Princesses, Priestesses and Time Travel: What’s New in Science Fiction and Fantasy - http://travelporn.info | luxury travel sitesApril 19, 2018 7:30 pm
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Speaking of tea, Aliette de Bodard’s THE TEA MASTER AND THE DETECTIVE (Subterranean, signed limited edition, $40) is a delicate, gender-bent recasting of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in the far future of her Xuya universe, the gorgeously mannered space opera setting of celebrated novellas like “The Citadel of Weeping Pearls” and “On a Red Station, Drifting.” In a galactic slum called the Scattered Pearls belt, a sentient ship called the Shadow’s Child struggles to make rent after a traumatic event in the course of her military duty forces her into a circumscribed civilian life. Where once she ferried people through perilous, reality-bending portions of space, she now makes a living as a “brewer of serenity,” synthesizing cocktails of mind-altering drugs that help humans endure the “deep spaces” she can no longer travel. But when a woman named Long Chau engages her services to study corpses in deep space, the Shadow’s Child finds herself needing to confront portions of her past she’d rather forget.
This isn’t a tidy transposition of Holmes and Watson into far-future space, for all that the elements of homage (Long Chau is an abrasive self-medicating “consulting detective”) shine through. The Shadow’s Child is a fully realized character in her own right, and the dislike she feels for Long Chau is sustained and justified. Instead it’s a window onto a beautifully developed world that widens the meaning of space opera, one that centers on Chinese and Vietnamese cultures and customs instead of Western military conventions, and is all the more welcome for it.
Kelly Robson’s GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH (Tor.com, paper, $14.99) is a story that retells itself. It’s a brilliantly structured far-future novella focused on ancient history: Its locales are primarily Calgary in 2267 and Mesopotamia in 2024 B.C. In one, humanity has ravaged the planet’s surface, moved underground, and has only just begun to make the surface habitable again; in the other, King Shulgi and Susa, a priestess, argue about new stars in the sky and the meaning of portents. The story’s poles are past and future, sky and earth; everything in between thrums with a delicious tension carefully developed among the wonderful characters.
Minh is a senior consultant at ESSA, a firm that specializes in restoring and maintaining surface habitats. Minh herself specializes in restoring rivers and has spent decades wrangling underground banks into funding aboveground projects — until the invention of limited-use time travel turns bankers away from long-term ecological restoration and toward short-term profits from temporal tourism. But when Minh’s intern Kiki draws her attention to a call for proposals to restore the Mesopotamian drainage basin by traveling into the past to study it, she jumps at the chance.
Robson’s world-building is fantastic; I’m always grateful for books that fold business and finance systems into their narratives in lively ways. She writes about strategizing on RFPs and securing funding like planning a heist, with absolutely delightful team-assembling dynamics and fake-it-till-you-make-it bravado. I also loved the dynamic between Minh and Kiki, loosely echoing some of the boomer-millennial rhetoric of our present moment in complex and empathetic ways.
My only problem with this book is its length; it reads like the first three acts of a perfectly paced and plotted five-act novel, to the point where I wondered if the rest had been cleanly sheared off at the printer’s. It’s a short story’s conclusion to a novel’s worth of development, and while I certainly hope that Robson will write a sequel, I can’t help feeling dismayed by an amazing story that stops instead of ending.
A novel that certainly doesn’t skimp on length, Tessa Gratton’s THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR (Tor, $36.99) is a high-fantasy transformation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set in a world where magic and ecology are intimately connected. On the island of Innis Lear, there is the high magic of reading the stars, and the low magic of wormwork and rootwater; when everything’s in balance, these systems intersect in complex and fruitful ways. But ever since the star-prophesied loss of his wife, Dalat, King Lear has capped the island’s holy wells and devoted himself exclusively to the stars, forbidding the language of trees and roots, and going slowly mad while the island’s crops and climate fail around him.
Reading “Queens” is at first a study in finding analogues. While Lear is Lear, his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia become Gaela, Regan and Elia; Edgar and Edmund are Rory and Ban. But the Shakespearean counterparts are at most touchstones for the fully developed characters Gratton writes. Most notably, Gaela and Regan aren’t petty, scheming villains; they’re grieving daughters who’ve had to wonder for years whether their father murdered their mother.
Gratton’s decision to make Dalat black, from the empress-ruled Third Kingdom “an ocean and half a continent away,” thoroughly enriches the story. A young Gaela is infuriated by the lack of songs praising dark skin; Elia, when she goes abroad, is assumed to be from the Third Kingdom, even though she doesn’t speak its language or know its customs.
While the storytelling is certainly decompressed — the novel has a somewhat ponderous prologue, seven different points of view, and a flashback every other chapter — “Queens” is always thoroughly engaging; right up until the end, I found myself wondering with increasing urgency whether this story, like “Lear,” would end in tragedy.
I’ll leave you to wonder, too.