Review: “Transcendent 3,” ed. Bogi Takács

Pros: Very moving stories
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Bogi Takács edits Transcendent 3: The Year’s Best Transgender Themed Speculative Fiction. The stories within range from tales where a character just happens to be trans or genderfluid in the context of a wider stories, to tales where the character’s gender is crucial to the plot. Some trans characters are much as we see them in society now, whereas others are members of alien races (or other groups) that would be new to us.

The collection includes an up-front section of content notes so you can skip the stories that might bother you. I’ll just note a handful: violence, explicit sex, slurs, self-harm, panic attacks, menstruation, murder.

I don’t think there are any stories in here that disappointed me. Maybe there were one or two that I felt ended too soon, with too much left unsaid or unresolved. But it was a mild feeling, not a “hey, did someone leave out half the story?” reaction. I won’t go through each and every story, but I’ll note a few that stood out to me.

The Chameleon’s Gloves by Yoon Ha Lee is one of those stories that isn’t really about the character’s sexuality so much. Rhehan and their partner are working on an art heist when they’re kidnapped and forced to use Rhehan’s haptic chameleon abilities for the benefit of the people who threw them out. This story is tense, tight, and neat.

Ryley Knowles’s Death You Deserve introduces us to Addy, who has an obsession with fearing that she’ll die a horror-movie-style death. This is a surprisingly powerful tale.

Small Changes over Long Periods of Time, by K.M. Szpara contains a non-consensual vampire attack, and then the difficulties of a trans character having to also transition to being a vampire. It’s creative and interesting.

Shweta Narayan’s World of the Three is a fantastical tale of mechanical creatures and their interactions with humans. This is one of the stories where the trans nature of the character is a bit unusual, since mechanicals can have their heartsprings moved into new bodies, which might not be the same gender as the previous.

S. Qiouyi Lu’s A Complex Filament of Light follows Alicia, who’s doing research in Antarctica. They have to come to terms with a suicide in their family, and I shed a few tears over this one.

One of my favorites in here is Susan Jane Bigelow’s The Heart’s Cartography. As soon as Sally moves into Jade’s neighborhood, Jade figures out Sally’s a time traveler. Sally’s able to give Jade, a trans girl, a bit of a glimpse into what the future may hold for people like her.

This is an excellent anthology, with some powerful stories.

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Review: “Wireless,” Alex Acks

Pros: Delightful characters and worldbuilding
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Alex Acks writes Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Adventures of the Valiant Captain Ramos), a collection of three stories about steampunk Captain Marta Ramos and her stout crew. In “Blood in Elk Creek,” Marta discovers that men from the Grand Duchy of Denver are deliberately infecting the water supply that the Lakota Indians are using. She must join forces with her nemesis, Colonel Douglas, in order to stop the bad guys and end the threat. She’s stranded without her crew or her pistols, however, and she’s broken her arm. In “Do Shut Up, Mister Simms,” we find out what happened to Marta’s crew while she was fending off Infected. Lucius gets thrown in jail, and Marta’s lover Deliah offers to help get him out. Simms doesn’t trust Deliah, but he’s left with no choice. The seemingly innocent favor she asks in return, of course, turns out to bring even more trouble down upon him. “Wireless” takes place a few months later. Simms is worried about Marta–she’s in a funk, and the crew is getting restless. When he runs out of other ideas, he lets Deliah know he’s worried, and before they know it the crew has to run off to help Deliah rescue herself from one of her devilish schemes.

The author’s introduction gives the best description of the world I can imagine, so I’ll quote it here:

[A] vision of what Sherlock Holmes might be like, if he were in fact a she and much more an anarchist, living in a rollicking steampunk universe where the rails are surrounded by ravening hordes of the undead.

The worldbuilding, as you can begin to see from that quote, is terribly fun. Steampunk, pirates, same-sex relationships, and zombies, oh my! I’m not wholly interested in the Victorian aspects of the steampunk milieu, but this is more adventure than period piece. This appears to be an alternate Earth, with America broken up into various Duchies and areas connected by rail. Airships exist, but are expensive and not so frequently used. Marta and her crew are pirates and troublemakers, and all of the characters are rich and interesting. One of the pirates used to be an opera singer (which actually becomes relevant), and another, trouble-making man loves to sew and embroider. These details are brought into the mix in charming and delightful ways.

The stories are great, and often put the characters into moral quandaries. Marta is determined that they don’t ‘do’ charity, but sometimes they find excuses to do the right thing. The characters are properly witty and banter as though they’re fencing with swords. I really enjoyed this collection of tales!

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Recipe: Coconut Tapioca Pudding (with Ginger)

Anyone who spends any time here knows I love all things custard and pudding. Tapioca is a favorite.

Ingredients:

  • 2 (13.5 oz) cans coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup tapioca granules
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Optional: 1/4 cup diced crystallized ginger

Pour coconut milk into a saucepan. Add sugar and salt. Stir over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer.

Sprinkle tapioca granules over the surface of the coconut milk and stir them in. Stirring frequently, simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, until tapioca is translucent.

Remove from heat, stir in vanilla, and chill. Optionally, stir crystallized ginger into the tapioca. This will probably be easier while it’s still warm.

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Review: “Rust: One,” Christopher Ruz

Pros: Interesting setup
Cons: Somewhat confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Christopher Ruz’s Rust: One, Kimberly Archer is pushed in front of a train. When she wakes up, she’s living in the town of Rustwood. She’s married to a man she doesn’t recognize, and has a baby she’s sure she’s never carried–except that she has the cesarean scar to prove that she did. She’s sure she’s been kidnapped by her “husband” Peter, but Detective Jonathan Goodwell points out that she’s wearing a wedding ring and he even remembers her being checked into the hospital when she had her baby. Little bits and pieces of knowledge seem to come to her over time, but she’s absolutely certain she isn’t where she’s supposed to be. Only a ragged man named Fitch seems to believe her, and he wants her help to burn the whole thing down. But someone’s after Fitch–and something is after Kimberly.

The thing that mainly kept this from being a 5/5 work was the sense of confusion I was left with. I still don’t understand who’s on which side (there’s a “true queen” and a “false queen,” not that I have any idea of who either of them is). I feel like I’m supposed to know in some cases, but there was too much confusion. I’m also having trouble seeing how Fitch has managed to stay at large for as long as he has, given what he’s up against. What I’ve said so far probably makes it obvious that this book leaves off in the middle of things. I’m not honestly sure yet if I’m going to read the rest of the series. I have a long TBR list already, otherwise I probably would. But the desire to continue just isn’t that urgent.

Kimberly is a good, strong character. She doesn’t waver in her convictions, and she’s ready to do whatever she has to in order to get back to her life and her fiancé. Whether that’s break free from a kidnapper or stick a knife in a horrific creature that wants to take her over, she manages, sometimes with help. It’s all too easy to understand Peter’s frustration–he seems to genuinely believe she’s his wife, and all of a sudden she’s treating him like a scary kidnapper. The situation is desperately understandable.

I do wish there’d been a few more clues as to what the deal was with the “true queen” and the “false queen”. I really don’t have anything other than those terms. Knowing a little more might have made me more eager to read follow-ons in order to learn more.

I think this would be an enjoyable read for almost any horror fan.

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Review: “Beware of Wolf,” Geonn Cannon

Pros: Delightful story on several levels
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Geonn Cannon’s Beware of Wolf: An Underdogs Novel is a delightful urban fantasy-slash-thriller. Private investigator Ariadne (Ari) Willow is a werewolf, or canidae. Her partner and lover, Dale Frye, helps her with both her business and her private life. Ari meets a new werewolf in town, Milo, a woman from Britain who could use a little help getting adjusted. In return for Ari and Dale’s help, Milo takes them out to dinner. She also tries to independently put the moves on each of them–but no one’s splitting up Ari and Dale! There’s a little girl missing, but Ari has nothing to do with that case. Instead, Ari gets hired by the mother of another little girl who goes missing, who’s worried that her black child won’t get a lot of attention while the little white girl is missing. Ari ends up handling ransom demands, and then tries to figure out what’s going on when a third girl goes missing.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The mystery/thriller aspects, with little girls being kidnapped, didn’t get too dark, but certainly upped the stakes. The first two kidnappings don’t seem to be connected, but all assumptions get turned on their heads with the third. There’s an interesting police detective occasionally helping out a little, and Milo gets involved as well. The action was great and kept me glued to the page.

I love the romance and sex. Dale and Ari have a beautiful same-sex relationship, including explicit sex, and it’s really enjoyable to read. Milo’s interest in them doesn’t result in the stereotypical flaring, unthinking tempers that I’m used to seeing in heterosexual romance, which is nice. People use their heads in this book.

Someone from Ari’s past shows up, and a secondary plot about old grudges between hunters and canidae comes into play. This is interesting without overshadowing the missing girls plot, and it leads to some compelling revelations.

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Review: “The Grand Dark,” Richard Kadrey

Pros: Incredibly engrossing!
Cons: A little slow at first
Rating: 5 out of 5

Richard Kadrey’s The Grand Dark introduces us to Largo Moorden, a bike courier in the post-war city of Lower Proszawa. He and his girlfriend Remy, an actress, are morphia addicts. When Largo gets promoted to chief courier, his life takes a turn for the bizarre. He also manages to catch the eye of a police officer who becomes determined to find an excuse to take him away. The filthy, soot-clogged city is in the throes of post-war chaos, and rumor has it there’s another war coming. The government is dark and controlling, and those who oppose it disappear never to be seen again. Or worse–they come back again with changed personalities, suddenly nice and accommodating. Largo has always avoided politics, but soon he’ll be forced to take a side–and no matter what side he chooses, he’ll be putting people he cares about, as well as himself, in danger.

The story starts out a bit slowly, focusing primarily on Largo working his route and delivering packages. I was beginning to think I’d picked out a book that just wasn’t for me. However, the story became so utterly engrossing as it went along that, despite not being quite what I expected or normally read, I was totally swept up in its pages.

The setting is fascinating. Everything is sooty and dirty. Automatons called Maras are taking over people’s jobs. Odd creatures called chimera are biologically engineered. Pretty much everyone is doing drugs in an effort to not fall into despair, and the city is suffering under the results of the last war. The plays that Remy stars in are lurid affairs of sex and murder.

I would have liked to see Remy have a little more agency in a certain set of events. There are also one or two small loose threads at the end of the story. But I really don’t have any complaints. This is an all-too-vivid story that comes to life brilliantly on the page. I had a great deal of difficulty putting this book down!

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Review: “Dragon Rising,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Great adventure and action
Cons: Formulaic; a few details
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Dragon Rising (Dragon’s Gift: The Sorceress Book 4) continues the story of Aerdeca, a blood sorceress and Dragon Blood who lives in the magical city of Magic’s Bend. In the last volume, sisters Aerdeca and Mordaca became demon-cursed and had mere days in which to save their own lives. Now that they’ve been cured, they’re summoned to witness a vision of the future: Magic’s Bend will be destroyed by fallen angel Acius and the Great Serpent. In order to summon the serpent Acius needs to find three powerful gems–if Aeri and Declan and their allies can get to them first, they can keep him from summoning the serpent. Unfortunately the only being known to be powerful enough to fight the serpent–the Thunderbird–hasn’t been seen in ages. Meanwhile, Aeri’s magical signature is becoming too strong, causing others to begin to realize what she is. She has to learn to contain it if she doesn’t want to become a target.

The usual adventure and action angles are as good as always. There are plenty of cinematic fights using all sorts of powers and weapons. There are trials and traps. (For some reason, every single powerful being they deal with demands that they pass some sort of trial, which does eventually feel a bit contrived.) There’s a very blatant video-game-type puzzle that the group has to solve–there’s a door with gears on it, and the gears have to be connected correctly so that they’ll operate.

There’s a potion that Acius uses on Aeri that makes her slavishly devoted to him and just, ugh. I could have done without that–she’s a strong female character and the only reason this didn’t annoy me more is that it doesn’t last for too long. Also, it doesn’t 100 percent overpower her own thoughts.

I was a little disappointed with the steampunk town where the group has to find one of the gems. Sure, it’s neat, but it’s used strictly as a set of obstacles to overcome. We never really get to explore it as an actual town with interesting people and a remarkable way of life. All of that is relegated to a few details here and there.

This isn’t my favorite of the Dragon’s Gift books, but it’s still good. I enjoyed reading about Aeri and Declan’s relationship, and as always I love the action and adventure.

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Review: “Demon Curse,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Definitely a fun adventure
Cons: Formulaic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Demon Curse (Dragon’s Gift: The Sorceress Book 3) is her latest book about Aeri/Aerdeca, blood sorceress and Dragon Blood living in the magical town of Magic’s Bend. When demons attack the enchanted pool in Aeri and Mari’s basement, the two women are left cursed. Unfortunately, the curse is fatal and they only have days to live. When Mari and their friend Del are kidnapped by a fallen angel named Acius, Aeri, Declan, and the rest of their friends have to figure out where they’re being held and how to get them free–also while finding a cure for the curse!

These books are heavily formulaic, so if you’ve read anything else in the series you know from the start that the curse and kidnapping aspects will likely be solved by the end of the book. Statues, of course, will always come to life and attack our heroes. Every aspect of the plot will require some sort of task or trial that risks the heroes’ lives. Some of the stars of the previous books will, of course, come back to help our main characters.

This time we get to meet the angels, visit a prison for supernaturals, and go back to Grimrealm. Aeri’s new nullification magic makes Declan feel ill when she touches him, but it’s so damn handy that she can’t consider getting rid of it (if it’s even possible). She must learn to control it so that she can be with Declan.

Note that Aeri’s books are a little more “adult” in nature than the previous books. There’s slightly more swearing, the main characters are a little less squeamish about killing bad guys, and there’s slightly more detail leading up to the behind-the-scenes sex. It’s still very mild.

I’m still enjoying these books, but I’d like to see a bit more surprise and variety by this point. There’s so little in these books that is unexpected. At least we always know we’ll get a cute romantic relationship, plenty of adventure, hard trials, and great fight scenes.

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Review: “Inside the Asylum,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Delightfully horrifying!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s Inside the Asylum (A Kathy Ryan Novel) is the sequel to her Behind the Door. Each is a standalone story connected by the occult investigator protagonist Kathy Ryan. Henry Banks woke up from a coma three years ago. He’s committed to a hospital for the criminally insane, as he claims his “imaginary friends” killed the teens who broke into his house. Of course, this being SanGiovanni’s world, he’s right. Maisie, Edgar, Orrin, and the Viper are tulpas, “sentient and more or less autonomous beings brought about by the use of the mind”. Unlike the horrors Kathy has faced before, these creatures and their world of Ayteilu come from Henry’s mind. However, they’ve started acting without his knowledge, killing people at the asylum. And now they want to be “real”–they want substantiation, full autonomy and freedom as real beings. In order to do this, they have to infect reality with Ayteilu and use the occult knowledge belonging to the other inmates–such as Kathy’s psychopathic brother Toby–to bolster themselves.

This story dives right in. Before we’re a third of the way into it, the hospital has been invaded and is becoming an alien landscape. A number of people die, some in gory ways, as the creatures of Ayteilu find ways to manifest in the real world. There’s a bit of whimsy to this volume, as some of those wraiths take bodies from everything from a lawnmower and a rake to a vending machine and a lamp, but it doesn’t undermine the horror at all.

Previous books in this world have been focused more on horrors from other existing worlds. To have an invasion that’s basically coming from one man’s mind is fascinating. He has some sort of natural talent for creating tulpas, and they’re surprisingly powerful. Especially once they get their hands on some of the occult knowledge that Toby and one of the other inmates possess. Toby takes on some nice depth in this installment. He’s still absolutely horrifying, and alien in his own way, but Kathy’s forced to take a more nuanced look at him as his knowledge becomes necessary to destroying the tulpas. The characters in here all have an excellent amount of personality and depth, and that’s hard to do with a character like Toby. I also appreciate that the black custodian wasn’t there to die early or be a mysterious source of wisdom–he was a real and important part of the events.

I’ve read a good handful of books by Mary SanGiovanni, and her Kathy Ryan novels are my favorites. I hope to see more!

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Review: “Mothership,” eds. Bill Campbell, Edward Austin Hall

Pros: Really neat stories; very diverse
Cons: Some of the stories are pretty confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5

While the title of Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond indicates that these stories are Afrofuturism, the diversity is a wider range than that. (For example, there’s a story with a Native American journalist in Japan.) This anthology is edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall and is a pretty decent length. Some of the stories are a bit on the confusing and/or surreal side, or they get rather philosophical, and I was less fond of those, but that will vary by reader. So if you don’t tend to find difficulty with somewhat surreal, philosophical narratives, you might enjoy this book more than I did (note that I’m still giving it a 4 out of 5, which I consider a “very good”).

The locales include Iceland, Japan, Haiti, Sudan, the Moon, and beyond, so you’ll find plenty of variety! The characters are particularly well-rounded and interesting, from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of these stories didn’t entirely read as sci-fi to me, but it’s one of those genres that can be tough to define. I’ll just note a few of my favorite tales from this volume.

N.K. Jemisin slays it again with a brief, bizarre tale called Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows. Time seems to be resetting itself every 10 hours, and people are disappearing in droves. The online world allows some interaction, since “the mingling of so many minds kept time linear”. The ending is particularly powerful.

Ernest Hogan’s Skin Dragons Talk sees Goro dealing with his dragon tattoos, which have inexplicably begun to talk to him. Not only that, but they’re… “improving” him. To their own definition, of course. This has a bit of a cyberpunk vibe to it.

One of my favorites is Thaddeus Howze’s Bludgeon. It’s a bizarre story in which humans play a game of baseball with aliens for the fate of the Earth. I know nothing about baseball and care little about sports, and yet somehow this one just came alive for me. I got totally drawn in, and the ending was great.

Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs, by Lauren Beukes, is a delightfully over-the-top story in which Unathi, the Flight Sergeant of a mecha squadron, has to do battle with giant hairballs over Tokyo. Note that suicide is briefly used in a comedic context here (the humor is a bit black).

The whole of Saiko Squadron was dead. And, worse, there was blood and spilt sake on her white patent whale penis leather boots!

The Pavilion of Frozen Women, by S.P. Somtow, had a touch of confusion to it for me, but it was still quite arresting. Marie Wounded Bird is a journalist sent to Japan to cover a snow sculpture festival. She ends up being on-scene for a murder, only to find that both subjects are linked.

Dances with Ghosts, by Joseph Bruchas, introduces us to Harley Bigbear, a Kwasuck Indian and former Army Ranger. He’s haunted, and so is his new home. He needs to come to a few realizations before he can put the spirits to rest.

Daniel José Older’s Protected Entity sees a man named Carlos Delacruz trying to solve the murder of black children in West Harlem. He can see ghosts, and his partner, Riley, is one. They’re going to have a tough time stopping this killer.

One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight, by Tade Thompson, explores a kind of vampire who loves a witch, gets accidentally involved with a war, and finally meets more of his own kind.

Someone was digging into my grave and I had nowhere to run.

Carlos Hernandez’s The Aphotic Ghost is a lovely tale of love, fatherhood, the sea, and Mount Everest. I love the relationships in here, and the ending was delightful.

George S. Walker’s Fées des Dents explores a particularly strange version of reality in which doctor Mallory, in Sudan, has to deal with vicious toothfairies, terrifying dragons, and the remains of dead giants.

Tenea D. Johnson’s The Taken shows us what happens when a group that wants reparations for slavery takes a bunch of senators’ children prisoner and makes them live as slaves being transported by boats. They’re forced to acknowledge not just how bad things are–but the number of ways in which what they’re going through isn’t nearly as bad as what actual slaves went through. Given how obviously and understandably traumatized they are, that discrepancy really hits home.

Many other stories in this volume are quite good, but these are the ones that made the biggest impression on me.

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