Saturday, September 23, 2017

A TASTE OF HONEY, second novella set in Olorumi's realer-than-reality world


A TASTE OF HONEY
KAI ASHANTE WILSON
(The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps #2)
Tor.com
$3.99 ebook, $14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Long after the Towers left the world but before the dragons came to Daluça, the emperor brought his delegation of gods and diplomats to Olorum. As the royalty negotiates over trade routes and public services, the divinity seeks arcane assistance among the local gods.

Aqib bgm Sadiqi, fourth-cousin to the royal family and son of the Master of Beasts, has more mortal and pressing concerns. His heart has been captured for the first time by a handsome Daluçan soldier named Lucrio. In defiance of Saintly Canon, gossiping servants, and the furious disapproval of his father and brother, Aqib finds himself swept up in a whirlwind romance. But neither Aqib nor Lucrio know whether their love can survive all the hardships the world has to throw at them.

My Review: Sheer bliss. Storytelling of the highest order. Unfolding like an origami crane, showing the reader its creases and its tucks after he has absorbed its graceful shape, it becomes a completely different story as the end arrives.

Wow.

I just loved it. I can't say enough about how very different the experience of reading the tale is from the experience of having read it. I am utterly enamored of Author Wilson's magic-tech. The beauty of it is that it allows for the fantasy trappings of powers beyond the ordinary but it explains them rather more logically than I'm accustomed to. And the beautiful way Author Wilson folds in the eggwhites of real-time physics in the shape of the multiverse to the mousse of this story is a deep pleasure to me. I've always felt in some essential part of myself that we really are multidimensional beings and travel in linear time...a concept absent from physics, by the way...solely as a means of learning essential lessons on our way Out. Of what, I'm reasonably sure, is the endless recursive reincarnation that seems logical to me in an existence that is defined by energy formed into patterns and perceived as solid when it's actually anything but. Into what is a much more intriguing question. I'm looking forward to finding out.

Another case where my notes were extensive in the Kindle. Twelve of them in fewer pages than THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS, which earned no fewer than 17 notes its own good self. I think it's fair to say that Kai Ashante Wilson has a new fanboy in me. Who would not fall in love with a writer who says this:
Most would only ever guess at who and what was most precious to them—up until the day of loss: then they’d know—and most would also have to guess at why and how, or what might have been.
Perfection.

And then there's the glorious moment when a man knows himself for the first time:
Ah, this was why his wayward gaze alit so often on whom it shouldn’t, going back to peek howevermuch snatched away: those taut bellies and hard thighs of men heroically scrawled in scars. So yes, then: clearly two men could kiss! And what else might they do? Lie down together kissing, if they both wished it, and furthermore . . . unclothed? A desperate thrill of desire throbbed in Aqib’s loins, nearly a climax.
I assume something similar happens to young straight men, couldn't prove it by me; but that *snap* of complete clarity, the sensation of the hand settling into the glove, is expressed beautifully and accurately in that passage.

My recommendation is that you read both books in the Olorumi-verse. The best $7.98 a Kindle/ereader person will spend this fall; slightly more for paperbackers, but the pleasures are commensurate with the expenditure.

Friday, September 22, 2017

THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS, a post-apocalyptic African fantasy setting


THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS
KAI ASHANTE WILSON
(The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps #1)
Tor.com
$3.99 eBook, $12.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors' artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.

The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.

The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

My Review: It's tough to know what to say about novellas. I can't abide book reports disguised as reviews anyway, but some indication of the plot's effects on the reader are de rigueur. I don't want to spoil the pleasures of watching Demane's world unfold before a besotted reader's eyes, yet I need to tell you some things. Which things, how many, that's the rough part for review writer me.

Here goes.

I'm utterly ensorcelled by Demane and his post-apocalyptic Africa, peopled as it is by demigods, by descendents of FTL-traveling "gods," by the many-generations-removed descendants of these gods and the mere humans left behind by them. I am fascinated by the way Demane manipulates the spacetime continuum as he discovers the scope and the limitations of his powers as a demigod. I think Author Wilson deserves a Hugo and a Nebula and a Mythopoetic award for his delicate, acute balancing act in creating a magic system that's Clarke's Law writ small: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic:
“Exigencies of FTL,” Demane answered. Distracted by a glimpse from the corners of his eyes, he lapsed into liturgical dialect. “Superluminal travel is noncorporeal: a body must become light.” A tall, thin man passed by: some stranger, not the captain. “The gods could only carry away Homo celestialis with them, you see, because the angels had already learned to make their bodies light. But most sapiens—even those of us with fully expressed theogenetica—haven’t yet attained the psionic phylogeny necessary to sublimnify the organism.”

I'm also delighted that Demane loves Isa, the Captain, and is loved in return. I'm sadly convinced that the homophobia the men face in their future world is accurately portrayed. I don't get it. I don't like it. But I've come to believe that, for reasons buried somewhere in a human culture-generating gene, straight men are always going to be fearful of gay men. I've always agreed with the assertion that the reason is they fear other men treating them the way they treat women. It makes me sigh impatiently while sneering contemptuously. Get over yourself. If some deluded guy offers you sex, say no and move on with your life. It's an activity, is sex; gay is an identity, and a recently coined one like heterosexuality. Used to be it was just a private matter. I'd prefer to go back to that system myownself.

But here we are, an untold number of generations in the future, and the divide still exists. C'est la vie. And since that accords with my lack of faith in human nature's ability to change for the better, I respond to it as a heliotropic plant does to the sun.

When Demane listens, early on, to the Captain's voice, Wilson describes it poetically:
Captain lacked the power of speech, was capable only of song. He could stand dumb, gesturing, or else make incomparable music. Even in a monosyllable, it was possible to hear him struggling to tarnish his pure tones, hoarsen their rich clarity; trying to turn his vox seraphica into a thing befitting the vulgar, violent world of a caravan guardsman. But calliphony was as inseparable from the captain’s voice as blood from a living heart, and he could do nothing, try as he might, to make any utterance of his less than the loveliest you’d heard, or would ever hear, so long as you lived.
That's both gorgeous and evocative. I love the sound of the words in my mouth as I read this passage aloud. It makes me wish I could hear the vox seraphica with my mortal ears. I also find myself eumoirous at Wilson's unabashed use of ten-dollar words. It's all too rare to find such vocabulary deployed in service of evoking emotions, not merely creating distance between reader and writer as a means of making the fantasy world more remote from reality. Kudos for that act of bravery on top of making your main character gay, Author Wilson.

And what gay love is made of!
His hand still lightly cupped the captain’s mouth. When he slid it away Captain turned vague, astonished eyes on him. They were the last shade of brown before black, color of coffee, and just now neither grim nor sad but wonderstruck. He was all soft-side-up for a change. And unplucked there on his mouth were kisses like lowhanging fruit, ripe and deeply pink.
If that doesn't feel completely real to you, without reference to your or the partner's gender, your lover has my sympathy. For me that passage encapsulates the sensation and the perception of being in love with someone. The touch, the emotion, the perception of physical reality melded with emotional resonance, that's exactly how I respond to the man I fall in love with. It's glorious to experience, of course, but to read it is an experience as glorious still: Others travel this road. I'm not the trailblazer or rear guard, I'm traveling in company. There's peace in that sensation, and there's a sense of hopefulness. Navigation can bring me into contact with other men who feel this way hip hip hooray! And that's a gift from Author Wilson to an old fart...imagine what this sensation will do for a closeted young sufferer of homophobia's vicious rage.

All in all, I highlighted 17 passages in this novella. Seventeen. That's more than most entire long novels get from me! I highlighted them because they were exquisite, because I needed them to be part of the group mind that is Goodreads (where Kindle notes and highlights are posted). I want anyone who so much as scratches the surface of this book to feel the enfolding warmth and gentle, cool stroke of the hair from your forehead, the delight of being understood and valued as you smile your way through passages of deeply and beautifully crafted prose.
Though a mind twists and turns, most complicated of all things, the body is a simple creature, and prefers love and comfort, to be where it feels safe.
I hope you, like me, will feel safe while in the Wildeeps with Demane.

Monday, September 18, 2017

ACADIE, novella-sized space opera


ACADIE
DAVE HUTCHINSON

Tor.com
$10.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.

The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review: What I love about reading Dave Hutchinson's work is the certainty that he's going to flip the script on you at some point. Usually just after you've become comfortable with the world as it is. And always to the effect that you're longing to go back to the way things were. But, just like life, that's not on the table. You can't unsee/unhear/unlearn what's happened. It's a bear, innit?

Why would a sane person like that?! As if I'd know what sane people like, still less why.

In the space of a novella, Hutchinson packs a space opera's worth of concepts and creations. Chief among them is the first-ever pop culture mention of kudzu in a positive light. Kudzu for the uninitiated is a terrifying invader of the southern USA. It destroys any and every man-made thing in its path. It terrifies me. But given its incredibly thoroughgoing colonial growth habit and ability to fix nitrogen, it makes sense to us it for structural elements in a hab(itat) in space.

Stuff still gives me the willies.

I love the use of quantum-entangled bits (qubits) for instant communication across immense distances. It sounds so plausible that I just assigned it the mental label ansible and didn't think much about it again while I was reading. It is cause for pause that I'm using one fictional communication concept to explain another in my mind...maybe I read too much sci fi...naaahhh, not possible. Quantity "too much sci fi" not defined.

It's also the script-flipping ending of the book that leads me into the star-granting stratosphere. It's delicious. It's like the Big Bang...it leads to more questions than answers, which is exactly how I want my fiction. I began to go back over the beginning as I read the ending. It made more sense. It made different sense, really, not more, and that's something to savor. I've read a lot of books in my life so I'm always after a new sensation. When I find one it makes me very happy.

Which leads to that missing quarter-star. Why, given the praise I'm heaping up here, didn't I give the damn thing the full five?

Ninety-six pages. Ninety-lousy-fucking-six pages. Really, Dave? There'd better be more stories set in this universe.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE HEART OF THE MATTER, a book that had the opposite of its intended effect on me


THE HEART OF THE MATTER
GRAHAM GREENE

Penguin Classics
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Graham Greene's masterpiece The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity.

When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.

Originally published in 1948, The Heart of the Matter is the unforgettable portrait of one man, flawed yet heroic, destroyed and redeemed by a terrible conflict of passion and faith.

My Review: An excellent book. Simply magnificent writing, as always, but more than that the story is perfectly paced (a thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg The Power and the Glory) and deeply emotional (another thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg Travels With My Aunt).

Greene himself didn't like the book, which was a species of roman à clef. I suspect, though I don't have proof, that he was simply uncomfortable at how much of his inner life he revealed in the book. Scobie's infidelity and his fraught relationship with the wife he's saddled with must have been bad reading for Mrs. Greene. But the essential conflict of the book is man versus church, the giant looming monster of judgment and hatred that is Catholicism. Greene's convert's zeal for the idiotic strictures, rules, and overarching dumb "philosophy" of the religion are tested here, and ultimately upheld, though the price of the struggle and the upholding aren't scanted in the text.

Stories require conflicts to make them interesting, and the essential question an author must address is "what's at stake here?" The more intense and vivid the answer to that question is, the more of an impact the story is able to make. Greene was fond of the story he tells here, that of an individual against his individuality. He told and retold the story. The state, the colonial power whose interests Scobie/Greene serves, is revealed in the text to be an uncaring and ungrateful master; the rules of the state are broken with remarkably few qualms when the stakes get high enough. It is the monolith of the oppressive church, admonishing Scobie of his "moral" failings and withholding "absolution of his sins", that he is in full rebellion against...and in the end it is the church that causes all parties the most trouble and pain.

Greene remained a more-or-less believing Catholic. I read this book and was stumped as to why. The vileness of the hierarchy was so clear to me, I couldn't imagine why anyone would read it and not drop christianity on the spot. But no matter one's stance on the religion herein portrayed, there's no denying the power of the tension between authority and self in creating an engaging and passionate story. A must-read.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

PHASE SHIFT, fifth CHAOS STATION gay SF novel


PHASE SHIFT
KELLY JENSEN & JENN BURKE
(Chaos Station #5)
Carina Press
$3.49 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix’s relationship has always pushed boundaries—personal and professional alike—but their love and commitment is stronger than ever. So strong that Zander’s ready to ask commitment-shy Felix the question of a lifetime when he’s interrupted. The Chaos is being hacked, and crucial, top secret information about the project that created Zander—and his fellow super soldiers—has been leaked.

Neither man could have expected the enormity of what’s discovered at the end of the data trail: an entire colony of super soldiers run by the very doctor who changed Zander’s life forever. And now she needs them both—Zander to train her new crop of soldiers, and Felix’s new crystalline arm to stabilize their body chemistry.

With help from the unlikeliest of allies, Zander, Felix and the Chaos crew must destroy the project and all its ill-gotten information. But when the team is split up and Felix is MIA after a dangerous run, galactic disaster is a very real possibility…and Zander may have missed his chance to ask for forever.

My Review: I will miss this series very much. It came into my reading life exactly when I needed it. As endings to books go, and as endings to series go, I can't find fault or register a complaint.

There's a pearl-clutcher for yinz.

Probably my favorite scene in the whole Chaos Station universe takes place in this book: Zed and Flick are trudging across the fifty-centigrade surface of 83 Leonis Bb after tracing some vile malefactors' flight path back to it. There they discover an illegal, unregistered human colony sweltering in the revolting heat. Having lost their transportation off planet in a crash landing, they need to locate some form of beacon to get a signal to their compadres aboard the Chaos. This is not going to stop Zed from continuing a conversation he's been planning to have with his beloved for a while now: Zed wants to get married. Flick is, politely phrased, ambivalent. He has all sorts of reasons. All of which Zed has answers to, eg:
“Men have been allowed to marry other men since the fucking twenty-first century, Flick,” Zed growled.
This made me laugh and cry. How perfect, like the whole idea of not being *able* to marry is so firmly dead that it's a feeble excuse of an excuse not to marry. If there's a 23rd century, I hope like hell that's how it'll feel to the people in it.

I'm glad the end of the series was so fully satisfying. It made me smile through the misty-eyed "I always cry at weddings" sentimentality. And I loved the entire experience of reading a good SF series that had people like me as its main characters.

Goodreads user Simone made this JPEG of Zed's thoughts at the end of the book that sums this entire series up beautifully:

INVERSION POINT, fourth CHAOS STATION gay SF novel


INVERSION POINT
JENN BURKE & KELLY JENSEN
(Chaos Station #4)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix's relationship has been to the brink and back: the Human-Stin War, imprisonment and an actual death/resurrection. Zander's death, to be specific, and the experience has left him…changed. The mysterious race known as the Guardians chose to revive him and appointed him as their emissary. A high honor, but he could do without the group of would-be cultists following him around the galaxy.

When a recently discovered species destroys a stin probe, Zander's new role soon commands all of his time and focus. The human ambassador—Felix's ex-lover, much to Zander's annoyance—pulls them into strategy talks aimed at preserving galactic peace. Soon everyone is relying on Zander's Guardian tech to telepathically communicate with the strange aliens.

Only Felix seems concerned with the strain piling up on Zander, but he has his own resolve tested when the very stin that imprisoned him show up to a summit. Zander and Felix will both have to find a way to face their doubts and preserve their love—while preventing another galaxy-wide war.

My Review: There was more "w"-verbing (winking, which I abhor, abominate, and despise) at 74% but for that one and only time it was less than revolting in context.

I'll get to reviewing before long.

**A GOOD WHILE LATER**

So another solid four-plus star outing in a series whose SFnal street cred, if we could only get some straight boys to read it, would carry it far beyond the m/m ghetto. The resonance is my absolute favorite race so far, not excluding humans, because "fluffy yellow partner unit" made me laugh until my belly ached. I could *see* Flick's confused amused slightly insulted mostly bemused face when he heard that. Men with curly blond hair must get similar nonsense thrown at them all the time, and the fact that he's the reasonably public partner of the Emissary of the Guardians can't make life as a mop-top any easier.

The political elements of this outing are genuinely involving, again without reference to m/m content...well, except for the fact that Flick is the space equivalent of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, having bagged humanity's chief envoy Theo as well as Zed the Emissary. Ducks always envy the swans, hm? What is it about some people, anyway, that they can score the best and the brightest without seeming to bring anything all that exciting to the table themselves? But wait, Flick is...well...Flick is from a world where ambassadors are equivalent to unicorns and now his sweet, lovely ex is one and his amazing one-true-love man is one and he's, you know, just this guy. His head's whirling. He's interacting with the stin, the very same precise stin who tortured him almost to death during his four-year stint as a POW just cuz. He's way outside his comfort zone and he only gets more remote from it as Ambassador Theo the ex-lover sets Emissary Zed the one-true-love's teeth on edge and causes him to act like a sulky adolescent ninny. Which for all of me is the best moment in the book. I love that Zed gets all "my man step off or suffer" about his Flick. Sure it's silly! No way in hell can even the scrummy hotness that is Theo compete with Zed's amazeballs pedigree, position, and prior claim on Flick's feelings. But your man being just a little extra attentive and a scoche more possessive in the presence of a potential rival? Yes please. Very agreeable if not carried too far, and Authors Burke and Jensen don't let it get out of hand.

The tragedies that befall our heroes are testing and frightening and the stakes are unfathomably high: a renewal of the Human-Stin War with a side order of Species Four/the resonance in the stin's sights as well. Flick pays a horrible personal price to keep this from happening. Zed will have nightmares the rest of his life about Flick's sacrifice, its reason and its agent.

That's the set-up, however, for one of the best endings I've read in a book lately. The resolution of the war threat and the reward for Flick's horrifying sacrifice is...sweet beyond belief, balm for so many wounds these awful author-ladies have put our guys through. I would give the book five stars just for the ending.

I can't quite do that. The ashushk have had their major inning. The stin, well, not sure that we need a lot more stin assholishness but we'd be better informed if we saw a weentsy bit more of their culture for some whys. It's the resonance that causes me to dock a half-star from the rating. I know, because it's been made clear, that the series ends with book five. You introduce me to the resonance and expect I'll trot happily alongside the carriage as it briskly bowls AWAY from the coolest aliens yet?! (Sorry, Qek.) In one of this era's billion-page-per-volume nonillionologies, sure okay I get it we'll be back around this way one say soon.

BUT THIS IS IT!

So very not cool. I'm being kind because ending but absent that I'd probably bust this one down a whole star or even two for the tease this represents.

Write more books in this series, please. Not with Zed and Flick, even, just in the wonderful and rich universe. Space operas are a blast to read, and I am completely at your mercy, great BurkeandJensen, for writing a solid one with men like me in it.

SKIP TRACE, third CHAOS STATION series novel gay SF


SKIP TRACE
KELLY JENSEN & JENN BURKE
(Chaos Station #3)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander Anatolius has been revived from the fatal effects of the super-soldier program, but now he has to face his estranged family and tell a story few would believe. With his lover and the crew of the Chaos at his side, Zander returns home to a media frenzy, threats from the military and pressure to join the family business.

Felix Ingesson still struggles with the horror of believing Zander dead. And no matter how strong their emotional connection is, Felix feels out of place in the glittery world of Zander's rich family. His lover would be better off without a broken, low-class ship's engineer holding him back.

My Review: When the crew receives word that another of Zander’s former teammates needs rescue, Felix travels with the Chaos...setting Zander free. But when Zander is arrested for treason, the men realize they need each other as much as ever—not only to survive, but to make their lives worth living.

I'd definitely read these as SF novels without hesitation. It's lagniappe that they include hot gay sex scenes. Written by nice straight ladies. Which I still very much do not comprehend. I'll try for a review very soon.

**DAYS LATER**

So I've finished the series now. In a lot of ways, this is where the tone of the books changes. This is the moment of truth for the couple as well as for Flick and Zed the men. After the astonishing events of Lonely Shore, anyone could be forgiven for needing to take a breath, step back, and just be for a while. Being Flick, he doesn't do this by halves. He walks to the Chaos, climbs on board, and flies into the black without saying one damned word to Zed. Who is, unsurprisingly, dealing with the very public fallout of the previous book's events, and the very private and equally life-altering family ructions that a wealthy youngest son can expect when he comes home from being thought dead in a vicious war trailing clouds of glory and his one true love the lower class station rat.

Flick looks at the world the Anatolius name entitles Zed to enter and his brain freezes, his balls try to climb inside to hide, and his spirit screams "FOR ALL THOSE USELESS GODS' SAKES RUN RUN RUN!!" He has no idea what fork to use...food itself was scarce in his household. He has no concept of how to dress...clothing simply kept him from being naked, for the most part. All those educated, cultured voices! All the smiles that feel like sneers!

Zed just sees the living room full of brothers, parents, sisters-in-law waiting to go in to dinner.

That's a gap. And Flick running away hurts like stin poison. But he's not just running away, he's running to save a needy comrade. Zed's troubles escalate, his powerful family limbers up the big guns (Lawyers, Guns, and Money style). Unlike Warren Zevon's spoiled brat holed up in Honduras, though, Zed is targeted by the very people he's given up his humanity for, the AEF. He is still an embarrassment for the AEF because his existence means they have to acknowledge their disgusting super-soldier program that caused Zed so much damage. Now the AEF have received a small gift from the Universe: Zed's recent actions have placed him within their reasonable grasp, and they take full advantage of this to plot the final solution to the Zed Question.

Flick? He's not having any of it. He might be skittish as all hell from a bad childhood, enslavement at the stin's claws, and almost a decade of living in the vacuum of Zed's presumed death (while, ironically, it's Flick's presumed death in stin slavery that makes Zed vanish so utterly into the super-soldier program) that he can't and won't tolerate threats to his true love no matter who makes them. It is a constant in his life and the series.

But the current imbroglio is challenging in so many ways, and the superbaddies are so thick on the ground, and the resolutions to the Chaos crew's problems continue to be just out of reach, and...well. I can tell you this much without spoilering anything: Power corrupts and those in power see everything through the stinking atmosphere of their corruption.

The book ends with our augmented crew still flying, still precariously free, and still very much a real-feeling family. Pain and happiness come from so many of the same roots in intimacy, don't they. Blessedly for Zander and Flick, those roots are deep as the oceans in each man's soul. So satisfying.