“Three Points Masculine” by An Owomoyela was published in issue 72 of Lightspeed. It is free to read here.
The damn rev had a point: I got to be a guy because I took a test and it said I got into enough fights, played enough sports, had enough right interests and few enough wrong ones. I got to be a guy because some white-collar jackhole stamped and signed a form. I never would’ve got to be a guy just because I was a guy.
This story hit me hard.
This is some of the realest shit I’ve ever read about what it feels like to be transgender in a ciscentric world. In the context of the story, there are Gender Assignment Tests, and you are rated based on points as feminine and masculine. Certain thresholds of one or the other get you into certain positions and can get you access to certain jobs.
The thing is, this is not that different than the world we live in now. The thrust of the story, the interactions between the trans narrator and John, the trans colleague he works with and ends up depending on, are the kinds of conversations I’ve had with my trans friends. And they boil down to the idea that when cis people are running the show, you’re never going to get those last three points you need. Somehow, that brass ring is always out of reach.
Your identity is never really yours, because it’s always qualified. You have to keep proving it over and over again, justifying it to people who don’t experience gender and life the way you do but serve as gatekeepers anyway.
The story is beautifully written–hard, and sharp, and vicious. The world Owomoyela creates drips with bitter realism just cranked up to eleven. This story gave me all the trans feels and then some.
“First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” by Zen Cho was first published in Fantastique Unfettered, September 2011, and is included in her collection of short fiction, Spirits Abroad.
Tell him I always save one piece of the cake for him. Just for him.
Zen Cho’s “First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” is a remarkable work of short fiction. It’s a story of great depth about how constraint creates choice, and how choice forces lives into a set trajectory. The thing about this story is that it’s not long, but it is a slow build.
The characters we’re first introduced to, who are effectively the point of view characters, are not the characters the story is about. The setting in which the action takes place is not really where the story is–it’s a framing device where the real story is told. So, yes, essentially the whole story takes place in one small, stuffy room where a disembodied voice tells a story to an old woman that she already knows. But the trick is that in the telling it is revealed that mountains of story, lifetimes of story, have happened off screen. And I, as the reader, felt all of it. That’s incredibly hard to pull off, but Cho manages it, and she manages it without the seams ever showing.
Labyrinth Lost is a quick, rich read. It is fast-paced and brimming with imagination. The book starts in Brooklyn, but quickly shifts to the netherworld of Los Lagos. In doing so, Córdova immerses the reader in the splendor and the weirdness of bruja magic. The story has an episodic, questing feel that is comfortable and familiar, but updated by the sharp banter between the three leads: Alex, Nova, and Rishi.
The emotional stakes in the book remain high throughout—it helps that they are grounded in excellent character development. Alex grows immensely throughout the book, moving from a scared, insular girl to a self-possessed and confident person. She owns her mistakes and understands why she made them, which is the heart of growing up. For a coming-of-age story, this kind of growth from the protagonist is key to get the story to work. Nova borders on the edge of too heartbreaking—he is one more tragedy away from caricature, especially contrasted with Alex’s intact and loving family. As his exculpatory tragedies unfurl, I was left with more questions than answers.
Rishi, on the other hand, is both a breath of fresh air and a cipher. She is an outsider in all respects: the only one among the trio not from bruja culture, the only one not Latinx. Rishi is dragged into this bizarre situation purely through her worry for Alex and her innate curiosity. Yet, she is the most one-dimensional of the three leads. I wanted her character to be more than “Supportive Almost Girlfriend,” but really that’s what she is. She has very little interiority of her own; nothing about the surreal nature of Los Lagos or the many, many reveals about Alex shocks or fazes her. I kept expecting a twist or a reveal about Rishi, but nothing came. Just more devotion. But devotion is not character development.
Still, I enjoyed Labyrinth Lost. I enjoyed its scope, and its intimacy, and I look forward to the next book in the Brooklyn Brujas series. If you’re looking for a queer-friendly book full of wit and magic with where the worldbuilding and cast is steeped in Latinx culture, definitely pick up Labyrinth Lost. This is not a diverse cast for the sake of being diverse; this is a diverse cast where the story and the people are rooted in their culture, history and future.
“The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life” by Zen Cho is included in her collection of short fiction, Spirits Abroad.
But she needed to have a surface that could catch on things. She needed to be capable of friction.
This is not a perfect story, but it left me with an indelible image and metaphor of what it feels like to finally, finally come out to yourself and have it stick. And for that, it’s worth a read.
Angela has an excess of magic in her blood, because her best friend has been hanging out with a dragon a whole lot (that’s quite literally another story – see “Prudence and the Dragon”*). As a result, Angela’s teenage self has manifested and started hanging around her. So, she goes on vacation to bring down her blood magic levels in the hope that her past self will disappear. But of course, it’s more complicated than that.
Angela’s literal discussions with herself are gentle and prodding, but what struck me most is the integration of Angela’s two selves, and how that is portrayed. Angela’s past self, who essentially more comfortable with her queerness, is described as imperfect. The adult repressed Angela is perfect, but insubstantial. And this rings true to me, because when you’re in the closet, you’re covering for yourself. You’re spending so much emotional and mental energy making sure you’re not giving yourself away that your self-presentation is locked down, but your interior is emptied out. The imagery of the two unifying, of Angela letting herself become her imperfect but substantial self, was superbly resonant.
*That story precedes this one in Spirits Abroad and was also published in Crossed Genres in February 2011. RIP, Crossed Genres.
All the Birds in the Sky is a love story. A story of redemption. A story of an ideological war for humanity’s soul. And a coming of age story of an AI. The story is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.
Patricia Delfine is a witch. Laurence Armstead is a burgeoning engineering wunderkind obsessed with rockets. Both were outcasts in middle school, and as outcasts are like to do, they banded together. Then they drifted apart—or were torn apart by weird circumstances. Weird circumstances throw them together again as adults, and that’s where the story really begins.
I quite liked All The Birds In The Sky. This is an odd, hard to categorize book—equal parts science fiction and fantasy, which is a difficult trick to pull off. The structure of the book is surprising; I was sure we would see more of Patricia’s Hogwarts-esque magical academy than we did, but I’m glad we skipped it. Learning about her training as she went about her (unpaid) business as a working witch was a smart, clever choice. I loved seeing the practical applications of magic—it helped to interweave the fantastical elements of Anders’ worldbuilding into the world as we know it. Also smart was holding back the descriptions of her odd, magical society until Laurence meets back up with her. This way, we could be brought into the loop about the arcane elements of the world as she saw it along with Laurence. The infodumping had a clear narrative purpose.
I found Patricia to be the more interesting character, but Laurence to have more emotional weight and honesty. Patricia’s life and experiences are naturally more intriguing, since she is a witch. Being a witch, alone, is interesting! She has magic, and with it, untapped potential. But Patricia’s motivations were never quite clear to me the way Laurence’s were. Laurence’s emotional arc is simpler and easier to intuit, maybe, because he is just a guy trying to make his employer happy and find a nice girl, but I would have liked for Anders to demystify Patricia’s motivations, too. That said, Patricia’s evolving relationship with her older sister, Roberta, is a thing of beauty and heartbreak—and Roberta’s moment with the hen is spectacular.
Overall, the book is a touch too twee for me. The names alone—Patricia Delfine, Laurence Armstead, Theodolphus Rose—all sound like characters from a Decemberists song. Some of the tweeness works, like when Bay Area hipsters start singing madrigals as the end of the world approaches, but it often felt like I was reading a Wes Anderson script dressed in genre clothing. Underneath that tweeness, though, there is real grit to the book. Characters die, stakes are high, and I was emotionally engaged throughout. For me, the grit throws the peculiar tweeness in a weird relief. I’m not sure, stylistically, what that sort of forced whimsy was doing there, orwhat Anders was going for, since there is so much natural charm and warmth already embedded in the story and the characters.
I’d recommend this book for anyone looking for a story that blends magic and science, and for people who like writing with a dash of hipster style. Anders brings the twee charm, but grounds it in some thoughtful and gritty questions and careful character work that will leave you thinking.
The Poet Returns will be released to subscribers of the Digital Goodies package on 12/20/2017. You can enroll in the Digital Goodies package through either Gumroad or Paypal–see this page for information. On with story blurbs!!
Amran is double-bad-luck: mixed race and transgender. But he’s also a poet, and his poems have gone where he couldn’t, and garnered fame he never expected. When Ralah University, the most prestigious institute of learning in the Qin Empire, offers to bring him out to do a reading of his poetry, Amran is faced with a choice: does he ignore the summons, or take them up on their offer? And if he does return to the Empire, this homeland that never wanted him in the first place, what is he really returning there to do?
I’m SO EXCITED for this novella! And Sam Cantu did a lovely job on the cover–that there is Ralah University, all stoic and regal in the desert and shit.
It’s the most awkward season of the year: awards season. One thing that is true is that for marginalized writers throwing one’s hat in the ring and saying, “hey! I wrote A Thing of Quality! It’s worth consideration for awards!” is actually a political act. Our narratives are not default narratives. Our narratives are considered unrealistic, inconvenient, and unrelatable. It makes us live a lifetime of various shades of imposter syndrome. It makes it hard to write these kinds of posts.
I’m writing one anyway. Here goes. Also, want to nominate me, but haven’t read something listed here? Email me. I’ll probably send you what you’re looking for gratis.
EXTRACTION, published with The Kraken Collective in November 2017, is eligible for the following:
Hugo (novel) – Recommendations are being collected here. Probably other places, too.
I am so excited to host a guest post by Benjanun Sriduangkaew! I love her work, and I’m eagerly waiting to get my hands on Winterglass, her next release. I’ve already preordered my copy. Benjanun Sriduangkaew tweets at @benjanun_s. You should definitely check out her website for her full list of published fiction.
An idea that’s been preoccupying me since I watched Urobuchi’s Fate/zero is — somewhat beside the show’s point — is the trope of the king. Stay with me here: a lot of us are fascinated by fiction that explores governance, even if the actual thing in the actual real life is a very sordid, messy, and unglamorous affair. But fiction puts a gloss on it, and readers of science fiction and fantasy in particular (and, probably, historical fiction) are terribly drawn to monarchs and their equivalent.
There is a scene in Fate/zero where three kings discourse: ignoring the pomp, circumstances and the mounting music, there’s an odd thematic callback to medieval epics, where just such figures philosophize over what it means to be king, or knight, or vassal. Gilgamesh of Babylon insists that his is the one true path of rulership — to amass more treasure than anybody, to gather the finest weapons and amass the most power, so that his subjects cower before him. Iskandar of Macedonia claims that his kingship is the truest and the best, to inspire such incredible loyalty among his subjects that they would continue following him beyond death, forming a vast army that manifests in the desert that signifies his dream of conquest. King Arthur, alone of them all, puts forward that a king’s purpose is to bear the burden of rulership on herself alone and to live her life in service of her country and subjects. As she feels she’s failed Britain on all those fronts, her goal in the afterlife is to rewrite history so that she never became king — or never existed — and someone else would have replaced her, in the hope that the substitute King Arthur would have led Britain into an age of prosperity. She wants free of this burden and the memory of her mistakes.
Artoria’s solution to what she perceives as her failure to rule aligns a great deal with the common, romanticized perception of kingship in fiction (especially, again, by writers and readers of speculative fiction): that it is not the system of monarchy which is flawed, but the person sitting on the (game of) throne. Bad person, bad rule. Good person, good rule. ‘Thrones are bad’ doesn’t really enter into the equation. Good government is a matter of putting the right monarch onto the seat — usually whose goodness is communicated by their inheritance; usurpers are bad — rather than dismantling a crushing institution that vests far too much power in one person.
But, because this is fiction (and the package is so attractive), I still find myself gravitating toward the glamour of it, to the romantic but destructively flawed ideal held by Urobuchi’s character that kingship is a service. We come to why one of Winterglass’ protagonists General Lussadh al-Kattan used to be a prince.
For the most part, the scope of Winterglass makes it tricky to touch on Lussadh’s background, her life as king-in-waiting to the Kemiraj empire. By the time she enters the story, all that is ancient. She is no longer a prince or, under the new world order she’s helped forge, meaningfully royal — the sole monarch of the empire she serves is the Winter Queen, an immortal entity who’ll never pass authority down in a dynastic line. In many ways Lussadh straddles that point where she is both a distant analogue to Arthur and a distant analogue to Mordred. Without giving away too much, a number of incidents catalyzed Lussadh’s decision to join the Winter Queen, and one of them was an epiphany that the system that would one day give her a throne was inhumanely oppressive.
So she dismantled it.
Only she is not an idealist, and she still wants to ensure her country is in good hands, namely hers. Lussadh isn’t, as romanticized princes in fantasy often are, a savior of the common people. While she ended her own dynasty, she did so partly out of personal motives: she was aware of what happened to those much less privileged than she, but without a personal tragedy as an inciting incident, she wouldn’t have started on the path she did. She considers herself still beholden to the duty of kingship, but it’s less about the country or its people and more about her moral code.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think, for example, a white person is capable of dismantling racism any more than a former prince is capable of dismantling a system where absolute authority is vested in a single person.
This is the flaw inherent in the fantasies offered by the likes of Star Wars, where of course the villain is the hero’s father, and fans expect Rey to be a Skywalker: the line is royalty through Padme, and people see resonance in the descendants repeating ad nauseum the cycle of a Skywalker becoming an evil overlord, and another Skywalker taking him (so far, always a him) down. Despite both the books and the show pretending at grittiness and oh-so-real cynicism, Daenerys Targaryen can control dragons because’s royalty: the writers — white men all — are very much in love with inherited power. Aragorn deserves to rule because he comes from a line of kings. Even more progressive media like Steven Universe falls prey to it: Steven is special because of who his mother was, and he inherits the symbols of her leadership. No surprise that for a long time many fans believed his mother, Rose Quartz, was one of the Diamond Authority and effectively a queen. Lineage, writers and consumers of fantasy insist, is destiny, and royal lineage confers the most significant destiny of all.
The appeal is obvious: it’s easier to imagine replacing a bad ruler with a good one than it is to imagine dismantling the whole institution — this is also why the United States has a long line of presidents committing identical war crimes (sanctions, drones, air strikes, invasions, interventions), doing nothing to curb the prioritizing of American military over social infrastructure (welfare, healthcare, education, drinkable water, disaster relief). It’s also why American citizens so badly want the children of their favorite politicians to become politicians, and the children or spouses of former presidents to run for the position, under the belief that relation (lineage or marriage) is meaningful and confers competence.
But contrary to fiction and real-life wishful thinking, revolution rarely comes from the top, and doesn’t usually require a special scion of a special bloodline to carry it out (save as a figurehead): just ask the French Revolution or the Haitian Revolution. This is why it would have felt, to me, self-indulgent and naive to portray Lussadh as better than she has to be, more socially aware and more romanticized than someone in her position would have been. She becomes the Winter Queen’s second-in-command because, as far as Lussadh is concerned, Lussadh is the best judge and custodian of Kemiraj’s well-being. It would never have occurred to her to appoint anyone else as Kemiraj’s governor.
The romance of the king or the rightful heir is a pretty one, but at the end it can only be that: a romance, a fantasy, and a dream.
I’m SO EXCITED for you all to read this one! In light of the #authorstats threads that were going around twitter, let me give you some insight in how Extraction came to be:
2008 – Draft 1: Wrote the very first draft of this novel with my partner, Jon, waaaayyyyy back. Essentially, the bones of this book is how I learned to write fiction.
2011 – Draft 2: Then Jon was like “Ugh, I don’t want to do this anymore, you take it and run with it.” And I did. And I drastically rewrote it.
Changed the main character and cut out about 50k worth of text (including a whole host of secondary characters)
Redid the worldbuilding from the ground up
2014 – Draft 3: I pulled the book back out of the digital drawer and reread it. It was…full of dudes. Start to finish, just dude central. Changed a bunch of characters to women. Tinkered with it. Put it down. Tinkered with it some more. Realized it was more than one book.
Got REALLY EXCITED about the second book. Started writing that instead of polishing up that first books. Oops, I got distracted.
I had edits of my own, anyway, since in drafting books 2 and 3 of the series there were consistency changes that needed to be worked into Extraction. This was supposed to be the polish & finesse last pass draft.
2016 – Draft 5: OH BUT WAIT my publisher folded. You know, it happens. So, then, the rights were mine and it was time to find a new home for the book.
I pulled out the book again. Tweaked it again. Contracted with my cover artist (C Bedford). And here we are!
The path to publication is as weird and circuitous as any individual book’s plot. And then the story is out there, and it’s not the author’s any more. When the books are out there, they belong to the readers. I’m thrilled to release Extraction into the wild, and to let it find a home in someone else’s heart.