Word Puppets: A collection of short stories by Mary Robinette Kowal

 

Celebrated as the author of five acclaimed historical fantasy novels in the Glamourist series, Mary Robinette Kowal is also well known as an award-winning author of short science fiction and fantasy. Her stories encompass a wide range of themes, a covey of indelible characters, and settings that span from Earth’s past to its near and far futures as well as even farther futures beyond. Alternative history, fairy tales, adventure, fables, science fiction (both hard and soft), fantasy (both epic and cozy)—nothing is beyond the reach of her unique talent. WORD PUPPETS—the first comprehensive collection of Kowal’s extraordinary fiction-includes her two Hugo-winning stories, a Hugo nominee, an original story set in the world of “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and fourteen other show-stopping tales.

Talk about a fascinating author! Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the Hugo-winning novel The Calculating Stars (one of my all-time faves) as well as other works. She’s also a highly gifted audiobook narrator (narrating, among other books, the October Daye series and other works by Seanan McGuire). And on top of all that, she’s a professional puppeteer! Yes, a puppeteer. So yeah, given her eclectic talents and interests, I’m not at all surprised that this collection of short stories is varied, unusual, and very, very entertaining.

Eighteen of the nineteen stories in Word Puppets were originally published elsewhere and featured in various anthologies and other publications, with one story (set in the Lady Astronaut world) original to this collection. The publication dates for the stories range between 2005 and 2015.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection (which is shocking for me, since I usually have an aversion to short stories). Of the stories included in Word Puppets, I strongly preferred the ones leaning more toward science fiction and speculative fiction rather than the stories I’d classify as fantasy.

My particular favorites:

Chrysalis: About an alien race for whom adulthood means the end of serious study, as they metamorphose from larvae to beautiful winged creatures, but leave their scholarship and ambitions in the past.

Rampion: A short but powerful take on the Rapunzel story.

Clockwork Chickadee: About some devious and tricky mechanical animals.

Body Language: A really clever kidnapping/heist story, in which an expert puppeteer works with a gifted AI to save the day. (So awesome!)

Waiting for Rain: A vineyard owner in India deals with family obligations and honor while trying to cope with the financial struggles of having to subscribe to controllable weather.

First Flight: A 105-year-old woman is assigned a time travel task, and uses it to change history.

Evil Robot Monkey: Very short, very good, very surprising.

For Solo Cello, op 12: Wow, this one was great! About a concert cellist, an awful injury, and the even more awful way he might be able to heal.

The White Phoenix Feather: Talk about adventures in dining! This is an action story about a woman who provides dangerous dining experiences to those who can pay. Full of flying dinner knives and hurled soup and flaming baguettes.

Finally, the last three stories are all set within the world of The Calculating Stars:

We Interrupt This Broadcast: This story offers a possible explanation for the events in The Calculating Stars, and it’s frankly creepy. I’m choosing to interpret this story as an early version of events that the author eventually decided didn’t work in the context of the larger series, because otherwise I find it too upsetting.

Rockets Red: A fun interlude on Mars!

The Lady Astronaut of Mars: The story that started it all! I read this story when it was first published on the Tor website in 2013, and absolutely loved it — which is why I was thrilled to death when the author ended up expanding this world into the Lady Astronaut series. This story works as a stand-alone, set decades after the events of The Calculating Stars, and provides a different take on Elma and Nathaniel and the space program. (Fun note: This story was originally written as part of the audiobook collection Rip-off!, in which an assortment of sci-fi authors wrote new stories using the first lines of classic books as a starting point. The Lady Astronaut of Mars begins with the opening line of The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.)

All of the stories in Word Puppets are great, in my humble opinion! If you enjoy Mary Robinette Kowal’s writing, or even if you’ve never read her before, give this collection a try. The stories all stand on their own, so if you’re like me and are generally reluctant to commit to reading a book of short stories start to finish, Word Puppets is a nice choice to keep on your nightstand and dip in and out of whenever you feel like reading a story in 15 minutes or less!

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The details:

Title: Word Puppets
Authors: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Prime Books
Publication date: November 19, 2015
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Short stories/Science fiction/Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

 

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

Y’all know how much I love Seanan McGuire, right? I mean, I have gobbled up pretty much everything of hers that’s come my way, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. And I’m not now.

Which is to say… I thought Middlegame was weird and challenging, and I loved it.

Let me start by adding that the synopsis above doesn’t feel very accurate to me. Yes, Roger and Dodger are twins… kind of. But I don’t think the books itself refers to attaining godhood. So I’m glad I didn’t read the synopsis very carefully before starting, because it might have created some bizarre expectations that definitely would have gone unfulfilled.

In Middlegame, Dodger and Roger are creations, but they spend most of their lives not knowing this. They were created by a powerful alchemist, himself a creation of a powerful, game-changing alchemist, and they have a specific purpose in life — to manifest the alchemical concept of the Doctrine of Ethos.

Huh?

Yup, that was my reaction… but the confusion is part of the experience of this book, and I was happy to just go with it. Roger and Dodger each have a gift — language for Roger, math for Dodger. Raised on opposite sides of the country by adoptive parents, they discover a psychic connection as young children, and as they grow up, their bond develops, strengthens, and becomes powerful, dangerous, and more and more inexplicable. Meanwhile, Reed and his allies monitor the pair carefully, charting their progress toward manifestation, making sure to keep them apart when their progress threatens the greater goals of the project.

It’s all just so twisty and timey-wimey and mind-bending and GOOD. And as always, I love Seanan McGuire’s writing. Does she have a bit of Roger’s ability to create reality through her words? All signs point to yes.

I won’t go into a lot of detail, mainly because I just finished this long, complicated book and I’m still sifting through it all in my mind. There’s a lot to puzzle through and unravel. So rather than digging further into plot threads, I’ll share some lines and quotes that jumped out at me as I was reading:

…and she can no more conceive of failure than a butterfly can conceive of calculus.

Roger thinks that’s the trouble with grownups. The more effort they put into deciding what kids are going to do or think or be, the more things so wrong for them.

People who say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” don’t understand how words can be stones, hard and sharp-edge and dangerous and capable of doing so much more harm than anything physical. […] Words can be whispered bullet-quick when no one’s looking, and words don’t leave blood or bruises behind. Words disappear without a trace. That’s what makes them so powerful. That’s what makes them so important.

That’s what makes them hurt so much.

You can’t skip to the end of the story just because you’re tired of being in the middle.

Everything is perfect. Everything is doomed.

On and on they go, the shorthand becoming more extreme, the air going hot and heavy around them, like an electric storm rolling in, like another fire getting ready to ignite, a fire that needs no flame but only the constant friction between the two halves of something which has never, in all the long years of their lives, been fully realized.

Roger has never understood the math that calls to her, but he feels it now, thrumming in his veins like a promise of miracles to come. Dodger has never grasped the need to put a name to the things she knows to be true, but she understands it now, and accepts the names he throws her way gladly, transforming them through the alchemy of her observations before she throws them back to him.

Here’s one that makes my brain ache:

She knows that, as surely as she knows that every second takes away more of her slim opportunity to escape becoming the future self of a girl she, as yet, never was.

And on a slightly lighter note:

“Wake up,” he says. “We need to let my terrifying ex-girlfriend tell us how we’re supposed to manifest a primal force of reality before asshole alchemists set us the fuck on fire.”

I really don’t think there’s much I can say or add that will do justice to the headlong rush of tragedy, violence, excitement, and true deep emotion that mixes together in Middlegame. So I’ll just wrap by saying that this is an awesome adventure of a read, and I’m sure I’m going to want to read it again after my mind relaxes.

Oh, and I love the fact that one of the super-powerful alchemists wrote a best-selling children’s fantasy book series, full of magical quests along the lines of a Narnia/Fillory tale — but that these stories really are code for alchemical inquiries into controlling the powers of the universe. Which made me wonder just a bit if there’s more to, I don’t know, Harry Potter? than meets the eye…

Extra gold points for great use of San Francisco landmarks (Sutro Baths!)… and how can you not love a book that includes the phrase killer death alchemists as if it’s a normal thing to say?

Seanan McGuire fans, rest assured — our beloved author strikes again, and it’s fabulous.

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The details:

Title: Middlegame
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Science fiction/fantasy
Source: Purchased (and also, review copy via NetGalley)

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Shelf Control #131: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Akata Witch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2011
Length: 349 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy last year after reading Binti.

Why I want to read it:

I loved the Binti trilogy, have read one other adult novel by this author (Lagoon), and have yet another (Who Fears Death) on my to-read list. The plot of Akata Witch sounds terrific, and since the sequel came out last year (Akata Warrior), I look forward to getting involved with a story than I can plan to continue.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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