October 27, 2021

Book review: The Hand of the Sun King (Pact and Pattern #1), by J.T. Greathouse

The Hand of the Sun King (Pact and Pattern #1), by J.T. Greathouse

The official My name is Wen Alder. My name is Foolish Cur.

All my life, I have been torn between two legacies: that of my father, whose roots trace back to the right hand of the Emperor. That of my mother's family, who reject the oppressive Empire and embrace the resistance.

I can choose between them - between protecting my family, or protecting my people - or I can search out a better path . . . a magical path, filled with secrets, unbound by empire or resistance, which could shake my world to its very foundation.

But my search for freedom will entangle me in a war between the gods themselves . . .

The Hand of the Sun King is a complex and beautifully written fantasy novel, the first in a series, about Wen Alder, a young man blessed with a great talent for magic and also a great talent for getting himself (and others) into trouble. We follow him from childhood as he tries to find his way in the world, navigating between the two main influences on his life: the Empire and its magic, represented by his father's side of the family; and the rebels who use an older form of magic and who oppose the Empire, represented by his mother's side of the family and in particular by his grandmother. (His grandmother is the one who gives him his other name, Foolish Cur, which describes him to a T for much of his life.)

These conflicted loyalties pull Alder in two opposing direction, and the defining struggle of Alder's life is his quest to not just find a middle way between the empire and the rebellion, but to find a different kind of magic between the two. As a child, he first learns his people's traditional magic from his grandmother. Later he ends up serving the Empire, honing his skills in the school of magic his father once attended. Though he is no blithe follower of the empire, his ambition still leads him to do the empire's work, even as he also continues to search for what he hopes will be a different magical path. In the end, Alder's choices have calamitous and violent repercussions for those around him and himself.

Greathouse creates a grand and intriguing world in this book. The depth and detail of the magic system, the various ways that people in the empire use and access magic, are fascinating. Many different peoples and many different kinds of magic exist under the rule of the emperor and I like how Greathouse describes a system of magic that reflects the political reality of colonization. The empire colonizes, uses, and abuses both people and resources to maintain and grow its own power and influence and they do the same with magic. Politics and magic are intertwined in ways that make Alder's quest a dangerous and radically political act on several levels.

On a personal level, beyond the politics, Alder is a person who is obsessed with magic and how to use it. He revels in it, loves it, obsesses over it and he is truly a powerful wielder of magic, though through much of the book, he has to learn the hard way how to use magic without destroying himself in the process. 

As good as Alder is at using magic, this is definitely not a simple story about One Good and Perfect Hero. One of the things I really appreciate about this book is that Alder is deeply flawed. His ambition and his pride often make him do rash, ill-advised, and even terrible things, hurting himself and others in the process. He has a hard time understanding just how frightening his power, and his personality, might seem to others.

Greathouse is an excellent writer, and I love how he gives us time to get to know Alder and his world, revealing the layers of the world, the characters, and the ways of magic, before ratcheting up the tension in the second half of the story as Alder and his existence are torn apart in harrowing fashion.  

The story ends with a mind-blowing bang that upends everything we've come to understand about the world so far. At the end we're also introduced to a new set of powerful characters, and I can't wait to see where Greathouse takes this story in the next book.

Buy The Hand of the Sun King.


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October 11, 2021

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for September, 2021

The art for this roundup contains a detail of Julie Dillon's cover for Uncanny Magazine #42. More about the artist: https://www.juliedillonart.com/

For more recent short fiction picks by me, check out my latest Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons.

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


What Remains to Wake by Jordan Taylor in The Deadlands #5

If you read that Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons, which was all about speculative fiction that twists and turns fairytales and folktales into something new, you'll understand why I absolutely adore this evocative, strange, and chilling tale that is deeply rooted in the world of fairytales. Taylor's story is told from a place beyond death, and our point of view is a dead (or, almost dead) princess. Once upon a time, when she was born, a wise woman saw the terrible fate that awaited her. As such things go in fairytales, the wise woman knew the fate could not be avoided, but she tried to change the way it would play out. The result was not exactly a happily ever after. Instead, the result was a princess, buried in the woods, becoming part of the forest itself:

Spiders’ webs stitch shut her lips. Dirt weights her eyelids. Her hair has long turned to mold and leaves. The forest shifts around her, cycling through the seasons. She thaws. She freezes.

She sleeps.

Her roots tangle with those of the trees.

It is a dark, yet luminous, magical tale, and another outstanding piece of fiction from The Deadlands.


If the Martians Have Magic by P. Djèlí Clark in Uncanny Magazine

Martian invasion stories is a classic subject for science fiction. Here, Clark uses it to spin a tale that blends political intrigue, spiritual and magical connections, and the complexities of alien-human communication into a riveting adventure. We find ourselves in an alternate version of  Marrakesh where Minette, a Mambo, used to negotiating with the powerful loa, is trying to find a way to broker a deal that will ensure the life, and freedom, of a group of Martians, left behind on Earth after the third Martian war. Clark is a master storyteller, creating vivid characters that must navigate a complex world where magic and technology are interwoven. I love how he draws you in to the tale's rich, vivid world and also makes you feel that this world extends far beyond the edges of the story itself.

Mulberry and Owl by Aliette de Bodard in Uncanny Magazine

This is an outstanding new Xuya story from de Bodard. (You can read more about the Universe of Xuya on de Bodard's website, but the short intro is: "Xuya is a series of novellas and short stories set in a timeline where Asia became dominant, and where the space age has Confucian galactic empires of Vietnamese and Chinese inspiration: scholars administrate planets, and sentient spaceships are part of familial lineages".) "Mulberry and Owl" delves deep into the complex realities of friendship, love, loyalty, and revenge, as well as the often devastating personal costs of rebellion. The story intertwines two storylines, past and present. In the present, Thuỷ goes looking for a dreadful enemy in a remote and dangerous part of space. In the past, we follow Thuỷ before she lost her friend and companion Kim Lan, when they were part of a group rebelling against the empire. de Bodard writes a tale where the sense of grief and loss, and the desire for vengeance, are drawn with delicate precision, and I love how she captures the grand, dizzying scope of history, empire, and space itself in such an intimate story.

The Giants of the Violet Sea by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Uncanny Magazine

A gripping science fiction / murder mystery set on a distant planet where humans from the Mediterranean once settled after leaving Earth. Themis returns to the community where she grew up, the community where her mother still lives and where her brother lost his life while swimming with the mysterious sea-creatures called venedolphins. As she tries to uncover the truth about what happened to her brother, she soon realizes that secrets lurk everywhere, and that many things (and many people) are much different than she previously believed. One of the many things I love about this story is how it explores Themis's complicated feelings around family, community, and identity, and the way we can sometimes feel a great need to leave the place where we grew up in order to see ourselves, and those around us, clearly.


Stones of Särdal by Karl Dandenell in Little Blue Marble

A quiet and resonant short story written as a presentation about a specific place on Earth-- in this case a building in a small community in southern Sweden--recorded to be included as part of the educational material on board a spaceship, headed away, far away, from our planet. I love the closeness and wistful vibe of this story, and the way it is both sweet and aching. Beautifully done.


Your Brother’s Touchstone by Isabel Lee in Luna Station Quarterly

A gripping story about the bond between two siblings and the capricious magic that threatens to tear them apart. Phillip, the younger brother, can disappear, seemingly winking out of reality without warning, only to appear again in another location. His sister is aware of his ability, but hasn't told anyone else. After a conversation with her aunt, she realizes that her brother's abilities may be even stranger and more powerful, and maybe more dangerous to him, than she previously thought. I love how this story keeps the actual mechanics of Phillip's ability somewhat enigmatic, and I love how it depicts the love, and the secrets, that can exist in a family that seems "normal" on the outside.


Black Wings, White Kheer by Rati Mehrotra at Podcastle (narrated by Suna Dasi)

Magic wings and magic food are two major parts of this beautiful story where a mother has to remember and deal with who she used to be, and who she might still want to be, in order to save her child. Mehrotra's story deftly explores the way motherhood sometimes seems to require that a woman sacrifices parts of herself in order to be a good mother. In the story, as in real life, that sense of needing to make yourself less than you are, safer and less complex, can come from outside or inside or both. It can be a powerful force and can make it difficult to feel like a whole person, no matter how much you love your family and your children. Mehrotra's story combines a sense of love and adventure with a darker streak and I loved that depth.


Eating Opium From a Silver Cereal Box by D.K. Latta in Speculative North #5

One of the stories in a very good issue of Canadian zine Speculative North. We follow a man on a long, lonely space mission. He is all by himself, far away from Earth and everyone he loves. The story is split between his time on the ship, experiencing the harsh reality of being alone with nothing but a computer for company; and between his time as he signs up for the job, before he fully knows what it entails. A sharp and incisive sci-fi story.


Every Next Day, by Rebecca Burton in Translunar Travelers Lounge

There's a brand new issue of Translunar Travelers Lounge in the world, and the whole issue is most certainly worth your time. That includes this wonderful story of family and identity and transformation by Burton. A mother disappears and the father grieves her passing as life changes for the child. At the end, there's a choice to be made, and I love how the story allows for the agony of that choice and the difficulty of finding your own way, and your own freedom, in the web of family bonds.


A Girl Forages for Mushrooms by Ruth Joffre in Flash Fiction Online

After her parents' divorce, a girl splits her time between her parents, spending a lot of time with her father. She can see how hard his life is, how he's trying to find a new foothold in the world, how he is getting thinner, more unkempt. And then, she finds out he's kept one secret, close to the skin. A deeply resonant, lyrical, and ultimately darkly surreal piece about grief and loss that captures a child's view and reactions perfectly. 


On the Spectrum by Justin C. Key in Many Worlds

In a society far in the future, a majority of humans are capable of telepathic communication, but not everyone is able to connect with others this way. These people are on the "Koinos spectrum" and can in some cases qualify for medical treatment in order to become "normal". Becoming part of the majority in this way seems both frightening and alluring to the narrator and his best friend. But what might you lose if you change such a fundamental part of yourself? And how might that affect the world around you? Key's story is deeply thought-provoking and it's part of an interesting new project spear-headed by author Cadwell Turnbull.

On Twitter, Turnbull called Many Worlds a short fiction project / writing collective, and "...a shared multiverse, co-created, co-owned, and co-governed by a collective of authors." More stories are forthcoming this fall!


A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse by Rachael K. Jones in Diabolical Plots

A harrowing and unsettling story about two children trying to survive in a bleak and terrifying post-apocalyptic world haunted by monsters called "the Ganglies". The Ganglies emerge, whenever and wherever, literally from the shadows, to devour the bones of whoever gets in their way. Jones makes ingenious use of the list story structure here, and the list of snack foods the two children sample along the way is charming and occasionally revolting. It's a story that twists and turns and then twists again as the children try to figure out how to survive the Ganglies.


Into the Sunset Eternal, by Tiffany Morris in Dose of Dread at Dread Stone Press

A sharp and jagged flash fiction tale of blood and sacrifice, and finding what you wished for in the most terrifying of places. Definite content warnings for self harm / suicide, but I really like how this story burrows deep into a place of personal pain and then drops the bottom out from under you as a gleam of cosmic horror peeks through.


A Bird in the Window By Kate Francia in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

"When I sat at prayer, the angels laughed at me from the windows of the chapel. I wandered through my thoughts like trees. Behind every tree an angel waited. They winked at me until I lost the path"

A gorgeously crafted story, where a mysterious, veiled woman has been brought to an abbey and becomes an object of interest and speculation for the nuns and novices. Marguerite, who has been sent to live in the abbey by her family because of her "wickedness" forges an unexpected connection with the mystery woman, who turns out to be quite different than Marguerite had imagined. Marguerite's "wickedness" is that she is haunted by angels and visions. She sees angels everywhere, and they are a strange and often terrifying presence in her life. Much to her surprise, the angels also cluster around the newcomer, though she does not seem to be able to see them. Francia's tale is both beautiful and moving and it comes to a brilliant conclusion as the world, and the angels, seem to close in on both Marguerite and her new friend.


Discontinuity by Jared Millet in Apex Magazine

A mindbending and dizzying science fiction story where a new way of faster-than-light space travel has been discovered. It's called "breaching", and while it works, it has some strange and frightening side effects. Those who travel space like this, risk losing their grip on their memories and reality, and some also suspect that reality itself is affected by the breaching. The story's protagonist, Lura Moraj, is piloting a spaceship on a vitally important mission, but her mind is becoming ever more troubled and fragmented as she breaches, again and again and again. As the story unfolds and we learn more about where Lura is going and why, we realize that what's at stake is something much bigger than just Lura's own sanity. It's a scifi story with a mysterious and grand vibe that gave me that awesome sense of vertigo I get from the best kind of science fiction.


All Us Ghosts by B. Pladek in Strange Horizons

The ghosts in this story are not supernatural creatures, rather, they are the people who write and perform roles inside virtual reality worlds created for rich people. Hired by big corporations, the "ghosts" are often poor and disadvantaged workers, eking out a living by creating the "right kind" of relationships and life experiences for the adolescents of wealthy families, helping shape them the way their families want them to be shaped. Jude, one of the "ghosts", has been writing and acting out friendships and romantic relationships for Cam, and their connection has become deeper and more complex than Jude would like to admit. When some of the ghosts get together to pressure the company they work for to get better working conditions, Cam and Jude's relationship becomes even more complicated. A great story with excellent characters, deepened by the way it shows how social and economic standing can influence intimate relationships.


The next two stories are from LampLight, and fair warning: I do have a story of my own in this issue. Maybe I am biased, but LampLight is a fantastic zine and this is a great issue, guest edited by E. Catherine Tobler.

No Blood of My Heart, No Breath of My Lungs, But Love by Stewart C. Baker in LampLight Volume 10 Issue 1

Being dead isn't so bad.

That is such a great opening line, and what follows is a darkly fascinating story about what happens when an old spirit awakens, deep in the bog where her body was once sacrificed by her community and sunk into the peat. Over the years, she has turned into a powerful presence and spirit with a deep love for those she was sacrificed to protect. There is darkness and death in this story, but things do take an unexpected turn as a new sacrifice is being brought to the bog.

To Escape the Hungry Deep by KT Bryski in LampLight Volume 10 Issue 1

As always, I'm a sucker for stories about siblings, and here, Bryski tells us a quietly devastating and terrifying tale of the bond between two sisters: one alive, one dead. When Cassie returns to the cottage near the lake where her sister drowned many years ago, she brings along her girlfriend and her guilt and all her insecurities about the past and the present. She has come back in an effort to put the past behind her, but deep in the lake, her sister has other plans. Bryski's tale expertly weaves together the fears haunting Cassie both in the murky waters of the lake and on land, in the cabin, with the woman she loves.


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