Category Archives: Fiction

Book Review: Druid’s Portal by Cindy Tomamichel

Druid's Portal: The First Journey (Druid's Portal, #1)Druid’s Portal: The First Journey by Cindy Tomamichel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually read time travel romance but I have heard that it is a full-fledged genre. I think the main reason it doesn’t generally appeal to me is the thought of having to live, as a woman, in a pre-feminist era. I don’t think any love story would be worth that. But perhaps the better examples of the genre manage to find a way around or through this problem. Druid’s Portal does.

The protagonist, Janet, is a history professor who knows a great deal about Celtic lore and the druids. I found this aspect of the book to be quite interesting and extensively researched. I had tended to think of druids as benign priests of nature, but the author here shows that their legends and lore have a dark side. She also invokes a deity, Bridgette, who takes the souls of humans who use the time-travel portal more than 3 times and for their own gain. Bridgette makes a powerful villain, but I have not been able to find anything about her in a cursory internet search. The closest that I have come is to reading about the Goddess Brigid, who, according to wikipedia is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and smithcraft. This Brigid too seems like she could be a good, rather than destructive presence.

As the book opens, Janet is grieving the loss of her fiancee, Damon, who was abusive while they were together and who abruptly ended their engagement. She knows she is better off without him, but misses him nonetheless. After a break-in in the museum where she works, Janet finds an artifact that serves as a portal back to Roman times. She doesn’t realize at first that that is what it is, and suffers from what she believes are hallucinations of a Roman soldier in battle. This soldier turns out to be Trajan, eventually her love and partner.

The obstacles to Janet and Trajan getting together are mostly external and circumstantial. First Janet has to believe that he is real and that she can travel back in time. Then she has to actually do so, and find a way to survive in Roman Britain. This is made exponentially easier for her when the soldiers she encounters, Trajan included, think she is a goddess when she appears. Being seen as a goddess exempts Janet from a lot of the indignities that a regular Roman or Celtic woman would have had to endure. No one takes advantage of her while she and Trajan are on the run, and she soon finds a job working in a bath house where the men are friendly and flirtatious, but they still don’t take advantage of her.

She then comes up with a wild plan to help Trajan with his intelligence gathering for the Roman army, and they pose as minstrels visiting nearby towns. This expedition too, like working in the bath house, seems like a fun romp at first, and Janet and Trajan engage in hot, gracefully written, physical relations while they are out being minstrels. Their idyll comes to an abrupt end when they are found out by the enemy, and when Janet’s ex-fiancee Damon starts stalking them.

Trajan is an appealing, if somewhat unrealistic, character. The author sets him up as a simple but honorable man in contrast to Damon’s scheming and conniving persona. Janet and Trajan are able to communicate easily because Janet is fluent in Latin, and she tells Trajan stories about the future, stories that he is surprisingly accepting of. Some of the most poignant moments in the novel come when Janet is thinking about the parallels between her life and Trajan’s, and also about what makes them different. He is in his early-to-mid 30’s, presumably like she is, and she thinks at one point that he only has about 10 good years left if he stays in his own time. He had a wife and baby son years ago when he was young, but they were killed. Janet also tells him about how she and her museum colleagues study skeletons and remains of people from his time. This creeps him out and she feels bad about it. The decision to bring him back with her to her own time is easily made and accepted by both of them.

This is where Damon and Bridgette come in–to keep the lovers apart. Damon’s will to power is reasonably well drawn and believable, but we could have used a bit more backstory. It seems somewhat crazy that he would sacrifice his soul to Bridgette’s “dark creatures” when the payoff is so murky. He hopes to change history, but it is not completely clear what he would change it to and especially why. Janet simply wants a happy life with Trajan in her own time. Her journey could be viewed metaphorically as a wounded woman’s healing from the scars of an abusive relationship, and I especially enjoyed reading the novel from that perspective. (However, the reader should not take this novel as saying that you have to go back to ancient Rome to find a decent man!)

This is the first book in a series and I would gladly read the next ones. But I’m a sucker for happy endings, history, and pretty much anything having to do with pre-Christian England. If time-travel romance is something that appeals to you, through the Druid’s Portal is a good place to go.
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Book Review: Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

Stormwielder  (The Sword of Light #1)Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a promising debut novel. The construction and characterization are not seamless, but it held my attention until the end. I have read another of the author’s books, set in modern times, and overall I liked this one better.

Where I think the author’s writing especially shines is in coming up with plot developments that make sense and move the action forward. The story is fast paced and never gets bogged down. The battle and action scenes are well written and enjoyable but also skimmable if you get tired of that sort of thing after a while, the way I do.

A character whose magic is too strong for him to control so that he unwittingly commits terrible deeds is an intriguing premise. This would have been a good setup for the development of a dark wizard. That Eric doesn’t go that way, but is actually led towards redemption, could be a very powerful character arc. That potential is largely unrealized in this novel. Eric learns to control his magic pretty easily and quickly once he meets up with Alastair, and never looks back.

In general the relationships between Eric and Alastair and Eric and Inken are pleasant to read but I think they could have used more development. If a story is going to start with magic so strong out of control that it burns down an entire village, murdering dozens if not hundreds of people, it is going to have to take more than a week or two and a few lessons for the magicker to learn to control that magic. A more drawn-out and suspenseful learning curve would have also given us more opportunity to learn about the history of the world and the magical system.

This book almost seemed like 2 stories, stuck uncomfortably together. The first deals with Eric, his magic, and the fallout from his destroying Gabriel’s village. It is basically an origin story for Eric. The second is when the real quest begins, to save the world from Archon. I liked both stories but found them a little thin in this format. I hope that in future installments Eric’s past comes back to haunt him and provide some further conflict.
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Mundane Monday: Embassy Suites

I was out with my husband finding some geocaches near a creek in Milpitas for my daily streak (830 days as of this writing), and spotted this building in the distance.

The way the light shines on it through the clouds, the green hills around it, the dome, the river, the mist, all this made me think it might be something special. Maybe some rich Silicon Valley millionaire’s villa, or a folly building like a mini Hearst Castle. A winery? A high school? A museum?

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It turns out it’s an Embassy Suites hotel. I’ve never stayed there, but yeah, it looks nice.

The Mundane Monday Challenge is under new ownership. Check it out at K Ottaway’s Rural Mad as Hell Blog.

Book Review: The Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

The Silver OptionThe Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

Vampire novels are not my usual genre, but I did read Twilight years ago along with my then-tweenage daughter. The Silver Option is much smarter, but less creepy-romantic. There is also no need here to wade through pages of bloated purple prose to get to the good parts.

Lasky’s writing is snappy and witty. She gives her characters fresh voices and manages to make the existence of vampires believable in fin-de-siècle Cincinnati without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Her explanation of vampire biology was very smooth. I don’t know if she writes science fiction, but I think she would be good at it.

The first half of this book is excellently paced, and I enjoyed Jeff’s initial attempts to hide his vampire nature from Roxanne. The scenes told from his point of view created a believable alien/vampire mindset. Jeff’s behavior was a good simile for the self-conscious stage play that is modern dating. I also didn’t mind knowing before the characters did why Roxanne turned. The description of her turning was both eerie and matter-of-fact. It was a delicious irony that Roxanne handled vampire-hood so much better than Jeff.

The death of Tiffany tripped me up. The situation in which Roxanne uses her vampire nature to seek revenge on rapey douchebags has a lot of potential, but that potential was underutilized. Tiffany’s character deserved better, and the fact that Roxanne played a role in her death, however unintentional, undermined the argument that Roxanne had a good handle on this whole vampire thing. I won’t spoil the ending but I found it a little abrupt. It was almost a relief to get back inside Jeff’s head again.

That is a minor quibble, however. The Silver Option is a fun read, even for readers who may not think they like vampires.

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Film Review: Tomb Raider

This film could be called “white woman’s burden.” It mirrors social progress in a number of ways, and in others shows how far we still have to go, especially in this genre. I haven’t seen the original Angelina Jolie version of Tomb Raider, and I don’t play the Lara Croft video games, so I’m coming to this review as an outsider. My husband likes blockbuster adventure movies and superhero movies and I often do too. This one seemed like a blend of Batman and Wonder Woman with a little Isak Dinesen thrown in.

A real character?

Alicia Vikander is compelling in the lead role and is fun to watch. While that is certainly progress from Lara Croft’s origins as a character so top-heavy you wonder how she could possibly haul that chest out of bed, let alone up the side of a cliff, it’s a rather low bar to clear.

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This film starts out appearing to give her a genuine character arc. She is shown full of braggadocio and naiveté in equal measure. That she’s realistically tough in the boxing ring and fast on a bike make some of her later stunts a little less Mary-Sue-ish. And it makes sense that a poor little rich girl with more bravery than sense would get taken advantage of by muggers in Hong Kong.

Disappointing Men

But the other characters, especially the men, are disappointing. Lu Ren, who takes Lara by boat to the remote island where their fathers both disappeared, could be a much more multifaceted character than he is. He too has lost his father in mysterious circumstances and is apparently suffering from depression and alcoholism. He nonetheless survives a disastrous shipwreck, shrugs off being shot in the shoulder, and bounces back from a direct blow to the face to become a handy sidekick and helper when Lara needs him most. He spends most of the film taking this sort of abuse, sometimes for laughs. Daniel Wu, who plays Lu Ren, is a charismatic, famous actor in China, and deserves better. Some actual chemistry between these two characters would have gone a long way.

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Sprout

Her father, Richard Croft, starts out more promising. Appearing to have lost his fragile grip on reality, at first he thinks he is hallucinating when he sees Lara on the island. But the flashbacks that show their relationship are saccharine-sweet and confusing in their timeline.  The camera lingers on a goodbye scene between Richard a roughly 8-year-old Lara, to the point that it makes you think that that must have been when he disappeared. Which would make the current Lara all of 16 . . . but wait . . . she’s really 21.  When teenage Lara finally shows up in the final flashback, it’s redundant.

Her relationship with her father seems to consist solely of his leaving and promising to come back. And surely an eccentric, slightly mad, grief-stricken billionaire titan of industry could have come up with a better nickname for his daughter than “Sprout.” I was reminded for some reason of an underwhelming scene between a young Tony Stark and his father. Superhero movies are obsessed with parents, particularly fathers, yet they never seem to understand, or be able to dramatize, what kids really need from these figures.

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Several times during the movie, it is hinted that Richard might actually be mad, or at least that his mental health has been compromised by grief and isolation. It is further suggested that Lara herself is skeptical about her father’s quest but blinded by her love and respect for him. That she shares this skepticism with Lu Ren and with the antagonist, Mathias Vogel, could have made for some gripping psychological mind games as the legends of Himiko are explored during the climax. But this opportunity too is squandered.

The fruits of privilege

This iteration of Tomb Raider proves that women can be believable, relatable action heroes, something that was actually in question 30 years ago. But this female hero has only gotten as far as Bruce Wayne and Charles Xavier before her. A rich, privileged white person uses the fruits of that privilege to fight villains that look like herself and grapple with the ugly legacy of colonialism. The modern Lara Croft is a breakthrough character for white women, maybe, but not for the majority of the human race.

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This movie, thankfully, doesn’t take itself all that seriously. This is what saves it from being a self-important mess. At one point, as Lara’s situation gets even more dire, she looks at the camera and says “Really?”

We would all do well to watch this film in that spirit.

Check out my review, and others, on MovieBabble!

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time

The book by Madeleine L’Engle on which this movie was based was one of my childhood favorites. I looked forward to the film eagerly because I wanted to see a gifted director do justice to the material. I thought that many of the changes were promising updates for modern audiences, able to bring the book’s uplifting message of love to more people.

On an even more personal note, my still-unfinished novel, Hallie’s Cache, was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories, a misfit young teen girl looks for her missing father and grows into herself in the process. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected from 26 publishers before going on to win the Newberry Medal and become one of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century. There has been a previous attempt at making a movie out of this material in 2003, with mixed success. It has always defied categorization: is it for adults or children? Is it fantasy or science fiction? Is it too Christian or not Christian enough?

After watching the current version, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to make a good movie out of this book. The director, Ava Duvernay, did everything right: she assembled a great cast and approached the project with care, respect, and a wide open vision. And I enjoyed it on its own terms; I identified with Meg and her teenage problems. I found Storm Reid to be an appealing and relatable actress. I rooted for her and her friends to save her father. I loved the trippy visuals, the costumes, the animations. I even cried for the brokenness in the world, as gently as it was portrayed, and cheered for the family’s reunion. But it wasn’t the story that packed the emotional punch that I remembered and loved all these years. Opening to mixed reviews and eclipsed at the box office, it is likely to remembered, if at all, as a footnote to Duvernay’s career.

As much as I hate to admit this about a childhood favorite book, the problem is likely not with the filmmakers, but with the source material. Written in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is of a particular time and place. The book’s characters are all European-Americans, redheads or mousy-brown-haired with Anglo-sounding names like Charles Wallace and Dennys (who, with his twin brother, is wholly absent from this movie). It famously opens with the Bulwer-Lytton cliche: “It was a dark and stormy night,” as Meg watches a thunderstorm from her lonely, cluttered attic room. For these reasons, and because of the three witches, the gossip about Mr Murry’s disappearance, and the neighbor’s sheets drying on the line, I had always pictured it taking place in an eccentric, secretive New England small town–a small town with a dark side like the ones that L’Engle herself, and her contemporary Shirley Jackson, lived in and raised their families.

Bringing this story out into the bright Southern California sunshine as this movie did took too much of the edge off. Certainly there are edgy areas of Southern California too, but we didn’t see those. The Murrys’ home is gorgeous and spacious. The middle school Meg attends is a well-resourced model of ethnic diversity headed by principal of color who is a three-time science teacher of the year award winner. This muddies the rationale for why Meg is bullied by the other students. In the book, Charles Wallace is an odd prodigy, perhaps a savant on the autism spectrum although that was not understood at the time the book was written, and Meg gets in trouble at school for defending him from bullies. She is thereby always his protector, and her actions at the end of the book, when her fierce love saves Charles Wallace from IT’s clutches, are perfectly in character and make emotional sense.

In the movie on the other hand, Charles Wallace is still a prodigy, but he appears quite well tolerated, happy, and self-contained, and he doesn’t need Meg to protect him. If anything, he is the one protecting Meg. Meg’s outcast status is instead attributed to her father’s disappearance. But in present day California, with so many children being raised by single parents and blended families, her father’s disappearance would not be the scandal it was in 1962. Her loneliness can and does lead her to act out further, but it is a feeble justification for her school situation as depicted here.

Details of what happened on Camazotz are also compressed in the movie. The book’s depiction of Camazotz, the planet that has given in to evil, gives off a sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic banality. Complete conformity to a 1950s suburban nuclear family ideal is expected, and outsiders’ food turns to dust in their mouths. “IT,” the master controller, appears in the book as a disembodied brain on a dais. IT appeals to Charles Wallace and seduces him to ITs side because of ITs ability to control and impose order on messy human impulses. IT was a metaphor for the tyranny of a society that values and runs on brains and intellect alone and disregards love. That in the book there are two battles against IT and that Meg must make the decision on her own to return to Camazotz and rescue Charles Wallace compound the sense of foreboding and dread, as well as making Meg’s triumph sweeter and more meaningful when she does ultimately rescue him.

The movie, however, shows little of Camazotz; the scene with the kids bouncing balls in unison seems like a confusing non-sequitur rather than a Potemkin village masking the fear and desperation of the populace. After her father and Calvin are defeated, Meg is forced immediately into lonely battle with IT. This battle scene was disappointing. Some of the creepy tree-like things with branches might have supposed to have been neurons with dendritic trees, but the overall connection of the movie’s IT to an emotionless, loveless, disembodied brain capable of the ultimate in mind control was weak.

The rescue scene itself focused too much on whether Meg herself was lovable in spite of her faults and not enough on the transforming power of Meg’s sacrificial love for Charles Wallace. The book is unapologetically Christian in outlook, reflecting L’Engle’s own Christian faith and naming Jesus as one of the warriors against the darkness that enveloped Camazotz. I believe that L’Engle intended Meg’s love for Charles Wallace here to be selfless and Christlike, yet her Christian imagery and references have been dropped from the movie, to its detriment. Mrs. Who quotes and references many world religions; Christianity could have been included there. And why not acknowledge Jesus’ role, and the role of faith for many Christians, in fighting evil? True to her character, the scientist Meg would likely remain skeptical, and that would be okay too. Warriors can come from all faith traditions, and from no faith tradition.

The other big problem with this story is the science, the so-called “Wrinkle in Time” itself, known in both the movie and the book as a tesseract. Back in 1962 at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when the theory of relativity was new and humans hadn’t yet gone to the moon, the idea that you could bend space-time with your mind by “tuning” it to the right frequency might have been a little more believable than it is now. There is a scene in the movie in which Dr. Murry is shown giving a seminar about how tessering works. Jeers and guffaws of disbelief come from the audience; as well they would in real life. He sounds like a New Age motivational speaker in the tradition of Werner Erhard, or a trickster like Uri Geller.

I still remember when an annoying boy in my physics class explained to me what a tesseract “really” was: a cube within a cube, a projection of 4-dimensional space into 3 dimensions the way the drawing of a cube on paper as a square within a square was a projection of 3-dimensional space onto 2. There was nothing about wormholes or traveling 93 million miles with just your mind. Talk about disappointing! It wouldn’t have taken much to give Dr. Murry in the film a high-tech device that would make tessering possible, or some novel psi powers based on his and his wife’s research. These would have to be hand-wavey and entirely fictional of course, but good shows have been based on less. What doesn’t work is asking us to accept that New Age mumbo-jumbo somehow became true for this family because they “believed in themselves.”

As a smart girl who was interested in science, I believed too long in this book’s oversimplified and inaccurate version of how science works. Meg’s parents worked together in a homemade lab; when her father disappeared, her mother continued her experiments in the kitchen, bunsen burner on one counter, soup on the other. There was no mention of grants, funding, students, safety regulations, collaboration outside the family unit, or even publication. It’s a more romantic and family-friendly vision of doing science than has ever actually existed. Perhaps this vision was inspired by the real-life Curies, French Nobel Laureates Marie and Pierre and their children, who discovered radioactivity; yet their work had a visible dark side. Modern science is safer for its practitioners, and it is more open and collaborative than either what the Curies experienced or L’Engle’s vision. It is also more expensive and more technical, and requires more energy and perseverance than romantic genius for success. A film that wants to inspire young people in science in the 21st century would do well to tell a more accurate story about the scientific process. This film drops that ball completely.

I hope this movie inspires its young audience, but sadly, I don’t believe it’s memorable enough for that.

Thursday Doors: Clarion West

This is not the door to the actual Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle. I attended that workshop in 1987 just after I graduated from college and before I went to graduate school. I put writing away for a long time, studying neuroscience and raising a family. I’m not done with either of those activities, exactly, although I’m now an instructor with Science from Scientists rather than a graduate student, and my kids are teenagers. And I’m not done with writing either. No, I’m just starting back up.

This door belongs to the house of one of my Clarion classmates. Although we kept in sporadic touch after the workshop, attended a convention together, and still sent yearly holiday cards, I hadn’t seen her in person for about 25 years. In between then and now we had both gotten married, had kids, and pursued other interests.

When I moved back to CA I realized that she was not that far away; I could drive to her house in less than 2 hours. But it took more than 2 years for me to get the trip organized. Finally, my husband was on a big power trail geocaching trip, my son didn’t mind getting himself meals and was old enough to be left alone for a day, and so I went.

Door

We had an awesome time. I didn’t know that I would as I knocked at the very normal-looking door in the very normal-looking California suburb, but I suspected. With some friends–writers especially–time doesn’t pass the way you think.

Thursday doors is a weekly feature in which door lovers share their pictures from doors all around the world. Stop by Norm 2.0’s blog to say hello and see some of the others.

Book Review: 2022 (Percipience #1) by Ken Kroes

2022 (Percipience, #1)2022 by Ken Kroes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a thought-provoking, if flawed, book. I like near-future ecofiction and I like playing around in fiction with utopias, dystopias, and planned communities. Kroes’ ideas about these concepts are worth pursuing. How can you set up sustainable communities? Who pays for it? Who gets to (or has to) live there? How can you plan for these communities to last through what you expect will be a grim future? I wish more of the book had been devoted to questions like this.

I found the character development a little underwhelming. I didn’t believe Olivia would have been chosen for a top-secret microbiology project. Mikhail came across as a dork rather than an evil genius. It was almost comical that Diane and Olivia didn’t recognize the misnamed Hope before she burned down their trailer. And Spencer was completely mysterious to me–he seemed to just fit into whatever box the author needed at the moment: spy, dupe, model, love interest, puppy . . . None of the characters had a particularly unique voice, except for Sue, sometimes, which made the story periodically confusing, especially with all the head-hopping.

But simply viewing the characters as blank slates brings the reader up against the inconvenient truths the novel wants to examine: we humans are vulnerable and our behavior usually makes the problem worse. The institutions we expect to protect us, even the good guys, have their limits. And stress and danger make people do stupid, craven things. This book will stay with me longer than it deserves to based on the writing alone. It depicts is a future we want to avoid, made more frightening because it is populated by people who are so ordinary and banal.

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Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved.  Continue reading Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

Book Review: 2047, Short Stories from Our Common Future, edited by Tanja Bisgaard

2047 Short stories from Our Common Future2047 Short stories from Our Common Future by Tanja Rohini Bisgaard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is only the second collection of short stories that I am reviewing on this blog (here’s the first), and again I am finding the process unexpectedly challenging. All the short stories I try to write myself turn into novels, and I prefer to read novels. So maybe short story collections just aren’t my thing.

With that warning, I’d still highly recommend this book. I found it in a Facebook group for Cli-Fi authors, where the book’s editor, author Tanja Rohini Bisgaard, posts. And I’m surprised there aren’t more story collections like this competing for reviewer eyes and space. The variety of stories is broad, and the opening story, Still Waters by Kimberly Christensen, about the beaching suicide of a pod of whales in Puget Sound, which mirrors the disintegration of the protagonists’ relationship and their very lives, packs a huge emotional punch. I was worn out after reading it and I wasn’t sure that any of the other stories in the collection could match it. I was right; none of them did.

Puget Sound, 2017
Puget Sound, 2017

The rest are of more uneven quality, and all the choices are slanted towards North America and Europe (Bisgaard currently lives in Denmark), but the stories cover a wide range of protagonist ages, genders, professions, and voices, and an even wider range of consequences in the worlds imagined. Bisgaard’s own story, The Outcast Gem, is a moving tale of two sisters, one consigned to a shadow life as the consequence of a European one-child policy. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in Oakridge Train by Alison Haldermaand, a story about a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time, but it didn’t. The people in that story actually seemed happy, and their world on the mend.

Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Other stories that I particularly enjoyed included Driftplastic by John A Frochio, about an artist who works with plastic trash as his medium, and Dear Henry by David Zetland, told entirely as a series of letters from one Henry H Sisson to the next, starting back in 1880. The last story, Willoy’s Launch by LX Nishimoto, about the CEO of a company that created intelligent, potentially world-saving, service robots, was kind of confusing to me. I didn’t always understand what was happening during the action sequences, or how Willoy was saving the world by holding down a button at the end. It’s good to end the book on a positive note, though, and I could totally see it as a movie.

That was perhaps my favorite aspect of this collection, and why it worked so well despite its flaws: it wasn’t all grim dystopia, there was little-to-no gratuitous violence, and a significant number of the protagonists were women. This collection is a creative mix that invites the reader to step into the minds and worlds of the characters, not merely watch and be entertained.

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