Sean Melican

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When the Barenaked Ladies sang “Everything old is new again,” they probably weren’t referring to science fiction and fantasy. But if this month’s offerings are any indication, they certainly could have been. For August we have a new vision of elves, a Dyson sphere populated by historians, pirates and fools, and an anthology of vampires inhabiting a multitude of ecological niches.

The title of Elfland leads one to expect a traditional fantasy story—the orphaned hero, the last surviving remnant of the monarchy, a motley and moral fellowship, a great quest—but readers will be pleasantly surprised by the directions in which the story branches. Yes, the narrative engine is driven by the threat of a world-ending ice giant, Brawth, and the efforts of one man, Lawrence Wilder, the Gatekeeper between Earth and the Otherworld, to contain Brawth.But Freda Warrington’s novel rises above other fantasies by focusing on the lives of the densely interwoven Wilder and Fox families who are concerned with the threat, but not consumed by it. Though it’s branded as a fantasy, Elfland shares as much with mainstream fiction as it does genre. The novel begins when the oldest child is not yet an adolescent and ends well after he’s spent time in prison for murder and has (borrowing from the romance genre) stolen the heart of a woman who once despised him. The novel generates greater emotional responses from the warp and weft of the families’ twisted skein, including adultery, betrayal, incest, love, lust, murder and brutal secrets brought to light. It is a strong beginning for a series that has the potential to attract a diverse group of readers.

A fantastic new world
Even though three books in the Virga series come before it, The Sunless Countries doesn’t require any outside knowledge—an odd discovery in light of the novel’s philosophical stance. Virga is a mini-Dyson sphere with a nuclear fusion engine as its sun, and various wheeled cities rotating around even smaller fusion engines. Leal Maspeth is a tutor hoping to be promoted to faculty, but what is a historian to do when the ahistorical Eternists (straw-men stand-ins for Creationists and Wikipedia-ists) have taken control of her city? And what is she to do when she falls in with Hayden Griffin, the hero and sunlighter, just as a voice resounds through the world warning of impending doom for all Virga? As in many otherwise excellent hard science fiction novels, the characters here suffer from a certain flatness. Virga is a superb example of world-building, with complex visual wonders deftly handled by Karl Schroeder’s writing. Curiously, Leal’s historical view is oddly old-fashioned, seeing history as a collection of static, objective facts, which she sticks to despite the evidence that her own historical role will be read one of two ways—heroine or quisling—depending on whether she is alive or dead when the Eternists eventually fall. A fifth novel is demanded.

The vampire authority
Popularly, vampires have ranged from bogeymen to darkly sensual to angst-ridden, but John Joseph Adams’ hefty anthology, By Blood We Live, resurrects 37 incarnations. There are familiar names with familiar stories, most notably Armstrong, King, Lumley and Rice, who is represented by her only published piece of short fiction. Vampires appear in historical and mythological contexts, from the sinking of the Titanic to James Wentworth’s South Pole excursion, the American West to 1930s China, Roanoke to Fallujah. Often the setting is merely a place to locate the vampire, but some authors venture much further. In “Snow, Glass, Apples,” Neil Gaiman brilliantly re-examines the underlying assumptions of the Snow White mythology, and with Lilith Saintcrow’s pitch-perfect “A Standup Dame,” we are treated to a consideration of gender roles in noir genre. We learn what happened to Elvis and Gatsby, Jesus and the devil’s own son, among others. There is also lust, parasitism, violence and narrow escapes. More than anything, this anthology demonstrates that the vampire is not only undead but mutable, and in the best writers’ hands, a tool for analyzing our mortal frailty and resilience in the teeth of unadulterated evil and unimaginable love.

Sean Melican is the new science fiction and fantasy columnist for BookPage. In alphabetical order, he is a chemist, father, husband and writer.
 

When the Barenaked Ladies sang “Everything old is new again,” they probably weren’t referring to science fiction and fantasy. But if this month’s offerings are any indication, they certainly could have been. For August we have a new vision of elves, a Dyson sphere populated by historians, pirates and fools, and an anthology of vampires […]
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This month our fantasy triptych includes the story of a young woman who is too beautiful and powerful for even the most powerful men, a machine too powerful for the Wild West and a former slave whose power may destroy him.

In the world of Kristin Cashore’s Fire, every living creature has a monster analogue, distinguishable by unnatural colors and a lust for blood—particularly monster blood. Though she does not lust for blood, Fire is a human monster. Her beauty causes uncontrollable lust in weak-willed men, and through a form of telepathy she can force men to do her will—though she is understandably reluctant to do so. Her father and his puppet king destroyed their kingdom through excess and cruelty, and Fire quickly finds herself embroiled in court politics, assaulted by the king and used as a tool to interrogate spies. She faces internal conflict as she sees the manipulation of human will too similar to her father’s amoral and casual brutality, but also necessary to the defense of the kingdom. To make matters worse, she falls in love with the prince—and his daughter. Aside from sharp writing, the strength of Fire lies in Cashore’s depiction of womanhood. The author plays with traditional gender fantasy roles, giving us a strong but feminine character whose physiology generates her strengths and weaknesses, and male characters who are aggressive chauvinists and misogynists—not the asexual ideal heroes of Tolkien’s pale imitators. The enchanting prequel to Cashore’s beloved young adult novel Graceling, Fire is an excellent book for all ages—particularly young women.

Steampunk in Seattle
There are plenty of alternate Civil War novels, but none quite like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. In the 1860s, Leviticus Blue builds a gold-mining machine in response to a Russian contest. But something goes terribly wrong—either intentionally or by accident, we don’t quite know—and the Boneshaker destroys the banking district of Seattle and unleashes a gas that turns the living into the living dead. A wall is built around Seattle to contain the gas and the zombies. Sixteen years later, Leviticus’ widow attempts to rescue their son, Ezekiel, who has braved the wall to vindicate his universally hated father. Behind the wall, a man who may or may not be Leviticus—and who may or may not have robbed the banks—has built a kingdom of the living, and he has other plans for Ezekiel and his mother. What follows is a fantastic whirlwind tour of an alternate history and a steampunk version of The Lord of the Flies. While slightly marred by a few too many similar chase scenes, Boneshaker offers fans of both steampunk and the New Weird much to enjoy.

Fantasy pick of the month
Flesh and Fire gives us another unlikely hero. Jerzy is a slave plucked from the vineyards because he shows a talent for creating spellwines. The reader learns (as Jerzy does) that these magic wines were omnipotent until the vines were split into types by a semi-deity who ordered that vintners and governing entities be entirely independent from one another. This Command has been kept and vigorously enforced, but has led to a stagnation in the development of government and particularly the evolution of spellwines. Peace has been held for centuries, but a new malevolent and destructive power appears which no one can identify. The narrative develops slowly, but the patient reader is rewarded with the skillful unfolding of a richly developed world heavily dependent on religious interpretation—a delightful discovery especially as the novel eschews slavish imitation of Grecian mythology or thinly veiled criticism of Christianity, instead presenting a history and mythology which informs and guides the powerless and the powerful. Laura Anne Gilman also approaches the issue of slavery from an alternate viewpoint; Jerzy sees slavery as a natural and moral behavior, is unable to recognize any other option, and questions the meaning of “freedom” through an examination of what it means to be guided by a dead deity’s Commandments. Moral questions are deeply embedded in the novel, with a brilliantly limited authorial intervention, and presented through well-developed characters and first-class world-building. Since this is subtitled “Book One of The Vineart War,” we can only look forward to the sequel(s).

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

This month our fantasy triptych includes the story of a young woman who is too beautiful and powerful for even the most powerful men, a machine too powerful for the Wild West and a former slave whose power may destroy him. In the world of Kristin Cashore’s Fire, every living creature has a monster analogue, […]
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Obsession with work, the economy and plain old love take center stage in this month’s science fiction and fantasy selections.

While preparing for a documentary about his life in The Atlantis Code, linguist Thomas Lourds is shown a strange artifact featuring a language that even he, the foremost authority on ancient languages, cannot identify. Almost immediately, he is attacked and were it not for the fact that Leslie, the producer of the documentary, is a crack shot, Lourds’ life might have reached its untimely conclusion. Now, the race is on! Lourds and Leslie must outrace and outwit the psychopathic mercenaries hired by one Cardinal Murani, a member of a secret society dedicated to preserving the true history of Eden and Atlantis as well as resurrecting the power of the papacy. The characters rarely move beyond stereotypes—impossibly attractive, impossibly gifted at their chosen vocations, impossibly good or evil—and the scenes often feel reminiscent of other novels and movies; but the linguistics aspect of the novel is new and well-researched and has the potential to do for the field what Indiana Jones did for archeology. A captivating and fun read with a plethora of literary and cinematic antecedents, The Atlantis Code is best read with a big bowl of popcorn and enormous soda close at hand.

The price of success

The embers of the U.S. economy, the evils of giant corporations and the absurd notion of a fat-curing pill are just three of the targets in Cory Doctorow’s Makers. Oddballs Perry and Lester are two down-and-out, on-the-edge and off-the-grid inventors/hackers who create novel products, such as a robotic car driven by Tickle Me Elmos, as well as revolutionary economic systems such as the “New Work.” Slavishly following its basic tenets of capitalism, the New Work explodes, only to implode much as the dot-com bubble did. Rather than admitting defeat, Lester and Perry exploit the New Work bust by developing user-altered theme park rides (built in abandoned Wal-Marts) that revel in the boom of the New Work. But when the rides infringe on trademark law, lawsuits abound and things spiral woefully out of control (including Lester’s weight). Makers is the essence of good science fiction: extrapolating from today to tomorrow, though there is an inherent awareness in the book of the fragility of predicting the future, as evidenced by Disney’s Tomorrowland, which is laughably dated. That said, Makers is a wild ride through capitalism and American obsessions. Even if its praise of individual productivity and creativity while simultaneously condemning corporate America appears contradictory, the book does offer a possible, if not probable, escape from this dilemma. This is Cory Doctorow and science fiction at its purest and its best.

Fantasy pick of the month

In a field known for padding, A.M. Dellamonica’s debut novel Indigo Springs features exceptionally tight and evocative prose, without a wasted word or scene. It is a demanding novel, expecting readers to extrapolate important information regarding the past merely from textual clues, but it is well worth the effort. Like the reader, Dellamonica’s heroine, Astrid, cannot recall the past and must assemble it from the present. Returning home after her father’s death, she realizes that her father had discovered magic and was enchanting items for those most in need. Naturally, Astrid also has this ability. Her best friend Sahara wants to use the power for greater purposes despite the inherent risks, and this desire ultimately leads to a dark future for the young women. With rare subtlety, Indigo Springs explores gender and sexuality and power; Astrid is bisexual and in love with Sahara, while Sahara uses sexuality (and later magic) as a means of achieving power and control. Astrid’s mother’s sexual identity is perhaps the clearest indicator of the novel’s strengths, for it is only through careful reading that her identity becomes clear, and while not critical to the story, it is a playful take on the standard reader’s guide question of ‘Who do you identify with and why?’ This is a gentle and sharp novel for any serious, thoughtful reader.

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

Obsession with work, the economy and plain old love take center stage in this month’s science fiction and fantasy selections. While preparing for a documentary about his life in The Atlantis Code, linguist Thomas Lourds is shown a strange artifact featuring a language that even he, the foremost authority on ancient languages, cannot identify. Almost […]
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It’s only fitting that our selections at year’s end showcase the very best writing that fantasy and science fiction has to offer. All three of this month’s novels invoke traditional genre concepts, but these outstanding works build their narrative drive and emotional power from exceptionally well-drawn characters.

Returning home after the apparent suicide of a childhood friend with whom he hasn’t spoken to in years, Paxton Martin discovers the tiny town of Switchcreek, Tennessee, isn’t the same place he left. Oh, sure, the three new species of people which hyper-evolved through Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS)—the Goliath-like argos, the parthenogenic betas and the super-muscular charlies—are still very much alive (though largely forgotten by the outside world once TDS was determined to be non-transmissible). But the older charlies, including Pax’s father, a former preacher, are excreting a strange, hallucinogenic substance; a cult and a schism are brewing in the beta community; and the argos cannot bear children. Pax’s best friend Deke is an argo and the de facto Chief, and Aunt Rhonda is a corrupt, scheming mayor (and a Charlie). Paxton does his best to come to terms with his father, with Deke, with his abandonment of family and friends and with his friend Jo Lynn’s death, which brought him home in the first place in Daryl Gregory’s The Devil’s Alphabet. More subtle than some SF novels, The Devil’s Alphabet is an absolutely stunning, intoxicating blend of vintage mystery, science fiction and intergenerational saga which artfully questions the meaning of what it is to be ‘human.’ Despite the strange occurrence of three new branches of our family tree, the heart of this novel is the deeply human, deeply important meaning of love.

Family secrets
Pure, old-fashioned science fiction is perfectly blended with human frailties in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s recursive Diving Into the Wreck. The first of three stories (two of which were previously published in Asimov’s) introduces us to Boss, a deep-space wreck diver and amateur historian who has found a ship containing lost stealth technology. Boss hires a team to dive it, chart it and claim the prize, but the technology is predictably fatal. Nobody is quite who they appear, particularly Squishy, who abruptly quits the team and loses her partner over an ethical issue. The second story dives into Boss’ past—the loss of her mother to the artifact known as the Room of Lost Souls, her father’s military efforts and Boss’ own genetics. The third story returns to the story of Squishy and the devastating effects of stealth technology. Though slender, the volume contains an emotional depth rarely found in SF. It focuses on the lives, deaths and moral quandaries of the characters rather than the technology—particularly the father-son team whose tragedy is brilliantly understated and emotional, and through Squishy who returns home to atone for her sins. Diving Into the Wreck is highly recommended not only for the inveterate science fiction fan, but for any reader looking for an excellent character study.

Fantasy pick of the month
Total Oblivion, More or Less is Alan DeNiro’s excellent debut novel, and an inversion and analysis of genre tropes. Instead of transporting our heroes and heroines to a fantastic world, the fantastic world is brought to our present day. The Scythians (nomadic horseman from the Middle East) and their antagonists, the Empire, appear and quickly dispatch modern nations, politics, economies and militaries. The Palmer family from Minnesota travels downriver to escape, only to discover that escape is impossible, and other choices limited. Macy Palmer is an deliberately naïve teenage girl who loves her father, a displaced astronomy professor; her sister Sophia (shades of Red Sonya) pursues freedom and love only to discover slavery and abuse; her brother, Ciaran, carries The Children’s Book of Heroes and seeks to be a child-hero like Peter Pevensie, Harry Potter, or Sir Abel but finds that fantasy is not reality. Throughout, the novel seems acutely aware of itself as a narrative. Macy identifies characters she is sure she will share many adventures with; young former World of Warfare gamers discover how very different fantasy worlds are from this world; and villains admit to being involved in crime only for the money. Then there is Em, the wooden submarine captain about whom three contradictory stories are told—none of which completely satisfy the characters or the reader. But this is brilliantly deliberate, informing the reader that this narrative is somehow self-aware of the narrative confines, and (like its teenage non-heroes) it is unwilling to do the expected. This is the very rare novel that satisfies on a multiple of levels.

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

It’s only fitting that our selections at year’s end showcase the very best writing that fantasy and science fiction has to offer. All three of this month’s novels invoke traditional genre concepts, but these outstanding works build their narrative drive and emotional power from exceptionally well-drawn characters. Returning home after the apparent suicide of a […]
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With two mysteries-cum-morality tales featured in this month’s science fiction and fantasy selections, the themes for our New Year’s picks are clear—even though the characters and their actions may be questionable.

Mike Resnick’s Starship series has taken Captain Wilson Cole and his crew from mutineers to a navy capable of fighting the Republic’s multi-million-ship Navy. Throughout, Resnick has kept the story narrowly focused on the behavior and morality of the crew: the level of weapons are described only by numbers, the power of starships by letters. The previous novel in the series considerably raised the consequences and the seriousness of Resnick’s plot as the captain’s best friend was tortured to death. Now, in Starship: Flagship, Resnick directly confronts the issue of whether torture is ever morally acceptable and concludes that indeed it is (provided that the victim is not seriously physically harmed), psychological damage be damned. While the novels are enjoyable and Resnick should be lauded for bringing cold logic to a genre that sometimes emphasizes force over diplomacy, this last novel suffers slightly from a lack of perspective (Wilson Cole is clearly a mouthpiece). However, the series and this novel are highly recommended, developing a hero that is the antithesis of most heroes and a Republic that is in stark contrast to most utopian federations, and confronting a moral issue in a manner that should nonetheless generate a serious, thoughtful response worthy of Wilson Cole’s hard logic.

The weaknesses of man
Many fantasy novels portray magic as an unquestioned fact of life for the characters, but Carol Berg’s The Spirit Lens builds a medieval world where magic is indeed real, even as natural science and its practitioners successfully argue that magic is nothing more than, well, smoke and mirrors. The king is a proponent of natural science, but the queen, who has lost a child, employs sorcerers to explore the possibility of bridging the gap between her world and the afterworld. When a murder is committed that potentially involves blood magic and implicates the queen, the king employs failed magician Portier de Savin-Duplais to solve the crime and exonerate his wife, failing to realize that unmasking the murder may unleash an even greater evil. Aiding Portier are a Shakespearean fop and a brilliant but unsophisticated sorcerer. In an ever-shifting landscape of alliances and betrayals, half-truths, lies, violence, cruelty and evil magic, Berg builds a unique world of science, magic and divinity, cumulating in a disturbing conspiracy. This is a unique world in the fantasy genre, an excellent story and a morality play that bases the threat to order not on the embodiment of evil, but on the familiar weaknesses of women and men.

Science fiction pick of the month
In the fourth installment of Timothy Zahn’s detective series, Frank Compton and his partner Bayta are aboard a galactic train, the Quadrail, continuing their search for the mind-controlling alien known as the Modhri. They are sidetracked when, despite the supposed impossibility of bringing weapons or poisons aboard, passengers are inexplicably turning up dead. The Domino Pattern is a pitch-perfect blend of mystery and technology that owes as much to Agatha Christie as Larry Niven. Borrowing from the English mystery genre, the novel is populated with numerous fully developed characters harboring believable secrets. Full of red herrings, false leads and dead ends, the complex novel is driven by terse dialogue. While the set-piece climax is a little too long and elaborate, Zahn redeems himself with an ending that uses the carefully drawn backstory to propel his characters into the next novel—all the while raising the stakes from the relatively slow Modhri to a much more immediate and inhuman danger. This is an exceptionally enjoyable series that will appeal to both science fiction and mystery fans.

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

With two mysteries-cum-morality tales featured in this month’s science fiction and fantasy selections, the themes for our New Year’s picks are clear—even though the characters and their actions may be questionable. Mike Resnick’s Starship series has taken Captain Wilson Cole and his crew from mutineers to a navy capable of fighting the Republic’s multi-million-ship Navy. […]
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This month, our selections illustrate the triumph in overcoming our prejudices. We meet wizards with learning disabilities, heroes with human weaknesses and fantasy that refuses to be confined and limited to a single genre.

Most readers (myself included) have probably taken for granted that sorcerers are fluent in whichever magical language they speak. Thankfully, there are readers—and writers—like Blake Charleton, who might not have the same assumptions. Charleton is dyslexic, and his debut novel Spellwright features frustrated hero Nicodemus Weal, whose own dyslexia is a serious setback—even dangerous—when performing magic, which is literally bound by the written word. Even the simplest of spells are corrupted by his touch. As if things weren’t tough enough for Nicodemus, a keloid on his back possibly marks him as the Halcyon, a prophesied hero—but then again, its imperfect shape suggests he may be the Storm Petrel, destroyer of language and magic. Believing himself to be neither, and protected by his mentor Agwu Shannon, Nicodemus struggles to earn the right to be a lesser, more ordinary wizard. But when another wizard is murdered by a misspell, Nicodemus and Shannon top the suspect list and find themselves embroiled in banal politics and religious fervor and facing down true evil. Following a fairly traditional plot, the novel is well worth reading for its thorough imagining of the effect of language on magic, as well as its insight into the nature of dyslexia.

A hero’s greatest enemy
Robert McCammon’s Mister Slaughter, the third book in the well-researched Matthew Corbett series set 70 years prior to the American Revolution, finds our hero and his mentor hired to transfer a vicious prisoner named Slaughter from an asylum to a ship bound for England, where Slaughter will be tried for murder. But when a lapse in Matthew’s judgment allows Slaughter to escape, it is up to Matthew to track down the killer. Soon he finds help in the form of a tortured, outcast Indian, but time is running short before Slaughter escapes for good—and continues his violent crimes of rape and murder. In previous novels, Matthew found himself a hero, but in Mister Slaughter, he discovers that he is weak and fallible, allowing him to humbly come into his own as both character and hero. There’s an added bonus for fans of the series: Although this initially appears to be an isolated assignment, by the novel’s end, McCammon has reintroduced the series’ supervillain, Professor Fell. Combining the best elements of detective, historical, horror and conspiracy fiction, this is a book and a series that deserves a wide readership.

Fantasy pick of the month
When you first open Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Volume 3, the first thing you need to do is abandon your preconceived notions of fantasy. These stories feature nary a dragon, wizard or orphan-savior found in an obscure inn, but instead insert the fantastic into the ordinary, examining with wild creativity both the mundane world and the very assumptions that define it. Standout story “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children” takes the wry and amusing concept of a promiscuous superhero, but then turns a very dark corner to question the Christian underpinnings of our society. “Is” examines the psychological explanations for the escapist fantasies of Narnia and its brethren, but when the questioning voice is cynical, can we trust the conclusion? “Couple of Lovers On a Red Background” takes the common notion of an icon transplanted to the present (Bach, in this case) but infuses it with sexuality and love. The brilliant “Pride and Prometheus” posits that Jane Austen’s Mary Bennett will assume the pseudonym Mary Shelley and write Frankenstein after meeting the eponymous doctor. This is not typical fantasy; instead it is full-bodied storytelling, making up a collection of writing that repeatedly demonstrates that fantasy and reality are not strictly separate. If that is not enough to convince a reader to pick up the book, then consider that half the stories are from sources not typically associated with the genre. This is fantasy, yes, but more importantly, this is literature.

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

 

This month, our selections illustrate the triumph in overcoming our prejudices. We meet wizards with learning disabilities, heroes with human weaknesses and fantasy that refuses to be confined and limited to a single genre. Most readers (myself included) have probably taken for granted that sorcerers are fluent in whichever magical language they speak. Thankfully, there […]
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This month’s picks take us from the exciting world of artificial intelligence to that of a criminal genius to the very best best-of-the-year collection.

One of the most wildly anticipated technological feats possible in our lifetime is the development of genuine artificial intelligence. Luckily for us, Robert J. Sawyer has written a series covering a wide range of the issues and obstacles surrounding AI, including perception, tactility, beauty, language, game theory, neurophysiology and morality. In WWW: Watch, the second book in a trilogy, teenager Caitlin Decter continues to discover the visible world after receiving her eyePod implant. Webmind, the emergent AI she has awakened, grows into a full being of its own, but is discovered by American spook agencies and the military—who, ironically, are determined to destroy any entity with the potential for evil, regardless of actual intent or action. As the agencies close in, Webmind announces its existence and demonstrates its beneficence. Sawyer covers an astonishing breadth of concepts, but perhaps does so at the expense of depth; for instance, Webmind’s massive social engineering comes with surprisingly little cost. If Sawyer is a bit overly optimistic about the future of AI, his writing is still a welcome breath of fresh air after decades of machine intelligences portrayed as necessarily inimical to human existence. Webmind may never exist or may arise under vastly different circumstances, but Sawyer has given us a wonderful primer for our potential future.

Twin trouble
Gene Wolfe has always written eloquently about the plasticity of identity and the subjectivity of the narrator—indeed, his last name is now an adjective describing such stories—but never has he so thoroughly entwined these two things as in The Sorcerer’s House. In a series of letters, the book’s narrator, Bax, tells us he is a recently released, exceptionally well-educated convict who has been given a house haunted by, among other creatures, a Japanese shape-shifter, a werewolf and twin brothers. But Wolfe being Wolfe, the story is not as obvious as it first appears. Bax is himself a twin whose brother George is the ‘good’ one—though with a short and violent temper—while Bax has always been the ‘bad seed.’ Such duality also exists in the brothers who haunt Bax’s house, but at one point the mysterious brothers’ behaviors make us wonder if George and Bax’s roles are perhaps reversed. Bax writes of the fantastic events only to his brother and his brother’s wife, while he mentions nothing of these odd occurrences to a friend from prison; the pedestrian tone in these letters is in sharp contrast to those written to George. Since everything Bax tells us must be viewed with suspicion, his apologetic and contrite narrative is almost certainly a fabulous invention intended to cover up real-estate fraud. Or is it? While The Sorcerer’s House is not the best of Wolfe’s stories, it is nevertheless an important addition to a giant’s oeuvre.

Pick of the month
An anthology of the best of the year is more a reflection of its editor’s vision of which stories are important than it is an objective collection. While there are a few traditional stories in Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Four involving first contact, time travel and so forth, it is the stories that directly address sexuality and gender that make this a must-have volume. The science fictional and fantastical aspects of Nicola Griffith’s “It Takes Two,” Andy Duncan’s “The Night Cache” and Ellen Klages’ “Echoes of Aurora” are less important than the three stunningly beautiful love stories between women that are depicted within. Besides a powerful exploration of identity, Kij Johnson’s graphically sexual story “Spar” is unlike any other first-contact story. Sara Genge’s “As Women Fight” extrapolates sex roles in a dichogamous species, while Kelly Link’s “The Cinderella Game” examines gender type in fairy tales. And Rachel Swirsky’s “Eros, Philia, Agape” combines parental roles, robotic free will, identity, sex and love into a bittersweet broken romance tale. It is a rare feat for one story to use genre tropes to radically rewrite Western assumptions; to have multiple such stories in one volume is a singular, priceless accomplishment. Quite frankly, this is a book that should top every science fiction and fantasy fan’s need-to-read list.

In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.

This month’s picks take us from the exciting world of artificial intelligence to that of a criminal genius to the very best best-of-the-year collection. One of the most wildly anticipated technological feats possible in our lifetime is the development of genuine artificial intelligence. Luckily for us, Robert J. Sawyer has written a series covering a […]

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