NPR Review: CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell

My review of Rainbow Rowell’s first fantasy novel, Carry On, is up at NPR Books!

I’ve been looking forward to this for months, and it more than lived up to my expectations. Also it gave me the opportunity to link — FROM NPR! — to my favourite Harry Potter fanfic of all time: Blood Magic by GatewayGirl, which, if you’ve not read, do read. It’s wonderful enough that when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out I was super confused because it was contradicting things I’d absorbed as canon from Blood Magic, because it was just. That. Good.

But, right, Carry On!

As a stand-alone book separated from its context, Carry On is wildly fun, deliciously readable, immersive and compulsive as good fan fiction is. It has a magic system that’s all elegant simplicity and that forms a smooth, easy background for the main event of character dialogue and interaction. As she did in Eleanor & Park, Rowell will frequently shift points of view within a scene to show how two people are experiencing either side of a conversation — which is especially effective and engaging in Simon and Basilton (Baz)’s scenes, as their rivalry grows into a complicated romance.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I devoured it. It sucked me in and delighted me even as its politics increasingly made me really uncomfortable. In fact I’m not even sure I can say “its politics” — I suspect what made me uncomfortable was more a lack of consideration for the implications of what was going on than any kind of outright message. But them’s spoilers, so I’ll just sit over here and wait until some other people have read it before I talk about those bits.


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Concluding Uncanny Year One: Poem + Podcast

Today marks the online release of the last bit of Uncanny magazine’s Year One content and accompanying podcast! Episode 6B is a bit me-heavy, as I’m both reading a story and a poem (my own!) but I hope you’ll give it a listen all the same.

The story I’m reading is “Never Mind the Watching Ones” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli, and features glitterfrogs, unfulfilling sex, and teenage ennui. I loved reading it; I also loved learning that this story was originally intended for the Glitter & Mayhem anthology, which would have made Keffy and me ToC-mates! I’m glad to still get to be so in this issue of Uncanny.

The poem I’m reading is “Biting Tongues,” which I wrote initially at Nisi Shawl’s request for The WisCon Chronicles (Vol 5): Writing and Racial Identity. It’s a bit of a love letter to my experience of WisCon, in particular to the one where Mary Anne Mohanraj was one of the Guests of Honour and gave a speech that I still think about with gratitude and respect. This is the poem’s first appearance online.

The podcast also includes a really charming interview with Keffy, conducted by Dangerous Deborah Stanish.

I’m so proud of Uncanny — I really think its first year has been tremendous, and I continue to be grateful for how excellent everyone is to work with. Here’s to many more years! Onwards and upwards!


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Rocket Talk: Nesting Responses to The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Following my previous post on the subject, the latest episode of’s Rocket Talk podcast features Kameron Hurley and me talking with Justin Landon about The Traitor Baru Cormorant and the discussion surrounding its representation of queerness. Says Justin:

Recently released from Tor, Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant has spawned a multitude of reactions across the genre community. Amal El-Mohtar and Kameron Hurley join Justin on Rocket Talk to discuss how this response reflects a larger conversation: how has social media and online book discussion impacted how we engage one another in dialogue about the things we love? It’s an honest and riveting conversation that doesn’t shy from controversial subjects.

I had a fantastic time talking with them. Also, since the episode went live, Heather Rose Jones listened to it and weighed in with a fantastic series of tweets fleshing out the history and types of Queer Tragedy in ways I was totally unfamiliar with. I highly recommend reading what she has to say, and am super grateful to her for sharing her knowledge on the subject.

I’m also glad, though, to be able to stand by my statement that The Traitor Baru Cormorant isn’t a Queer Tragedy Story even in the light of Jones’ expanded definition. But that said, Jones makes more excellent points: that we’re talking A LOT about this book, and that ironically even discussions about “who is allowed” to write queer stories can end up obscuring stories written by queer people, especially women.

That said — and this is not in contradiction of Jones, but in addition to her points — I think it’s also worthwhile to interrogate our assumptions about thinking of authors as being Straight Until Proven Otherwise. For reasons of Bisexual Erasure, for reasons of recognizing that people can be questioning, undecided, asexual, genderqueer, closeted, for reasons of just troubling heteronormativity in general. I know it’s hard to square this with a need to genuinely diversify our personal reading and our publishing environments — but I keep coming back to this brilliant article by Sofia Samatar (that I’ve not pointed to here before, that I need to discuss in more depth in its own right, blargh) that touches on how “the invisibility of a person is also the visibility of race”:

I’m interested in visibility as it relates to the lives and working conditions of academics of color, at a time when visibility has come to dominate discussions of race in U.S. universities to such an extent that it has made other frameworks for approaching difference virtually impossible. We speak of diversity, of representation. Diversity, unlike the work of anti-racism, can be represented visually through statistics. How many of X do you have? What percent? There is an obsession with seeing bodies that raises the ghosts of racial memory.

And further

Academics of color experience an enervating visibility, but it’s not simply that we’re part of a very small minority. We are also a desired minority, at least for appearance’s sake. University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity—in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic.

(Emphases mine.)

I flag these things up not to say that race and sexual orientation are equivalent and interchangeable categories (they’re absolutely not), nor that it isn’t hugely important to have stories about and by queer people published and publicised fully as much as stories about queer people written by non-queer people. I just want to draw attention to the fact that the most lauded way of getting to that point — discussing, celebrating, raising up the voices of queer people writing stories about queer people — has knock-on effects that ought to be kept in view while we work towards those goals. Those knock-on effects can and do include: limiting the stories queer people can tell; commodifying their experience; and placing pressure on queer authors to be visibly so.

I don’t even have answers to any of this, except to keep the conversation going, and to get the conversation to broaden, deepen, to be enriched with more people’s recommendations and perspectives.

To that end, I would really love if you could recommend, in comments (please in comments, not on Twitter, I’d love to just have them in one handily accessible place), books you’ve read and loved featuring queer protagonists written by queer people — especially if they’re books that are coming out soon.

Here are some of my own recs off the top of my head (a mix of novels, short story collections, and poetry collections that have fiction in them) and in no particular order, with links to reviews I’ve written of them, featuring queer protagonists written by queer people:

Hild by Nicola Griffith
Bodies in Motion by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Swordspoint and Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
by Malinda Lo
Scruffians! by Hal Duncan
The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum
The Orphan’s Tales duology by Catherynne Valente
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones
The Haunted Girl by Lisa Bradley
Ghost Signs by Sonya Taaffe

Here are some anthologies edited by at least one queer person and also featuring queer authors and characters in varying mixes (full disclosure: I have contributed to all of these, but have also read the full books and recommend them wholeheartedly):

Here, We Crossed Rose Lemberg
Kaleidoscope: Diverse Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, eds Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein
Glitter and Mayhem, eds Lynne Thomas, Michael D Thomas, and John Klima
Queers Destroy Science Fictioned Seanan McGuire

And here are some books I love featuring queer protagonists written by people whose sexual orientation I don’t know:

Touch by Claire North
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
My Real Children by Jo Walton
Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

and, of course — The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson.

Your own recs! I would love them please! Especially if I can put them on my lists to review! Feel free also to recommend your own works.

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My review of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant is up at NPR Books. This is a taste of it:

To read The Traitor Baru Cormorant is to sink inexorably into a book that should not be anywhere near as absorbing as it is — to realize that the white-knuckled grip with which you hold it was provoked by several consecutive pages of loans, taxes and commodity trading. It seems impossible that the economics of a fantasy world should be so viscerally riveting, but they are, and it’s incredible: You think you’re on solid ground right up until you feel that ground closing around your throat.

I wrote this review without having read any others (which is my preferred MO where reviewing books is concerned). Once I’d turned it in I read Foz Meadows’ take from early reading, and Liz Bourke‘s. (Both are spoilery.) Both critique aspects of the book’s world-building and its representation of homophobia and queerness. I disagree, respectfully and completely, with these critiques — as one might expect from someone who’s read the whole book seeing people offering up their experience of the first few chapters (which is a completely legitimate thing to do; both Meadows and Bourke clearly indicate how much of the book they’ve read and how These Are Not Reviews). Meanwhile, Kameron Hurley wrote a passionately personal review in support of the book, and Arkady Martine wrote a (super spoilery but fantastically thorough) engagement with it, with reservations, taking the whole of these conversations into account.

Un/Relatedly, all of us are queer.

This last part is really important to me, because I’ve been watching conversations emerging — mostly on Twitter, mostly subtweeting, mostly in fits and starts — trying to categorize responses to the book according to some sort of ticky-box taxonomy of readers. I find this utterly repellent. Some people will suggest that only queer people have problems with the book, ergo it must write queer people’s lives poorly; others will counter with “well, Amal liked the book,” as if that could be the last word on the subject; still others will try to parse whether it’s my Brownness or my Queerness that has shaped my response, in pursuit of some sort of One True Response to the book.

This is all the rankest bullshit. It’s also kind of Incrastic, which is ironic.

There are straight white people who didn’t like this book. There are straight white people who did. There are queer people who loved it, and hated it, and had problems with it. This is all fine and normal and okay. It’s insulting, and limiting, and degrading to look at these conversations and impressions as some kind of vote-tallying representing Queer Opinion or Brown Opinion in order to arrive at a monolithic pronouncement on Dickinson’s success or failure.

What you could do instead: listen to the people you trust, whose taste you know and understand and can measure against your own, in terms of what you want to read or not read.

I have enormous sympathy for bouncing off things, for knee-jerk responses to media. Fury Road left me feeling hollow and miserable. I can’t watch Breaking Bad. I literally, physically can’t. Four episodes in I felt the tension was going to damage me and I abandoned it and I am 100% happy to have done so. I have a ludicrously specific allergy to body-swap stories. I have a really hard time with horror, except when I don’t, and I’m still working on figuring out why that is.

If you don’t want to read about bad things happening to queer people I completely, totally understand. I get not wanting to be punched where you’re already bruised, and trying to figure out whether or not this book will do that. All power to you on making your decision based on the things people have said about it and your own self-knowledge and resources.

But please, leave off trying to sort responses based on people’s identities. All that does is make queer people who disliked the book afraid of speaking up, queer people who did like the book worried about whether or not they’re sufficiently queer for the conversation, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. As if consensus is the default not to be deviated from instead of a thing that sometimes happens. There is no One True Opinion to be had. There’s only the one that’s right for you.

Talking about books is one of the keenest pleasures I have in this world. It’s right up there with watching hummingbirds and lightning storms and drinking tea and going swimming. To really talk about a book, to have delved in or bounced off and try to figure out the hows and whys of our reading, where they matched up and where they diverged, is delicious to me. I love it.

I hate to see people feel afraid to do it.

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Down and Safe: Episode 9 – Phlegmatic Science Fiction


Rejoice and make merry, for there is a new episode of Down and Safe, the podcast in which Michael D Thomas, Liz M Myles, Scott Lynch and I discuss each episode of iconic British SF TV show Blake’s 7. Something I said made it into the title this time! THIS IS A TRIUMPH FOR ME!

Since I’m not actually sure that bit made it into the episode — I proposed organizing SF by classical humours rather than along the usual Mohs Scale of SF Hardness. “Hard” and “Soft” make no sense as metrics of SF variation! But the humours? Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Melancholic? AMAZE. And you can apply them to fantasy too!

I may try to expand that into a proper essay at some point instead of a throwaway (literally, THANKS LIZ, maybe?) bit of dubious wit on a podcast but that’s the gist.


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Embersong – Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours’ First Video

BACT video stillLast year, Rose Lemberg invited CSE Cooney, Caitlyn Paxson and myself — in our capacity as the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours — to write a song for her Kickstarted anthology, An Alphabet of Embers. We did so — and in May, we got together in Westerly, RI to frolic in a public park while wearing attractive fripperies.

Crow MaskWe had a lot of fun, often laughing helplessly while trying to look So Serious. The outtakes of this, should they ever surface, will be uproarious.

(They will never, ever surface.)

What was really cool about doing this video is that what we ended up with, vague-narrative-wise, was the reverse of what we thought we were doing: we didn’t have a solid story in mind, but tried to think of stuff that might look interesting or narrative-sparking in the vicinity of this park. So, ENORMOUSLY CHARISMATIC TREE STUMP, yes! Passing masks back and forth, absolutely! Grasping at straws in terms of making a visual story cohere with the song, MOST DEFINITELY! But somehow Magill Foote took our shaky camera phone footage and wizarded it into something I actually enjoy watching and listening to.

So here, for you, is the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours‘ first ever video offering, of an as-yet never-performed song. Caitlyn’s playing the harp arrangement she composed; melody and lyrics are by me; Caitlyn and I are singing. The crow mask belongs to Jessica Wick, who, along with Betsie Withey, did the actual filming and occasional directing of our shenanigans.

Really hoping we’ll get to do this together at a con sometime.


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NPR Books: STEP ASIDE, POPS by Kate Beaton

My review of Kate Beaton‘s new collection, Step Aside, Pops, appeared at NPR Books today. I read the book in Ottawa, started reviewing it in Halifax, and finished reviewing it in Glasgow, so it’s a well-travelled sort of thing.

Here’s a bit of what I thought of it:

There wasn’t a single strip in this collection I didn’t enjoy, whether with giggles, guffaws, or an amused nod of agreement — but I was especially impressed by Beaton’s capacity for teaching while being equal parts funny and considerate of her subjects. Included in Step Aside, Pops are sequences introducing the reader to Tom Longboat, an Onondaga distance runner who broke records and fought for Canada during WWI; Ida B. Wells, a black American journalist and early civil rights activist; and Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, the first Chinese-American woman to receive a commercial flying license in the U.S. Reading these strips I marveled over the fact that I’d never heard of these amazing people — but marveled more at the fact that Beaton managed to tell jokes while being fiercely respectful of their struggles and achievements.

In other news I mentioned MY HUSBAND in the review, and I am still grinning over it.

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My review column for Lightspeed magazine is available online today! I look at Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Max Gladstone’s Last First Snow, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine: Fandemonium, and Chuck Wendig’s Zer0es.

Here’s some thematic rationale:

We’re approaching the harvest time of year, and I’m thinking a great deal of roots and branches, literal and metaphorical: the depths and thirsts of growing things; heritage as both burden and inheritance; root servers; and the distances we bridge between past and future through the choices we make and the paths we pursue.

The following books partake of all these things; they’re also all utterly immersive, gripping as ivy, impossible to put down once begun. I recommend approaching them with caution and several hours to spare.

Worth noting: I turn the columns in about 2-3 months before they appear, so when I say “best book I’ve read so far this year” the cut-off point is somewhere in July. The reading doesn’t stop! It never stops! I’m really glad the books are so great.

In other reviewing news, I finished Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant recently (apparently The Traitor in the UK?), which comes out today, and it’s thoroughly, painfully brilliant; that review’s forthcoming from NPR Books sometime this week. Meantime you can read an excerpt of the novel here.


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Podcasts: PodCastle, Uncanny, Down and Safe

Podcasts! So many podcasts! Throwing my voice about like a ventriloquist! Also I feel a peculiar sort of glamour at being a jet-setting podcaster, Snowball mic in my hand luggage as I wheel across oceans and land masses in pursuit of shuttered windows and an absence of air conditioning…

I read “The Truth About Owls” for PodCastle. I’ve never recorded myself reading this story before; I did it in one take while in a hotel room in Montreal. I wish I could’ve sorted things out better to have more time with it, and mostly I have no idea how it turned out as I’ve not had a chance to listen back through it after edits. I hope it’s good. Either way it’s up at PodCastle and I’m so happy they let me read it. If you’d like you can share your thoughts about it in the forums.

unicorn_finalSecond: I read Rose Lemberg’s poem “A Riddler at Market” for Uncanny‘s podcast this month. Also join me in congratulating Uncanny for a successful Year 2 Kickstarter in which they reached all their stretch goals!

New Down and Safe! In which Michael, Liz, Scott and I discuss “Project Avalon” and Servalan continues to be my everything. Also I deserve a million points for recording this while my shiny new husband was in the room with me and NOT MENTIONING HIM AT ALL until the very end and even then, not very shmoopily.

So, you know. Witness me.

That’s it for now — looking forward to recording another poem, story, and discussion in the coming week. THE GLAMOUR!


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Catching up on rather a lot of work post-wedding and honeymoon! Here’s a double bill of brilliant fantasy debuts I’ve recently read and reviewed for NPR Books.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho 

Absolutely everything about this book is delightful. I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy novel that made me laugh so much — and as often as I laughed, I gasped, I shouted rude words at offending characters, and just generally fell over myself with admiration for Cho’s dextrous depiction of Regency manners and wit. Watching Zacharias seethe with vicious politeness at his enemies while being helplessly buffeted by Prunella’s well-intentioned ambitions is a splendid treasure, and I outright marvel at Cho’s ability to beleaguer and beset a patient man with a kitchen sink’s worth of perilously stacked difficulties.

Updraft by Fran Wilde

You’d be forgiven for thinking…that Updraft
suffers from Capital Noun Syndrome, a common complaint of secondary world stories — but in spite of Towers, Laws, Singers, it genuinely doesn’t. Each of these things is wholly surprising in the context of the world-building: the organic nature of the Towers, the tangibility of Laws and the consequences for those who break them, the layers of significance among the Singers, all combine into one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve read this year.

I’m just so impressed by these books and their authors! Both Zen Cho and Fran Wilde are accomplished short fiction writers as well; Cho has a collection called Spirits Abroad (which I have but have not yet read) and Wilde has a short story set in the same world as Updraft here.


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