Since the beginning of 2016, I have been reading and reviewing one book a month based on the results of a poll on PatreonAll of these monthly reviews can be viewed here.

The May theme is books featuring dragons. Reading time has been scarce until recently, but I’ve been reading Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns and Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Fate—and enjoying the dragons in both of them so much that I wanted to read more books featuring dragons this month! The May book selections were as follows:

The May book is…

The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier
The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

When Trei loses his family in a tragic disaster, he must search out distant relatives in a new land. The Floating Islands are unlike anything Trei has ever seen: stunning, majestic, and graced with kajurai, men who soar the skies with wings.

Trei is instantly sky-mad, and desperate to be a kajurai himself.  The only one who fully understands his passion is Araene, his newfound cousin.  Prickly, sarcastic, and gifted, Araene has a secret of her own . . . a dream a girl cannot attain.

Trei and Araene quickly become conspirators as they pursue their individual paths.  But neither suspects that their lives will be deeply entwined, and that the fate of the Floating Islands will lie in their hands. . . .

Filled with rich language, and told in alternating voices, The Floating Islands is an all-encompassing young adult fantasy read.

I’ve wanted to read The Floating Islands for awhile so I’m looking forward to it! (It actually came as a pleasant surprise to me that it fit this theme—I discovered this when browsing through dragon book lists and reviews on Goodreads, searching for suitable books already on my shelves.)

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It’s difficult to believe that the final week of the month is over—thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! Here’s a brief overview of last week in case you missed any of their essays:

We will continue to collect speculative fiction books by women to add to the 2017 list for another week: click here to add up to 10 SFF books by women you read and loved in the last year. You can find the list of recommendations from 2013-2016 here.

This month’s Patreon book theme was science fiction selected for a James Tiptree Award honor, and I posted my review of April’s selection yesterday: Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler. It was fascinating, unsettling, engaging, disturbing—and I loved it!

April 2017 has come to an end, and it is possible that this was the last Women in SF&F Month—or, at least, the last one that fills the entire month. It’s been great fun, but it is very time-consuming to organize and keep going for an entire month. Since I do enjoy reading all the essays, I am reluctant to end it entirely, which is why I’m considering perhaps just making it two weeks in April next year, but I’ll have to see what’s going on in my life when the time comes.

In case this does end up being the last Women in SF&F Month series, I want to say thank you to everyone who has written a piece over the last six years, everyone who has shared these articles on social media, and everyone who has read these articles. It has been a pleasure, and I’ve been floored by the incredible essays that have been part of this series since it first began in 2012.

Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed became the fourth Patternist novel upon its publication in 1980, though it is first in chronological order. A total of five Patternist novels were released, and all but one of these (Survivor, which the author did not want reprinted) comprise the omnibus Seed to HarvestWild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. This collection begins with 1690 and ends in the distant future, although many believe it’s best to read these in publication order instead: Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed, Clay’s Ark. Since I’ve only read Wild Seed so far, I cannot comment on which order is preferable, but I can say that I found this to be a fascinating, engaging, disturbing story worthy of its place on the James Tiptree Award 1995 Retrospective Honor List.

For 3700 years, Doro has survived by killing people and inhabiting their bodies. He occupies his time by gathering humans who also have special talents—those whom most would consider witches due to abilities like telepathy or telekinesis—and breeding them to create more like them. Over the centuries, he’s rarely met anyone who even comes close to being his equal, and if anyone becomes too powerful or rebellious, he puts them to death.

On a visit to one of the seed villages he maintains in Africa, he finds his people have been taken by slavers in his absence, but he finds something unexpected when his senses draw him toward someone southwest of his former colony: Anyanwu, who appears to be an elderly woman. She is indeed an old woman, having lived about 300 years, but the true form she reveals to Doro is that of a beautiful young woman. When she was around twenty years old, Anyanwu stopped aging and discovered she had the ability to control her body. She can alter her human appearance, become an animal, heal herself (and, to a lesser extent, others), and crush a rock with her bare hands.

Doro is ecstatic to have discovered what he calls “wild seed” and dreams of what type of children a woman like Anyanwu will produce after being bred to people of his choosing. He coerces her into accompanying him to the New World, promising her children who will not die and threatening to take her children and grandchildren in her place if she refuses. Though Anyanwu does not like Doro’s casual disregard for human life or threats to capture and intermarry her descendants, she does come to care for Doro as her husband. However, she despises him after they arrive in New York and he reveals that he intends for her to marry his favorite son, Isaac, and have children by him, Doro, and anyone else Doro commands. If she resists, he will do to her what he does to anyone who refuses to submit to him: kill her.

Wild Seed chronicles the relationship of these two immortals from their meeting in 1690 to the mid-1800s, as a man who has lived 3700 years with no true challenges to his power encounters a woman like none other: one with enough power in her own right to potentially be his match.

Like all of Octavia E. Butler’s books I’ve read, Wild Seed is a fascinating book with lots to analyze and consider. The highlight of the book, in my opinion, is the central characters: their similarities, their differences, and their complicated relationship with each other. Doro and Anyanwu are uniquely alike in some ways—both being long lived and able to change their bodies’ ages, skin tones, and sexes—but they’re polar opposites in most ways. Doro is a wanderer who travels the world going from settlement to settlement; Anyanwu prefers to be settled in one place, surrounded by her own people. Doro is selfish and nonempathic; Anyanwu is selfless and compassionate. Doro takes human life casually; Anyanwu only kills to protect herself or others. However, they can’t escape that they are the only two people who subsist throughout the ages.

The story is told from both of their perspectives, and Doro is rather abhorrent right from the start. When he learns some of his people were taken by slavers on the very first page, his first thought is how “they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years.” His pride is hurt because he couldn’t protect his people, but he doesn’t spend any time dwelling on what happened beyond how it affected his ego and his obsession with eugenics. When he meets Anyanwu, he tells her he’ll spare her children and grandchildren if she comes with him, but he’s already planning to gather them and breed them to each other the first chance he gets. He does what he wants, and no one will stand in his way—nor will pesky human morality, such as beliefs like People Should Have Free Will or Murder and Incest Are Not Okay.

He is a compelling character even so, especially considering that despite his vile ways he does seem to care for a rare few people including Isaac, whom he still wants alive even after he’s old enough to have outlived his usefulness to Doro. However, I consider this to ultimately be Anyanwu’s story, and she is the best part of the novel and both a likable and compelling character. She’s a survivor and protector who can be fierce when necessary, and I appreciated that her abilities were tied in to her characterization. She doesn’t just heal people in the blink of an eye but has to have an understanding of medicine and the human body in order to do so: she has to figure out how to reproduce the problem within her own body and experiment with fixing it. Needless to say, this is risky, but the fact that she did it shows her selflessness, and the fact that she’s been able to keep herself alive for centuries despite this practice shows her cleverness (which is also illustrated in other ways as she deals with Doro).

The only reason I’m not giving Wild Seed a rating of 10/10 is that it took a little while to get going toward the beginning. Though the opening with Doro and Anyanwu’s meeting pulled me in, it started to lose my attention while they were traveling to the ship that would take them to the New World. However, after they reached this destination and it introduced Doro’s son Isaac (and Anyanwu discovered how to become a dolphin!), it managed to capture my attention again and I didn’t want to put it down until the end.

Wild Seed is an absorbing story of two immortals who clash but ultimately cannot escape each other: for as unlike as they are, there’s also no one else like them. Though remarkably unsettling at times, it’s also a deeply compelling examination of these two characters and their complex bond, and I found it to (mostly) be a thoroughly engrossing novel.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: My husband gave me Seed to Harvest for Christmas.

This book is April’s selection from a poll on Patreon.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Bridget McKinney from SF Bluestocking! She writes about science fiction, fantasy, and feminism, and she not only covers books but also movies and television shows such as Game of Thrones and The Expanse. SF Bluestocking is one of my favorite sites because of her thorough, thoughtful, well-written reviews and commentary—and it is quite deservedly one of this year’s Hugo nominees for Best Fanzine!

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The Future Is Female

Let’s not be coy. 2016 was a garbage year, for me personally, and for women (and humanity) in general. After a year of death and disappointment and disillusionment, this year hasn’t, for the most part, started off much better. The theme for 2017, and possibly for the next four or so years, is destruction, and for many of us it’s already turning into a year of depression. And anxiety. And anger. And plenty of other negative emotions not even starting with “A” or “D”. For me, and I suspect for many of us, fiction has been a much-needed solace in these times, and as an avid reader of new releases I find that reading helps to keep me focused on the future instead of dwelling on the past or becoming too mired in the present to function.

The future is often on my mind, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of science fiction and fantasy and that’s something it’s hard to do without considering the incredible work that women are doing in those genres. Women are producing some of the most original, timely, compelling stuff on the market these days, and when I think about where sci-fi and fantasy are going, the future is most definitely female. No matter the subgenre, women are forging new roads and leading the way forward. If you’re looking for something to add to your reading list, here are some of the titles that I think represent the best and brightest of their genres and may offer some hope in a dark time.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer Borderline by Mishell Baker

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough is a fantasy novel where the only magic is that of excellent worldbuilding and storytelling. Set in a world that’s roughly analogous to ours in the 1930s, it follows the fortunes of several characters as they work to survive during the birth of a fascist regime. It’s sadly more timely and relevant than anyone involved in its publication probably hoped it would be, but this is also a great boost to the book’s significance. My very specific sub-subgenre of choice these days has been “badass ladies having political awakenings” and Amberlough’s Cordelia Lehane is an exemplar of the type. Her story will make you want to punch a Nazi or five hundred, a feeling which might come in handy over the coming years.

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

Crossroads of Canopy is another story of political awakening, but its protagonist, Unar, isn’t motivated by experiencing a revolution. Instead, she’s a character who, by the end of the novel, is fixing to start a revolution. Crossroads is epic fantasy, with gods and monsters and magic, but it has a unique setting: a whole human society built in the tops of trees in a vast rain forest. It’s a groundbreaking novel that eschews the medieval fantasy tropes more commonly associated with fantasy epics in favor of crafting something wholly original. That Unar is one of the most delightfully difficult and complex fantasy heroines in recent years certainly helps as well.

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Speaking of difficult and complex heroines, Borderline’s Millie Roper might be their queen. Urban fantasy has a reputation for being cliché-ridden, low brow comfort-reading, but Mishell Baker’s Arcadia Project series breathes new life into the genre by telling the story from an underrepresented point of view and ditching a bunch of tiresome tropes. Baker’s L.A. setting is diverse and naturalistically portrayed, a perfect antidote to the often white-washed and overly-romanticized settings that plague urban fantasy. Baker hasn’t rewritten the book on the genre, and there’s plenty here that will be familiar to connoisseurs, but she’s certainly raised the bar.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

I honestly don’t know how much longer I can wait for the sequel to Zen Cho’s lovely debut novel (2018, apparently, according to Goodreads). Sorcerer to the Crown is a brightly original fantasy of manners that I haven’t gone a week without thinking of since I read it prior to its release in 2015. If romping homages to Jane Austen starring POC, magical school girls, Malaysian vampires and dragons aren’t major features in the future of fantasy, I’m going to be deeply disappointed.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most popular writers of Afrofuturist fiction, and her novella, Binti, in which a young Himba woman goes on a dangerously fraught journey to attend university on another planet, won last year’s Best Novella Hugo Award. The sequel to Binti is even better than its predecessor, bringing Binti back to Earth, where she and her friend Okwu struggle to communicate their experiences and their connection to Binti’s people. The conclusion of the series—Binti: The Night Masquerade—is scheduled for a September publication, when we should find out if and how Binti can integrate her multiple identities and remain true to herself and her family and culture.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Sometimes, you just want to read a whimsical story about two weirdos growing up and falling in love and growing apart and finding each other again during an apocalypse, and if you’re lucky All the Birds in the Sky is the book you grab. With Patricia and Lawrence, Charlie Jane Anders manages to create a pair of protagonists who feel both mythologically archetypal and often painfully real, and their journeys together and apart are remarkably well-realized stories of self-discovery. Anders explores the relationship between science and magic in the modern world with humor and heart and an epic showdown reminiscent of the end of Good Omens, though without any bikers.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is almost certainly the most important work of epic fantasy to come out this decade, and if it doesn’t become as widely read and influential as Lord of the Rings, there’s no justice in the world. The Fifth Season is a beautifully written, intricately woven story that draws its inspiration more from literature, history and science than from other notable works within the genre, making for a truly novel reading experience that can’t be adequately explained without spoiling its surprises. Dealing with themes of slavery, oppression, and apocalyptic crisis, The Fifth Season is sometimes harrowing, often bittersweet, but always marvelous.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Social sci-fi has long been due for a renaissance, and with her Terra Ignota series Ada Palmer seems keen to kick it off. Told as a written history from the point of view of the convict Mycroft Canner, Too Like the Lightning (and its recent sequel, Seven Surrenders) tell the story of a world no longer governed by nation states. Instead, people in the future have organized themselves into Hives that adhere to various styles of government founded on principles of Enlightenment philosophies. After three hundred years of peace and prosperity, however, someone (or someones) decide to look the gift horse in the mouth. It’s a cleverly imagined, near-perfectly realized vision of a future that is fully rooted in identity of humans as denizens of the Earth. Rather than exploring how we might screw up the galaxy if we leave our planet, Palmer has decided to explore the ways in which we might succeed or fail right here at home.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

There was never any way that I wasn’t going to fall hopelessly in love with Becky Chambers’ vision of the future. Chambers’ books are smart, funny, warm and optimistic enough that they border on cloying, but they’re also full of sincerity and basic human decency and found families finding each other. They’re a little bit Star Trek and a little bit Firefly and a lot their own, uniquely charming thing, and they’re best enjoyed curled up in your favorite blanket with a cup of your favorite drink for the ultimate sci-fi comfort-reading experience. Goodness knows we can all use that from time to time and as much now as ever.

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Today I’m delighted to welcome C. A. Higgins! In 2013, her short story “The Changeling” was a runner-up in the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Her debut novel, Lightless, was one of Kirkus‘s Best Fiction Books of 2015, and it was followed by a sequel, Supernova, in 2016. The conclusion to this science fiction trilogy, Radiate, is being released on May 23!

Lightless by C. A. Higgins Supernova by C. A. Higgins Radiate by C. A. Higgins

Constance was stubborn.

I couldn’t blame her for it.  I’d decided early on that the leader of a solar-system-wide civil war should be principled but extremist, fanatical, righteous to the point of blindness.  If I am unable to admit I’m wrong about the location of the coffee pot even while my roommate is pointing at it, surely a woman leading a revolution wouldn’t consider her own fallibility.

For most of Supernova that worked out fine.  Constance’s righteous blindness is the engine behind her revolution.  The idea of a heroine who was in many ways inherently unsympathetic interested me, especially as she was influenced primarily by male characters and historical figures: Macbeth, for instance, but not his wife.  Walter White.  Robespierre.

And then came the climactic scene, a confrontation between Constance Harper and one of her rebellious soldiers, a girl named Marisol.  It should have been a moment where everything came crashing down, and the reader saw in full what Constance had done and Constance had become—too late to do anything about it, of course.

Instead, the scene fell flat.

Perhaps, I thought, it was a problem with the structure.  One scene after Constance’s confrontation, Supernova’s second plotline reached its climax: a confrontation between Althea Bastet and her AI daughter, Ananke, in a scene deliberately designed to mirror Constance’s clash with Marisol.  But that scene worked out fine: the characters did what they were meant to, the emotions and fallout occurred exactly as scheduled.

So this whole mess, somehow, was Constance’s stubborn fault.

Constance and I circled each other for a while, like a matador and a bull.  I’d take a poke at fixing the scene, she’d charge at me bellowing while I scrambled back and left everything as is.  I tried going back further—maybe she needed to be motivated more.  I added a few more red flags on her path, the universe trying to signal to her that she was sliding down the slippery slope to Hell.

“I’m right,” she told me, even while I pointed at the metaphorical coffee pot directly in front of her.

“You’re the worst,” I replied, but she didn’t seem to hear me over the sound of her own moral rectitude.

I didn’t have trouble with any of the other characters.  It was true I had more in common with the others—Althea and I share a certain irritable work ethic, Mattie and I have the same sense of humor, Ivan and I process information similarly.  (As for Ida, the nicest thing I can say about myself is that she and I are both ambitious.)  Even Ananke, a machine that struggled itself to sentience, was not so difficult to write.  Her motivations and vulnerabilities are all inherently human: arrogance, curiosity, loneliness.

But a tendency to down coffee and bark at interruptions while working is not enough to understand a character, and it wasn’t as if I understood Mattie because we laugh at the same things.  I empathized with these characters, but not because we had superficial things in common.  Constance’s problem was not that she was unsympathetic, it was that she was unempathetic.  She had flaws, like the other characters, but she did not have any vulnerabilities.

I had not wanted Constance to be weak.  I had been determined not to give her any traits that might diminish her, or turn her into the supposedly badass chick who becomes helpless in Act Three so that the hero can save her.  But a vulnerability does not make a character weak, it makes her real.

What would drive the brave leader of the revolution, who had grown up in a world full of terror, except fear?

The next time I wrote Constance and Marisol’s confrontation at the climax of Supernova, the scene came through with crashing walls and dawning horror, as Constance realized she had become what she had feared all along.

C. A. Higgins
C. A. Higgins is the author of LightlessSupernova, and Radiate.  She was a runner up in the 2013 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing and has a B. A. in physics from Cornell University.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author Megan Whalen Turner! Her work includes Instead of Three Wishes: Magical Short Stories; “The Baby in the Night Deposit Box,” which was included in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection; and, of course, her beloved Queen’s Thief series, which won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature in 2011. The second book, The Queen of Attolia, is one of my particular favorites—it’s clever, absorbing, and filled with wonderful characters and political maneuvering—and I’m excited about the release of the next Queen’s Thief novel, Thick as Thieves, on May 16!

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

This is my local bookshop, Loganberry Books in Cleveland, Ohio:

Loganberry Books
Credit: Harriet Logan

To highlight the works of women, they’ve flipped the books written by men so that the spines don’t show.  The books are still alphabetical, so if you are looking for a book by George Perec, you can still find it. Go to the P’s, find Elizabeth Peters and start pulling the nearby books off the shelf to check who wrote them.  The reversal is only temporary, meant to show the disparity in the numbers of books by women and by men.  As Loganberry owner Harriet Logan said, “This is not by talent, choice, or even popularity, but mostly through industry favoritism, social opportunity, and habit.”

There is something else that the reversal shows, that if you have a system, almost any system, for organizing your books, it’s not that hard to find something—so long as you already know it exists. If you want a book by George Perec, you can find it, and when they flip all the men’s books around at the end of the month, you can still find the women’s books: it’s just that you are much less likely to come across a book by a woman by chance alone.

I believe that Discovery, the process of finding books and authors that are new, is the most important aspect of increasing diversity in publishing.  Some people find their new books by reading reviews regularly and getting newsletters in their inbox, but the vast majority of readers pick up the thing that’s on the endcap at Barnes and Noble.  Or maybe they see the tagline, NYT Bestseller, on the Amazon description.  Publishers, jockeying for those few places, put their money into the best bet for appealing to the widest audience.

Some people don’t have the advantage even of the endcaps at Barnes and Noble, and if they did, those aren’t the books that would make a difference in their lives.  Many of them don’t have a librarian in their school to ask for recommendations.  I think we need a better method of Discovery, especially for those people—a better method of bringing smaller audiences into contact with exactly the book they long to read.  Publishing would have a better chance of diversifying if a book could more reliably make it to its intended audiences without being a blockbuster first. The only thing worse than watching a great book sink without a trace is knowing that there’s a kid somewhere who would have loved it and who will never get a chance to read it.

For me, the wonderful thing about a bookstore like Loganberry is the delight of finding something wonderful and unexpected. I can weight the odds toward diversity by keeping an eye out for women, for names that might belong to indigenous people, or titles that indicate a marginalized voice. Or I can reach for the book of a well-known author displayed on a table and see next to it a book (an entire book) that teaches you how to judge how deep water is just by looking at it.  (I bought that one.) That serendipity is more difficult to manage online where the algorithms that push books onto my screens aren’t under my control.

I fall into reading ruts pretty easily.  When I was a kid, I read all the Black Stallion books, all the Susan Cooper books, all the Alistair MacLean books.  It took effort and sometimes blind luck to get me out of my comfort zones.  Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my favorite books and I only read it because it was on the shelf in a small apartment where I was trapped as a nanny to a sleeping baby.  I love Iain Banks and I am not sure I would have if his books hadn’t constituted 40% of all books in English in the Oslo Public Library the year I lived there.

As more and more of my purchases are made online, as more of my reading is online, I worry about the algorithms that are used to put books in front of my eyeballs.  Amazon’s whole imperative is to show me books just like ones I’ve read already. Even as I am trying to diversify, I can I see myself going down a narrower and narrower tunnel.

In particular, I am wondering where my blind luck will come from.  Who is going to put into my hands that book that is different from everything I’ve read in the past—that I never would have guessed I would love?  I’m counting on places like Loganberry and my local librarians more than ever before, but I worry about those who have no access to either a Loganberry or a librarian.  For them, we urgently need an online system and one that works not only for the dedicated reader—one that works for the uninitiated so that they can connect to books they had no idea existed, books that can change their world.

Megan Whalen Turner in Egypt

Megan Whalen Turner is an award winning author of short stories and novels for children, teenagers, and adults. She has won the LA Times Book Award for YA Literature, the Mythopoeic Prize and a Newbery Honor. She also spent one brief glorious week on the New York Times Bestseller list.

She has never won a Guggenheim, but her husband, the cognitive scientist Mark Turner, has. While he was on sabbatical as a Guggenheim Fellow she also enjoyed a year off to write her first book, a collection of short stories called Instead of Three Wishes.

She has lived in Ohio on and off for the last twelve years, with extended trips to places like San Diego, Oslo, Norway, and Lower Saxony. She is in Egypt right now, but will return to the United States in April for the launch of Thick As Thieves, a new book set in the world of The Queen’s Thief.