Megan G reviews Forget Yourself by Redfern Jon Barrett

Blondee’s world is comprised of fifty huts divided between four groups of people: least, minor, moderate, and severe. Each person is grouped based on what crime they committed in their previous life, though nobody can really know for sure what their exact crime was, as everybody comes into this world with no memories of who they previously were. The few memories people have are recorded in a book and used as rules to govern this world. The memories Blondee begins to have, however, will change the course of her world.

This is a tough book to review. It’s speculative science-fiction unlike any I’ve read before. Blondee’s world is new, both to the reader and to the characters, creating a deep sense of uncertainty throughout the novel that never fully dissipates. Every character is an amnesiac, making the world outside their prison compound a complete mystery and creating a strong sense of claustrophobia. We don’t know where we are, and we don’t know where we came from. I will admit, the eventual reveal left me scratching my head, but it also left me thinking in a way that very few dystopian novels ever have.

The issue of sexuality is just as complex as the rest of the narrative. Although Blondee’s world seems far more open-minded than our own, monogamy is still the law of the land, and when Blondee begins to shift into the world of polyamory she is quickly shunned by the rest of the compound. This is a world where everybody must act in the same way and follow the same rules, and having two lovers simply doesn’t fit with those rules. Despite the reaction of the rest of the compound, Blondee continues to date Burberry and Fredrick simultaneously, and, for a short time, this works for all three. Then, Blondee begins having memories.

The way that memory is dealt with in this book was something I found particularly intriguing. Everybody arrives into the world fully formed, but with no idea of who they are. When they do have memories, they’re vague. “If one person cheats, the other breaks up with them.” Nothing is personal or specific, and so it is believed that all memories are simply reminders of how the world works. When you’re with someone, they live with you. When you break up, you have sex once, and then one of you moves out. Things that in our world are decided based on personal preference are rules in Blondee’s world. This eventually leads to terrible consequences when Blondee remembers marriage, finds a bridal magazine, and re-introduces heteronormativy and traditional gender roles into a world that operated rather smoothly without them. This shift is one of the many social commentaries embedded within the narrative, and it may potentially be the only one that I fully grasped.

There are a few warnings you should be aware of before picking this book up. There is a decent amount of fatphobia within this book, all dealt with in a very casual way. Suicide is also a theme, and while it is not omni-present, it is rather explicit when it comes up. [major spoilers]This book also includes the death of a queer woman and of several queer men [end spoilers]. There is also explicit sexual content throughout the book, if that is something you prefer to avoid.

Overall, Forget Yourself is a tightly woven, complex story that deeply examines our society, sexuality, and the personal in contrast to the general. While I did greatly enjoy this story, I must admit that a lot of what happened in the final section went over my head, leaving me confused and a little unsatisfied. A second read might be in order, now that I (sort of) know where everything ends up.

One final note about Forget Yourself: don’t be fooled by the quick pace. This book initially seems like a light, easy, mindless read. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t.

Audrey reviews My Real Children by Jo Walton

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My Real Children is terrifically problematic in the best possible way. Patricia in 2015 is at the end of her life, relegated to a nursing home, left mostly alone by her family–but until she opens her eyes and sees the colors of the curtains and which side of the hallway the bathroom is on that day, she doesn’t know which family. Because after a certain specific point, Patricia’s life bifurcates, and she has two complete sets of memories. She’s lived two separate lives. In two separate worlds, with two separate histories (in one, JFK survived; in one, nuclear bombs have been dropped; in both, there are research bases on the moon).

Which one is real? Which one does she want to be real? Does want have anything to do with it? It’s not as simple as choosing the life in which she was happier. In one life, she had a miserable marriage to, and divorce from, Mark. They had four living children and number of babies who were stillborn. The world in general was a pretty open and accepting place, and Patricia (in this life, Trish) found a great deal of personal satisfaction in civic involvement and in enjoying the achievements of her children. Trish didn’t get the solid connection and commitment of the deep romantic love that so many people long for, but she contributed consistently to the betterment of the greater world. And it was a pretty good world.

In the other life, Patricia (Pat) found personal fulfillment in her career and in her loving relationship with Bee. They had three children, but had to be furtive about parenting, because this world moved into darker, less accepting times, and co-parenting lesbians were in constant danger of being reported to social services. Pat found great personal loves–she fell in love with Italy and found a way to make this soul-feeding appreciation the basis of her career. She found Bee, the love of a lifetime. Pat’s efforts contributed consistently to the betterment of her family’s world. The world at large–well, that wasn’t so great.

Trish’s focus was outward; Pat’s was insular. This is the most stark case of “What if it’s not all about you?” you may ever read: Patricia thinks, at one point, what if the salvation of the world comes at the expense of her own happiness? Well, what if? “What if?” is the jumping-off point of the best stories, and the most heartbreaking; and I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to work this out, trying to find crossover points, trying to make it work, but there are no easy answers. On the one hand, that makes this book great for book club meetings. Yes, you should sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of humanity! Or, no! Let humanity fend for itself, because love is a rare and beautiful thing, and when it’s found, it needs to be nurtured and cherished.

My Real Children is fascinating in a number of ways, but be warned, it will affect you. I spent the last chunk of it sobbing. (I am not the only one. Cory Doctorow apparently did the same thing, and couldn’t even face writing his review after he finished reading the book. He needed to take a breather.) One of the best things Jo Walton does with her main character is this: it’s clear that although Patricia makes a choice at one point that splits her world’s fate, both Pat and Trish behave in ways that are faithful to the core of the person Patricia. No matter what is thrown at her, the fundamental makeup of the character is the same. I loved that faith in the fundamental Patricia-ness of the main character, the vote of confidence in our basic nature being fixed, no matter the context. I also loved the “Please, we’re so past that” attitude toward homophobia in the latter part of Trish’s world’s 20th century.

What I didn’t love, because it wasn’t fun to think about, is Walton did a painfully effective job of pointing up the dangers of insularity. You don’t get to take a lifetime off. External engagement is necessary. Walton gives us extremes. Here are both sides of the spectrum: What can we do with that? Is there a balance? Unhelpfully, we get to see these stark examples, but not any ideas of how to…how to have it all. Can you? I think, yes. This is one of those books I read at the right time, while debating these things in my own life, wishing I could stay in my happy little enclave with my happy little family and my happy little job for the rest of my happy little existence.

Yeah, no. And don’t think that by being in a loving, supportive relationship you’re putting enough good karma out into the universe to let you off easy. According to My Real Children, you aren’t. So: engagement with your world, both your home world and the world at large. Get on it, please, because the universe could fall apart if you don’t get all that under control. Also, try this as a gateway drug on people who think they don’t like science fiction.

Danika reviews Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

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Long Hidden is an anthology of stories that take place between the 1400s and early 1900s, include some element of speculative fiction (mostly fantasy, some horror, a little sci fi), and are about marginalized people. This is not an all-lesbian collection, as you probably guessed, but it does include at least two lesbian stories (at least one may be subtextually lesbian), as well as two trans women stories.

I was very excited to read this book. I think it’s a collection that is far overdue, and I hope that there will be many more like it. I felt like it was a little slow to start out with, and personally enjoyed the later stories more than the beginning few, but overall it lived up to my expectations. The collection as a whole is dark, especially the first quarter or so of the book, which seemed to have every story revolve around death. I loved the different takes on “speculative fiction” covered in the stories. One of my favourite stories, Each Part Without Mercy by Meg Jayanth, dealt with people who can walk between dreams, and other people (like the main character) who can construct dreams stable enough to support these dreamwalkers. This concept was so interesting, I felt like it could be a whole novel. It made me curious to seek out the author’s other work, which is one my favourite things about anthologies. They can lead you to all sorts of new authors.

Long Hidden is also illustrated, with each story having a different style of illustration accompanying it. I loved this aspect, and though the illustrations complemented the story beautifully. (Also, that cover is gorgeous.) Take this illustration of the story “Jooni”, for example.

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Isn’t that an intriguing image to preface a story? Having the two combined makes it all the more memorable. Skimming through this collection to see my notes, I realize how much these stories stayed with me. They have such atmosphere to them, it makes them difficult to forget. On reflection, I think this is a book I would like to return to and re-read. It’s unfortunate that my least favourite stories were in the beginning, because I think they distracted me from noticing how much I enjoyed the anthology as a whole. (Not that the first stories aren’t skilled; they just weren’t as interesting to me personally.)

I did have some complaints, however. I didn’t realize before reading Long Hidden that all of the stories took place between the 1400s and 1900s. I was disappointed to not have any stories that stretch further back, though I’m hoping that another collection will do that. I was also a little disappointed about the diversity of settings. Although all the characters are marginalized, and almost all of them are people of colour, the settings are disproportionately either in North America (usually the U.S.) or Europe. North American stories took up nearly half the book, and put together, stories taking place in North America or Europe were two thirds of the stories included. Three take place in Africa, four in Asia, one in the Ottoman Empire, and one in Central America (none in South America). That isn’t to say that the stories of marginalized people in North America and Europe aren’t important, but I was hoping for more diversity there.

Now onto the lesbian stories!

“Marigolds” by L. S. Johnson is set 1774 Paris, and is about women in… essentially a brothel. Men seek out these women while they are menstruating, because they believe the women’s blood will give them power. But Mémé, the women who runs the brothel, is attempting to harness this power for political purposes–attempting to spark a revolution. Claire, the main character, is in love with one of the other women, Isabella. Claire is unsatisfied with her life in the brothel, suspicious of Mémé and what she’s willing to sacrifice to gain power, and is prepared to risk everything to be with Isabella. This was a great story, with interesting magical elements, and a solid plot. If you’re on the fence about picking this up based on how few lesbian stories there are, I’d say the quality makes up for it.

“Nine” by Kima Jones is set in 1902 Arizona, and features Tanner, a black lesbian, who runs a hotel with two other women, Jessie and Flo. They have an idyllic, though busy, life considering the time period, but for one issue. Tanner’s ex-girlfriend is extremely powerful, and has a vendetta against Tanner. Which means that her and everyone she loves are cursed. Oh, and Tanner’s ex keeps sending people to kill her and her family. The characters in this story are so believable and rich, it feels like you’ve known them for ages. This isn’t a happy story, but the characters are resilient, which leaves some room for hope. Definitely enjoyable.

So, although in some ways I wish Long Hidden was even more diverse, it’s still far beyond the uniformity seen in most anthologies. I really hope that there will be even more in this style, because this is a beautiful book, and one I would recommend to anyone. I’ll leave you with my favourite illustration (which happens to be from one of the lesbian subtext stories).

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Krait reviews Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

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Long Hidden features 27 stories, focusing on (as the editors put it) “stories from the margins of speculative history, each taking place between 1400 and the early 1900s and putting a speculative twist—an element of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the unclassifiably strange—on real past events.” The anthology features many people and women of color, trans* characters, lesbians, and stories from all over the world.

My love affair with speculative fiction started after a childhood spent devouring sci-fi and fantasy books left me with the realization that very few stories actually featured people I might know or people I could be. With that in mind, I had very high hopes going into Long Hidden and I’m pleased to say that were not in vain.

Anthologies can often be hit-or-miss when it comes to story quality, but Long Hidden is nicely consistent. A few stories – “Angela and the Scar;” “It’s War;” “Medu” – didn’t have quite as strong a narrative or quite as engrossing characters, but they still entertained. “Angela and the Scar” and “It’s War” both occur during fascinating events and encouraged me to brush up on my history, but the character arcs and the magic conceit just didn’t hook me. I found Medu’s snake-haired women to be an interesting concept and the story starts strong, but the conflict and the resolution fall flat.

It’s really only in comparison to the brightest stars of the anthology that these stories fizzle.

But oh, those stars. Meg Jayanth’s “Each Part Without Mercy” follows a dreamer with gorgeous imagery and lovely prose. “Marigolds,” from L.S. Johnson, is deliciously disturbing and tells of blood-magic in a French Revolutionary Parisian brothel. “Marigolds” left me with a few shudder-worthy images but a surprisingly uplifting ending. Jamey Hatley’s “Collected Likenesses” is thought-provoking, with fascinating magic and heart-rendingly real characters. A young black woman in 1913 Harlem struggles with dangerous memories and magic passed down from her grandmother (and even farther back). Kima Jones’ “Nine” features Tanner, a possibly genderqueer woman of color, who runs a small motel with her lovers, several other women. All escaped the remains of slavery back east, and they provide a safe stopping point in Arizona for others doing the same. And finally, several days after I’ve finished the book, I’m still thinking about “Lone Women,” by Victor LaValle. I would absolutely read a novel featuring Adelaide (the protagonist), her sister, and the community of strong single women out on the Montana frontier. There’s just enough horror and magic to put an interesting twist on the story of a frontiers-woman, and I’d love to see that story expanded.

It’s difficult to discuss some of the stories without spoiling some essential element, the hidden magic in the characters or their surroundings, so the ones I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. The plots run the gamut from romance, crises of faith, self-discovery, to overcoming the terrible odds and obstacles thrown at you by life. But all of the stories have some element of magic or fantasy or horror, and all tell the narratives of people typically ignored by fiction.

In short, I loved Long Hidden, and would absolutely read another anthology along the same theme. However, I’ll warn readers: many of these stories are dark, and not just those that feature horror elements. Violence against women, rape, violent racism, and other trigger-worthy events are touched on more than once, though never shown in detail. Not all of the stories have happy endings – but I think they’re still well worth your time.

[Editor’s note: This book was published through a kickstarter campaign, but will be available more broadly in May]