Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra (coming out from Harper Voyager in 2018)

Disclaimer: Rati Mehrotra is a friend, and I received an advance review copy of this book from her.

I’ve been looking forward to Markswoman since first hearing about it. Rati is an accomplished short fiction writer (see links to her short stories at ) and I was eager to see what she could do in the long form. Reader, I was not disappointed.

Markswoman takes place in a world I’ve never seen before: a seeming post-apocalyptic Asia which mixes science fiction and fantasy. In the distant aftermath of a Great War, five Orders keep peace over the numerous clans of Asiana--Orders of warriors who are telepathically bonded with their magical knives. Kyra Veer is the last of her clan and a young warrior in training in the sisterhood of the Order of Kali. As the novel opens, she is completing the last task needed before becoming a full-fledged Markswoman of her Order. Kyra’s future should be relatively set after this. But, of course, there is no smooth sailing for our heroine: intrigues and adventure abound as Kyra fights a threat to her Order and long-buried secrets come to light. This is a world of warrior women (there is only one Order made up of men); ancient technological artifacts left behind by mysterious visitors from the stars; lush valleys and harsh deserts, and a multitude of cultures. The most obvious inspiration for the world is South Asia, but there are touches of East Asia as well, and the author’s own original inventions.

Once the action in this novel takes off, it really takes off. I hesitate to say too much about the plot, other than this: Marksowman is one of the most strongly plotted novels I’ve read, with twists and turns coming fast and furious. Yet the twists and reveals never come completely out-of-the-blue; the groundwork is carefully set, and each twist makes sense. There is romance amidst the thrills: part of the narrative is given over to Rustan, a young warrior of the only male Order in Asiana. While Kyra and Rustan’s romance is not surprising, it is handled deftly: there’s real chemistry between the characters, and I believed in their relationship and rooted for them.

It’s easy to root for all the characters here (with exception of the villains, of course). Kyra is stubborn, caring, devoted, and just a bit hot-headed. A calmer-seeming (but guilt-stricken and haunted) Rustan is a good foil. These two central characters are surrounded by friends and colleagues who are likeable, entertaining, and/or endearing. And they’re all embedded in a fascinating, intriguing world.

The worst part of this book? It ends on a cliffhanger that just might leave you screaming. The fate of more than one character is left in the air. I am greatly looking forward to more of Kyra and her friends, and to the mysteries of their world, with the sequel.

TLDR: An exciting, swiftly-paced adventure in a truly original world, with intrigue, romance, mystery, and strong characters to cheer on.

Friday, October 13, 2017

New story out: Taiya

A few weeks ago, my latest fiction story was published. It’s called "Taiya," and you can read ihere at The Future Fire. It’s a ghost story set in an imaginary country. And it’s been getting some wonderful reviews.

Maria Haskins included it in her September 2017 Short Fiction Round-up

A.C. Wise featured it (and me!!) in her series, Women to Read: Where to Start: October 2017 post.

The website Lady Business also has a lovely review (warning: spoilers! I’d suggest reading the story first before reading the very perceptive analysis here)

As a writer, I am of course always thrilled by good reviews and attention to any of my stories. But this one is particularly dear to me. I wrote it three years ago, and it was the first story that truly scared me to write. It wasn’t the (named) ghost in the story that scared me. What scared me was the feeling of exposure, of revealing something about myself that I perhaps didn’t want anyone else to see.

This is why some of us  write fiction. Because it lets us talk about truths we could not otherwise say.

I’m so thrilled to see people recognizing the truths in this story. Not only do I have readers who “get it”—some have pointed out truths to me in this story which I didn’t recognize myself, connections which I did not consciously plan but which are obvious in retrospect.Thank you so much to Djibril al-Ayad and the team at The Future Fire for giving this piece a good home (as they have given to other stories of mine!) And thank you to Eric Asaris for the eerie illustration which perfectly catches the mood.

Some notes on inspiration below:

--In the fall of 2014, I had only just learned of the Buddhist concept of Hungry Ghosts. I was fascinated by them—the idea of ghosts ravaged by hunger but unable to satisfy it, cursed with long, thin necks and tiny mouths so they could never eat as much as they wanted even in the face of abundant offerings. I wanted to write a story about them, but I didn’t know how.

--The summer before, I’d been reading a travel blog of Eastern Europe.

--I was taking long walks by myself. I was feeling sad.

Somehow, the idea of Buddhist Hungry Ghosts twisted and changed in my mind: they became not the eaters, but the eaten, ravaged into almost nothingness. And I took these mutant ghosts out of Asia and transplanted them into an imaginary European city. The story poured out in two and a half weeks, which is very quick for me. Then it took three years to sell. It was, for a while, That One Story. (And yes, this was the piece accepted at a new pro-paying market which folded before the story could be published.) But “Taiya” eventually found a home. I'm so happy to see it out in the world..

Update: Yosia Sing has an absolutely lovely review of Taiya up now as well! I really appreciate Sing's perspective here, and am so very very gratified to know that this story resonates. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Jenny Zhang's writing is a knife in the heart.

"It was my mother who tucked him in and told him that there exists a sort of love in the world that only survives as long as no one speaks of it, and that was the reason why he would never have to worry because my grandmother was never going to be the kind of mother who held her children in her arms and told them how smart and beautiful and talented they were. She was only ever going to scold them, make them feel diminutive, make them feel they were never good enough, make them know this world wouldn’t be kind to them. She wasn’t going to let someone else be better than her at making her children feel pain or scare them more than she could, and to her, that was a form of protection.

That’s how we will be with our own children, my mother told my uncle, proud that she had realized this." 
             --Jenny Zhang, "Our Mothers Before Them," from her collection Sour Heart

Monday, October 9, 2017

Aug-Sept 2017 Short Fiction Recs

On gray autumn days, there’s nothing I want so much as a cup of hot tea, a blanket, and a good story. Here are some good things I read over August and September—stories to drink in with your tea (or beverage of choice) as the season darkens and chills.

Stories strange and beautiful, dark and light

These Bones Aside by Lora Gray in The Dark

Each month, Yagra plants a new goddess to swallow the moon and save the world. This is such a hauntingly beautiful and painful story of motherhood, loss, sacrifice, and innocence. It marries mythic imagery and imagination with intimate feeling. Absolutely gorgeous.

Red Bark and Ambergris by Kate Marshall at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Sarai was kidnapped to be a maker of perfumes for a Queen. She has the talent for it—to be a scent-maker—but what she wants is to be a poison-tamer, for it’s only as a poison-tamer that she may be able to escape her island prison. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of love, loss, bitterness, and accepting one’s true talent. And it’s fitting that a story about scents should be so rich in sensory details. Marshall deftly creates an immersive, beautifully realized world.

Though She Be But Little by C.S.E. Cooney at Uncanny Magazine 

And oh, this is such a delight! Weird, wild post-apocalyptic adventure with a girl who is little but fierce indeed. When the sky turns silver, 65-year-old bunco-playing Navy widow Emma A. Santiago wakes up as 8-year-old Emma Anne. There are pirates, flying alligators, talking animal sidekicks, the Chihuahua Ladies, and more. This story is almost impossible to summarize, and I won’t try. I’ll just say: Cooney’s imagination is dazzling, and you want this wild fun.  

In Spring, the Dawn. In Summer, the Night. By Aidan Doyle at Podcastle 

Another feat of wild imagination, but set in a far different world and told with a delicate air. Doyle imagines Sei Shonagon, the Japanese Heian-era author of the classic The Pillow Book, as a “battle-poet.” Shonagon is the champion for Empress Teishi in a court battle of seasonal poetry—and her poetry literally fights shadows as well as the verse of competing poets. Doyle’s piece delightfully evokes and pays homage to the real Sei Shonagon’s writing and the world of delicate and elegant beauty which she described. Lovely and charming. 

The Age of Glass by Ryan Row in Persistent Visions

“The Stickmen are beautiful and misshapen. Almost human in proportion, but thin and with random extra joints or protruding nobs of glassy flesh. . . As translucent as moonlight or handmade glass.”

This is a dark, gorgeously written piece about coming of age during a glass alien/monster apocalypse. The mysterious Stickmen have emerged from the ground in the “Creator Lands,” and America seems to be in a state of perpetual war against them. Yet south of the battle lines, a semblance of ordinary teenage life goes on: the narrator goes to high school and gossips with her friend, fights with her mother, and falls in love. But the trauma of war hangs over everything, including the narrator’s veteran boyfriend. This is such a strange, dark, layered and immersive piece which unwinds like a slow nightmare. . . but a nightmare that also glitters with shards of beauty.  

Stories of family

The Dead Father Cookbook by Ashley Blooms

Like “The Age of Glass,” this is a dark and unsettling piece which skillfully blends realist detail with the surreal. Addie and Ben are a sister and brother who grew up in the “care” of an abusive and neglectful father. Under these circumstances, the siblings formed an extremely tight bond, but it’s a bond that Addie frets has been fraying since Ben left their hometown for college. When their father dies, Addie sees a chance to summon Ben back, “to get him out of the city and away from his new friends with their professional haircuts and working cars and matching dinner plates”—and to recapture their closeness. She’s not above using magic to do so. What follows is a painful, intimate, and tender story of family and trauma, of partial healing and of what can never be healed. And yes, the siblings eat their father. 

The Last Cheng Beng Gift by Jaymee Goh in LightSpeed 

Like “The Dead Father Cookbook,” this is a story of family and of a painful relationship between parent and child. But the abuse in this story is less obvious—and it’s one that the main character, a proud and socially prominent mother, does not recognize at all. Mrs. Lim has died and receives gifts from her children in the Chinese afterlife during the festival of Cheng Beng (also known as Qingming). But the gifts from her youngest daughter, Hong Yin, always disappoint her. In fact, Hong Yin herself has always disappointed her mother. This is a quiet, understated tale of parental expectations and the damage they can inflict, of disappointment, distance, and love. As in “The Dead Father Cookbook,” there is no easy reconciliation in either life or death. This is the kind of quiet story that still punched me in the gut.

Stories of the future and hope

I want to end this story round-up with two stories of hope. It’s too easy to see only despair and dystopia in our near future. In recent issues, Clarkesworld presents something different.

Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics by Jess Barber and Sara Saab at Clarkesworld

The story’s themes are in the title. In a near-future world, climate change has devastated the environment and led to large-scale water shortages in the Middle East. . . but in the wake and midst of ecological destruction is hope. While dealing with water rationing in a future Beirut, two teenagers, Amir and Mani, meet and fall in love. Both teens are idealistic and intensely driven to improve the world with their talents. They become scientists and urban planners. But though they work in similar fields, their careers take them to different countries and keep them apart. This is a story of love over a lifetime: Amir and Mani meet, connect, and leave one another again and again. Their relationship is often a source of pain. But it’s always there, even when they’re far apart; no matter what, Amir and Mani are, in the words of one of Amir’s other lovers, “locked together.”  

“I love you,” says Mani. “Even if we never quite figure out what that should look like. You know that, right?”

This is a deeply beautiful and hopeful story. It depicts a kind of social utopia, yet it’s also a story which is nevertheless deeply aware of the unavoidability of human pain. Amir and Mani are always surrounded by love; their friends and lovers are fellow scientists and artists doing all they can to improve the world. During the course of the story, Amir and Mani live and work in multiple countries, and everywhere they go it appears that governments and people care about the earth and accept and support science—which to me seems an incredible utopia all on its own. There are no depictions of academic backstabbing or competitiveness; their work colleagues and mentors are all supportive and caring. Moreover, polyamorous relationships among multiple genders appear widely accepted, and jealousy/possessive among lovers seems nonexistent. This is a kind of utopia founded amidst environmental ruin. . . made up of people looking to heal that ruin. It’s a story of hopeful technology and science, a story of work and love which acknowledges the terrible conflicts that can occur between work and love. It’s a story about how love can be complicated and painful even in the best of worlds. And it is deeply hopeful, humane, and beautiful.

The Stone Weta by Octavia Cade at Clarkesworld

I’m cheating—I read this story on October 1, so I should really be including this in my next recs list! Yet it pairs so well with the story above that I felt I had to include it here. Like Barber and Saab’s Clarkesworld story, this is a hopeful story of scientists coming together to save the world. Unlike Barber and Saab’s story, the scientists in Cade’s story are working to do this under governments which would stop them—governments which are trying to suppress data on climate change. The parallels to current politics are clear and terrifying. Yet I found this a hopeful and uplifting story. The stone weta is an insect endemic to mountains of New Zealand, and it survives terrible winters of cold and snow by entering a state of hibernation in which “Eighty-two percent of the water in its body turns to ice.” “Stone Weta” is also the code name of a biologist who smuggles and hides climate data in the mountains. This is a story of persistence and survival—of living things, often small and unnoticed, who are able to survive under the harshest of conditions. It’s a story of resistance. It’s a story of a network of scientists working together to preserve knowledge. And it’s a story of transformation—of more than one type—and of hope.


On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump by Nicole Chung at Excerpted from the collection, Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America.

This is a deeply felt and necessary essay. Chung writes of trying to have the type of conversations which so many of us are now struggling to have. She writes from her own specific perspective as a woman of Asian descent who was adopted by a white family that now supports Trump. . . but I think her confusion and pain are shared by so many of us now, of all ethnicities and family circumstances. The ending to this made me tear up. 

Bonus random rec

And while you're here. . . if you'd like to hear the voice of an angel, check out this video of a young singer from Kazakhstan instantly stealing hearts around the world as he sings a French rock opera song for a Chinese musical contest show.