Friday, December 17, 2021

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, pt. 10: Cheryl Morgan


The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021
by Cheryl Morgan



The pandemic rolls on, and I am continuing to hear people say that their reading habits have changed, or even that they are no longer able to read as a result. I’m relieved to say that I am still reading. I’m not reading as much as I’d like, but that’s in part to do with the amount of excellent SF&F TV that is available these days, and the high quality of so many podcasts.

I should also note that if I hadn’t re-started Salon Futura, I would probably have no idea what I had read this year because so much of it is an unchanging blur. I know that I can’t remember what history books I’ve read, so I should probably start reviewing them too. If you want to know more about what I talk about there, there’s probably a review in the 'zine.

2021 is most definitely the year in which trans writers came of age. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters was long-listed for the prestigious Women’s Prize in the UK this year, causing a major meltdown among the wealthy white “feminists” who have a firm grip on much of British journalism. I, however, will concentrate on SF&F.

We’ve known and loved Charlie Jane Anders for years, but she hasn’t gone too deeply into trans issues in her novels before. Victories Greater Than DEATH!!!! (I hope I have written the title as it is meant to be pronounced, Charlie Jane) changed all that. It is a delightful YA space opera featuring the sort of teenagers I’m used to seeing in LGBTQ+ youth groups. In a similar but much more homely vein, Nino Cipri produced DEFEKT, a follow-up to the hilarious FINNA.


My favorite book of the year, however, is Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki. That’s partly because it is a brilliant examination of the challenges faced by a young Asian-American trans woman. It is also partly because it thoroughly messes with genre boundaries, featuring both a violin virtuoso who has sold her soul to the devil, and a family of aliens who run a Vietnamese donut shop in LA. The connection with ethnic communities in LA and their food is also delightful. But when I finally figured out what connected making donuts using a Star Trek-style replicator, playing the violin, and being trans, I was stunned at how audacious this book is. Highly recommended.

Although Aoki is best known as a poet, her novel is written in prose. Over in Scotland, Harry Josephine Giles has not let go of the verse. Deep Wheel Orcadia is an epic poem written in the Orcadian dialect, set on a space station, and in part an allegory for island life. Don’t worry if you find Scottish dialects impenetrable. The book also includes a prose translation in British English. This is another remarkable book.

Theme two for this year is Arthuriana. The Once and Future King is back, and in some very intriguing guises. You are probably all familiar with Tracey Deon’s LegendBorn as it is a Lodestar finalist. Moving Arthur to the American south, and making it a story about slavery, is definitely an interesting twist. Back in the UK, Laure Eve produced Blackheart Knights, which moves Camelot to a post-apocalyptic future in which energy is money and the knights ride (electric) motorbikes. It has an audacious twist that was hidden in plain sight. I should have seen it coming and didn’t.

I don’t get many ARCs these days, but one I very much wanted was Spear by Nicola Griffith. Everything Nicola does is brilliant, and seeing her take on one of my favorite sub-genres was a delight. Spear is much more traditional in its take on Arthur, being set in early medieval South Wales, but it is no less clever and is superbly crafted. There is some gender-bending, and same-sex romance, obviously.

Finally, to fully unite the two themes, there is SisterSong by Lucy Holland. I acted as an historical and trans consultant on this one, so I am understandably biased, but despite the very traditional setting in post-Roman Devon & Cornwall I think this book is the most audacious of all. Casting Merlin as a gender fluid shaman isn’t too big a stretch; but casting the young Arthur as a trans boy trying to be the son that his father desperately needs to keep the kingdom together is a level of bravery that deserves all the medals going. I’m so pleased that the book has been a success.

I’ve read lots of other fine SF&F novels over the year. Here are a few highlights. A Desolation Called Peace is a fine follow-up to Arkady Martine’s Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire. Rev is a satisfying if very delayed ending to Madeline Ashby’s Machine Dynasty trilogy. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez is a fascinating debut from an author I want to hear much more from in future. Far From the Light of Heaven sees Tade Thompson try his hand at a crime novel set in the far future and is compulsively readable. And The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is as thought-provoking as we have come to expect.

I’m late to the Adrian Tchaikovsky bandwagon, but I’m pleased to be on it at last. Shards of Earth is the opening chapter of a fascinating space opera trilogy, and I’m eagerly awaiting future volumes. I’m in a state of constant anticipation for new Murderbot stories. Fugitive Telemetry is the longest piece in the saga to date, and Martha Wells does not disappoint. Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes was a Clarke finalist alongside the Jimenez. It is much more light-hearted space opera, but there’s promise of a serious mystery at the core of the plot and I need to get the future volumes to find out.

My final science fiction pick in novels is Ten Low by Stark Holborn. Stark is best known for fantasy Westerns, including the gloriously pun-filled and inventive Triggernometry novellas. Ten Low, however, is a feminist science fiction Western that both perfectly invokes the wind-blown desert setting and blows bullet holes in the standard macho male Western narrative.

There hasn’t been much fantasy in that, which I don’t quite understand. I think maybe mainstream publishing is too set in its ways with fantasy right now. However, I’m delighted to see Katherine Addison return to the world of The Goblin Emperor with Witness for the Dead. Celehar is another charming goblin hero, and perhaps one who is easier to write about than Maia because the stakes are lower.

I have been hoping for a novel from P Djèlí Clark for some time. A Master of Djinn is set in his Steampunk Cairo universe and once again features everyone’s favourite lesbian detective, Fatma el-Sha’arawi. It is clear that a lot of world building has gone into this, and we get to see some of the machinations of the European powers in this story. I do hope that there will be more.
One of the delights of publishing these days is the fashion for novellas. It gives us reviewers a whole lot of excellent but very short books to read. And they don’t normally come in trilogies. Here are some that I enjoyed over the past year.

The Four Profound Weaves by R B Lemberg thoroughly deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon the book. If you are looking for interesting explorations of gender, I can also recommend In the Watchful City by S Qiouyi Lu and Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey.

There’s more good feminist reading in A Spindle Splintered by Alix E Harrow. This one re-imagines the Sleeping Beauty story in a very imaginative way, including riffing somewhat off Into the Spiderverse with Beauties from several different universes teaming up.

Cat Valente returned to the world of her successful short story, “The Future is Blue,” for The Past is Red. Her view of the last remnants of humanity eking out an existence on a giant, floating garbage patch, the only piece of dry land left on Earth, makes a fascinating contrast to The Ministry for the Future.

Finally, in novellas I have for you The Album of Dr Moreau by Daryl Gregory. Imagine that the uplifted animals from the Island of Dr Moreau escape, form a boy band, and are hugely successful as pop stars. The book is as fun and wildly inventive as that sounds. It is a must for music fans.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the books that I published this year. The Green Man series from Juliet McKenna continues to sell wonderfully well. The latest book, The Green Man’s Challenge, sold over 900 copies in pre-order, which for a small press like mine is phenomenal.

In addition I am absolutely delighted to have acquired the Crater School series from Chaz Brenchley. These are inspired by the legendary Chalet School books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, so they are set in a girls’ boarding school. But the Crater School is not in Switzerland, it is on a steampunk version of Mars. There are aetherfliers; there are strange Martian lifeforms; The Great War was fought throughout the solar system and against the Russians; and Queen Victoria is now apparently immortal. I have rave reviews from Ellen Klages, Marie Brennan, Jennifer Stevenson and many others. Do give these books a try.

As I mentioned earlier, I can’t remember what history books I read this year. I do know that I spent a lot of time researching the life of La Chevalière d’Eon for a talk I had to give. This led me to reading about William Blake and getting fascinated by 18th Century attitudes to gender.

I don’t often buy art books, but when I saw one about the tarot deck designed by the surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington, I was right in there. As with elsewhere, women artists don’t get the credit they deserve. Carrington ought to be much more famous than she is.

On now to film and TV. Star Trek: Discovery continues to be interesting, but is possibly trying a little too hard to get up the noses of the dudebros at the expense of the plot. Meanwhile Star Trek: Lower Decks has proven to be a delight, despite not taking itself at all seriously. Far more money must be being poured into Discovery and Picard, but a cartoon show is the one that is producing the goods.
This year saw the final season of Supergirl. This is another show that makes a point of annoying those people who don’t want anything non-white, gay, or female in their science fiction. It has made a fine job of it down the years. The final episode centers, not on a titanic battle with a long-time rival, but on an inter-racial lesbian wedding. I will miss this show.

On the other side of the comic world, Marvel has been pumping out TV miniseries. WandaVision was a whole lot of fun, especially with the referencing back to shows such as Bewitched. They did something similar with the final season of Agents of SHIELD, where the heroes were chasing their opponents through time and each episode referenced a spy show from the appropriate time period.


Talking of time , Loki was also very enjoyable. That series is very much part of the build-up for the next season of Marvel movies, introducing Kang the Conqueror as the new Big Bad. I love what they did with Sylvie Lushton, and I’m not in the least bit surprised that the show was quickly renewed for a second season. In the movies, Black Widow was enjoyable (and long overdue), but Shang-Chi: and the Legend of the Ten Rings was an absolute delight. It had two brilliant action sequences to bookend it: the bus chase through San Francisco and the dragon battle. It had a couple of charismatic leads with great comedy chemistry. It had the great Tony Leung, on whom I now have a massive crush. And it had Michelle Yeoh. What more can you ask for?

Meanwhile, on NetFlix, we have dueling He-Man reboots. Rob David’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe 2021 is aimed squarely at kids and has a very anime feel to it. In contrast Kevin Smith’s Masters of the Universe: Revelation is very much for adults. Mark Hamill and Lena Heady cackle their socks off as Skeletor and Evil-Lyn. Both series are a lot of fun in their own, very different ways.
And now, at last, to listening. As I’m no longer hosting a radio show, I am not listening to nearly as much new music. My only discovery of the year is Handspan, a Geordie musician now living in rural Finland. He has a wonderful electronica concept album based on Susan Cooper’s legendary fantasy novel, The Dark is Rising

I am listening to a lot of podcasts, mainly history ones for research purposes. It is great that a whole lot of research is getting featured in an easily accessible and affordable format. Most of them are not for general consumption, but there is one that is both serious history and a huge popular hit.

You’re Dead to Me is fronted by public historian, Greg Jenner, previously famous for the kids’ TV show, Horrible Histories. The format is that for each episode they pick a famous person or subject from history and bring in two guests. One is an historian who is an expert on the subject. The other is a comedian whose job it is to entertain listeners while also playing the role of the audience in learning a bit of history. The scripts are excellent. I’ve known one of the scriptwriters, Emma Nagouse, since she was working on the History Matters website at Sheffield University. I’m delighted that she’s done so well.

The other podcast that I’d like to recommend is Add to Playlist. Hosted by Cerys Matthews (former lead singer of Catatonia) and Jeffrey Boakye, it aims to provide a carefully curated playlist of musical classics, each of which is connected to the previous song in some way. Expert musicians guest on the show to offer selections. If you want to know what connects Lil Nas X to Aaron Copland, Björk to Dave Brubeck, Stevie Wonder to Mozart, and Hildegard von Bingen to Vangelis, this is the podcast for you.


Cheryl Morgan blogs, reviews and podcasts regularly at Cheryl’s Mewsings and Salon Futura. She is the owner of Wizard’s Tower Press . She also lectures regularly on topics of SF&F literature, and on queer history.

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