PositiveChicago Review of BooksA blend of fantasy and science fiction animates S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City ... it’s an interesting, challenging, and at points rather a dark story, if one that feels a bit scattershot ... In the Watchful City feels like a traditional fix-up: a fairly slender frame that ties together a collection of unrelated short stories ... One reason In the Watchful City is so striking is the way it dives into challenging themes ... In the Watchful City is full of stories that are obviously charged with meaning, and surrounded on all sides by drawers with more things to see—but the glimpses we get are so brief that it’s hard to feel their reality or understand their connections. I don’t doubt that these stories will resonate with some readers, and I wonder what other stories in this world are yet to be told.
RaveChicago Review of BooksA haunting ghost story, a mystery, a queer romance, an Appalachian street-racing adventure: it’s impressive enough that Lee Mandelo’s debut novel, Summer Sons, doesn’t get lost in its potentially-contradictory impulses. Even more impressive is the way it pulls these threads together—or, perhaps, is pulled and balanced between them—to tell a vibrant story of love and grief ... There are some seriously gory scenes here, some seriously steamy ones too, and the entire novel is enriched by a constant level of bodily awareness and detail ... Although Summer Sons is keen, appropriately enough, to accelerate into the curves at key moments, its overall pace is strangely meandering. It’s not that it’s a bad mystery, it’s that Andrew is a phenomenally bad detective ... The characters feel real, the cars feel real, and Mandelo absolutely nails the setting, right at this very specific intersection of Appalachia and collegiate uncertainty: the heat, the drinks, the casual physicality, the habits borne of rural poverty that recent affluence and city-living can’t entirely erase. The ghostly and magical elements, though disturbing, feel organic. To my eye there’s a slightly-conspicuous (if welcome) absence of gun culture, but the emphasis on the land itself, on old and bloody secrets, on lonesome roads and flexible families all combine for an honest and particular background that I rarely see in speculative fiction, and I’m here for it ... I found Summer Sons ultimately rather comforting: no saccharine happily-ever-after, but figuring it out, and intensely alive.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksA wildly inventive, funny, and ultimately quite heartfelt novel, The Unraveling is a chaotic romp of gender deconstruction packaged up in a groovy science-fictional coming-of-age tale ... a challenging but rewarding novel, one of the best examples I’ve encountered of a deeply weird and inventive world that just throws the reader in at the deep end and lets them figure it out ... By disconnecting gender completely from biology, and making us spend a while understanding the difference between Vails and Staids, Rosenbaum sneakily and quite effectively plays with the constructedness of gender. Fift’s predicament feels genuinely teenage, trying to sort out changing desires and roles in a society that only seems to want conformity; the novel also does an astonishing job of thinking through queerness without mapping itself to our genders or sexualities. The Unraveling casually encourages you to wrap your head around new pronouns, its invented genders feel as real and potentially as restrictive as the ones we’re familiar with, and it has a keen sense for difference, for the universality of not quite fitting into the role laid out for you ... It’s also a very funny novel, one I found myself giggling at constantly. Rosenbaum’s sheer inventiveness is a constant pleasure ... Part of why The Unraveling is so readable, despite its deeply estranging setting, is how it captures a sense of frenetic family life in ways that constantly ground and enliven the action with a kind of sitcom chaos ... The entire story is permeated, charmingly and cleverly, with things simultaneously silly and serious ... The novel is not without its hurdles for the reader — the very large cast and constant neologisms take a while to get a handle on. Although the novel follows Fift closely, ze’s perspective is always in three different bodies, which causes some disorienting jumps mid-paragraph. But, once you get into the flow of it, the kaleidoscopic narration becomes one of the novel’s charms ... Chock full of ideas, built around family life and teenage crushes even as it ponders massive social change and long-term civilizational survival, The Unraveling is a heady, thoughtful, and absorbingly creative adventure.
MixedChicago Review of Books\"... a kind of multi-layered ghost story in space ... Robots and androids are We Have Always Been Here’s strongest suit: it’s most striking in the sections where it considers anti-automation sentiments, or examines Park’s preference for androids over human company. It feels like Nguyen is using her robots to grapple with metaphors of class and racial oppression ... There’s a hint of a really interesting horror element in Park’s possibly-misguided emotional attachment to the androids, the idea that she’s spent her life caring about empty simulacra; the novel doesn’t do more than flirt with this potentially devastating idea, however, and its increasingly magical treatment of consciousness reduces the impact of its musings on artificial intelligence. The story is hampered by plot holes and some distractingly bad science. There’s an obviously artificial nature to many key plot elements ... Far more upsetting, however, is the full-throated endorsement of quantum quackery in the novel’s denouement, where a laundry list of debunked pseudoscientific ideas, redolent of Rupert Sheldrake or What the Bleep Do We Know, are put forth to explain the events plaguing the expedition. I don’t expect science fiction to provide science education, but the genre does have the power to make things more plausible in the reader’s imagination—it’s disturbing to see that power used to lend credence to frankly anti-scientific ideas ... Tossing aside any issues it might have explored more deeply, and explaining away its horrors with disappointingly rosy and complete narrative solutions, We Have Always Been Here winds up adrift, not particularly horrifying, and not particularly science-fictional.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksThis is a novel of big ideas, politically and technologically, but what carries it is how well it’s told. South’s narration is unhurried but engagingly paced—at under 300 pages, Sharpson has pulled off a complete story without any padding—with just the right amount of introspection. South’s personal backstory and the larger political context are built out with a mixture of epigraphs and commendably (if ultimately ironically) organic-feeling flashbacks, and South’s narration is animated by a kind of dry and frequently deflecting amusement, gallows humor, or sanity-preserving sarcasm—a stance that frequently breaks just enough to let real emotion through ... This mixture of self-conscious comedy and bleak consideration of atrocity constantly reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut ... Through South’s story, Sharpson confronts our transformation or obsolescence in the face of technology and the unthinkable and surreal cruelty of state-sponsored violence. Despite this high-tech, cerebral premise, the story is anchored in quiet, resilient humor and wordplay, and with an eye for both the absurdity of bureaucratic interaction and the humanity of its characters ... an odd duck—machine consciousnesses side-by-side with trilby-wearing Cold War pastiches—and all the more enjoyable for that. Its speculative elements lend a freshness to its critique of totalitarianism and petty despots, and, despite its sobering themes, it’s a hopeful novel. Sometimes brutal, often funny, it’s a remarkably assured and polished story, grappling with the best and worst instincts of humanity, even as it imagines what might come next for the species.
MixedChicago Review of BooksSomewhat hampered by clunky exposition and unexamined assumptions, the novel is nonetheless digging into near-future economic and political anxieties in interesting ways ... The novel’s depiction of life under a total gig economy is fairly plausible and extremely bleak ... Machinehood doesn’t go very far in its critique, unfortunately. Except for the Machinehood’s demands for human-machine integration, no characters consider root causes of the system’s problems. Similarly, it broaches the issue of reproductive rights without really digging in ... there are a number of worrying ideas embedded in Machinehood . My hackles immediately rise, for example, over an American protagonist whose big dream is to convince her cowardly superiors to begin a military invasion of a North African Islamic nation—a frequently-referenced bogeyman throughout most of the novel, it’s especially disturbing that \'the caliph\' is never even named ... Machinehood has what I can only call \'big cop energy\' ... the first third or so of Machinehood is filled with enough awkward mid-conversation info-dumping that it breaks the flow of the story. Important elements of plot and character motivation don’t hold up to much scrutiny.
RaveChicago Review of BooksThere are no elder gods or supernatural terrors lurking in Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer’s newest novel, but I found myself reading with that kind of dread ... A grippingly-paced and paranoid eco-thriller ... Action-packed, memorably voiced, and rich in detail, the novel uses the thriller format — bureaucratic espionage and private investigation — to spiral inwards to a story of personal and ecological disaster ... Right from the start, Jane’s voice has the snappy, poetic weariness of the hard-boiled private eye ... Extinction, then, the human-caused deaths of entire species, is a horror waiting to be recognized, every moment, around us, in ever-worsening degree. There are plenty of human-scale crimes and tragedies in Hummingbird Salamander, but it’s this awareness that drives Silvina to madness ... it’s leavened by enjoyable elements; Jane is not exactly a cheerful character, but I found myself tapping into her satisfaction — her competence at spycraft and skullduggery, her physical strength, her underdog tenaciousness. Like so many great PIs, Jane is out of her depth, in the sights of much larger entities, but also skillful and resilient in ways that make each chapter sing ... like much of VanderMeer’s work, Hummingbird Salamander is an attempt to imagine, not an end of the world, but a transformation.
C S Friedman
MixedChicago Review of BooksWhere This Alien Shore was ahead of its time, This Virtual Night feels oddly dated. Many elements that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the nineties land flatly now ... it affects a kind of half-hearted Luddism, critiquing the dangers of over-connection, the addicting and reality-warping potential of video games and social media. Whatever germ of truth there might be to that message, its delivery—from the mouths of cyborgs, in totally artificial space habitats—makes it seem hypocritical, at best ... The novel feels strongest where it can stick to adventuring. While it’s plagued by some spatial issues—a few plot points are difficult to visualize—the rhythm of Ru and Micah getting into tricky spots and out again makes for a good romp, playing up their different skills and weaknesses. Ivar’s subplot—an attempt to regain his place in a violent world of gangsters—feels disconnected from the rest of the book, but the stakes are more immediate, and it makes a counterpoint to Ru and Micah’s increasingly cute relationship.
RaveChicago Review of BooksTidbeck is one of those writers whose work is delightfully hard to pin down to a genre—their work includes fantasy and science fiction, but slips between genres to new and stranger places ... Tidbeck has crafted a kind of modern folktale. Inventive, surreal, at times violent, the novel has a timeless, durable quality—in its clear prose and arresting (if sometimes obscure) symbolism, it feels like a fairy tale that’s just a little too scary for the kids ... The Memory Theater begins in a kind of enchanted pocket universe, the Gardens, where a set of amoral and apparently immortal aristocrats live the same eternal day over and over ... The novel minimizes some of the more bizarre imagery of these stories, unifying them with a fairy-tale tonality and threading them lightly through the actual world ... Tidbeck captures the dream-logic feeling of myth and folktale, even when mixing clearly original fabulation with borrowings from older traditions. And, even at its most violent moments, The Memory Theater maintains a kind of gentleness and fascination with the world—childlike and serious at once ... Tidbeck strikes an intriguing balance between vivid imagery, children’s-story wonder, and mature themes, with clear and unpretentious prose and stretches of calm pastoral. It’s a strange and ultimately quite delightful tale.
Alaya Dawn Johnson
RaveChicago Review of Books... a stylistically diverse collection animated by Johnson’s vivid, imaginative, and often brutal prose. Reconstruction is one of the strongest and most enjoyable collections I’ve read in some time; it’s a brilliant and uncomfortable constellation of ideas and absences knotted together ... I found Reconstruction haunting, not just for its vividness, but also for how Johnson writes around felt and imagined absences ... the collection as a whole feels timely, nowhere more so than in its title story ... It’s a superb story, blending historical realism with threads of speculation and magic, told in the voice of a character at once courageous and brimming over with bitterness. It’s the signature note of the entire collection – a willingness to look closely at the realities of resistance, to feel deeply the worries, fears, and complexities at every level of survival.
RaveChicago Review of BooksAasterful in its ability to step back, to allow the fairytale stay in its frame, at a bit of a distance from the immediate action. That refusal to humanize more than warranted works hand in hand with the space that Vo gives for the non-human—even when it walks and talks a bit like a person ... As a piece of fantasy literature, Vo’s worldbuilding is a command performance, if a subdued one. The material reality of the story’s present feels incredibly strong, from the stitching on Si-Yu’s boot to the brief sketches of geopolitics and history. What’s truly impressive is the way Vo weds this firm reality with fantasy and fairy tale ... The novella is rather a meditation on versions of stories, shadings and retellings, the importance of the teller’s intent and insight—and it never dismisses even the most fantastic ideas as \'just a story.\' The novella is also notable for its quiet subversion of gender norms. Ho Thi Tao and Dieu’s story is a love story about two women, though not both human; Chih is non-binary, and these facts pass without comment or judgment. The novella is particularly rich in the polysemy of feeding: as a clear metaphor for sex, as a simple fulfilmment of need, and as violence.