Bee reviews The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai cover

Spoiler Warning

Trigger warnings: character death, violence, body horror, gore

I should say upfront that I don’t read much sci-fi. It’s definitely not my genre of choice, so I am unfamiliar with the conventions and the tropes, and the general methods of worldbuilding. The only reason I picked up The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai was that it won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction this year. A hint of gay is enough to get me picking up any sort of book – and I am unbelievably glad that in this case, I did.

The Tiger Flu is set in a future overrun by its eponymous disease, forcing the population into quarantine levels, with the maligned and anarchic Saltwater City at the centre. In the outermost quarantine ring is the Grist Village, a secluded commune of women exiled from Saltwater City due to their genetic mutations: they are a society built around “doublers” – women with the ability to clone – and “starfish” – those who are able to regrow their own body parts, and so donate them to Grist women who need them. This is the home of one of our perspective characters, Kirilow Groundsel, a groom who cares for her starfish lover, Peristrophe. When an invader from Saltwater City brings the tiger flu with them, a weakened Peristrophe succumbs to the disease, sending Kirilow on a revenge quest to both kill the responsible “Salty” and find a new starfish to protect the Grist way of life.

In Saltwater City, Kora Ko helps her uncle grow potatoes for their tiny family, hoping to prolong their lives even though both her brother and uncle show signs of the tiger flu. Although the illness mostly affects men, Kora is still in danger of contracting it – and so the family decides to send her to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, also a commune of sorts in the depths of the city, where girls are taught to dance and thieve. Kora only wants her family reunited – but perhaps her brother, K2, is more dangerous to her than she thought.

Something which I appreciated greatly about Lai’s writing was that none of the worldbuilding was explanatory. In fact, very little explanation is given, and so it is mostly up to the reader to deduce what is going on and how the characters fit within this dirty, diseased world. The prose is enough for this, with everything being slightly off-kilter, enough that you come to understand what has happened to the world in this year of 2145. It was hard for me initially, it being a bit difficult to get into the sci-fi headspace, but I did find it consuming in the best of ways.

Something which I found it hard to get past was that the plot was put in motion by the death of Peristrophe; is it an example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome? On the one hand, it means that the narrative as a whole is framed by Kirilow’s love for Peristrophe – it is what haunts and drives her, and leads to almost every inciting decision she makes. On the other hand, there is something a little Willow/Tara about it all, where Kirilow’s development as a character is only kicked into gear when her lover is killed. For a lesbian literature award winner, I’ll admit that I was expecting the relationship to feature in a different way. It was startling to have Peristophe’s death hit the page so quickly, and with no real sense of justice eventuating from it.

What I did appreciate was that the women were allowed to be – and I love the opportunity to use this word – feral. In this dystopic world, the women protect themselves from corrupt and diseased men by being violent and ugly, unwashed and aggressive. The Cordova girls are frequently referred to as “stinky”, and Kora’s own scalp crawls with lice. Kirilow isn’t afraid of blood, and readily performs surgery and amputations. It’s always refreshing to read women in this way, especially when beauty and perfection are shown to be corrupt facades. I read this as a sharp assessment of womanhood under patriarchy, in a book full of sharp assessments on a number of topics.

From the sanctuary of her Grist Village, Kirilow isn’t even aware of what a man is, except for stories she has heard about how “Salties” reproduce, a relic of how society used to be. There is something a little cisnormative about this, with the Grist process of cloning – or “doubling” – still being dependent on wombs. In a world more sharply divided into men and women, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more discussion around the multifaceted nature of gender – especially considering this is sci-fi.

All of that said, I am still grateful that I read The Tiger Flu. It is a singular book, which constructs a confronting world filled with complex characters who don’t always behave in the way you’d think. Even in the world that Larissa Lai creates, one which is harsh and at times grotesque, these characters are driven by love, in their own ways. The prose is arresting, and the world is consuming, and it is all a sort of welcome fever dream. As someone who does not read sci-fi, I am glad I read this one – and I think you will be, too.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-MohamedThe following review contains spoilers!

The Labyrinth’s Archivist, the first in the Broken Cities series, follows Azulea, the daughter of the Head Archivist and granddaughter of the former Head Archivist. The Labyrinth contains winding paths and hallways with gates to other worlds, and the Residence, where the Archive is housed, is a safe way station for passing travelers and traders. But when Azulea’s Amma dies unexpectedly, she suspects foul play. It’s up to Azulea and her friends to solve the murder mystery before more Archivists are lost to the killer.

Al-Mohamed creates a rich and diverse world with her multi-species cast of characters and delightful sci-fi setting. It’s never stated whether or not this world is set on the Earth as we know it, but enough clues make it sound like it’s off planet. The bustling marketplace life with its many beings from different planets and worlds will make the story strongly resonate with fans of the Star Wars franchise.

Though that is the case, it is clear that Middle Eastern culture heavily influences the makeup of this world. The marketplace, where a majority of the story takes place, is referred to as the souq, giving readers just enough detail to know this world is inspired by an Arabic or Middle Eastern society and culture. Details abound about the food people eat, like aish, and the use of spices like cumin and cardamom, common in South Asian and Arabic cuisine, indicate these cultures as the foundation for the Residence’s world.

My favorite aspect of the whole story is Azulea’s character. She is a queer woman of color with a disability; she is blind. In the Archivist tradition, individuals should be self-sufficient and able to complete the tasks the job entails without assistance. Azulea challenges those traditions though by enlisting the help of her best friend and cousin, Peny, who is coded as having a learning disability. Together, they can be Archivists. While Azulea is the mind that processes and analyzes information quickly, Peny is the eyes that can see and draw the maps Azulea describes.

The Archivist society’s views of people with disabilities can be interpreted as a commentary on how our own real-world society treats the differently-abled. Azulea proves that, given the proper tools and resources to even the playing field, she is just as capable of getting the job done as an able-bodied person.

But Azulea isn’t the only one proving this. Peny also defies expectations by supplying the main character with the skills she lacks, as well as by learning the trade despite her learning disabilities. Another character named Handsome Dan is portrayed as an amputee with a symbiotic tentacle as his “prosthetic” leg. The novella is rife with people with disabilities, and they are all full, complex characters, capable, competent, intelligent, and independent spirits. The fact that they need assistance doesn’t make them any less so.

Azulea’s mother is stubborn and rooted in the old ways, but her Amma always believed she could follow in their footsteps. That’s why when her grandmother dies under suspicious circumstances, Azulea charges forward with the task of finding her killer, despite the doubts coming from her community and even her own mother. It’s this persistence to succeed in a world that favors the able-bodied that makes Azulea such a great character to root for.

The queer romance did not dominate the story, but it added another element to the sci-fi murder mystery arc. Azulea and Melehti have a history, and as events unfold, that chemistry returns and can’t be ignored. It’s stated that their relationship didn’t work out because Azulea felt that accepting Melehti’s help made her dependent, and as a blind woman, she didn’t want to lean on anyone’s help for too long.

This aspect of the story brings another layer to Azulea’s characterization, as it shows that even she suffers from her society’s mentality of disabilities. In a world that deems the disabled as incapable, Azulea has put herself through so many hoops to prove she isn’t, often to her detriment.

Overall, the biggest weakness of the novella is just that: it’s a novella. There were so many places that felt like they needed a deeper dive and more room to breathe, which could have been accomplished if the story had been written as a full-length novel.

Even the Labyrinth that’s in the title barely gets explored throughout the story. It never details where the Labyrinth came from, how a city came to be built around it, and the role it plays in their world. Much time is spent on its Archivists and how they interact with it, but apart from the Residence, not much is known about the Labyrinth itself, which makes the story feel like it’s missing something, considering the novella’s title.

That being said, it is still an excellent read and highly recommended. I know I want to read the rest of the series.

Sheila Laroque reviews Love Beyond Body Space and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson

Love Beyond Body Space and Time

For readers who are interested in having more Indigenous writers in their reading material, Love Beyond Body, Space & Time is a great entry point into Indigenous-centered science fiction. This collection of short stories seeks to showcase the ways that science fiction and aspects of Indigenity are not contradictions. In many science fiction tropes, the narrative of new planetary exploration or post-apocalyptic worlds can create a picture that reflects the harmful effects of colonialism. The possibilities that Indigenous peoples could be not only surviving, but thriving and loving in ways that affirm Indigenous notions of gender, sex and love is not something that is typically seen. This collection of short stories seeks to not only create space for these possibilities, but provides an introduction to what it means to be two-spirited, where the term comes from, and additional resources for further exploration. In “Returning to Ourselves: Two Spirit Futures and the now” Niigaan Sinclair outlines some of the histories that early colonists did not understand two-spirit people. In the early 1800s, the writings of more than one fur trader make note of the ways that they were perplexed by Ozawwendib, a two-spirit male who dressed “womanish”. Sinclair goes on to show the roles that two-spirit people had within different nations and communities, and how they were viewed by their own communities. The works cited for this short introduction piece is also an excellent resource to learn more about the roles of two-spirit people, queerness and Indigenous peoples before colonization.

The entire collection is an excellent guide into the writings and thoughts of other Indigenous writers. Included are stories by Richard Van Camp, Daniel Heath Justice, Cherie Dimaline and Cleo Keahna, to name a few. Each contributor has their own catalogue of materials that are well-worth the read on their own. As well, Grace L. Dillon in “Beyond the Grim Dust of what was to a radiant possibility of what could be: two-spirit survivance stories” gives an overview of the other writing that has been done within science fiction and queer writings, including two-spirit and where to get resources on other writing by Indigenous theorists.

One of my favourite stories is “Né łe!” by Darcie Little Badger. It is the story of a veterinarian, Dottie, who is Lipan Apache and on a nine month trip to Mars. The mission gets interrupted, and she gets woken up from her stasis sleep by another queer Navajo woman Cora when her vetrinary skills are needed. For me, the story had many unexpected elements that made it feel very surprising and charming. It is unexpected to see a queer Indigenous female doctor as a main character in a short story; just as much as it is to find love on a journey to Mars.

I also really enjoyed “Transitions” by Gwen Benaway. It is set in the near future, in Toronto, Ontario. It is the story of a two-spirited trans person who is near the beginning of their transition. As part of this, they enroll themselves in a new medication trial which is supposed to have better effects than hormones. However, they begin to have hallucinations and is encouraged by an Elder to use ceremony to come back to her spirit. This story is a beautiful reminder that Indigenous futurisms can be seen as the time that we are living in right now. The ancestors of our past can override what we hail as modern medical breakthroughs. As an Indigenous person who used to live in Toronto, I’m always excited when I can recognize different places and institutions that helped to shape my experience of the city.

Overall, “Love Beyond Body, Space and Time” is an accessible and thorough introduction to both science fiction and two-spirit realities for people who may not  have a great deal of experience with either. The short story formats offer a wide variety of interpretations of science fiction; as well as what it means to have experiences with both Indigenity and queerness. A short read that is well-worth checking out, I recommend this with 4 out of 5 interplanetary stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.  

Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.

Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?

Danika reviews Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

That’s what resistance looks like, Merlin. It’s not one glorious, shining victory. It’s a torch you keep burning, no matter what.

I’m not even sure how to approach writing about this book, because it is so ambitious. Once & Future is a queer, sci fi retelling of the Arthur myth, with a female Arthur. It’s somehow simultaneously dystopian, sci fi, and fantasy. Dystopia, because in this future, the universe is ruled by the Mercer Corporation, which keeps everyone in line by controlling the supply of water. But there’s enough space ships to scratch that sci fi itch, and, of course, there’s Excalibur, Merlin, Morgana, and the Lady in the Lake to keep things fantastical.

That’s partly why it’s so delightful that this also has an almost entirely queer cast. (With several poc characters as well, but this isn’t as clearly defined, so I’m pretty sure Ari is Ketch (Arab) and Lam is Black, but I’m not sure about all the other characters.) Ari and her adoptive brother have two moms. Merlin is gay. Ari, Val, and Gwen are all queer, there’s an asexual character, and there’s a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns. There is no explanation, no reason why everyone happens to be queer, except that in the future, they aren’t so weird about it. (When Merlin says that in his time, people use phenotypical features to guess people’s gender, the other characters are disgusted by this backwards belief.) It’s nice that we’re finally reaching the point where you can have a genre book packed full of queer characters, and to have it be entirely incidental to the plot.

Speaking of plot, I have no idea how to try to summarize it succinctly. Post global warming, humans retired Earth and sought new homes on the moon and on different planets. Ari was born on Ketch, but she was found as a small child in wreckage near the planet. Ketch, originally founded by Arab people, has since been sealed off under a barrier for their resistance against Mercer. Kay and his two moms adopt illegal refugee Ari and start running from the law. When they attempt to return her to Ketch, Mom and Captain Mom (!!!) are arrested, and Kay and Ari are left to fend for themselves–until Merlin shows up to tell Ari that she’s the latest (and first female) reincarnation of the legendary King Arthur, destined to bring down evil (Mercer), ascend the nearest throne, and unite humanity. (Ari is skeptical. Merlin thinks that this usually is easier: “Most boys secretly believed they should be heroes: the stories told them so.”) And that about brings us up to the first couple chapters.

The story is shared between Merlin and Ari. Ari is a reluctant hero, just trying to protect her family and friends and do the right thing. Merlin has been training dozens of incarnations of Arthur throughout time, all without fulfilling their destiny of uniting humanity. Every time, he has to watch Arthur die. He then sleeps in a cave until the next incarnation is ready to begin training. Not only is he stuck in this cycle, tormented by Morgana, but he’s also aging backwards throughout it. Now, he’s a teenager, and he’s terrified of what happens when he becomes a child, then an infant.

One of the things that Merlin is seeking to avoid this cycle is Gweneviere and Arthur’s doomed romance. Gwen and Ari are no exception: they’ve been at each other’s throat since childhood at Knights Camp on Gwen’s medieval-themed planet. Of course, that animosity may have just been hiding something else… Unfortunately, Arthurs are destined to have their hearts broken by their Gwenevieres, betrayed by the knight they trust the most: Lancelot. Ari and Gwen’s relationship is just as passionate and thorny as their star-crossed history would suggest.

And no matter what, Ari wasn’t going to be able to walk away from Gwen. She would stay right here, in the riot of her pain, for even a chance at this closeness.

There is also a moment near the end of the book that reminded me of this take on the “ultimate female power fantasy” of The Last Jedi, so that was pretty great.

In fact, if it hasn’t already been clear, I loved this book. It is epic and feminist and queer. It’s about resistance and survival, making connections and refusing to back down. It’s being bravely vulnerable. I loved that I got to know this whole ridiculous crew, who all add to the story. They become a family, in their stubborn, arguing, loyal way. It’s fast-paced, captivating, funny, and feminist. Despite the action and comedy, it’s also deeply emotional, and has moving f/f and m/m romances. When I first added this to Goodreads, I was a little disappointed to see that it’s the first in the series, because I worried that it wouldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I would have to wait for a long time to get the sequel. Now, I’m grateful, because I’m not ready to leave this family behind, and I definitely didn’t predict that ending. (Though I was right about one thing: I am impatient to read the sequel!)

And you were the thing Mercer feared most. A girl they couldn’t control, who wouldn’t stop talking. That’s the scariest damn thing in the universe.

[Content warning/spoiler, highlight to read: I do want to read a review by a Middle Eastern reviewer, because Ketch is described as a planet founded by Arabs, who lead the resistance. Unfortunately, they were all killed by the Mercer corporation. Although there is diversity in the crew, I didn’t feel good about all the Ketch people being killed other than Ari…]

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Imagine that you are telling a science fiction story for cavemen, a hundred thousand years ago. Imagine that you’re all sat around a fire, half-covered by an outcropping of stone, hoping that tomorrow will be drier than today, and you decide you’ll tell a story about the far future. Imagine that somehow you have the gift of true sight, and you dream up a simple story about a foiled weekend lunch date in Manhattan. Something simple–two people match on Tinder, but there’s a problem with the subway, and then the taxi driver is a bit of a character but misunderstands where he’s supposed to be taking her, and she ends up walking home from the wrong restaurant, glad that she remembered to throw a pair of flats into her bag.

Where do you start? How do you guide your listener into the setting? Say, when your character has to take that taxi. Do you start by trying to explain an internal combustion engine to your listeners, who have never seen smelted metal? Do you try to describe glass as translucent as water to an audience who has never seen so much as a rough glass bead? How do you describe the setting, miles of skyscrapers and roads teeming with passerby, to someone who has never seen a man-made wall? How would you even begin to describe a smartphone, and then a dating app, to a people who have no written language, and who might only meet twenty or thirty other people their entire lives? How do you explain all this in-narrative, when any character who lives there is so accustomed to everything as to find it invisible, but it is so far beyond the understanding of your listener as to seem like magic? How do you get to actually telling the story, when the underpinnings would take a year to explain?

Yoon Ha Lee, the master who wrote Ninefox Gambit, gets around this dilemma by explaining almost nothing at all. The reader is plunged into the river of narrative facefirst, mercilessly, and had better learn to swim–because the water is picking up speed.

Ninefox Gambit is a piece of military science fiction set in a world whose cultural mores, technology, history, are all beyond our easy understanding. If it is in our own future, this book is set so far ahead as to be unrecognizable. But if the world is as opaque as a river full of silt, still the characters are as sharp as the sunlight off a fishscale. Cheris would be Asian, if she were from Earth; her hair is dark, she uses chopsticks and has a fondness for quick-pickled vegetables with her rice. These things are recognizable, comfortable touchstones for me personally in a book that is full of so much that is alien. If Cheris were a 21st-century American, she’d also be considered a lesbian; her people don’t have a word for it.

(Do you have a word for a woman whose hair is one inch longer than another woman’s? It goes unremarked-upon.)

The universe, or at least the vast number of planets under control of the empire for which Kel Cheris fights, operates under a technology that requires consent to function. Specifically, it is the calendar that requires consent, the sacred days and the unremarkable ones, the hours and the minutes. As long as the people in a system operate under the empire’s calendar, the empire’s technology works there, including its “exotics,” weapons that can fold space, or cause radiation to emit from every entrance (doorways, windows, open mouths, nostrils, pores…), or shatter its victims like cheap candy glass. This agreement is maintained through strict, society-wide adherence to calendar holidays. Not the fun kind where you might get off work early and throw a picnic, but the kind where heretics are tortured in incredibly horrific ways, and everyone gathers around the far-future-television-analogue to witness and to meditate on what they see.

(Miss viewing one of those events, and you risk being the guest of honor at the next one. It is not very difficult to do something which would see you accused of heresy. So the wheels of Empire are greased.)

Captain Kel Cheris does what she is told, largely. She cares about the people under her command, but she understands that when she decided to pledge herself to the Kel, the warrior class, she gave up her life to death, and that all those she commands had done the same.  When she sees a way to maybe win a battle that is just a little bit heretical, she goes for it–and as a result she sees her command stripped from her and her company shattered. To redeem herself, she is given the opportunity to develop a tactic for taking back the Fortress of Scattered Needles, an outpost which has been suborned by heretics. Find a way to do that, she is told, and you may regain your command and keep your life.

The problem is, there’s no straightforward way to do it. The Fortress of Scattered Needles is a nexus with an almost-impenetrable defense, and any empire general hoping to attack it will find that her own weapons will not work, due to the heresy crazing the calendar. There is one who could have done it, when he lived…the Immolation Fox, the mad traitor Shuos Jedao. He was not Kel, but he worked with the Kel; even badly injured, he took the battle of Candle Arc with eight-to-one odds. And then four battles later, he annihilated his own entire fleet, taking his opponents’ fleet with it, and shot all his prized officers in the head. He was executed, and his soul has been kept locked in stasis for the last several centuries, brought out only rarely to win unwinnable battles.

So the strategy that Kel Cheris devises is, wake up the murderer Shuos Jedao, and assign him to me. And he is so assigned–anchored to her body, that is, as a shadow who whispers in her ear and flickers in her mirror. She’s given a rank she has not earned (so that the other Kel, literally programmed to obey commands from superiors, will follow her) and given a small fleet, pointed at the enemy, and set loose. She wants to win, and she wants to survive. But Jedao does not sleep, and for all that he is dead, he is not powerless. Cheris must use his experience and military brilliance without falling prey to either herself–and she grows more and more certain that to make it through this situation, she’s going to need to understand why he did what he did, four hundred years ago.

To say this book is complicated is an understatement. It makes you work for your satisfaction, but it is never plodding or slow, and it does not get weighed down by its own backstory. The battles get ugly, the tortures inflicted on heretics are ghastly. But despite that, there are moments of real beauty, both natural and technological. And maybe more important, the book reinforces, over and over again, that the people on all sides of a battle are people. They have favorite candies and sorts of pickled cabbage, they have hobbies, dislikes, personal traditions. Cheris has a fondness for serialized dramas that anyone who’s ever been in a fandom would recognize. So it is that when Lee writes of a million dead at the battle of Candle Arc, the reader can not help but be reminded that it is not just a number. There is bravery, but not much in the way of machismo; Cheris’s own martial skill is something she is quietly proud of, but she is not given to braggadocio. Being resigned to death is not the same as longing for it; being awake is not the same as being alive. And in a war where the loss of thousands might be a skirmish, it can be difficult to tell who is the more human: one’s commanding officers, or the undead murderer murmuring in one’s own skull.

This is not a piece of traditional, hyper-masculine military SF. While there is loyalty and the love of comrades, patriotism is not held up as a moral ideal–more it is a tool, like a calendrical blade, that can be used against your enemy only in certain terrain. Not even the main character believes that might makes right, but simply that might makes, for a little while, some silence. There is respect for superiors and those more experienced, but there’s also an understanding that there are different forms of corruption, and that the longer one lives, the likelier one is to succumb to them. But this book does share one thing with so many of the others in its genre, and that’s the idea that as long as you can still fight, there is hope.

Content warnings: Torture and other violence (coldly described rather than in a fashion to titillate, but it ranges from one-on-one to starship fleet against fleet, and the weaponry used is sometimes the stuff of nightmare). Sexual assault (again, not explicit). A very great deal of character death.

FINAL SCORE: A rare five out of five stars. Technically and narratively spectacular.