Jasper reviews Glass Houses by Laura J. Mixon

I read about Laura J. Mixon’s “Glass Houses” in K. Cadora’s article “Feminist Cyberpunk.” Cadora, author of the novella “Stardust Bound” (which I recommend), argued that, in “Glass Houses,” Mixon translates the tropes of cyberpunk out of a male-only worldview into a wider, more equitable worldview. As a sometimes cyberpunk and noir fan, I was looking forward to reading this revelation for the genre.

Unfortunately, “Glass Houses” is very straightforward. At just over 200 pages, it has an extremely simple story to tell, and it tells it without a single surprise. In a near-future world suffering from global warming, down-on-her-luck techie Ruby operates waldoes for a living. Waldoes are robots that can be controlled at a distance by the minds of their operators; Ruby uses her waldoes to scavenge and salvage, recovering loot from abandoned buildings for clients. As the novel opens, Ruby discovers a rich old man trapped in a tottering skyscraper in the middle of a hurricane. She tries to rescue him and fails, but she *does* manage to steal his jewelry and a sealed envelope he was carrying. Cue the countdown as she, inevitably, has to figure out who *else* wants these items and how she can survive having stolen them.

There’s a lot that *could* happen in this novel, but little of it does. It could be a mystery novel, noir/cyberpunk-style, but everyone’s motivations come clear in the first half of the book and there’s no whodunnit to wonder about. It could be an exercise in world-building, exploring a world wracked by global warming, in which access to climate control is class-based and people go outside as little as they can, but the worldbuilding aspects barely go deeper than the cosmetic. It could be an action-film-on-the-page, but the two fight scenes that are clearly meant to be the story’s highlights come off flat and adrenlineless, as Mixon skips over large chunks of action in a sentence or two and fails to describe events with the precision and impact needed to make them live in a reader’s mind.

It could also be a learning-to-have-faith-in-yourself story, and it *almost* is. As Ruby navigates the challenges of the storyline, she begins to trust herself in the real world, interacting with it in person as well as through her waldoes, to value herself and her body, and to separate herself from her toxic lust/love crush on her roommate, beautiful party girl Melissa. (And, if you’re worried she puts aside her flawed f/f relationship for a m/f one, she doesn’t. She stays firmly attracted to women throughout the book.) This was the strongest aspect of the novel, and it came closest to working. The problem? It’s hard to care about Ruby’s development because, as a reader, you know so little about her. Sure, you’re handed a smattering of backstory details, but I finished the novel not even certain how old she was. Is she in her 20s? Her 30s? Even possibly approaching her 40s? It’s hard to say. What made her so afraid to leave her apartment? Why didn’t she ever have a relationship before her crush on Melissa? Ruby’s crushing lack of belief in herself, in her physical body, is central to the novel, and the reader is told little about how it developed–so it’s difficult to feel invested in her struggle to overcome it.

After finishing “Glass Houses,” I’m still looking for that woman-authored cyberpunk revelation. This isn’t it. Though the focus on wrestling with body image and self-confidence is nice to see, I’d reread Melissa Scott’s “Trouble and Her Friends” three times over before rereading “Glass Houses.”

Jasper reviews Steam-Powered II: Lesbian Steampunk Stories

Bottom line: A collection of steampunk stories starring lesbians that deliberately tries to stretch beyond the Anglo-centric, but still operates within a Western-Europe-dominated colonial world. Many stories are good; only one is terrible; none except perhaps the final two pieces challenge steampunk conventions quite as hard as they might mean to.

Content warnings (may contain spoilers): Vary by story. Death of a sentient non-human, deaths of plot bystanders, deaths of siblings, murder by police, policy brutality, murder of a lover, death of protagonist, threat of forced/unwanted marriage, knocking out of a protagonist, loss of hands/limbs/eyes (in backstory), abusive relationship/abusive breakup

How does it treat women/same-sex relationships? Varies by story. In some stories, same-sex relationships are not the majority but are still seen as unremarkable. In others, same-sex relationships must be closeted for safety or are mocked with slurs.

Does it have explicit sex scenes?: No. Sex scenes are not the emphasis, and are usually fade to black.

Would I read it again? Yes, though not the entire collection. There were a number of stories that would be worth visiting again.

Would I publish it? Yes, but not with all of the stories that are currently in the collection–a handful of them need either axing or heavy editing. I would also have some hesitation about publishing it without an introduction; I feel like it needs some examining. The concluding essay serves as a kind of coda, an anti-introduction, that made me think back on what I’d read–and if that was the intention in its placement, than that was very, very clever, putting it at the end. The collection seems to try to challenge Victorian-England-centric steampunk with stories still set in worlds that have England (or at least Western Europe) as a major power. If the collection were to rise to the call of the final essay, I feel like England would be a minor power in these stories’ worlds. (NOTE: This review covers an ARC, so there may very well be an introduction in the final published version.)

I picked Steam-Powered II up expecting lesbian steampunk erotica. I’d seen the slightly seductive pose of the woman on the first Steam-Powered‘s cover, and it colored my expectations. Though I would still love to read a little steel-on-skin clockwork-vibrators erotica, I’m content with what Steam-Powered II actually turned out to be: a collection of not-set-in-England steampunk stories that happen to star lesbians.

Steampunk, like medieval-inspired fantasy, largely romanticizes the past. Instead of romanticizing the feudal past of questing knights and new, fragile social orders in need of protection, it romanticizes the Industrial Age and colonialism. Or, at least, that’s what the mainstream version of steampunk does—and this collection clearly intends to challenge that, with stories set in the Congo, Malaysia, China, the U.S… Though I don’t think the stories (except maybe Zen Cho’s “Terracotta Bride” and Amal El-Mohtar’s nonfiction essay “Writing Down the House”) manage to work away from the Anglocentricity of most steampunk, they all put perspectives on steampunk that I don’t think I’d see in the usual “jaunty clockwork-powered airship-riding corset-wearing superhero team fights crime” novel.

Reviews by story:

“Journey’s End,” by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall. A sentient airship chooses its chief engineer to accompany it on its last voyage. Pleasant, but a lot of space is spent on exposition explaining the workings of sentient airships, and I had a hard time suspending disbelief for part of the conclusion. (Set in the U.S.)

“Amphitrite,” by S.L. Knapp. A submarinist steals her own submarine and meets a mermaid. A young, pretty, curious mermaid. Definitely the sexiest of the stories. (Set in the ocean, between the U.S. and Cuba.)

“In the Heart of Yellow Mountain,” by Jaymee Goh. Two rivals find their way through a labyrinth to complete a government test and win positions at court. One of the clunkier stories, with workaday writing and plotting that created no feeling of danger and led to no climax. (Set in China, I think.)

“Playing Chess in New Persepolis,” by Sean Holland. An engineer from Amsterdam competes in a clockwork chess contest that draws competitors from all over the world. Readable, with a bit of a femme fatale, rakish flair at the ending, but easy to forget. (Set in Persia, with a protagonist from Amsterdam.)

“A Thousand Mill Lofts Gray,” by Jeannelle Ferreira. One of my favorites. A simple, quiet, slowly developing love story between a Russian American seamstress and an upper-class reformer. It’s not an innovative story, but it’s sweetly written, though the ending didn’t have enough oomph to satisfy me. (Set in the U.S.)

“Dark Horse,” by A.M. Tuomala. A mercenary meets an English secret agent in Istanbul. Forgettable and murky. (Set in Turkey.)

“The Return of Cherie,” by Nisi Shawl. Romance and politics overlap as a small group of agent/actors gather in Everfair. Out of all of the stories in the collection, the characters in this one have the most complex, realistic-seeming relationships, all influenced by their pasts and by contradictory worldviews and wishes. It also deals head-on with the poison of racism in a relationship. Shawl’s blog says it’s part of a novel-in-progress; consider me sold on the final novel. (Set in an alternate version of the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

“One Last Interruption Before We Begin,” by Stephanie Lai. An employee in an airship port dreams of travel–and then meets an attractive English pilot. Another favorite of mine, for the clear, detailed writing, the alternative technology, and the ending, in which the protagonist is brave in a way fictional heroes rarely get to be. (Set in Malaysia.)

“Selin That Has Grown in the Desert,” by Alex Dally MacFarlane. As a Turkmeni woman dreads her impending marriage, two strangers with a secret arrive. Another story with clear, uncomplicated writing, commenting quietly on globalization. (SPOILER: It also features an asexual character. END SPOILER.) (Set in I’m not quite sure what the modern equivalent is. Turkmenistan, maybe?)

“Granada’s Library,” by Rebecca Fraimow. One of the three overseers of the Great Library of Granada (a joint Muslim/Jewish/Christian institution) must face up to internal turmoil and the threat of revolution from without. Though I found the ending hard to visualize (I’d need a map or sketches to show me how exactly the Library is set up inside), this story criticizes both thoughtless revolution and rigid adherence to tradition. It suggests that sometimes new can be built without tearing down old–not a bad message. (Set in Spain.)

“The Canary of Candletown,” by C.S.E. Cooney. A voiceless girl who grew up in the coal mines falls in love with a disillusioned revolutionary. Pretty, twisted, and surreal, this one has the dystopic, doomed vibe that I associate with the New Weird and authors like China Mieville. (Set in the U.S.)

“Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues,” by Patty Templeton. Two backwoods women–a moonshiner and an engineer–try to break up (and get back together) via backstabbing, destruction, and walking stills. Cute, with a catchy, folktale-like tone to the writing and the plot (I could imagine someone writing a folksy ballad about events in the story), but it all wraps up in a pat, easy way that’s a little twee. (Set in the U.S.)

“Deal,” by Nicole Kornher-Stace. When the law comes looking for a failed-prospecter-turned-engineer, her partner has to lie for her. I wouldn’t have put this story next to “Fruit Jar,” as the pieces share similarities in setting, tone, and plot, though I like this one least of the two. The stories-within-stories flow along with a cheeky, American tall-tale feel, but the framing narrative left me confused (if you read this story, tell me, what’s up with the disappearing door?). (Set in the U.S.)

“Not the Moon but the Stars,” by Shveta Thakrar. In a competition for both her love and professional dreams, a jeweler/engineer struggles with her mixed feelings about new technology. Far and away my least favorite story in the collection. Though it starts out clear and matter-of-fact, it falls apart into a rush of blurred, fantastical imagery and wooden character reactions to unbelievable events. (Set in India.)

“The Terracotta Bride,” by Zen Cho. A young woman dies and finds herself married off as a second wife in the afterlife. Soon, her husband takes an experimental automaton as his third wife. As I read this, I thought, “Is this steampunk?” I’m used to steampunk incorporating pseudo-fantasy, but not direct-fantasy elements—bits and pieces of “science” that have a superstitious, magic-like quality to them, but not overt fantasy settings like the underworld. But I think it works. Of all the stories in the volume, I think it may come closest to punching a hole through steampunk conventions while still retaining an essential “steampunkiness.” After all, there’s no more direct way to show a new order of mechanization trying to find some place in (or trump) an older world of mysticism than to have someone build a robot in Hell. And, of course, this isn’t a Western hell, but a Chinese-myth-based “hell” and a Chinese-myth-based understanding of life, death, and rebirth. Western colonialism can touch such a setting only indirectly. (Set in the afterlife, based on Chinese mythology.)

“Winding Down the House: Taking the Steam out of Steampunk,” by Amal El-Mohtar. An essay on steampunk conventions, calling for challenging and expanding what “steampunk” can be. I love this as a coda, particularly right after “Terracotta Bride,” which had me questioning whether I thought it really was steampunk. According to El-Mohtar’s essay, it is and it’s more of what steampunk should be. Or, more accurately, readers should be more willing to accept new combinations of fantasy, SF, and historical elements under the genre label “steampunk.” A critical conclusion to the volume that left me thinking.

Jasper reviews Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff

I’m not usually a werewolf (or vampire) novel reader, because I’m not usually a paranormal romance reader, and it’s rare I don’t see the one being synonymous for the other. Alphas falling for mortals, mortals falling for alphas, vampires falling for werewolves, new wolves learning to run a pack and being courted by multiple stunningly attractive romantic interests…it’s not my thing. So I very much appreciated the new twist on the concept of werewolves in Silver Moon! In Lundoff’s novel, (some) women become werewolves when they hit menopause in the idyllic town of Wolf’s Point. They then serve as protectors of the town until the town’s magic releases them and new protectors are chosen. The novel deals mostly with their work of protection and the “coming out” of the main character, Becca, a middle-aged, menopausal, divorced woman who knew nothing about the town’s legacy, as a werewolf. There’s a very slowly developed romantic subplot between Becca and Erin, another Wolf’s Point werewolf (and an out lesbian), but it never takes center stage, nor does it ever get steamy (I do like a good sex scene, so that’s a little disappointing–but sudden, explicit, passionate sex wouldn’t have fit well in the story, so I don’t mind its omission).

The concept is the strongest part of the novel. Becca has friends and a job at a hardware shop, but she doesn’t really see her life going anywhere new, now that she’s divorced with no children. The novel’s menopause-equals-werewolf conceit makes it clear that each new stage of a person’s life opens up the opportunity to discover new things and reinvent ourselves, to a degree–and form new relationships! As a 28-year-old who already worries that, at 30, I’ll be Too Old (to do what, I’m not sure, but there’s definitely the feeling–too old to have kids? To have questions about life? To not have taken over the world yet?), I found it reassuring to read about an older woman, childless and divorced (that is, without the nuclear family structure developed that society tells me is one form of “success”), still having time and room to learn heroic (and romantic) things about herself. The strong friendships of the women, who come from a variety of backgrounds and have different sorts of families, were also a pleasure to see in a novel (as were men who were decent folks, too–I wondered if the wolves would be protecting the town exclusively from male threats, since that seems to be a trend in lesbian SFF: keep evil men in check–but no, they protect the town from all threats, gender-equitably).

On the negative side, the plot fails to live up to the premise. The later half of the novel blurs by in a combination of vague action scenes and long plot lulls. The villains, who the characters treat as a dire threat to the safety of Wolf’s Point, keep leaving windows of opportunity open to the protagonists that only the chronically incompetent would leave open. They make warning after warning, leave powerful protagonists alone with vital supplies and very little guard, and drop without much of a fight, despite the narrative and protagonists talking up how tough the villains are, how seriously they need to be taken, and what they might have done in the past. Speaking of which, what *did* the main villain do in the past? The novel hints at it, but it’s never fully explained.

Worth buying and reading if you’re interested in and want to support alternatives to the usual heterosexual paranormal romance take on werewolves. Pass it up if you’re not a devoted werewolf reader.

Jasper reviews Beyond Binary by

Read Beyond Binary. It fails, as an anthology, to go very far beyond male/female straight/gay conceptions of gender identity and sexual orientation. It fails to showcase worlds and characters that universally accept identities and orientations that lie beyond expected binary norms. Some of its stories are weak and ambiguous; some end with characters in situations where doubt and rejection plague their lives.

But read it anyway, for the handful of sharp, strong, thoughtful, sexy stories that ground this anthology–stories where the writers and characters question and reshape identity in new ways and with sure, steady voices.

Read it for Kelley Eskridge’s novella “Eye of the Storm,” a story so clever you might not even notice the sleight-of-hand at work–you’ll be too busy wrapping yourself up in the story of a survivor, very literally, fighting for love (and sex).

Read it for Delia Sherman’s “The Faery Cony-Catcher,” in which nothing unpredictable happens in an unpredictable way.

Read it for Liu Wen Zhuang’s “The Metamorphosis Bud,” a tie with “Eye of the Storm” for my favorite in the collection. In “Bud,” you’ll meet an old woman who takes waking up with a penis in contemplative, practical, non-sexual stride.

Read it also for the stories that you’ll like but not love (mine would be Keyan Bowes’s “Spoiling Veena,” Catherynne M. Valente’s “Palimpsest,” Tansy Rayner Roberts’s “Prosperine When It Sizzles,” and Nalo Hopkinson’s “Fisherman”). Read it for the stories you’ll have doubts about (I thought Keffy R.M. Kehrli’s “Bonehouse” and Katherine Sparrow’s “Pirate Solutions” were unconvincing and underdeveloped, and still don’t see how Richard Larson’s lesbian-coming-out “The Ghost Party” goes beyond binary). Read all of these stories (and seven more that I haven’t mentioned), and come away thinking. What does go beyond the binary? Which of these stories have pushed past it? Which haven’t? And which ones tell a good (or bad) story, either way?

Jasper reviews Shadow Swans

“Den’s azure eyes betrayed unfathomable tombs of fury and sadness.”
“They feared the rogue warrior they perceived to be growing inside me.”
“Anxious to coddle her kinetic sweetness, I submitted to the secrecy…”
“We were all, by now, wet like kittens tossed in the ocean.”

I’m surprised I made it through Laura Thomas’s Shadow Swans, a coming-of-age novel about a rich young malcontent who makes friends with a homeless girl living in New York City’s subway tunnels. Thomas’s main character, Ruby, speaks with the self-absorbed voice of someone who has yet to realize that suffering and apathy are neither unique nor artistic. Ruby’s first-person narration crams in unnecessary similes, adjectives, and adverbs in a style that I at first thought was satirical. She skateboards around New York City, rides on the top of taxicabs, and waxes ineloquent on the vapidity of human beings, all while living in an abandoned apartment because it’s more real than living somewhere where she has to pay rent. It takes meeting the tunnel-dwelling Den (short for Credenza) to make Ruby realize that ostracizing yourself because you think it sets you above the common herd isn’t quite the same as genuinely struggling on the outskirts of society–and even that realization doesn’t shift her narrative voice away from overwrought self-involvement.

But in spite of the purple prose and predictable young-person-comes-of-age-with-the-help-of-eccentric-friends-and-drugs-and-realizing-actions-have-consequences plot, there’s a decent story buried in Shadow Swans. It just needs help to get out. That story’s about respecting other people’s boundaries and about the selfishness of trying to push someone from a life very different from your own to “grow.” Sometimes, people push others because it makes them feel special to be the teacher, the knowledge-bringer, and pushing for selfish reasons often hurts others more than it helps. Parts of Shadow Swans are about that. Parts of it are also about falling in love with a friend, and not being certain what that means or how it changes a relationship. Both parts, if they were couched in firmer writing, pacing, plot, and character development, would make Shadow Swans worth reading. At 99 cents for the ebook, it may still be worth reading, if you’re looking for a cheap reading fix. If you’re tight on time and money, though, I’d wait until Thomas writes another book, or develops this one further.