recommendation SF

reading recco

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013)

9780316246620Not, let me say flat out, a recommendation to every reader. You’ll have to enjoy and appreciate science fiction. By which I mean real SF, not comforting archetypes and mythic tropes dressed up in flashy magic-tech that reassure you about eternal (Western, Anglo, patriarchal) verities, like, say, Star Wars and its interminable ilk. This is a tremendously disorienting novel—rewardingly, even intoxicatingly so, to my mind, but tastes and expectations differ.

Full disclosure: In her capacity as editor/publisher of on-line speculative-fiction ’zine GigaNotoSaurus, Ann Leckie has purchased and published two of my stories, “Tattooed Love Boys” (March 2012) and “A Man Not of Canaan” (July 2013). My professional acquaintance with her has been cordial, amiable, and I have tremendous respect for her editorial acumen. I was aware she wrote fiction as well as editing it but had never got around to seeking any of it out. Admittedly, I mightn’t have paid quite so much attention to the pre-publication buzz around Ancillary Justice, her first book, absent that slight connection. But the buzz was sufficiently intriguing for me to put down cash money for a copy, a rare thing these impoverished days. Took me a few weeks to get around to reading it (I’ve been busy. And whatnot), but when I did, bang! all night, one sitting. Within the year, I expect I’ll read it again.

I said disorienting. On the first page of Ancillary Justice, the first-person narrator comes across an injured, unconcscious person on a snowy street of an isolated hamlet on an unimportant planet far from any center of civilization. Whom she recognizes. As an officer she served under. Whom she believed dead. For more than a thousand years. Not much later, we learn she herself has been aware, alive, at least two thousand years.

I call the narrator she. Her native language doesn’t mark gender and Leckie has chosen to translate that language’s ungendered, human third-person pronoun with English’s feminine. The narrator is aware many other languages do mark gender (more insistently than English, some of them, it seems), that in some cultures the distinctions between female and male are as critical as those between human and other. When dealing with people of those cultures, speakers of those languages, she’s always a bit uncertain, wary of misunderstanding or giving offense, because the first question in her mind, meeting a new, clothed person, isn’t man or woman? even when it’s culturally appropriate, and without such gross clues as big bushy beards she doesn’t always guess right. We never learn the narrator’s gender but the injured person, Seivarden Vendaii, also called she throughout, is (so the narrator notes aside) male.

I mentioned the distinction between human and other. Some persons who know the narrator well refer to her as it. Because she isn’t human. She’s a device, a tool, a weapon: an artifical intelligence created and programmed as the brains of an interstellar troop transport. In effect, just as you and I are our bodies as much as we are the mush of grey matter within our skulls, she is the Radchaai vessel Justice of Toren. She is also the troops she transports (though not their officers), all the multiple thousands of her simultaneously—granted the majority are usually in cold storage—which can pass for human among the unwary because their ancillary bodies started out as human corpses. For the purposes of one thread of the novel, the narrator, Justice of Toren, is primarily the ancillary troop decade One Esk, supporting with her multiple bodies and viewpoints her human decade lieutenant in the city of Ors on the recently annexed planet Shis’urna. In another (the novel’s present), she is the single remaining fragment of Justice of Toren after the ship and all its other ancillaries (and human officers, and three instances of the Lord of the Radch) were destroyed in an act of terrible betrayal. In this thread, the isolated ancillary formerly identified as One Esk Nineteen goes by the assumed name Breq and pretends to be an idle, wealthy traveller from the Gerentate, far distant from and not terribly familiar to inhabitants of Radchaai space.

I said three instances of the Lord of the Radch. Analogously to Justice of Toren‘s ancillaries, the millennia-old emperor of the Radch and Radchaai space, Anaander Mianaai, possesses—is embodied by, distributed among—thousands of instances, cloned bodies, the links between them sometimes stretched thin by interstellar distances, sometimes as nearly instantaneous as the nervous impulses between your own brain and fingers, semi-autonomous but all always the same person. As a result of events a thousand years ago (one aspect of which had led Justice of Toren to believe Seivarden Vendaii dead), Anaander Mianaii is clandestinely at war with herself.

Confused yet? It’s all handled much more deftly and delicately than I’m doing here, but if you aren’t willing to be confused, immersed in confusion—the plot is nearly as tangled as the setting—Ancillary Justice is probably not for you. Through much of the novel Justice of Toren/One Esk/Breq’s voice is peculiarly alienating, chilly, inhuman, as it would have to be, given what she is. I found that invigorating but YMMV, as they say. One review I’ve run into felt Leckie’s treatment of gender and unconventional use of pronouns were obtrusive, getting in the way of all the admirable goshwow (need I mention that reviewer was male and, so far as I know, straight and cisgender?), whereas I view them as an essential part of Leckie’s narrative strategy. It seems to me Leckie has been more clever about pronouns than Ursula K. LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness and more thoughtful than Samuel R. Delany in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and I believe those two novels to be nearly perfect.

Ancillary Justice, I think, is not quite nearly perfect, but damn, is it exciting—sweeping and intimate at once, thrilling and intelligent, vivid, challenging, strange, affecting, painstaking, both intelligent and clever. There’s an old saw, usually attributed to the late Terry Carr: the Golden Age of SF is twelve. It’s funny because it’s half true. You fall in love with Andre Norton (raises hand) or Star Wars (drops hand real fast) at twelve, but then—whether or not you grow up—you want more. Ancillary Justice is more. (I’m not a big fan of the cover, though.)

editorial fiction novella recommendation short stories The Padişah’s Son and the Fox


Received in today’s mail a brand-new book, unordered, unpaid for. One might ask why?, especially as it’s a detective novel and I’ve never made a secret of not being a big fan of the genre.

Well, if one were of the peculiar tribe that reads copyright pages, one would find a clue: On the reverse of the title page of Charlie Cochrane’s Lessons for Suspicious Minds appears this line:

Edited by Alex Jeffers

I expected neither the credit nor a copy of the finished book (I was paid [quite nicely] for the job), so can only offer somewhat bewildered thanks to Cheyenne Publishing’s genial principal, Mark Probst, as well as to Charlie, who were both delights to work with.

cover by Alex Beecroft

Lessons for Suspicious Minds is the latest volume in Charlie’s Cambridge Fellows Mysteries—the first to be released by Cheyenne though the tenth overall, I believe. I’ll confess to being unfamiliar with the series before being recruited to work on this one. An unfamiliarity I’m now inclined to remedy as I quite enjoyed Suspicious Minds, a charming Edwardian country-house murder mystery, and the eponymous Cambridge Fellows themselves, Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith (I’m half in love with Orlando).

An invitation to stay at a friend of the Stewart family’s stately home can only mean one thing for Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith — a new case for the amateur sleuths! With two apparently unrelated suicides, a double chase is on.

But things never run smoothly for the Cambridge fellows. In an era when their love dare not speak its name, the chance of discovery (and disgrace) is ever present — how do you explain yourself when a servant discovers you doing the midnight run along the corridor?

The chase stops being a game for Orlando when the case brings back memories of his father’s suicide and the search for the identity of his grandfather. And the solution presents them with one of the most difficult moral decisions they’ve had to make…

 Less unexpectedly, I’m pleased to find confirmation that The Padişah’s Son and the Fox is now available for purchase in both print (nice first-week discount at Amazon, yo) and electronic editions.


Now, if I can only remember how to place a thumbnail on the front page….

…But today’s job is to dive into another editorial project: the long and eagerly awaited new story collection from my lovely friend Steve Berman, Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers. Due from Lethe Press next spring.



reading reccos

For the last year or so, shamefully, I’ve done hardly any reading for pleasure. I don’t quite know why. (Black depression. Ssshhh.) Nearly all the fiction I’ve read has been unpublished, either my own—a matter for despair, usually, although a recent reread of The Unexpected Thing in advance of this summer’s revision proved mostly delightful—or other writers’ MSs. Since the latter tend to be projects undertaken for filthy lucre, whether editing, proofreading, or layout, pleasure isn’t guaranteed to enter into it.

I would visit the local public library every month or so. It’s right near the post office where I pick up my mail. I’d investigate the new arrivals, often enough bring two or three home. Then find reasons not to read them. The prose was clumsy. The characters didn’t appeal. The world building (if the book was fantasy or science fiction) didn’t convince. I was too tired or depressed. I had (told myself I had) too much work even to open them up before the due date.

It’s something I’m trying to change. As I roam the web, I’ve been making note of new releases that look promising and actually writing the titles down instead of trusting to notoriously poor memory. Rhode Island’s public libraries have an integrated on-line catalogue and easy statewide interlibrary loan, wondrous things that mean one doesn’t have to depend on the tastes of a single institution’s selection committee. Most of the titles on my list have not yet appeared in the catalogue but I run my searches now and then, place my requests.

Week before last, the first request made under the new order came through. A young-adult science fiction novel, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, March 2013).

This is a fine novel, I think, deserving of the wide praise it’s received. At any rate, I read two thirds of it in one sitting—putting aside paying work to do so—and expect it will reward rereading. I have a few minor reservations about the worldbuilding and voice, and was mildly disappointed to recognize that it promises to be first in a series (when did standalone SF and fantasy novels become unviable?) but not disastrously so: the novel has a shape of its own, a satisfying conclusion.

Four-hundred-some years after an apocalyptic war and nuclear winter, vast self-enclosed cities dot the globe like high-tech jewels, most beautiful among them Palmares Três in what used to be northeastern Brazil. Here, for reasons that almost make sense, the powers have reinvented the (hypothetical) ancient institution of the Year King, ceremoniously wed by the queen who will, twelve months later, cut his throat in sacrifice to the city’s continued prosperity and her own legitimacy.

Our hero, June, a precocious multimedia artist, her bestie Gil, and the new Summer King Enki* will disrupt the self-satisfied complacence, rigid social stratification, and smug isolationism of Palmares Três through acts of guerrilla art and more overt rebellion, until at year’s end Enki’s predestined sacrifice reveals the parallel sacrifices Gil and June must endure.

* Parenthetically, it fascinates me that not one of the notices, reviews, or interviews I’ve encountered makes note of the novel’s not so subtly acknowledged debt to the ancient Sumerian Gilgamesh Epic.

The other novel I’d like to bring to your attention came to me via work assignment—proofreading first, then layout and design—but my pleasure in it was not diminished by that happenstance. Death by Silver by Melissa Scott & Amy Griswold will be released by Lethe Press in a few weeks (official pub date 25 May) and you should pre-order it right away. Look at that cover art! Another triumph by Ben Baldwin.

While I’m not familiar with her collaborator on this novel, my admiration for the work of Melissa Scott, solo and otherwise, is longstanding. I’ve been following her since discovering Burning Bright (Tor, 1993) at Boston Public Library twenty years ago. Conceiving the Heavens: Creating the Science Fiction Novel (Heinemann, 1997) remains the most fertile and sensible such work I’ve yet to encounter.

With regard to Death by Silver, a lovely, lovely novel, I’ll simply direct you to this review by the perspicacious Hilcia at her Impressions…of a Reader blog, and repeat the blurb I was proud to provide:

This is not the Victorian London you think you know. In Death by Silver, Scott and Griswold have created an eerily familiar world lit by magic of an eminently practical—and occasionally murderous—sort, and a story that gives equal weight to meticulous detection, twisty red herrings, thrilling adventure, and an unconventional, stiff-upper-lip romance. I love this book. Do yourself the favor of making the acquaintance of metaphysician Ned Mathey and private detective Julian Lynes…then beg Scott and Griswold (as I do) for a sequel.

And an unveiling. It’s undetermined when my dear friend/boss/publisher Steve Berman’s new collection will actually be released—he has three stories yet to write, he says, and illustrators to wrangle—but within the last little while he decided on its title and asked me to mock up a front cover.

Steve Berman: Red Caps
photo: Anonymous / typography & design: Alex Jeffers

Steve would not thank me for encouraging you to visit the contact page on his website and badger him to complete those three stories…so I won’t. I badger him quite enough myself—have been badgering him since he first started talking about this book some three years ago. I’ve read (sometimes before anybody else in the whole damn world) most if not all of the completed stories he plans to include, seen many of the proposed illustrations, and anticipate with great impatience putting the book together for him—and you, and me—and finally holding a copy in my hands. It’s going to be beautiful and heartbreaking.

Ivri Lider music recommendation The Young Professionals

hear this

Thursday 2 August was my late mother’s birthday. She would have been eighty-six. Also my imaginary friend Rusty Shirazi’s nineteenth, who shares Lee Jeffers’s birthday for reasons I’ve enumerated before. I was preoccupied with freelance work all day, though, and shamefully forgot the duple occasion.

Friday 3 August, yesterday, my muse of the last four or five years Ivri Lider released his sixth full-length studio album, Mishehu Paam (Somebody Once). Naturally I bought and downloaded it right fast. I’ve been w.a.i.t.i.n.g. His last, Beketzev A’hid Batnu’ot Shel Haguf (The Steady Rhythm of Body Movements), came out in 2008! I mean, the last four years haven’t been entirely barren of Ivriana—his side project with Jonny Goldstein, The ¥oung Professionals, is tremendous fun—but, well, Ivri’s solo work broke my ten-year-long writer’s block.

And so, how is it, the new album? Admittedly, Ha’anashim Ha’chadashim (The New People, 2002), the first album I downloaded, will always be the sentimental favorite and Beketzev A’hid Batnu’ot Shel Haguf on first listen made me wish to die, on second to live forever. So Mishehu Paam had a lot to live up to. The title track was promising: the video hit YouTube in May.

Heartbreaking visually, musically and vocally powerful.

The remaining twelve tracks? Took a couple of listens to creep up on me. No standout that’s going to displace “Ha’anashim Ha’chadashim,” “Al Kav Ha’mayim,” “Sfarad,” or my god “Bo” from the 2002 release or basically every track from the 2008 from my affections, but really. Yes. Yes.

Here’s the second video, “Mazal Tov Israel,” a doubtless terribly topical (if one understands Hebrew) collabo with Mooke.

Added to the soundtrack for the three stories I’m working on: “The Oily Man,” a tale from the subcontinent first mentioned back in May and Still. Not. Done. Dammit; another, as yet untitled, subcontinental story; and the fourth Liam story, “…and the Changelings.” And for the on-going revision of the novel in which Rusty Shirazi plays such a central part. (Happy belated, Rusty!) And the designing and the editing and the designing and the proof reading.

Exhausted, that’s what I am. Help me out, T¥P!

design fantasy fiction Lethe Press recommendation spec fic work in progress You Will Meet a Stranger…

return to Astreiant

Nicolas Rathe and Philip Eslingen are back! And I am really very extremely pleased to be involved in their renascence.

Point of Hopes, the novel in which Rathe, Eslingen, and the great city of Astreiant were introduced, was the second collaboration of science-fiction novelist Melissa Scott and her partner, Lisa A. Barnett, following by several years and solo Scott novels The Armor of Light, their dazzling alt-history fantasy of an Elizabethan era in which neither Sir Philip Sidney nor Christopher Marlowe died untimely but allied to defeat a magical threat to the kingdom.

First published by Tor in 1995, Point of Hopes is rather a different animal, a pure secondary-world fantasy of a peculiarly solid, matter-of-fact sort. This is a world that feels, as Booklist’s review of the first edition put it, “lived in.” It’s a world lit by two suns—the familiar day-time primary and the smaller, more distant winter-sun—in which astrology, alchemy, necromancy, and other magical disciplines are demonstrably science, every great household employs a wizard (or magist, in the novel’s terminology), and nobody would risk making a major decision without first consulting her horoscope.

And yet it’s the farthest place from the idealized, romantic, sorcerous Age of Heroes of Tolkien and his innumerable followers. Middle Earth is a lovely place to visit but it’s not anywhere you, as a reasonable human person with human needs and desires, could live. The city of Astreiant, the nation of Chenedolle of which Astreiant is capital, Chenedolle’s immediate neighbors and distant trading partners, all possess the qualities of actual places with working economies, histories, technologies. (My guess—probably wrong—is that Astreiant’s models were the wealthy mercantile cities of the Burgundian Low Countries in the early Renaissance.) Life would be hard in Astreiant for a refugee from twenty-first-century USA but not especially harder than in Elizabethan London and conceivable in a way that acclimation to daily life in Minas Tirith or the Shire, it seems to me, is not. Indeed, for women and queer people, Astreiant has multiple advantages over our own time in that, without any fuss at all, Scott and Barnett have imagined societies in which gender equality is the norm and minority sexualities no big deal.

Refreshingly furthermore, although Chenedolle and other nations naturally possess entrenched aristocracies, nearly all the principal characters in Point of Hopes are ordinary people—not quite middle class, largely because an Astreianter middle class hasn’t quite evolved yet. Ladies and lords are, as they would be for you and me, distant glamorous figures who make you self-conscious about your second-best coat and unpolished manners when the course of events brings you into contact with them. Neither Rathe nor Eslingen are hidden heirs to any kingdom nor potential heroes of the humble-hobbit-turned-Savior!-of-the-World! variety. They do their jobs as best they can, worry about money and laundry like you and me, live their mostly ordinary lives without expectation of being extraordinary. Which, of course, makes them all too extraordinary in fantasy-land.

Nico Rathe is a pointsman, member of a kind of city guard or police force that’s grown up in the various districts (points) of Astreiant, charged with maintaining public order and investigating crimes. Only a century or so since the institution’s establishment, pointsmen are still regarded with suspicion by the city people whose business they’re likely to interfere in and the nobility, fearful of erosion of their privileges. Meanwhile, Philip Eslingen, a mercenary from Chenedolle’s traditional enemy, current ally, the League (a loose confederation of independent city states, apparently), is paid off at the end of the campaign season and looking for work to keep him through a winter in Astreiant, where foreigners are less trusted than pointsmen.

The plot of Point of Hopes involves the mysterious disappearance of scores of Astreiant’s children and an alchemical conspiracy in support of one candidate for Chenedolle’s childless queen’s throne. It’s an excellent, clockwork plot, and grand fun to watch it working out, red herrings, detective work, adventurous rescues, and all. But for this reader the real joy of the book was the picture of a fully realized, working secondary world—and the pleasure of making Rathe’s and Eslingen’s acquaintance, for they are lovely, solid, imperfect men.

Point of Hopes was followed by Point of Dreams (also Tor, 2001), set largely in Astreiant’s theatre district. I haven’t reread it as recently as Hopes—this will be remedied soon!—but as I recall the plot was smaller scale though no less satisfying and the new corners of Astreiant fascinating to explore. The big surprise was discovering Rathe and Eslingen to be acknowledged lovers now, not so many months after the end of Hopes when they were merely good friends and accidental partners in adventure who had (subtly, subtly) admitted an attraction between them. At any rate, I enjoyed Dreams a great deal and resigned myself to waiting another six years for the next Point.

Very sadly, that was not to be. Barnett was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and after a long, hard fight died in 2006. Tor ceased releasing a new Scott novel just about every year. As best I could determine (admittedly I didn’t try that hard), Scott fell completely silent—understandably!

Then, ’round about the time I became inextricably entangled in the webs of Steve Berman’s Lethe Press, Steve announced he would be reissuing Scott’s Lambda Literary Award-winning science fiction novel Shadow Man, although he didn’t ask me to design it. Nevertheless, I perked up, very happy to see that fine, extremely peculiar book rescued from out-of-print oblivion.

Two and a bit years later, after negotiations I don’t pretend to know anything about, huzzah!, Lethe is also rescuing Nico Rathe, Philip Eslingen, and Astreiant.

Spectacular cover art by Ben Baldwin; cover layout and interior design by me. I uploaded files for the dead-tree edition to the printer earlier today; that and various e-book formats should go on sale within a few weeks.

But that’s not all! Steve confessed feeling a dreadful disappointment, when Point of Dreams was first released, about not getting to witness the beginning of Rathe’s and Eslingen’s non-working relationship, skipped over in the interval between Hopes and Dreams. And so Melissa Scott took herself back to Astreiant, bittersweetly solo, to write Point of Knives, a savory novella which, in the interstices of another tricky case for Adjunct Point Rathe and his ex-mercenary sidekick, shows exactly that. And, incidentally, Rathe’s transfer/promotion from Point of Hopes to Point of Dreams, something that was rather glossed over in the second full-length novel.

Another spectacular piece by Ben Baldwin.

Point of Knives is scheduled for release this summer, followed in the autumn by Lethe’s new edition of Point of Hopes. Rumor has it we can expect the fourth Book of Astreiant, Fairs’ Point, next year. I’m pretty damned impatient, let me tell you.

On a self-involvedly personal note, the other day I received You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home’s second blurb. Christopher Barzak, author of the widely acclaimed novels One for Sorrow and The Love We Share Without Knowing, writes:

Step onto this flying carpet and prepare to be carried away to exotic times and places, where Alex Jeffers has set up camp to tell his tales to both those already familiar with his wonderful wonder stories and to those strangers who happen to be passing by.

And I am within spitting distance of completing a draft of “Seb and Duncan and the Sirens,” a longish story begun over a year ago, set aside several times, but now (foolishly) promised to Somebody (he knows who he is) by month’s end.