A review of Kim McDougall’s Dragons Don’t Eat Meat (Wrong Tree Press, 2020) By Derek Newman-Stille
Part Valkyrie and part Dryad, Kyra Greene walks between worlds. She’s cut off from her Norse roots and has no connection with dryads, and perhaps this allows her to connect to other outsiders and others who are looking for homes. Kyra works in the magical creatures removal business, but most of the creatures she removes end up living with her in the menagerie that is her apartment.
Kim McDougall’s Dragons Don’t Eat Meat takes place in a post apocalyptic future where human beings damaged the Earth so much that she brought back magic and now most of the world is covered in spaces of magic that are dangerous to human beings. Cities like Montreal have created their own wards to keep chaotic magic and dangerous creatures out, but this is still a dangerous world and Kyra does a dangerous job dealing with magical creatures.
Kyra’s care for magical creatures is what brings her first into contact with dragons, who she had thought were mythical. When she sees poachers abusing and transporting dragons, she, as a compassionate person, needs to intervene, but her good intentions lead her into betrayal, new friendships, and a battle that could end the city of Montreal.
A review of Jamieson Wolf’s Beyond the Stone (Renaissance, 2021)
By Derek Newman-stille
Nothing is as it seems in Jamieson Wolf’s Beyond the Stone. This is an exciting urban fantasy adventure with many twists and turns and a world standing on the precipice of massive and dangerous change. Not only is the world in a state of change, but so is Bane, a man who is socially ostracized because his skin changes into stone, and has developed a rock hard personality to go with it. Bane is on the road to self discovery and change as a result of a new love in his life and his discovery that the world that he knew isn’t what he thought it was.
A review of Lydia M Hawke’s Becoming Crone (Michem Publishing, 2021). By Derek Newman-Stille
We hear popular, ageist phrases like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, and “past your prime”. In our society, ageing is presumed to be a process of decline, an increase in loss, and not a time of growth or learning. Yet, of course learning never ends and there are always new and exciting moments of growth and change throughout our lives. Becoming Crone is a revolutionary urban fantasy story because it presents ageing as a time of growth and not decline.
Lydia M Hawke’s Becoming Crone is a coming of age story that reminds us that coming of age is continually happening throughout our lives. Claire has just turned 60. It’s been a year since her divorce and she is expected to define herself exclusively as a grandmother. Her child and in-laws are constantly worried about her health and assuming that she is on the verge of decline. Yet something new is arising in her, a truth that she has denied while she has been complacent in her role of mother and grandmother. She has been seeing crows near her house and messages are arriving for her. She is about to undergo a massive change in lifestyle and begin a new set of learnings. She’s been chosen to be a Crone, a powerful priestess of the Goddess Morrigan. Nothing makes sense for her any more… and yet, in a way, everything makes sense. Suddenly she knows who she is and is becoming who she always needed to be.
Becoming Crone is Lydia M. Hawke’s challenge to ageist tropes and an opening up of new narrative possibilities that challenge the limiting views of women over 60. Hawke engages with social assumptions about ageing while reversing them with a bit of her own magic.
A review of Liselle Sambury’s Blood Like Magic (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021) By Derek Newman-Stille
Choices. They are something that beleaguer every teen. Teens are constantly having to think about the future, but also about how to acknowledge their past. Voya is known for being indecisive, but now she’s reached an age where she needs to make a decision that could have an impact not only for herself, but for her whole family. Voya is from a family of witches and their magic is passed down at puberty when they are given a challenge they have to complete in order to inherit their family’s magic powers. What makes things worse, her whole family could lose their magic if she makes the wrong choice.
Voya is suspended between obligation to her past and her future. She is finding out more about her family’s secrets and the things she didn’t want to believe about her family, but she also knows that her every decision could influence what happens to the people around her.
Liselle Sambury’s Blood Like Magic is a powerful near-future fiction book that blends science fiction with urban fantasy. With a smattering of genetic engineering and a lot of magic, Blood Like Magic defies easy genre definitions and creates something new, exciting, and compelling to read.
A review of Natlie Walschots’ Hench (HarperCollins, 2020)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Natalie Walschots’ Hench is powerful inspiration for the reader to become a villain. Walshots takes her readers into the mind of a temp hench person, exploring what it is like to work for supervillains, but, perhaps more importantly, what it is like to be the victim of superhero violence. Anna’s temp work for supervillains isn’t glamourous and it often only includes data entry and data analysis, but it is this skill that brings her to the (dangerous) attention of the superhero community. After Anna is disabled by a superhero while he is attempting to get to a supervillian, Anna starts to crunch the numbers and explore the cost of superheroes – the property damage, the loss of life, and the health costs to civilians and hench people. The numbers are astronomical and horrifying and Anna publishes them, bringing her to the attention of Supercollider, the superhero who disabled her and wants to maintain the status quo. Buuuuut, it also brings her to the attention of one of the major supervillains and begins a new stage in her life.
Although Hench is a superhero narrative and full of the fantastical, it calls out real world systems of power and violence, bringing attention to the cost of a punitive justice system. Walschots critiques binaristic approaches to justice and engages in philosophical questions of the nature of good and evil.
Reading Hench, I am reminded that I am dangerously close to becoming a supervillain at any moment!!
A review of Karleen Pendleton-Jimenez’ The Street Belongs To Us (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021)
By Derek Newman-Stille
America is a thin veneer over a much more complex world, and in 1984 when Muscatel Avenue is torn up there are new possibilities and potentials in the mud. In The Street Belongs to Us, Karleen Pendleton Jimenez explores a street in Los Angeles that is torn up to put in sidewalks and that kids decide to make their own, building trenches, playing in the mud, and ultimately finding themselves beneath the ground. The grandmother of the main character, Alex, tells the reader “The land wants to be adored and you kids know best how to do it”, and that is what The Street Belongs to Us does, it exposes a fundamental love for the land and its potential. While digging, Alex and her friend Wolf find the deed to Aztlan, a creation of the Chicano Movement around land stolen from Mexicans by Americans. It is a deed to a place that can’t be owned, a place of stories and tales of belonging. Like Aztlan, Alex holds the stories of her people and her grandmother’s stories even though she has a conflicted identity as a Mexican American. She observes “I feel kind of ashamed of the stories she’s telling. Even though I’m part Mexican, I’m also quite a bit American. It’s like one part of my body was mean to the other”. She feels the pain of American oppression of the Latinx community in her own body.
Though Nana also warns Alex that digging up the dirt also means exposing all of the things that lay buried and Pendleton Jimenez examines the complexities of childhood experience living alongside family secrets, ideas of belonging, and notions of gender and growing up. When the ground is disturbed, Alex and Wolf see new possibilities, examining their relationships with their parents and their relationships to their own bodies. Alex begins to develop breasts and has to explore questions of whether she is a boy or a girl and whether breasts mean that she is forced to become a woman or whether there are other possibilities for her body. The Street Belongs to Us is an exploration of belonging, whether that be to a community or to one’s own body and who gets to decide how we belong. Like the ground in the story, The Street Belongs to Us unsettles, digs up, and shuffles foundations.
A review of James Alan Gardner’s Ascending (Open Road Media)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Ascending is James Alan Gardner’s discourse on boredom wrapped up in science fiction. Gardner’s narrator Oar is from a genetically modified species that at the age of 50 literally just becomes bored with the world and lays down to sleep for eternity…. and Oar has just reached the age of 54. They refer to it as having a “tired mind”. In order to keep going, she needs to stay stimulated and keep her mind active. She already has moments when her mind is tired and she loses minutes and hours as she spaces out. She finds herself losing time and becoming disconnected to the world around her even as she sets out on a galactic adventure full of action-packed excitement and new challenges.
Oar was first introduced in Gardner’s Expendable, when Explorer Festina Ramos was dropped off on her planet and changed the world that Oar had known. Now, Oar has sought out Festina again and the two are plunged into a galaxy of conspiracies, advanced paranoid aliens, and secret discoveries.
Although Oar is 50 and that is normally the end of her species time awake and active, Ascending is a coming of age story for Oar as she faces the reality of the universe around her, challenges her pre-existing ideas, and grows up. Growing up is never easy and Oar’s coming of age is one that involves painful awakenings.
Through the lens of Oar, Gardner presents an examination of the social meaning of boredom and writes a discourse about ennui through an exciting sci fi adventure.
A Review of James Alan Gardner’s Hunted (HarperCollins, 2000).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Edward is a man with an intellectual disability who grew up being treated as a child by his sister and as an embarrassment by his father. He was taken under the claws of the queen of the Mandasars, a race of strictly hierarchical lobster-like aliens until their planet went to war. He was then made part of the Explorers, who are better known as Expendables because they are sent into risky situations that no one else is sent into. The Expendables are all made up of people with disabilities and “disfigurements”, people who didn’t fit into their society’s ideas of beauty, and it is because of these disabilities that the Explorers are treated as expendable people. James Alan Gardner’s Hunted begins with Edward being taken to a new planet but when the entire crew of his spaceship except for him dies as they cross into open space, he is placed at the centre of several conspiracies with galactic consequences and implications for what it means to be human. As Edward’s body and mind begin to change, he comes face to face with his own identity and questions what it is to be himself and who he is as his selfhood becomes unfamiliar.
Hunted, much like Gardner’s Expendable is an exploration of disability and what it means to be disabled. Few authors examine disability in future settings, erasing the idea of a future for disabled people. Most science fiction authors treat the future as a period in time when all disabilities are “cured” and erased. This has implications for the disabled community because this negates the important role we play in our current society and even the possibility of us having a role in our future. Much of Sci Fi’s treatment of disability is eugenicist in nature, treating disabled bodies as ‘mistakes’ that are meant to be rectified out of existence. For disabled readers, this has implications about our identities and reinforces ableist practices and ideologies in our current cultural circumstances.
Although there are some challenges to the way that Gardner constructs disability in Hunted, he powerfully presents disability as an essential part of Edward’s identity and illustrates Edward’s fear of becoming something different and losing his disability. Gardner also recognizes the way that disabled people tend to form our own communities and Edward is placed in the context of other disabled Explorers Festina Ramos (who has a reddish mark on part of her face) and Kaisho (who is a wheelchair user and has a symbiotic relationship with sentient glowing moss). Characters have complicated relationships with their disabilities just as disabled people do, but both Edward and Festina embrace their disabilities are part of their identities, not wanting to change them.
Hunted in addition to its disability narrative, and perhaps because of this narrative, is a discourse on identity and what makes a person an individual. Gardner questions ideas of individuality and the idea of a stable personality and personhood and instead illustrates that personhood is intensely malleable and changeable and that people are not nearly as independent as we think. In addition to Edward’s identity crisis about who he would be without his disability, Edward also discovers that he has alien DNA, questioning the barriers of his humanity and whether he can consider himself the same person he has always been. His identity is shaken by changes in his body that make him question himself. Kaisho is similarly presented as a question in individualism and identity as someone who is human, but whose body and mind are symbiotically connected to sentient moss that is considered a more advanced and more intelligent life form. Gardner invites the reader to question where one being ends and the other begins. In addition, Gardner brings attention to questions of identity and individuality by presenting us with the Mandasars, a race of beings that have an insect-like relationship to authority and hierarchy. Their entire society is controlled by their queen through pheromones that immediately overpower most of their sense of will, and, additionally, each of the Mandasar social/biological subsets needs to be in contact with the other two subsets or they will change their personalities – for example, workers kept amongst workers will become so complacent that they become slavish and warriors kept among warriors will become more war-like and violent, and gentles will become sociopathic individuals who privilege science over anything else.
Hunted plays with ideas of identity and examines the barriers of individualism while illustrating that those barriers are not as firm as we like to believe.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision is a tale of found families across space. Esen is the past of her species, the final member of her Web. This could leave her isolated and alone in a massive universe, but, instead, she finds a human companion, Paul, who bridges the species divide and proves that friendships can be incredibly powerful.
Czerneda focuses her space opera on the ability of people to create family even out of the completely alien and challenges ideas of family that are limited to biological or legal relations. This is a friendship that not only survives the species divide, but survives war, intrigue, lies, and torture.
Changing Vision is a tale of diplomacy in the face of warring species that deny the sentience of each other, espionage, xenophobia, and space battle, but it’s quintessence is the power of cross-species friendships as ways to create family and a sense of home for an alien shapeshifter who at times feels like she has neither as the last member of her species.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s “Beholder’s Eye” (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In Beholder’s Eye, Julie Czerneda explores the possibilities of consciousness in varying shapes and forms. From pig-like creatures who communicate by clicking their hooves and by emoting smells to canid-like beings, to large cat-like beings, to a puddle of goo, Czerneda explores the diversity of bodily possibilities and envisions their impact on consciousness and culture. She examines the impact of herd mentalities on sentient life forms, and the pull of herd instinct along with conscious thought, and envisions possibilities for sensory differences and the intellectual possibilities that come from sensory diversity. As always, communication is key to Czerneda’s narratives and she explores cross-species interactions and cross-pollination of ideas within different environments.
Beholder’s Eye focusses on the narrative of Esen-alit-Quar, a member of an extremely rare shape-shifting species in a universe that doesn’t believe that there are shape-shifters. Esen can take on the form of any sentient being and Czerneda uses this ability of her character to bring the audience into multiple different possibilities for consciousness and it’s relationship to the body. Czerneda often has a fascination with ecosystems and the diversity of life, so a creature that shifts into multiple shapes allows for her to take the reader through an examination of what consciousness could mean as well as allowing us to imagine the way that different bodily forms and ecosystems could produce different cultures.
Esen-alit-Quar is not only the perfect figure for examining the relationship between body and culture because of her ability to shape-shift, but also because of her species imperative to preserve the memories of sentient beings and sample their cultures. She is the ultimate anthropologist, able to not just study a culture from the outside, but shift her body to examine it as an insider.
With Beholder’s Eye, Czerneda not only creates a fun galaxy-spanning science fiction story, she creates speculative anthropology, bringing her readers into an exploration of cultures, bodies, and potentialities.