Speak by Louisa Hall


What’s the world like, the world that I’m missing? Do stars still cluster in the bare branches of trees? Are my little bots still dead in the desert? Or, as I sometimes dream during endless lights-out, have they escaped and gathered their forces? I see them when I can’t fall asleep: millions upon millions of beautiful babies, marching out of the desert, coming to take vengeance for having been banished.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Those bots aren’t coming back. They won’t rescue me from this prison. This is my world now, ringed with barbed wire.

Speak is presented as a collection of documents: letters from Alan Turing; the diaries of young Puritan colonist Mary Bradford; letters from AI pioneer Karl Dettman to his estranged wife; the prison journal of programmer Stephen Chinn (excerpted above). Together, these words form the core memories of MARY3, a chatbot program whose algorithm has been outlawed for being too human. The narrative is framed by a few pages of MARY3’s own words, her reflections as her robotic body is carted into the desert, there to be abandoned until her batteries die.

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Girl in the Shadows by Gwenda Bond


I was waiting in the wings backstage at the Menagerie Hotel and Casino, preparing the equipment or my first stage illusion. Straitjacket, check. Oversized timer and mood music speakers, check. And — most important — transparent coffin, check. As I lay straitjacketed inside it, I’d press a button that would expel all the air in the coffin with a dramatic puff for my audience’s benefit, and then I’d pull off a daring escape.

The coffin might sound morbid, but I wasn’t planning to die in it. I was planning to live.

Forget college or a normal future. I wanted to be a magician: The Miraculous Moira.

Moira Mitchell has only ever wanted one thing: to follow in her father’s footsteps as a stage illusionist. Far from being supportive of her dreams, however, her dad discourages and eventually forbids her from studying magic, insisting that his community is no place for a woman. Determined to make a name for herself regardless, Moira trains in secret, developing ever more daring escapes, and eventually running away to audition for a role with a travelling circus.

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Happy Birthday To Us! & Giveaway

Strange Charm is two years old today! We’ve had an amazing year of reading, covering Alternate History, Fantasy Romance, Transhumanism, Food and Musical magic, as well as a spectacular array of recent releases. We’re so impressed by the strength and variety of women’s writing in every area of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and look forward to another equally amazing year ahead.

But for now we’re celebrating our birthday in style with plenty of cake and presents. We’ve eaten the cake ourselves (sorry), but the presents are for you. We’ve each picked out three of our favourite books from the last year, and we’re going to send them all to one lucky reader in a spectacular surprise parcel along with some handwritten notes and other goodies.

We reckon the best presents are carefully-chosen surprises, so we’re not going to tell you in advance which books are in the parcel, but it’s a really exciting selection, and together they represent the very best that the past year has had to offer (they’ve all been featured here too).

To enter our giveaway, just follow the link to Rafflecopter here. Open to all UK residents; entries will be accepted until 23:59 (GMT) on 7th November 2016.

Finally, thank you to everyone who supports Strange Charm, by reading, commenting, tweeting, and following. We’ve had an absolute blast doing this for the past two years, and you guys make it so worthwhile — we couldn’t do it without you!

Joanna & Rachel x

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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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 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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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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Memories of Ash by Intisar Khanani

Series note: Memories of Ash picks up the story straight after Sunbolt; this review will contain spoilers for Sunbolt.
memories of ash


I glance up, holding tight to the thread of my spell as the mountains throw a thunderous echo back to us. My skin tingles with the brush of magic, as if unseen creatures skitter up my arms, over my back. Across the valley, forest birds take to the air, calling out as they wheel over the lake. I catch the pale white flutter of snow pigeons, the midnight silhouette of ravens, and high up the snow-dusted peaks, the great dark wingspans of a pair of griffon vultures.

Seated cross-legged beside me on the banks of the lake, Brigit Stormwind murmurs, “That was the first ward.”

After casting a powerful fire spell that charred her from the inside out and leaves her fighting for her life, Hitomi is left with only fragmentary memories of her earlier life. Under the care of the mage Stormwind, she is just starting to rebuild her sense of self, and to learn to use her powers in a more predictable manner, when their peaceful valley life is disturbed by the arrival of a rogue hunter.

But he’s not coming for Hitomi. He’s coming to arrest Stormwind on charges of treason.
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Artificial Absolutes by Mary Fan

For the second book in my Transhumanism season, we’re taking a detour from human-enhancement into human-replacement technology.

artificial absolutes

What kind of blockhead randomly decides to propose and rushes to ask immediately? Sarah deserved better. She deserved something thoughtful, something that had taken effort.

Devin took the ring box out of his pocket and opened it, then looked around the apartment. How she kept everything so pristine was beyond him. Other than the digimech she’d left on, everything was where it ought to be. Sarah was like that in every aspect, flawless except for some quirk that made her all the more perfect in his eyes. Every hair in place, except for the one lock falling beside her face. Always precisely four minutes late. Her apartment decorated so crisply it might have been done by a computer but for a bizarre painting that appeared to represent some form of bird.

There was nothing out of which he could fashion a romantic scene. Sarah had professed many times that, in spite of the cynicism of modern times, she was still an idealistic dreamer who loved the sweet formulae of yesteryear. So what the hell was he doing with nothing but a ring and a question?

For siblings Devin and Jane, the wealth and privilege of their upbringing is overshadowed by their parents’ wish to control every aspect of their lives. Jane wants nothing more than to be a singer, but that isn’t considered an appropriate career, and she’s pushed towards an unsatisfying role in the family company. For Devin, youthful rebellion manifests in his becoming an elite hacker with a reputation in the cybercrime community — but by the start of the book those days are behind him and he’s preparing to settle down with the perfect, thoroughly suitable Sarah.

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