An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows

anaccidentofstars“What’s your name, girl?”
“Saffron,” she said, clearly surprised by the question. “Saffron Coulter.”
“Well, Saffron Coulter, let me give you some unsolicited advice,” said Gwen, because having already come this far, she might as well go that little bit further — then faltered at the realisation that there wasn’t much she could say. She didn’t know what else was going on in Saffron’s life, and the boy’s harassment of her wasn’t going to stop just because Gwen had literally twisted his arm. What could she possibly say that might make a difference?
“Yeah?” said Saffron, expectantly. “What?”
Gwen sighed. “Life is hard. Some days we get our asses kicked, but apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know. Keep fighting.”
It was, Gwen thought, a shitty speech — Pix would probably laugh until she cried — but the girl, Saffron, lit up as though she’d never heard anything better.
“Thank you,” she said again — quieter than before, but also stronger.

Teenager Saffron Coulter is at the end of her patience. A persistent victim of constant sexual harassment at her indifferent school, she would love a way out, if only she could find one. So when, by chance, she meets Gwen Vere, a rare adult who sees her predicament and acknowledges that it’s wrong, she’s desperate to talk to her more. Unfortunately, Gwen happens to be a worldwalker, in the process of entering a portal to another world when Saffron finally finds her again. In a split-second decision, Saffron follows her.

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Bessie Bell and the Goblin King by Charlotte E. English

Series note: Bessie Bell and the Goblin King is the third Aylfenhame novel, but although the stories are intertwined, and it was nice to see that some well established characters have a role to play here, these are books that work equally well out of sequence.

Bessie Bell

Horses loomed abruptly out of the mist: a matched pair, black as night. Bess tensed, her heart pounding wildly as the equipage barrelled down upon her. The horses snorted and neighed in surprise at finding an obstacle in their path, and one of them shied. Bess heard a male voice cursing. She waited until the last possible instant before leaping aside, heart palpitating with terror — and hope, that her foolish gambit had been enough.

For a moment it looked as though the carriage would not stop, and Bess’s spirits sank. It bowled on, sweeping past her in a flurry of wind and the scent of sweating horse, and was swallowed up by the
mist once more.

But the sound of hoofbeats slowed, and then stopped abruptly. It was not the gradual fading of the horses disappearing into the fog, and Bess’s hopes rose again. She clutched a shaking Derritharn to herself and stepped back into the road, hurrying after the coach.

When she grew nearer to the vehicle, she was able to see at once that it was not a mail-coach after all, nor anything nearly so large — or so promising. It was a gentleman’s carriage, the kind that seated but one or two, and the driver was the sole occupant. Oddly, there was no sign of the lanterns she had seen in the distance.

Bessie is a servant in a grand Lincolnshire manor house; the days are long and hard, but though her life is difficult, it isn’t intolerable… until the day she fends off a sexual assault from the master of the house and finds herself dismissed and evicted for her trouble. Thrown out in the middle of the night, without money or references, Bess has nothing to rely on except her wits and strength of character.

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Cyberpunk: Malaysia

cyberpunk malaysiaFor the final instalment of my transhumanist theme, I’ve picked selections from a Malaysian anthology. Cyberpunk: Malaysia is edited by Zen Cho (whose debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I read last year and really loved) and features fourteen futuristic narratives.

This book also has inside the front cover my all-time favourite publisher’s note, a thoughtful comment on the practice of italicizing for loanwords:

We will not use italics for non-American/non-English terms […] Nasi lemak and kongkek are some of the pleasures of Malaysian life that should be celebrated without apology; italics are a form of apology.

I’d never thought of italics as being particularly apologetic, before, yet I absolutely see their point. By highlighting certain words, you mark them out from the rest of the sentence, offering the reader an excuse to skip over the perhaps-unfamiliar spelling or assume that they don’t need to understand what’s being referred to.

To return to the point, then: this is a great anthology with a wide range of stories, most of which have a strongly dystopian flavour, taking social inequalities and magnifying them through the lens of technological enhancements. More than a few of the stories consider the intersection of humanity and technology, giving rise to some fascinating juxtapositions; here are three examples by female authors.

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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The Winged Histories is the companion novel to A Stranger in Olondria by the same author, but it is not necessary to read that before reading this book. However, be warned (and I speak from experience), you may love The Winged Histories so much that you’ll want to go back and read A Stranger in Olondria next!

thewingedhistoriesThe swordmaiden will discover the secrets of men. She will discover that men at war are not as men at peace. She will discover a unforeseen comradeship. Take care: this comradeship is a Dueman shield. It does not extend all the way to the ground.
The swordmaiden will discover that her forebears are few. There was Maris, and there was Galeron of Nain, and there was the False Countess of Kestenya.
The swordmaiden will hear rumours of others, but she will not find them.
Her greatest battle will be waged against oblivion.

Four women tell their history from both sides of a brutal rebellion. Tav, a soldier, wants freedom for her country of Kestenya, but she’s from a royal family and has little in common with the nomadic people who live on the plains. Tialon is the last priestess of a new religion, left bereft on the death of her father. Seren, a poet, wants love but does not want to get married. And Siski, a princess and socialite, is hiding a devastating secret. All four of them write their stories, but history will not remember all of their voices.

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Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey

Series note: Saints Astray is the sequel to Santa Olivia, but I picked it up on a whim and enjoyed it without having read the first one.
saints astray

The world was a very, very big place.

That was Loup’s first impression as the sun rose over northern Mexico. By the time it had cleared the horizon and begun to cast strong light over the landscape, they’d been driving for an hour. Still, the road stretched before them, empty and endless.

And except for Pilar, fast asleep with her head on Loup’s shoulder, everything and everyone in the world Loup had ever loved was behind her, behind the vast concrete wall that sealed off the U.S. border and sealed in a town once known as Santa Olivia, known in Loup’s lifetime only as Outpost — Outpost 12.

The thought made an empty space in Loup’s heart. In the light of day, the thrill of their daring escape through the excavated smugglers’ tunnel had worn off. If she were capable of feeling fear, she was fairly sure she’d be feeling it now.

In the not too distant future, following a flu pandemic that ravaged the planet, humanity is gradually putting itself back together. War between the U.S. and Mexico has led to strengthening of the border defences, and the virtual abandonment of towns within a demilitarized zone between the two countries.

Growing up against this backdrop, Loup is one of a small band of genetically engineered humans with preternatural speed, impressive agility, and an inability to feel fear. Her father was deployed as a weapon by the U.S. government, who consider Loup and her kind as items of property; Loup herself has grown up an orphan in the U.S. government-controlled compound of Outpost. Saints Astray picks up the story just after Loup and Pilar have made their escape, and follows them into their new life beyond the fence.

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The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

thecityofwovenstreets“Are you certain you don’t know her?”
The question makes no sense. I look at the girl again, just to be certain, although I do not need to. She has closed her eyes and her breathing is turning even. Her muscles twitch slightly. She does not open her eyes.
“Of course I’m certain,” I say.
Weaver stares at me, then at Alva again.
“Why do you ask such a thing?” she says.
Alva steps right next to the girl. She does not react when Alva takes her hand ad gently coaxes open the fingers closed in a loose fist.
“Because of this,” Alva says, and turns the palm upwards. The light from the glow-glass falls on it. Bright marks begin to glow on the skin, the letters forming a word I recognize immediately.
Eliana. My name.

Eliana is one of the lucky ones on the island. She lives and works as a weaver at the top of the central hill in the House of Webs, and the regular floods that plague the lower streets are not her concern. But if anyone were to discover her secret — that she is cursed with the nightmares that everyone fears — her life of privilege would be over and she would be made a slave.

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The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree Jr.

Today’s transhumanist tale is a short story from Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jr. 

The Girl Who Was Plugged InSee for instance that rotten girl? In the crowd over there, that one gaping at her gods. One rotten girl in the city of the future. (That’s what I said.) Watch.

She’s jammed among bodies, craning and peering with her soul yearning out of her eyeballs. Love! Oo-ooh, love them! Her gods are coming out of a store called Body East. Three young-bloods, larking along loverly. Dressed like simple street-people but… smashing. See their great eyes swivel above their nose-filters, their hands lift shyly, their inhumanly tender lips melt? The crowd moans. Love! This whole boiling megacity, this whole fun future world loves its gods.

You don’t believe gods, dad? Wait. Whatever turns you on, there’s a god in the future for you, custom-made. Listen to this mob. “I touched his foot. Ow-oow, I TOUCHED Him!”

Even the people in the GTX tower up there love the gods — in their own way and for their own reasons.

The funky girl on the street, she just loves. Grooving on their beautiful lives, their mysterioso problems. No one ever told her about mortals who love a god and end up as a tree or a sighing sound. In a million years it’d never occur to her that her gods might love her back.

Philadelphia Burke is a disabled girl in a future world, her misshapen body leaving her at best invisible and at worst disdained, while the beautiful people are lauded, celebrated, and constantly observed. It would never have occurred to her that she could become one of the beautiful people, but then tragedy strikes, and she’s offered the opportunity to “die” … and be reborn in the body of Delphi, a stunning young thing who’s guaranteed to turn into a starlet.

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Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

penricsdemon“You ought to have a name for when I mean all of you, as one. Not Demon. Something nicer than what I’d call a dog, for the five gods’ sakes. How if I pick something? Make it a present.”

The silence this time was so long, he wondered if the creature had gone back to sleep, or into hiding, or whatever it did when he could not feel or hear it.

“In twelve long lives,” it said quietly at last, “no one has ever offered us a present.”

Penric is an insignificant younger brother of a minor Baron of a kingdom in the middle of nowhere. But on the way to his betrothal to the daughter of a rich cheese merchant, he stops to help a dying woman. Unfortunately, it turns out the woman is a sorcerer who carries a demon, and on her death, the demon transfers to the nearest suitable person — in this case, Penric.

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The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

Next up in this season’s exploration of transhumanist narratives, we turn to a dystopian future imagined by Nnedi Okorafor.

Series note: The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Who Fears Death, which I haven’t read, and I found it works just fine as a standalone.

The Book of Phoenix

I’d never known any other place. The 28th floor of Tower 7 was my home. Yesterday, I realized it was a prison, too. I probably should have suspected something. The two-hundred-year-old marble skyscraper had many dark sides to its existence and I knew most of them. There were 39 floors, and on almost every one was an abomination. I was an abomination. I’d read many books and this was clear to me. However, the building was still my home.

Home: a. One’s place of residence. Yes, it was my home.

They gave me all the 3D movies I could watch, but it was the plethora of books that did it for me. A year ago, they gave me an e-reader packed with 700,000 books of all kinds. No matter the topic, I consumed those books voraciously, working my way through over half of them. When it came to information, I was given access to anything I requested. That was part of their research. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

Phoenix is only two years old, but accelerated growth means she has the physical form of a forty-year-old African woman. One of a number of genetically enhanced speciMen, she’s a product of a lengthy and secretive research program into human genetics. As the story begins she’s lived her whole (brief) life in Tower 7, one of a set of such towers distributed across the United States, in which a shady research corporation seems to obey no laws but its own.

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Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

truthwitchThis monk was a rutting Bloodwitch. A creature from the myths, a being who could smell a person’s blood — smell their very witchery — and track it across entire continents. If he latched onto Safi’s or Iseult’s scent, then they were in deep, deep–
Gunpowder burst inside firepots. The guards had hit the trap.
Safi reacted instantly — as did the monk. His sword swished from its scabbard; her knife came up. She clipped the edge of his blade, parrying it aside.
He recovered and lunged. Safi lurched back. Her calves hit Iseult, yet in a single fluid movement, Iseult kneeled —  and Safi rolled sideways over her back.
Initiate. Complete. It was how the girls fought. How they lived.

When witches Safiya and her best friend Iseult accidentally set up a heist on the wrong target, they are suddenly wanted by the city authorities and start to flee. Worse, Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to tell truth from lies — a powerful political weapon in the wrong hands, if anyone was to discover her secret. All they want is their freedom, but they soon run into bigger problems. The twenty-year peace truce of the Empire is about to expire, and Iseult’s guardian and Safiya’s uncle have an elaborate plot designed to prevent a war… and it relies on Safiya co-operating. There is no place for Iseult in their plans, so the girls are separated. While Safiya navigates court politics and makes a tentative ally in a foreign prince, Iseult faces the family she left behind and learns about a powerful new adversary. But whatever happens, they must first find each other again.

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