A Stranger In Olondria

Sofia Samatar

A Stranger In Olondria Sofia Samatar

Image Credit: Small Beer Press

Review by Kris

Like an Iconoclast of the fantasy genre, Samatar tears down the usual trappings of these stories and builds something which is actually much truer to the spirit of the enterprise.


This does not contain the classes and races of a D&D adventure nor the chosen one slicing through a Dark Lord with his magic blade. Instead it is a character driven travelogue discovering the snakes at the heart of Eden. A tale of memory and longing and the connections and divides between us in a world both like and unlike our own. Yet it is the latter not the former that so interested Swift and Morris and Tolkien and Lewis.

Within the tale we are taken on this journey by Levick who is our entrypoint. Although we may not be Pepper Merchant’s children he is the young person in a small town, wanting to go to the big city for adventure. Yet once he arrives he soon doesn’t want to have the magical destiny the different forces want for him. You get the sense that, like Bilbo Baggins, he would rather be at home eating bacon and eggs.


To continue the classics comparison a lot of the adventure is not just in service of great thrills and moral conundrums (but these are in abundance) but also to explore a world like yet so unlike our own. Each chapter is like a new section of society, yet with each one we go through seeing beauty of the exterior and finding the rot beneath the paint.


I am not sure I can give justice to the racial elements of the story without revealing too much of the actual story but it is certainly one of the best pieces of post-colonial fantasy I have ever read. It is absolutely there front and centre but it isn’t an add-on, it is an integral part. It doesn’t descend into otherness or orientalism, it is so ordinary it makes us challenge our preconceptions.


In fact the story excels at ordinariness you could easily disguise this as a work of historical fiction (the Angel being an exception) or a travelogue of the 16th century. For in this the descriptions are so vivid and have such complex reality underneath the concepts. Whilst it does not quite use the same narrative conceits as Katherine Addison it uses the same depth as The Goblin Emperor to convince us of the truth of the world we are reading.


Read this book to really travel to a new world and to remember what you truly loved about fantasy all along.

Landline

Rainbow Rowell

Landline Rainbow Rowell

Image Credit: Goodreads

Review by Nisha

Landline is, at its core, about a marriage that is on the ropes. Georgie is a highly successful TV writer, which means she spends a lot of time in the office and less with her husband Neal and their two daughters. When an opportunity arises to pitch a show to a network, meaning that Georgie would have to work over Christmas, Neal furiously goes on their trip to his mother’s house without her.


In a desperate bid to contact her husband to sort through their problems, she finds herself on the phone to his past self, shortly before he proposed to her. Now she is left with two choices- does she use her link to the past to try and save her marriage or stop it from happening?

This book is truly an emotional rollercoaster. I started off genuinely wondering why Georgie puts up with Neal. She was up for a huge break for her career and her refusing to go for it would also let down her writing partners. Yes, it meant possibly missing Christmas, but a truly supportive partner wouldn’t expect their spouse to turn down an amazing opportunity. In my own experience, I have pondered turning down a gig because it would mean missing this, that or the other and, every single time, my husband has told me to just go for it. He never wants to be the reason why I don’t do something that I really want to do. I would do the same for him. So, to start off, I thought Neal was being a jerk.

Rowell, anticipating this initial opinion, tells the story by going back and forth between past and present. During this rough patch, our protagonist looks back on her life with Neal- how they met, how they started to fall in love. As the reader, you start to understand their deep connection, how their love for each other transcends all of their differences and life goals. You begin to understand why Georgie has chosen Neal, why she loves him so much. You end up falling for him a little bit too.


Another theme that gets touched on a lot here is the struggle women face in trying to “have it all”. Georgie is constantly in battle between her desire to push her career forward and finally be able to run a show that she’s proud of and her desire to be a better wife and a better mother. There is no question that she adores her family, but she cannot deny her duty to her job. However, whenever she leans more to one aspect of her life, the other starts to fall apart. Due to the nature of this book, Rowell focuses more on how Georgie knows her family is more important. Honestly, that can be a little frustrating as it can come off as a little preachy on the whole “being a wife and mother is the most important thing a woman can be” message. Based on Rowell’s other works, I doubt this was intentional. Landline also has a somewhat open ending, so the reader is left to add on what they think happens in the fallout.

Now, as for the sci-fi aspect of this book… the time travelling phone. While her husband and children are out of state, Georgie cannot bear to go back to her own house, so she ends up sleeping in her childhood bedroom. Since her phone battery is constantly uncharged, she grabs an old rotary phone and plugs it into the phoneline connection under her bed. She gets a surprise when she finally gets through to Neal by calling his mother’s house, but the conversation seems off and so does his voice. When he speaks to someone away from the phone, Georgie becomes convinced that she’s losing her mind because she soon finds herself speaking to her deceased father-in-law. When she finally thinks she’s figured out what’s happening- that she’s calling back through time, she tries to use it to her advantage to reconnect with her soon-to-be husband. There is no explanation as to why the phone rings back into the past. Well, there is one sort-of explanation (which I won’t reveal because I don’t want to give spoilers) but it doesn’t really explain anything. It seems more of an ethereal “you’re getting a second chance” kind of miracle rather than some sort of sciencey explanation behind it. There is also some sort of weird wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey aspect to it as well. Which, again, I won’t go into because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. It does kind of tie your brain in knots a bit, which is what we have all come to expect from a decent time-travel story.

 
To summarise, this is a lovely story with a lot of different facets. The characters are interesting and varied, there’s a good mixture of drama, romance and comedy, and Rowell’s writing is very readable. Not once did I read her work and think ‘argh, just get to the bloody point’, so that’s a tick in my book.

Brightness Falls From The Air

James Tiptree Jr.

Brightness Falls From The Air

Review by Kris

Like most readers, I am a big fan of Tiptree’s short fiction but had not read any of her novels. These do not have a strong reputation but, I feel, in this case at least that they deserve a second look.

To compare them to the genius of her short stories is decidedly unfair when talking of one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century. That is not to say it is a novel without problems, but it is one of the most imaginative.


Setting up the world we get the standard science fiction protagonist of Kip and Cory, the captain and their partner (albeit with a gender switch from the standard dynamic). However we are soon introduced to a vast array of disparate people who reflect the fascinating ideas of this Galactic Future:. We have a “light sculptor” who is not all he seems; we have an “Aquaman”, a genetically engineered gilled human the other seem to treat with a degree of awe; the equivalent of acting celebrities are soft porn actors; we even have a prince whose actual name is Prince but also is referred to as Superboy (in a relationship which I won’t go into); and then there are the faery like natives of the world Dameii who are central to the tale. The whole first half of the book is like a gorgeous painting described in bright colourful hues. In each word another element of the world we are creating is built until we have a composition like Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Georges Seurat La Grand Jatte

Georges Seurat [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, like a painting or a tableau I don’t think it is made to be in motion. Once the nova hits it is meant to switch into a dark thriller. There are many interesting ideas about identity and genocide but these are written in a very clichéd manner, like something closer to the pulp novels of old. A good comparison for the book, both in terms of plot and feel, is the Doctor Who episode, The End of the World. There we are introduced to a wide array of aliens which show how obsessed with money, beauty and purity many people in the future still are. Yet they do so little after this introduction that could not be placed in any other story for the most simple of motivations. Take the Moxx of Balhoon:

The Moxx of Balhoon

Image Credit: bbc.co.uk
Brightness Falls From The Air

who was promoted widely and had action figures made as if he would be the next big thing in this rebooted version of the show, yet all he really does is spit on someone. 

Further, the world-building in many ways makes it more confusing. For example, most of the character have multiple names which are relevant as they show different traits and interrelations between the characters. Yet when you have a character called “Prince”, “Pao”, “Prince Pao, “Prince-Prince Pao” and “Superboy”, it is hard to be exchanged in an action sequence when I have to flick back to the appendix to remind myself who exactly is referring to whom.

And yet, there is something fascinating in watching this art being build up and then torn apart. We would assume at the start this may be some hippy utopian society with all these different people living in harmony and art allowed to be as free as possible without censorship. Then we discover the dark secrets at the heart of all these people and it results in many that did not deserve it suffering.

I would not recommend this as a showcase of the best of Tiptree’s work but as another side of a master of their craft or if you enjoy complicated character pieces it is definitely worth checking out.

Constantine: The Hellblazer Vol. 1


Ming Doyle, James Tyrion IV, Riley Rossmo, Chris Visions, Scott Kowalchuk, Ivan Plascencia and Lee Loughridge

 

Review by Kris

Image credit: Goodreads


A brief history first. John Constantine was created during Moore, Bissette and Totleben’s Swamp Thing run in 1985 and soon got his own ongoing series- Hellblazer- which ran for 300 issues. This was a fan favourite and has been critically acclaimed throughout most of its run.

However, following the New 52 relaunch, Constantine joined the new team book Justice League Dark. Whilst Hellblazer continued, initially DC made the decision to cancel the sub-10k order book in 2013 and launch a new story with the New 52 Constantine. Whilst initially successful there was a lot of backlash and sales figures quickly tumbled to similar levels to Hellblazer, meaning it was cancelled just 2 years later. At the same time, the shortlived Constantine TV series had increased some public curiosity in the character so simply putting him on the shelf would have been an illogical choice.

So Tyrion and Doyle’s new book Constantine: The Hellblazer had to try to both bring it back closer to the style of the old Hellblazer days and draw in the interest of the TV crowd. How far do they succeed?

One of the biggest criticisms of the Constantine title is that it all looked too bright and John was far too nice. The opening preview issues attempts to instantly dispel that he lets a young woman get torn apart by demons as a result of deal she made and declares that he’s not a superhero. However, with the exception of the opening and closing issues (which are more of a loose setup of concept) the story is largely about Constantine’s own past catching up to him. So as the story goes on he is not the total bastard either, being torn up by regret and wanting to right the wrongs he has caused. This creates a halfway house which I personally find interesting enough but it does little to distinguish him from a lot of other broody superheroes.

The story also injects copious amounts of violence and sex but whilst I think it would be going too far to declare this juvenile, their introduction seems to be more set-dressing than providing us with a real advancement of Constantine’s character or the mystery. In fact I feel you could easily have ejected all the panels of John naked and it would not have seemed significantly different.

The artwork itself is a much more successful overhaul of tone with all of them giving John’s world a murky and unreal sense. The feeling is like when you pull up a rock and an army of insects run out from under a rock, only this time under the cities unspeakable horrors lurk. The layout is also constantly changing and messy, with many panels intentionally overlaying others, further unnerving us and continuing the promotion of his world as more unknowable and chaotic.

I do have a couple of criticism of the art choices however. Firstly, Rossmo’s facial expressions look too posed for my liking, in many scenes they look less like people are more like dolls in a stock motion film. Whilst this could be argued this creates a sense of the uncanny, to me it just made them seem inanimate and would take me outside of the story flow. As a positive aside the story flow is magnificent throughout and full props to everyone for using the layout, art and storytelling to create a strong pace.

My second criticism is the inconsistency of the art. Now I know this is not to be helped as artist often need to change and doing so in the transition of scene does help to make this interesting. However, my real issue is with Constantine’s proportions. In issues 1-2 and 5-6 John is a complete stick and this fits his character well. However, in issues 3-4 he is as built like a weightlifter and it genuinely confused me who I was looking at first.

On to the final question, how much of a good jumping on piece is this for TV fans? Well it may just be because the TV version was the last time I encountered him but he seems to me to inhabit Ryan’s persona much more than the last two comic book variations. It also provides a good deal of background to the character so you will not be lost at the amount of flashbacks that are taking place. But yet few of trappings are there that a fan might hope to encounter, we get one reference to Papa Midnight and some short scenes of Gaz’s ghosts but otherwise we have a new supporting cast of Oliver, Veronica Delacroix and Georgina Snow. As of these first few issues none of them particularly stand out and are largely confined to stand tropes of supporting comic book cast everywhere.

For me, this is not a series I will need to start rushing out to buy in single issues but will happily check out a new trade every once in a while. But will it succeed in surviving for another 300 issues? Hell only knows.

Welcome to Cloaked Creators

by Nisha


Hello everyone! Welcome to our new literary blog, specifically aimed at reviewing, analysing and celebrating sci-fi and fantasy work by female and non-binary authors.

Often, when this particular genre comes up, it’s generally believed that almost all the contributors and consumers are men. There are many women out there who prove that is simply not the case, myself included.

Not to plug myself here, but I am a fantasy author. I am currently working on a YA fiction series called Anamchara- if you want, you can find me on Goodreads and buy on Amazon. But that’s not what I’m here to write about. Mostly.


Women often get sidelined in sci-fi and fantasy. Growing up, it was always seen as a "boy’s thing". If you were a girl and liked the genre, then you must also be some sort of tomboy or just faking it to get the attention of boys. This, of course, completely ignores books and TV shows that have female leads or are written by women/non-binary people, which are enjoyed by people of all genders. It’s not just a Boy Thing.


Of course, I am only the co-founder here. The other half of this website is my other half, Kris. I’ll be the first to admit that he (thanks to a daily commute and a longer attention span) reads a lot more than I do and was the first to suggest that this blog become a reality. Between us, we get a lot of reading done- whether it’s short stories, graphic novels or novels- and we have a lot of thoughts that we want to get out there.

Currently, the only one who hears our thoughts on books in depth is our cat. She doesn’t really seem that bothered unless we also happen to be rubbing her belly and telling her how pretty she is (and she really is pretty).

 


Anyway, we really hope you enjoy our discussions and that they inspire you to read from these authors and make some explorations of your own.


Happy reading!