Three Very Different Books

I’m as behind on my reading as I am on everything else, but I have managed to find space for some excellent new fiction. Herewith, my thoughts on three very different books — an anthology of stories based on ancient tales from the Mediterranean, a fantasy that incorporates menopause and life as a college professor, and fast-paced science fiction featuring a very angry and capable construct.

Retellings of the Inland SeasRetellings of the Inland Seas, published by Candlemark and Gleam, achieves something many anthologies aspire to, but few attain: There’s not a bad story in it. That says a lot about the concept — using ancient stories from the Mediterranean as a jumping off point for something new. It says even more about the skill of the editor, Athena Andreadis, who not only came up with the idea, but found the stories.

Fellow Treehouse Writer Judith Tarr’s [ story, “Between the Rivers,” is rooted in the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but it’s set on a far-off habitable planet and all is created by the genship Ninsun. It’s a wonderful story even without the tie to an ancient one, but knowing something about the original gives you some added depth.

Two of the stories, “Hide and Seek” by Shariann Lewitt and “The Sea of Stars” by Genevieve Williams, come out of The Odyssey. Both are science fiction, Lewitt’s story being told from the point of view of a navigator on a ship traversing the Asteroids, while Williams’s is a first contact story set in the distant past.

My favorite story in this wonderful anthology is “Out of Tauris,” by Alexander Jablokov, which is based on the story of Iphigenia. The Iphigenia of this story is the aged priestess of the Temple of Artemis and accepts sacrifices from men whose wives, who were once girls at that temple, have died. At the end, she observes, “This has always been the greatest torture men inflict on women, to take away choice and then make them pretend that the choice was always theirs.”

But your favorite might be very different. Other authors in this book include Melissa Scott, A. M. Tuomala, James L. Cambias, Christine Lucas, F.J. Doucet, Kelly Jennings, Elena Gomel, Dimitra Nikolaidou, and Andreadis. Read them all and figure out which one you like best.

UnbecomingUnbecoming, published by Aqueduct Press, is the first novel by poet Lesley Wheeler. Cyn Rennard is chairing the English Department, but her best friend Alyssa is off on an exchange program to teach in Wales and being replaced by someone from the foreign university, Cyn’s husband is teaching at another college and only home on weekends, her twins are teenagers, and she’s in perimenopause. There are the usual conflicts within the department and with the rest of the university. And odd things are happening.

Maybe the replacement professor is a witch. Maybe Alyssa’s ex-girlfriend is one. Or maybe Cyn herself is something of a witch. This is a lovely tale of a woman dealing with the trials of campus politics, the complexities of motherhood, the realities of aging, and something that’s far outside the rules of normal reality as she starts to recognize, and claim, her power.

It is such a joy to read a book about a woman on the cusp of menopause letting go of her uncertainties and starting to go after what she wants, perhaps using a few spells to make all that happen. The blending of modern life with a complex take on fae reality gives us the greater truth of both those worlds.

Network EffectNetwork Effect is the first Murderbot novel, following on Martha Wells’s success with the four-volume novella series, and it is an excellent continuation of the series. I got hooked by All Systems Red, the first novella, which Tor made available for a free download, and immediately bought the rest as they came out. I got the novel in hardback from my local bookstore, so you know I’m a serious fan (there is really no room in my house for more books, but in these pandemic times it’s important to support your local bookstores and mine were sending books via mail).

On the podcast “Our Opinions Are Correct,” Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders opined that Network Effect was escapist fiction. They didn’t mean it as an insult, and I do agree that it is the kind of action-packed adventure story that does take you out of your own time for awhile. But one of the things I really like about it is that it also provides some social commentary.

The people of Preservation, where Murderbot (known officially as SecUnit now) is now living, have developed a fair and decent society in a universe dominated far too much by the Corporation Rim. And since Murderbot is a construct with some organic parts who once belonged to the company that made it, it is constantly aware of the differences between the cultures. That makes us aware as well.

Murderbot has emotions — it’s often angry — but it does think differently from humans and not just because it can run an enormous number of complicated programs while still watching “Sanctuary Moon” (one of many shows in this reality’s equivalent of TV series). Wells does a superb job of keeping us in Murderbot’s point of view while giving us enough of the other characters (human and otherwise) to show the contrast.

I’m not going to summarize the plot for you. If you like a fast-paced adventure with some culture clash thrown in, you’ll have a great time. It’s more fun if you’ve read the novellas first, because you’ll have a better sense of how Murderbot got to the point where it is in this novel, but this is a book that can also stand on it’s own.

I understand there’s another Murderbot book coming out next year. I can hardly wait.

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