not sure I can entirely explain, I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I was intrigued by those elements of it.
Mercy
Another Makin story?
Oh. It’s a Gorlan story. Did we head-hop, or was that my misreading from the start?
And that ending left me wondering what was the point of having read it. Some minor tweak late to misdirect the real threat from a known character to an unknown? It then became a climax played out between two characters I didn’t care much about because they hadn’t been made important to me. Both were significant only in how they related to Makin. Put him in and his gravity pulls the narrative toward him. Take him out and the vacuum he leaves is too great.
A Good Name.
Intriguing first line. Concern creeps in that this is going to be mired in noble savage tropes, but I think Lawrence avoids falling for that. The exoticism is filtered throughout the story, rather than dwelt upon or fethisized. Usually, this is done deftly, but sometimes with a heavy hand. Snaga’s introduction is at best a convenient contrivance. I don’t get Harrac’s motivation here. He didn’t want to wait a few hours but then he gives years in service with Snaga. Why? Then a head-hop? It’s Snaga’s story now? Only briefly.
I loved the character in the Broken Empire books and he fascianted me for his (seemingly misplaced) loyalty to Jorg and in Jorg’s dependence on him. Here, with his younger version, I didn’t feel the same way. He didn’t feel like the same character, whereas the farmer who would become Red Kent felt like Red Kent even before he was (that makes sense, trust me). Younger Rike was obviously Rike. Makin too.
Choices:
Lawrence does an opening line really well, but some feel as though they were crafted independently of the story they open and then bolted on to draw the reader in. Gorgoth and… Jane. What were those parents thinking? That’s a strange pair of names to give. The ‘darkness is patient…’ line is a killer line. Lawrence sure knows how to write those lines. The descriptions here are well done, and I like the quest/journey through the ruins. It has a little the feel of a video game. The fight scene with the bot is a bit silly/contrived. Sudden introduction of Jorg feels rushed/forced.
The Secret:
The different structure here offers promise. The narrative within a narrative, interwoven timeframes, flashing back and forward. It’s good to see Lawrence experimenting with form. His novels and several of these stories are first person perspective, so this is a fresh approach.
The ‘lie’ which Sim reveals was revealed far before the narrative means to reveal it, or perhaps was obvious enough that the reader should have been expected to ‘get it’ before being given it. The explanation of Sim’s diversion is unnecessary. Again Jorg twists the piece to himself.
Know Thyself:
Where Jorg’s presence, or even nearness, seemed to drag other stories off their tracks a little, here he is at once absent and central from the start. It is Jorg’s actions which provoke the narrative here and thus he belongs in the gravity well of the story. Where elsewhere (to varying degrees) he felt like an intruder, here he truly belongs.
But it did make me think of the dog (Justice) again and I never wanted to think of the dog again.
Gomst is an interesting character and the hints at an interesting past are deft and full of intrigue.
I like that the focus shifts from Jorg to William, and that it is through Jorg that we get the first earnings of William
Hope you enjoyed the review. If you’ve read this far you’ve probably read the stories already, but if you just skipped to the end for my verdict it is thus:
This is a good collection of Grimdark Fantasy stories which I’d happily recommend to fans of the genre and of Lawrence’s other work.

‘Illuminae’ Review

In the interests of full disclosure, the authors of this are known to me: I met Amie at a convention some years ago and have kept contact with her (infrequently and mostly electronically) ever since. I was invited to a launch in Melbourne, where I met Jay. I think they’re both great authors and great people, so to the extent that those opinions affected my reading of their book, I declare my bias.

I’m going to (do my very best to) keep this spoiler-free, so read ahead freely, whether you’ve read the book or not.

 

Credit: amiekaufman.com

Credit: amiekaufman.com

 

Firstly, ‘Illuminae’ is a beautiful book. It is a triumph of type-setting and visual text effects. It is creative and chaotic in a wonderful way, playing with form and experimenting with the construction of each page. It shifts between text-types, one moment you’re reading emails, the next a transcript of an interview, the next a chat log, the next a scientific report. This potentially confusing collision is expertly handled, so that the narrative is formed from each of these things in part and from their interaction and overlap. It’s a method for a modern age, an information age, where a great volume of seemingly disconnected facts are made to coalesce into meaning by their relationship to each other, and the inferences of the reader.

The construction of the novel suits its audience. It is clearly and primarily meant for Young Adults, but I am far from young, and I found it engaging and interesting. It does not condescend. The foul language is redacted by black bars (a conceit allowed by the central conceit that this novel is a collected dossier of documents, and that the person for whom it is being collected has asked for the swearing to be censored) but not entirely absent. Like the narrative more generally, it is hinted at on the page but exists really in the mind of the reader. Other than this allowance to the YA audience, this novel would not be out of place on adult shelves. It deals with deep emotion and the ideas it explores have complexity and meaning: the value of love, sacrificing the few for the many, the strength of familial bonds, the human response to tragedy.

The narrative itself starts as a fractured romance, two young lovers, separated by circumstance, on a quest perhaps to find one another again and make amends for past mistakes. Or perhaps not. With ‘Illuminae’ there’s the sense that it will be free to pick its own direction, should it wish. The threat or promise of subversion runs through it at every stage. As with the different forms it takes, ‘Illuminae’ has a free approach to genre. Strong Sci-Fi elements complement the Romance and provide a foundation for elements of Horror and Mystery. It is each of these things, at various stages, and none exclusively.

The characters are well-drawn, and I found myself invested in both Ezra and Kady, and in them as a couple. It is well-balanced, but ultimately Kady’s story, more than Ezra’s. Of note, the secondary characters are plentiful and support the main cast well. Each is given a sense that they have a story of their own, and a life of their own, beyond the text. They don’t exist merely to serve the protagonists. Details of each life are provided, often to heighten the tragedy of death or to raise the stakes of a conundrum. The author’s drew upon their friends for the many hundred names and identities they needed, but there are also nice little pop cultural references, characters with namesakes from The Wire, or from the author’s favourite bands. These provide Easter eggs which reward the attentive reader.

The plot has plenty of twists and turns, meandering at a relatively sedate pace in the early stages before shifting into high gear and delivering a fast-paced, page-turning, late-night, one-more-chapter-Mum, final act. There are questions to be answered, false leads, double-crosses, betrayals, confusion, misunderstandings. Most impressive were the shifting alliances, the way a character could be seen differently by the different protagonists, or the way a seemingly irredeemable character would be given an opportunity to redeem themselves. The form helps here, in that we can head-hop with relative ease and see from multiple perspectives. This is more so the case in the first half, whereas the last half of the book beds us down into a more traditional (albeit nearly omniscient) narrator.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Illuminae’, and would recommend it without hesitation. Certainly it’s a great book for the teen in your house or in your life. For anyone with a creative mind, or an interest in narrative craft, it serves as a fascinating exploration of the possibilities of form and alternative modes of storytelling.


Mad Max: Fury Road.

Quick, spoiler-free, spiel:

You need to see this film, and you need to see it on a big screen. It is a work of art. It is a spectacle of action. You will have heard, I assume, that this film is visually stunning. It is. The aesthetic of the world is as relentless as the action within. You need only watch the trailers, or see the posters, as the one above, to know what this film offers visually.
The plot is simple, but in the sense of being clear and direct within a limited framework. This is a good thing. The stakes are clear from early on, and the majority of the film concerns itself with the relentless action of the chase at its heart. Our (anti-)heroes have a clear goal, our villains are direct in their efforts to disrupt this.
It is balls-to-the-wall insane, and gloriously so.
If you have not yet seen the film, do not read on, there are spoilers everywhere below the jump. Go see it, then come back. Have fun. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Spoilers below:

The first sense you get of this film being something special is in the sheer scale of it. Miller is willing, often, to dwarf the convoy-chase which is at the heart of the narrative with shots of such vast emptiness that the vehicles, let alone the people within, are mere specks.
But the film is one of competing scales. So much of it is over-the-top, dialed to 11, grandiose and epic. Yet within this, Miller positions his characters in cramped and crowded spaces: the tunnels of Immortan Joe’s citadel, the can of the war-rig, the hidden passages within. The War-rig is at once too big to stop, and too small to hold its cargo: Furiosa, Max, the wives, Nux, and later the Vuvalini. Miller zooms in on the small-scale for moments of character too. Max’s tragically premature thumbs-up, Furiosa’s concerned gaze, Nux’s transitional moment with one of the wives (I think Capable). When Furiosa realises that her dream of a return to the green place is impossible, she is alone in the sand, as is Max when he realises that he cannot yet make his own way while Furiosa remains unredeemed.

In the beginning, though, there is little by way of establishing character or setting. Max is introduced with a monologue, alone, and is for reasons unknown and unimportant briefly pursued and captured.
Furiosa makes her entrance entering the war-rig to which her fate will be bound for the majority of the film. She turns off her allotted course abruptly, and we – like her war boys – are made to guess at her motives.
Quickly enough the chase is on, and nothing else really matters.
The vehicles are each a work of brutalist art, each amalgams of other vehicles, welded and bolted together, the demented dreams of mad mechanics. The fashions, likewise, stylised. The faces and bodies of the characters mis-sharpen, scarred, diseased, dirty. Furiosa’s amputation is much less disturbing than the misshapen bodies that follow her, these distended, swollen, broken, tumourous, inhumans.
The vehicular mayhem is impressive for the visceral reality Miller brings to the screen. The minimalist use of CGI gives real physicality to the action. The chase proceeds with the weight of careening steel and the roaring pace of fuel-injected V8s (often dual V8s, joined at the gearbox just as the lizard of the opening was a who headed beast with a single body). Cars and trucks go cartwheeling, crashing, crunching, colliding. Bodies leap, tumble, fall, are thrown to an unforgiving earth. Flames and explosions and always at full throttle.
There is power in the brutal physics which cartoonish CGI can never match, no matter the verisimilitude of its unreality.
It is undeniably a violent film, and yet Miller does not revel in gore, indeed he pans away from it several times, keeps it off screen. Max sees The Splendid Angharad go beneath Joe’s wheels, but we do not. The premature caesarean is not shown. Max returns from a distant explosion bathed in blood not his own, but we don’t see how he came to be wearing it. Immortan Joe’s torn face is briefly glimpsed, but mostly hidden. The film has an R rating in America (18+) but MA here in Australia (15+) and in the UK.
The film has been called a feminist action movie. In some ways this is reductive, in others it is explicitly so. It was hard not to think of the Bechdel test as Furiosa returns to the Vuvalini. While the two men (described merely as dependable/reliable – I can’t recall the exact quote on one viewing) wait in the war-rig, the screen is filled with women, 12 of them, multi-generational, discussing their world and their place in it, their history and their future.
But Bechdel is a limited metric to meet. Even more than leaping this low bar, in Fury Road it is the women who have agency, more so than the war boys such as Nux, certainly more so than the ‘blood-bag’ Max from the first part of the chase. Max’s destiny is shaped by his imprisonment, and by the decisions of others, especially Nux. In turn, Nux is manipulated by Joe’s deceit, his path chosen for him.
Not so Furiosa, nor the wives. They have re-shaped their destiny, have broken free of their imprisonments, and by their own power. No supernatural fortune. No rescuer come to their aid. It is revealed that The Splendid Angharad  had been agitating for escape and speaking against the objectification of herself and the other wives. The wives were not stolen or abducted by Furiosa, but that they begged her to take them with her.
Acquiescing was Furiosa’s decision, as was the moment she turned from the road between the Citadel and Gastown. She knew the risks and made the decision. She acted, and it was her act that initiated the chase and in cascading cause and effect drew Max and Nux into her story.
Later, when Max establishes his plan for return and redemption (which was always Furiosa’s goal, not his own, as the final shots of the film demonstrate), it is Furiosa’s agreement, on advice from the other women, which transforms the plan from thought to action.
More powerful even than the women’s screen presence and agency, is the respect they are afforded, both by Max, and by Miller.
The film also features a cast of scantily-clad supermodels, and at one point Megan Gale naked, yet Miller does not encourage the viewer to see them through a sexual lens. Even white-clad and wet in the desert, the wives are not objects of Max’s desire, and though Joe wants their return it is not framed in terms of his sexual desire for them. Undoubtedly he has impregnated them, or at least one of them, against their will. In this he is rapist, and they are survivors of rape, but the film clearly frames this as a battle for their reproductive powers, rather than revenge or retaliation. They do not wish to destroy Joe, only to escape him. They forgive his war-boy Nux, keeping him from being killed, despite Nux’s earlier attempts to return them to their prison. The wives are revolting against their objectification, against a life in which they are nothing more wombs. This is explicit in the graffiti they leave in the prison where Joe had kept them.
Likewise, Miller does not subject any of his female characters to rape, or threats of rape. They are not denigrated as bitches or whores or subjected to sexist degradation. It is not an assumed part of the world that rape is tolerated, or that it even occurs outside of the forced breeding by Immortan Joe. Even this is not presented as a sexual act, but as an act of control, literally an attempt to control resources, in the same way that he controls water. Women can reproduce, and that is their value to Joe, just as the women producing mothers’ milk (seen early in the film as a resource for Joe, at the end of the film it is these mothers who release the water for the people, freeing themselves and the water from Joe’s control).
It makes Joe undeniably the villain, but for the same reasons that his hoarding water and food while others starve make him villainous. It is a crime not only against the women, but against the whole community (as indeed rape is).
Miller has his women fighting in the front line, and in each case they hold their own. They fight without fear or favour. The Vuvalini, the wives, and especially Furiosa. Here is a character who could be so easily disempowered by the narrative, both as woman and as amputee, and especially when Max arrives. But Miller doesn’t have Max take her leadership from her. He becomes at times a tool at her disposal, eventually, at most, her trusted equal.
This is the respect Max shows. When he first approaches the women, he respects the threat they represent. He doesn’t allow Furiosa to come near him with the bolt-cutters, making one of the wives bring them instead. Even down the barrel of a shotgun (unloaded, in a beautiful nod to mad Max 2), and even without her bionic hand attached, Max marks her as a threat. And he is right to. Despite his precautions, she attacks. She does not hesitate to pull the trigger. The fight scene that follows was amazing in its choreography, and in how it managed the various pugilists. The interplay between Max and Furiosa, and between Nux and the wives and the combinations between, was magnificent.
Later, with one shot left and having missed twice already, Max knows that Furiosa should take the shot. She does, and she makes it where he could not. She was the superior marksman (pun intended). Max accepted this without comment or complaint. He did not see this as an insult or a challenge to his masculinity (unlike some of the MRA complaining in his behalf). He respected Furiosa’s skills. Just as they took turns driving or repairing the war-rig.
In short, I loved this film.

I loved it for the cars and the crashes, for the explosions, for the insane stunts and the sheer brutal reality of them.

I loved it for its epic sandstorm and fire tornadoes that could lift a car.

I loved the madness if it all, the doof warrior harnessed and blasting guitar riffs across the already blasted landscape.

I loved that it was a Mad Max film, like the final chase in Mad Max 2 (Road Warrior) dialed up and up until there was no scale for it to fit.
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I loved that in one split second, in Max’s flashbacks, we saw Toecutter’s bulging eyes again, just as we did near the end if the first Mad Max in 1979. (and because Immortan Joe and The Toecutter were both Hugh Keays-Byrne)I loved that Furiosa stood at the end, eye swollen closed (in another wonderful nod to Mad Max 2: Road Warrior).

I loved the mad war-boys screaming ‘Witness!’ and plunging to suicidal glory.
I loved Charlize Theron kicking arse, and Megan Gale too – briefly.
I loved the biker gang of septuagenarian women who hoarded seeds but weren’t above killing for the right cause.
I loved the brutal hand-to-hand.
What didn’t I love?
Not much.
Hardy was kind of in and out. His accent was sometimes pseudo-Australian, other times not even nearly. At one point he delivered a line (I’m not sure which, in the cab of the war-rig about 3/4 through the film) where he seemed to be doing his Bane voice.
Furiosa made a miraculous recovery from a stab wound and a collapsed lung. Another stab cured her. And a blood transfusion. I guess her and Max were the same blood type? Or something?
(Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Max is established as a universal blood donor in the opening sequence by the tattoos Joe’s War-boys put on him. I must have missed that detail. Even my minor quibbles are invalid.)
I’m quibbling. No one cared about that. We forgive our films those details for the sake of an heroic closing image.

2014 reading: Short Stories.

I fell well short of my goal to read 100 short stories in 2014. Two stories a week, every week, sounded manageable. It wasn’t. This year I’m going for 52 shorts stories: One a week.

My reviews of (most of) the 2014 stories I read are here, with links to the stories where they’re available online.

January:

“A Letter from Your Mother” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley in Daily Science Fiction (DSF) was a good little flash fiction in epistolary form that used one voice to develop two well realised characters and the relationship between them.

“The night my Dad became English” by Joseph O’Connor in the Irish Independent was a reflective piece from a son to his father, which touched on issues of family, identity, nation-hood and those decisions we make in our lives which shape who we are to be.

“In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape” by Jeremiah Tolbert inLightspeed Magazine mixed a lot of stylistic and genre ingredients – some quite new, others a little cliched – into an interesting near-future sci-fi about our place in the universe.

“Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge in the Lightspeed Magazine was a Fantasy piece exploring the meaning of divinity and the role of the deity in societies. It had a number of imaginative elements in its world, and was stylistically like a parable or myth more so than a modern narrative.

“After the Trains Stopped” by J Kyle Turner in DSF was a great story about an Artificially Intelligent (and empathetic) factory.  It developed its central premise (and character) well, but for me its greatest strength was the creeping Horror element.

“The Next Generation” by Michael Adam Robson in DSF was a short sci-fi in the old-school sense of a scientist struggling with the moral implications of his invention. It runs along a relatively predictable path where the creation surpasses its creator, and the last line lays on the moral a little thick.

February:

“Baby Feet” by Rene Sears in DSF was a sci-fi invasion story told from an interesting perspective. I really engaged with the character and her circumstances. Unfortunately the ending came in thick lumps of expository dialogue.

“Saltcedars” by Shannon Peavey in DSF was an alternative world fantasy with an interesting central concept. The world was nicely built and the main character realised. It was well crafted and structured, right until the final sentence, which I think dropped with a clunk and robbed the ending of some of its power.

“Mermaid” by Jonathan Schneeweis in DSF was the second mermaid-related story I have read in the last few weeks, and I think the better of the two, despite – or perhaps because of – being less complex. There is some foreshadowing which is a little too obvious, but the turn in the narrative was good and the recurring motif of the counting of ribs was a nice way to tie it all together.

“The Seventeen Executions of Signore Don Vashta” by Peter M Ballin DSF was an excellent tale of an unlikely friendship between a man who would not stay dead and the man who was once his executioner. In the interests of full disclosure, I know Peter through a friend. The quality of this story though should speak for itself. The narrative voice is engaging and the development of the relationship between the characters very well handled.

“The Devil as a White Swan” by Jane Ormond in Machines Will Not Give Change (a print anthology produced by Cardigan Press) is a more Lit-fic flash fiction about a gift given by an insensitive man and the relationship break-up that precipitates. It’s a flash fiction piece, at about 500 words, and opens with a strong tone, but I found the first person subjective a little suffocating and the inner monologue was hard for me to relate to.

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” by LaShawn M. Wanak in Strange Horizons was a story about the ways we can change our lives. The central premise seemed initially to be quite limited, but Wanak took it into such interesting dimensions. The narrator, and the narrator’s mother, worked well together to give opposing perspectives on the phenomenon of the spiral staircases, and the style made palatable what might otherwise have been heavy-handed symbolism. It took me a few false starts, but I really enjoyed this one.

March:

“Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado in Strange Horizons was amazing. The story is kinda NSFW, tracing the life of the narrator through her sexual encounters, but not graphic. Machado allows the back-story to come through gradually, seeping into the tale and growing – dare I say spreading – until it overwhelms. I sat a moment after reading this and just appreciated it. Really a great piece of writing.

“Walking Home” by Catherine Krahe in DSF had a well-realised protagonist whom it was easy to empathise with. The fantasy elements were minimal and had little direct influence on the plot, but there was a sense of the setting being second-world and the world building was revealed gradually to have depth and texture. It seemed to take a while to get going, and to end abruptly, but I enjoyed it.

“Litany of the Family Bean” by Gemma Files in Strange Horizons is not actually a short story, it being filed under poetry, but I include it here because it did feel as if it had narrative qualities and the setting and characters I found fascinating. The use of language early in the piece was evocative and drew me in. The shock value of the opening  fell away quickly, replaced by a curiosity which wasn’t quite sated. Always leave them wanting more, I suppose.

“How to Become a Robot” by A.Merc Rustad in Scigentasy used a variety of story-telling forms and techniques to assemble an interesting narrative which explored gender and identity and belonging. Strong characterization and surprisingly effective use of 1st and 2nd person shifts.
“Like Bread” by Patricia Russo in SQ Mag was character focused with a sense of otherworldliness. Interesting structure which allowed for foreshadowing and a building of tension/suspense.
“The Church of Asag” by Cameron Trost in SQ Ma was built on a good concept, with interesting use of setting. At times overly direct in exposition. Rushed/unsatisfying ending.
“Codename Delphi” by Linda Nagata in Lightspeed was Sci-Fi (ish). Near future with a focus on remote and drone warfare. Well structured and communicated the frenetic balancing act well. Simple, linear plot.
April :
“The Final Girl” by Shira Lipkin in Strange Horizons was a good meta-horror piece, reminiscent both of Freddy Kruger and Whedon’s Cabin.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Childrenby Gabriel Garcia Marquez was just wonderful. Utterly wonderful.
“The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick  inLightspeed has a really fascinating opening, but then let’s fall away some of its most original images and concepts and almost – thankfully never entirely – reverts to familiar tropes. Some cliche moments drop in with a thud, but engaging and interesting throughout.
“Select Mode” by Mark Lawrence and available for free on his websiteprovides a good example of Jorg’s voice and Lawrence’s style, and of the fusion of Fantasy and SciFi typical in his work.
“Alsiso” by KJ Bishop in Lightspeed was a narrative without a protagonist, unless a lexeme can be protagonist. Tracing the history of a word through elevation, deterioration, semantic shift and all manner of reclassifications and transmutations, the author gives an insight into an evolving culture that makes it’s way from foreign to familiar. Cleverly written and enjoyable to read.
May:
“Zombie” by Chuck Palahniuk in Playboy (link is sfw) was a thought provoking story of dissatisfaction and confusion. It wades full into the despair of modernity, lashes celebrity, consumerist culture, and yet finds some hope in modern hyper-connectivity. Written with a beautifully direct, conversationalist style.
“Abomination Rises of Filthy Wings” by Rachel Swirsky in Apex Magazine was a very difficult story to read. A trigger warning is given, with cause. Apparently written to show that a domestic/relationship revenge fantasy could be readable, the result is genuinely disturbing. The mix of sexual dominion and the domesticity of the violence was horrific, as was the brutality and contempt, unhidden behind a gossamer-thin veil of the supernatural. A compelling but difficult story: undeniably well-written but not enjoyable.
“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson in Lightspeed was a good exploration of PTSD in some alt-history, alt-Earth that is disturbingly familiar and yet suffuses with novelty. The Russian ethnicity adds a sense of the other, but ultimately is tangential. The story never quite fulfills the promise of its title and opening line, undercutting the fantastic element for metaphor.
“Paperclips and Memories and Things That Won’t be Missed” by Caroline M Yoachim in Apex Magazine was a beautiful, touching story. At times almost horror, at times melancholy, at times strangely beatific. I keep wanting to use the word ‘haunting’, which would be accurate but rather trite.
“Schrödinger’s Outlaw” by Matthew W Baugh in DSF was a very short short. The opening paragraphs had a well set scene, conveyed economically and without the exposition seeming too lumpy. The protag’s voice was clear. From there it fell into a sadly predictable path. The most harmful thing, for me was that it fundamentally misunderstood its central premise. Schrödinger’s cat is not ‘dead or alive’, but ‘dead-and-alive’ – the whole paradox hinges on the superposition of two simultaneous, yet contradictory states. By then end this seemed a bad pun that went too far.
June:
“Mephisto” by Alan Baxter in DSF was a well-contained tale. Tight and lean.  Baxter uses the dichotomies well, the crowd’s adoration and the magician’s hatred in return. The showmanship and pretense serves well to orient and then disorient the reader. It’s a creeping horror, more apprehension than fear, really. Baxter shows his hand artfully at the end, the exposition delivered but not dropped upon the reader, revealed but not ruined.
“Days Like These” by Erica L Satifka in DSF was a good Sc-Fi concept well handled. The protagonist was vividly drawn, as was the world in which he lived. The uncertainty was maintained well throughout, and the reliability of the narrator gradually questioned.
It is more a back-handed compliment than a criticism to say that it left me wanting more, but the ending was a little dissatisfying.
“Anyway Angie” by Daniel Jose Older, published by Tor, was a case of a good character and great atmospheric prose. The first person worked, the characterization and exposition of back-story was smoothly given without chunks. I found my way to this via Kameron Hurley, whose novel I am reading. It shares a bug motif, which here is used effectively for horror. The story did feel dislocated though, perhaps I wanted it to be an excerpt of some larger work, or perhaps that balance of what the reader was given and what the reader had to infer was ever-so-slightly awry. A good story though. I’d read more.
“Trigger Warning Breakfast” was published in various places (I read ithere). This anonymous story is a punch in the guts. Perhaps a webcomic, perhaps an illustrated narrative, it is told with short, stark sentences, crudely but effectively illustrated. A very powerful and personal piece.
July
“Polynia” (available to read through Tor) is familiar in China Mieville’s oeuvre. Weird and fantastic, a London familiar and yet changed, the narrator slightly distant from their own narration, hints of politics, a cameo from a rail-road, clever wordplay, impressive prose. The vocabulary is accessible, the core concept visually arresting and ultimately unresolved. The changes in the world are accepted because there’s nothing else to do than to accept them.

August

“Selkie Stories are for Losers” appeared in Strange Horizons and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It is a mix of the modern working class domestic narrative and ancient myth/fairytale. It’s told cleverly, through narrative denial and breadcrumbs of exposition. At times the short segments felt a little too isolated from each other, and only in re-reading could they be more comfortably pieced together. That’s a minor quibble on a well told story though.

“The Turing Test” appeared in Lightspeed Magazine. I liked the subject matter, but to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the concept of the Turing Test the ‘twist’ was easily picked (perhaps at fault here is the title?), and the second part seemed unnecessary. The dialogue was very good, and the prose flowed smoothly. Didn’t seem to do very much with its length though.
“Resurrection Points” appeared in Strange Horizons and attracted deserved acclaim. It was beautifully written. An insight into my own world through a different lens. Terrifying in the banality of violence and death, and in the sense of hopelessness or inevitability. The ending was a touch bathetic, but that’s a minor quibble on an outstanding story.
“Stone Hunger” appeared in Clarkesworld. I struggled with this one early. It felt like I was flailing for meaning, no foundation to build on. The tense was a barrier for me. Once we were in the city though things got very good, very quickly. I loved many of the concepts, clashing powers as taste sensations, the stone-eater turned sentient statue, the city of monsters. Once into it, I really enjoyed it. Very descriptive and with a strong narrative voice.
September:
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal was publishedby Tor.com. It’s a beautiful story. An alt-history retro-futurist Sci-Fi. A return to a more classical Sci-Fi, where space faring and punch-card programmes and the mystery of Mars loomed large. It’s a story infused with dying and departing, concerned with what legacy each generation leaves to the next. As mid20thC sci-fi has left its legacy on this generation. An atypical protagonist – past middle-aged and female – is drawn with tender realism, and the difficulty of her dilemmas is frankly, honestly drawn. The ending ties the threads together in a satisfying, if somewhat convenient, solution.
“Wikihistory” was also from Tor.com. A clever little story told as a series of forum posts and dealing with tropes of time travel and determinism. It tests out Godwin’s Law, and presents us with an alternative view of cultural assumptions. The plot-premise is familiar, but this is a fresh approach.
“Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee was published by Apex (and part of their Military Sci-Fi anthology) It was an epistolary narrative, and frequently told in the second person. I found that it shifted in time in curious ways, sometimes in ways hard to follow.
It did have moments of beauty, both in terms of its attention to detail and in its prose. The central relationship was finely drawn, a romantic-tragedy set against the backdrop of an interstellar war.
“We are the Cloud” was an excellent story by Sam J Miller, published in Lightspeed. I really enjoyed it. A near-future sci-fi. The technology is plausible and integral and its significance mounts as the story progresses. The wounded, vulnerable protagonist is taken down some dark paths, and us with him, but he never loses our sympathy.
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a story by Holly Black that also appeared in Lightspeed. I almost didn’t read it all. What a mistake that would have been.
I don’t generally like the 2nd person. I don’t generally like lists as narrative scaffolds (and Rule 1 annoyed me from the start). The exposition on several occasions came in thick dumps. This had so much going against it that I nearly bailed before the end of the second ‘rule’.
But for all of that the story turned me fully around. The characterization, the rich and deep world-building, the twisting plot, the moments of genuine emotion. This packs a lot into a story that could have been so much less. Excellent. This is the sort of story for which I undertook this project. This taught me a lot about being a better story teller.
“As Good as New” was in Tor.com, a story by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s a mash-up of apocalypse, genie wish cliche, and post-modernist theatre.
I’m at a bit of a loss for this. I don’t know how it worked so well, but it worked really, really well.
Wonderfully relatable protag. The ennui of a western millennial middle class. Patient plotting that allowed the story to meander pleasantly without ever getting lost.
October:
“Tomorrow is waiting” by Holli Mintzer appeared in Strange Horizonsback in 2011. I only just found it and read it through some aggregator site (I forget which) listing good short stories about AI. This is a nice story about an AI muppet kind if accidentally achieving sentience. The writing is stark, quite bare of description, but it has warmth and a beating heart. Anji’s not a strong protag, but she’s relatable. The conflict leaks from the piece in the final third, but the effect of this is a positive ending note and a view of sentient AI which is optimistic, rather than fearful.
November:
“Brain, Brain, Brain” By Puneet Dutt appeared in Apex. It’s a very cool little poem, clearly aware of tropes and prepared to flirt with them before twisting to the zombie POV. The imploring insistence of ‘we’re not the bad guys.’ Some beautiful use of language.