First Monday Free Fiction: The Forest of the Hanged

The Forest of the Hanged by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertWelcome to the May 2021 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

This month’s free story The Forest of the Hanged is a sword and sorcery story from my Thurvok series. The Thurvok tales are usually more humorous than my other sword and sorcery series, Kurval. However, The Forest of the Hanged is one of the grimmer Thurvok stories. It’s also the story where what had up to then been a trio of adventurers becomes a quartet.

So accompany Thurvok, Meldom and Sharenna as they venture into…

 

The Forest of the Hanged

 

The trouble started, as it sometimes did, with a message. It was delivered to Meldom, cutpurse, thief and occasional assassin, at the breakfast table at the Long Drop Tavern, though Thurvok the sellsword had no idea how the messenger had even found his friend and companion here. After all, very few people were supposed to know where they were staying. It was simply safer that way.

While Thurvok nibbled on a joint of ham, Meldom broke the wax seal — plain candle wax and not proper sealing wax — with his dagger and read. His expression darkened.

“Business?” Thurvok asked between two bites.

Meldom shook his head. “No, private.” The dagger was still in his hand, clutched so hard that Meldom’s already pale skin become even paler.

At this moment, Thurvok’s other travelling companion, Sharenna, the flame-haired sorceress, appeared, carrying a jug of milk, a basket of fresh bread and a chunk of cheese. She set down her burden on the table, flashed Thurvok a private smile and settled down on the chair opposite the two men.

Sharenna filled up her cup with milk and helped herself to some bread and cheese. It was only now that she noticed that the normally chatty Meldom was uncharacteristically quiet. For once, he wasn’t plotting grandiose plans for making ridiculous amounts of money. Nor was he making pointed remarks about sleeping arrangements.

Of course, eating normally shut Meldom up, but then he wasn’t eating either. He was just staring at that letter and clutching his dagger, clutching it so hard Thurvok briefly worried that the hilt would shatter.

“What’s wrong?” Sharenna asked.

Meldom looked up, his grey eyes troubled. “Nothing. Just a message from an old friend. I’ll have to leave for a while, though. I have business in Greyvault.”

“I thought you said you couldn’t go back to Greyvault, because you’re wanted for something or other there,” Thurvok pointed out, still gnawing on his joint of ham.

“Well, in theory I can’t go back,” Meldom snapped, “But in practice, I’ll just have to risk it and hope that the constabulary doesn’t catch me.”

In response, Thurvok laid down the joint of ham or rather what was left of it. “We’ll come with you then.”

“It’s private business,” Meldom replied.

“We’ll still come with you,” Sharenna said, her voice softer than usual, “After all, we’re friends. And friends help each other when they’re in trouble.”

“How do you even know I’m in trouble?” Meldom snapped, “Are you using your magic to read my mind or what?”

Sharenna sighed. “For the last time, I can’t read minds. Not that I need to, considering you’re making a face like soured milk.”

Meldom finally put the letter down, though he still clutched the dagger in his hand. “Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“Bad news?” Thurvok suggested.

Meldom nodded. “Very bad. An old… friend of mine is in trouble. The sort of trouble that tends to leave you swinging on the end of a rope.”

Thurvok patted his friend on the shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“You want to help your friend, don’t you?” Sharenna asked.

“If I can.” Meldom replied. “I have to try, at any rate. I owe her my life, after all.”

Across the table, Thurvok and Sharenna exchanged a look. For though Meldom talked a lot, he rarely spoke about his life before he became a wandering mercenary, selling his skills to whoever was willing to pay him. Still, whatever was behind this message had left Meldom rattled, more rattled than Thurvok had ever seen him.

“Then it’s settled.” Thurvok rose to his feet. “We’ll go to Greyvault and save this friend of yours.”

Meldom shot him a warning look. “It’s going to be dangerous.”

Thurvok sighed. “Isn’t it always?”

***

So Thurvok, Meldom and Sharenna set off for the city of Greyvault, a three days’ journey to the northeast. And on the first night of that journey, while they sat huddled around a campfire by the side of the road, Thurvok and Sharenna finally got Meldom to open up.

“So this friend of yours…?” Sharenna, who was better at this sort of thing than Thurvok, began.

“Lysha, yes, Meldom said, reaching for the silver amulet he always wore around his neck.

“So what’s the story there?” Sharenna wanted to know.

There was a long pause, then Meldom took a swig of brandy from his trusty hip flask and began, “I was fifteen, when I met Lysha. I was a street kid running with a gang of thieves on the streets of Greyvault. I was young and fairly slight then and could squeeze even through the smallest openings…”

Thurvok refrained from pointing out that Meldom was still rather slight, at least compared to Thurvok’s muscular frame.

“…so my specialty was burglary. If there was a window left open in a house, any window at all, I’d climb in, sneak around and rob them blind. It always went well, too. Until the night that I broke into the home of Kereban Vandor, a wealthy silk merchant…”

Thurvok leant forward, for this was getting interesting.

“I’d climbed in through an open bedroom window. But I was stupid and bumped against a table, which in turn knocked over a vase. The vase shattered and woke up the occupant of the bedroom. Lysha, Vandor’s only daughter. For the space of a few heartbeats, we just stared at each other in the moonlight that streamed in through the open window, each more scared than the other…”

“And…?” Sharenna asked, clearly intrigued.

“Then someone started banging on the door. Vandor himself. ‘Lysha, are you all right? Open up!’ I decided that whatever there was to steal in that house wasn’t worth getting caught over and was about to jump out of the window again, when Lysha suddenly said, ‘No, not that way. They’ll catch you.’ Then she opened the door of her wardrobe. ‘Come on. Hide in here. I’ll hold him off’.”

Meldom stared into the flickering flames of the campfire, as if there was something in those dancing flames that only he could see.

“So I was hiding in her wardrobe, stuck between silk gowns that cost more than what I could steal in a year, while the banging on the door got louder. And then Lysha opened the door and said, ‘It’s nothing, Papa. I just broke a vase. I’m sorry. I must have been sleepwalking.’ And just like that, she saved my life.”

“How so?” Sharenna wanted to know.

“If they’d caught me, I would have been hanged. And if they’d suspected that I’d as much as touched Lysha — not that I did — they’d have cut off my prick first. Cause she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and I was just a street kid, gutter scum. But not to Lysha.”

Meldom took another swig of brandy from his flask.

“After her father had gone back to bed, she let me out of the wardrobe. Asked me if I was hungry and gave me something to eat. Biscuits that were so much finer than any food I’d ever had…”

Meldom reached for his necklace again, touching the silver pendant like a holy relic.

“We became friends after that. Whenever she could, Lysha would leave her window open for me. I’d visit and we’d talk…” Meldom shot Thurvok a dirty look. “Yes, really just talk. I was fifteen and had no idea what else to do with a girl…”

Thurvok grinned. “Well, you sure learned fast.”

“Hush,” Sharenna hissed, “I want to hear this.”

“Lysha gave me food and sometimes, she’d even slip me a coin or two. If they’d caught us, both our lives would have been forfeit, for in Greyvault those sheltering thieves are punished as harshly as the thieves themselves and family connections won’t save you either. We were risking the gallows, both of us. But Lysha did not care…”

Meldom took another swig of brandy.

“And then, when I had to leave town in a hurry or face the gallows, Lysha gave me her jewellery to pay for my escape. I used up all of it except for this.”

He reached for his silver necklace again.

“I’ve been wearing it ever since to remember her, to remember the girl who looked at a street kid and thief and saw something worth saving in him.”

“That’s a lovely story,” Sharenna said, “And this Lysha sounds like a very sweet girl.”

Meldom nodded. “She is.”

“So what did she do to get herself in trouble?” Thurvok wanted to know, “Cause the daughters of rich merchants normally don’t find themselves facing the gallows.”

“If you’re a woman, you don’t need to have done anything,” Sharenna pointed out, “Just spurning the advances of the wrong magistrate can be enough. Or the wrong priest king. All it takes is one trumped up charge…”

A few moons ago, Thurvok and Meldom had saved Sharenna from execution at the hands of the priest kings of Khon Orzad.

“Yeah, but you really are a witch,” Thurvok pointed out.

“I still didn’t do anything,” Sharenna countered, “The priest kings just don’t like anybody who’s not them having power, least of all a woman.”

“Does it matter what Lysha did or didn’t do?” Meldom asked testily, “After all, we’ve all done things that would get us sent to the gallows or the scaffold or the stake, if we ever got caught.” He turned back to the fire. “And besides, Lysha really didn’t do anything.”

Sharenna moved closer to Meldom and briefly squeezed his hand. “So what happened?”

“The Rhadur happened,” Meldom said grimly, “The conquered Greyvault last year.”

The Rhadur were a warrior nation from the Far North. Ice and cold had driven them from their homeland to conquer city after city in the realm. They were fearsome, true, but normally content to let commerce and crime continue unabated in the cities they conquered. As long as tributes and taxes were paid on time, they did not care where the money came from.

“You know what the Rhadur do when one of their number is killed in a city they’ve conquered?” Meldom asked.

Thurvok nodded. “They execute twelve random locals in retribution.”

“Yordirr, the Rhadur governor of Greyvault was murdered five days ago. Everybody knows that it’s Khureim, his own second-in-command and successor, who did it. But the Rhadur don’t care who the real killer is or that it’s one of their own. They just want to have a bloody spectacle. And so Khureim has ordered that twelve maidens from Greyvault’s most respectable families be hanged instead, for a crime that he himself committed.”

Even by Rhadur standards, hanging twelve girls from the city’s best families seemed excessively bloody. Mostly, they contented themselves with hanging vagrants, prostitutes and criminals, the sort of people who wouldn’t be missed, as well as the occasional respectable burgher, just to show they meant business.

“And Lysha is one of those twelve maidens who are to be hanged?” Sharenna asked.

Meldom nodded. “When I fled Greyvault, I asked my friends in the city to keep an eye on Lysha, because she’d been good to me. One of them sent me the message that she’ll be hanged on the night of the blood moon in retribution for the murder of the governor.”

Thurvok scratched his chin. “I’ve seen Rhadur mass executions,” he said, “They’re heavily guarded, lest the conquered people get any ideas. Rescuing someone from the Rhadur’s gallows will be difficult. So would your friends in Greyvault be willing to help us?”

“I don’t know,” Meldom admitted, “I hope so.”

He looked straight at Thurvok and Sharenna. “Look, if you want out of this, I… I understand. It’s a huge risk, after all. But I have to do this. I owe Lysha my life after all, so I have to save her or die trying.”

“Don’t worry, pal.” Thurvok patted Meldom on the shoulder. “We’re still in. After all, we’re a team.”

“We need a plan though,” Sharenna pointed out, “Cause like Thurvok said, Rhadur mass executions are too heavily guarded to just barge in there.”

“Don’t look at me,” Thurvok said, “Meldom’s normally the one with the plan.”

“I’m thinking, okay. And besides, we’ve still got time. It’s still a two days’ journey to Greyvault and another night to the blood moon.”

***

Two days later, as they closed in on Greyvault, Meldom was no closer to a plan than he’d been before. Or if he had a plan, he did not share it. And Meldom normally shared every stupid half-baked plan that came into his head.

The road to Greyvault led through a dense forest. And as they travelled through the forest, Thurvok, Meldom and Sharenna came across a hanged man. He was dangling from an oak tree by the side of the road, gently swaying in the wind. Judging by the condition of the body, he’d been here awhile.

Sharenna turned away and muttered something that might have been a prayer, a blessing or a curse in a language that Thurvok did not understand.

Meldom pretended to study his feet. “Oh yes, I probably should have warned you. This is the Forest of the Hanged, the place where Greyvault executes its criminals and leaves them hanging as a warning to others. This is the first body, but it won’t be the last.”

As Meldom had said, there were more dead bodies, swinging in the wind from various trees by the roadside. Most were barefoot, dressed only in plain white shifts. Their hands were bound and around their necks, they often wore placards that detailed their crimes. Thief. Forger. Con man. Bandit. Rapist. Murderer. Assassin. Traitor.

The heads of the dead were mostly covered by burlap sacks or plain white linen hoods or fine silk veils, depending upon the wealth and position of the condemned. Though once in a while, there was a body who’d been hanged bareheaded. Those were the worst, the sight so grisly that even Thurvok and Meldom, who were both not unused to death, averted their eyes.

All three of them had fallen silent by now, speaking only when it could not be avoided. It was as if the constant presence of the dead had settled down like a grey blanket upon them, leaving them tongue-tied and contemplative.

Thurvok wondered just why so many of the so-called civilised cities tended to display corpses outside their walls and by the side of the road. Thurvok’s people burned their dead — whether they’d died peacefully in bed or violently at the end of the blade or by the noose — and did not put them up as signposts and road decorations, because that would be uncivilised. And yet the people who’d created something as abhorrent as the skeleton road of Khon Orzad or this Forest of the Hanged had the nerve to call Thurvok’s people barbarians.

As they passed yet another tree from which the bodies of two young men, just boys really, were swinging gently in the wind, Thurvok broke the silence. “Will the Rhadur be hanging your girl here in the forest, too?”

Meldom shrugged. “I don’t know. I think so, cause that’s the way things are done in Greyvault. Why?”

“Because it makes things easier for us. Cities have walls and gates and the streets are cramped and narrow. But the forest is big and wide open and offers more escape routes. It also makes pursuit more difficult.”

Meldom said nothing. He just touched the amulet on his neck, lost in thought.

“So have you come up with a plan yet?” Sharenna wanted to know.

Meldom turned to her. “That depends. When you reanimated those skeletons in Khon Orzad, was that just a one-off spell or could you do the same with the hanged bodies here?”

Sharenna shot him a calculating look. “I could. But the spell only works on those who died violently and prematurely.”

“Well, hanging is a violent and premature death by definition,” Meldom pointed out.

“The spell doesn’t last very long either, only as long as a short oil wick burns, then the dead crumble into dust again,” Sharenna continued.

“We don’t need a whole lot of time. We only need enough to rescue Lysha and get the hell out of there. And walking corpses make for an excellent distraction.”

“It’s not so easy,” Sharenna insisted, “The spell takes a lot out of me and besides, I cannot control the unquiet dead once I’ve raised them. They will attack those who’ve wronged them, particularly those who’ve caused their death.”

“Well, we should be quite safe then, cause we haven’t killed any of them,” Thurvok said. He shot a questioning look at Meldom. “Unless there’s something you’re not telling us.”

Meldom ignored him. “Well then, listen up, people. Cause I’ve got a plan…”

***

The blood moon was already rising above the horizon, hanging red and bloated in the sky, when the execution procession passed the gates of Greyvault and headed for the Forest of the Hanged.

The progress was slow and measured, so every single person in the crowd that had gathered by the side of the torch-lit road — a larger than usual crowd, for the hanging of twelve young maidens was a rare spectacle — could get a good look.

The bailiff came first, clad in his blood red robe of office and bearing his staff of justice. Next came Khureim, the current Rhadur governor, clad in black robes richly embroidered with silver. He was followed by a squad of Rhadur soldiers in their black and silver armour. They were bearing a pall upon which lay the body of Yordirr, the recently murdered previous Rhadur governor.

Thurvok scoffed as the body of the dead governor was carried past him, the flickering torches highlighting the murdered man’s ghastly featured. Did no one properly burn their dead anymore or even bury them in the ground? Truly, the customs of these supposedly civilised men were most barbarian. Though Thurvok suspected that no one would accuse the Rhadur of being civilised. Which was still no excuse for carting corpses about.

“They bring the body along, so his spirit can watch how his death is avenged with the blood of innocent maidens,” Meldom whispered to Thurvok, clearly just as disgusted by the spectacle as Thurvok himself, “And also because it amuses Khureim, the real killer.”

Once the corpse of Yordirr had been carried past, more Rhadur soldiers followed. Then came a cluster of robed priests, mumbling prayers for those who would soon be put to death. The executioner and his assistants followed, all clad in black. And then, finally, came the twelve maidens who would be hanged this night.

They were young, more girls than women really, the youngest about fifteen or sixteen, the oldest maybe twenty-five. They were all clad in execution gowns of plain white linen. Their feet were bare and their hands bound.

Some of the girls were mumbling prayers, their heads downcast. Others cried and yet others carried their head held high, as they were marched towards the gallows to be hanged for a crime none of them had committed.

“Which one is Lysha?” Thurvok whispered to Meldom.

In response, Meldom pointed at a willowy girl with long dark hair that fell down her back in gentle waves. She held her head high and faced her fate unafraid.

Thurvok briefly squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll save her,” he said.

Meldom nodded grimly. “Or we’ll die trying.”

It was a distasteful business, Thurvok reflected. Not that the Rhagur’s bloodlust when one of their own was slain wasn’t understandable. But vengeance should be taken on the guilty, not the innocent. The Rhagur, however, did not care who really killed their own, they didn’t even investigate. They just grabbed random citizens and executed them, which was bad enough. But to execute twelve totally innocent girls, put them to death in public, that truly was inexcusable.

Among Thurvok’s people, when it was unavoidable that a woman be put to death, it was custom to lead her to the scarlet execution tent, where she would be quietly strangled or beheaded far from prying eyes. And afterwards, her body would be wrapped in a shroud and consigned to the cleansing flames. That was the civilised way to do it, if it had to be done. Not like this barbaric spectacle.

Worse, the people seemed to be enjoying it. Not just the Rhagur soldiers — no one expected anything but bloodlust from them — but the people of Greyvault as well. Sure, some of them were crying and sobbing, the parents and friends of the condemned girls most likely. But most of the spectators were just here to gawk. Even though these were their own people, daughters of their own city, who would be shamefully hanged like common criminals.

Thurvok shook his head. Sometimes, the so-called civilised people of the western city states were worse than those they called barbarians.

In spite of the large crowd, it did not take long for the procession to reach the execution site, a particularly old and large oak tree. A collapsible platform had been erected around the tree and twelve nooses had been tied to its sturdiest branches, swaying gently in the night wind.

Governor Khureim settled down on a raised chair, from where he had an excellent view of the gallows tree. The bailiff took up his position at his side.

The Rhadur soldiers bearing the body of the dead governor set down their burden in front of the gallows, so that the spirit of Yordirr might watch and enjoy as twelve young women were put to death in his name. Then, the soldiers fanned out, surrounding the gallows tree and forming a cordon to hold back the crowd.

“There’s a whole lot of them,” Thurvok whispered to Meldom, “This is not good.”

“Well, you’ll only have to take out some of them, not the entire squad,” Meldom whispered back, “Just remember that I can’t kill any of the soldiers, because I am still a son of Greyvault and if the blood of a Rhadur soldier stains my hand, twelve more innocents will die.”

The cluster of priests positioned themselves around the gallows tree, mumbling prayers and sprinkling incense and blessing each girl as she was marched past and forced to ascend the platform by the hangman and his assistants. Some of the girls cried out and panicked at the sight of the tree and the nooses swaying in the wind. One even fainted and had to be picked up by a soldier and carried to the gallows, where the man set her on her feet again and rudely revived her with a slap to the face.

When it was Lysha’s turn, she mounted the gallows bravely, her head held high, and even whispered words of comfort to her fellow sufferers as she was marched past them.

On the platform, the hangman’s assistants positioned each girl underneath a noose, six on one side of the stem and six on the other. The hangman went from girl to girl. He gently pulled a white linen hood over the head of every one. Then he placed the noose around their necks and adjusted the knot, so they would not suffer too much.

“I’m sorry, girl,” the hangman whispered to every single one of the maidens before the hood came down, “But there’s naught I can do but make it quick.”

And so the twelve maidens stood shivering under the gallows, hooded and noosed and awaiting their fate. Some of the girls were crying gently into their execution hoods, while others were quietly mumbling prayers and yet others stood straight and defiant.

Khureim, the Rhadur governor, stood up. “People of Greyvault, you have flagrantly abused the mercy of the Rhadur and cowardly murdered my predecessor, Yordirr the Just. For this despicable crime you shall pay dearly. And so twelve daughters of your city, daughters of your best and most respectable families, shall be hanged by the neck like common criminals in front of the eyes of all. This is my decree and cannot be appealed. May the execution commence.”

Khureim nodded at the executioner. “Hangman, do your duty!”

The hangman placed his hand on the lever that would cause the platform to drop away, leaving the girls suspended at the end of a rope. It wasn’t a long drop, not long enough to break the neck. The girls would strangle and suffer.

But before the hangman could pull the lever, a clap of thunder and a blinding flash of lightning split the night sky, which had been clear only a minute before. Everybody — the soldiers, the spectators, the priests, the hangman and his assistants, the bailiff and even Khureim himself, cowered in fear. Only the girls stood upright on the gallows, shivering from the cold and from fear.

Once the lightning faded, Sharenna loomed before of the gallows, looking taller and scarier than she normally was. Her eyes were fire, her hands were glowing and her flame coloured hair was blowing in the wind.

“Vengeance,” she declared, her voice thunder, “I have come to bring vengeance. Vengeance for a murder unatoned.”

She hurled a fire ball at the soldiers, who scattered in panic. At the same time, Thurvok launched himself at more of the Rhadur soldiers, swinging his mighty blade and cutting down two with one stroke.

While everybody’s attention was focussed on Thurvok and Sharenna, Meldom slipped through the disordered ranks of the soldiers and clambered onto the gallows platform. Within a few steps he had reached Lysha.

“Hush, my love, it’s me, Meldom,” he whispered, as he slashed the noose and her bonds with his dagger, “I’ve come to free you.”

He yanked the execution hood off her face, planted a quick kiss onto her lips and proceeded to free the next girl in line.

“The dead shall rise,” Sharenna intoned and as she stood there with fire in her eyes and her robes flapping in the wind, she looked terrifying indeed, “The dead shall rise and avenge the crimes of the living.”

“Hang them,” Khureim exclaimed, terrified, “Hangman, pull that lever now.”

The hangman, however, did not pull the lever. He just cowered under the gallows platform with his assistants, clearly having decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

And then the dead appeared. The bodies of the hanged, many still wearing a noose around their stretched necks, staggered down the road and fell upon soldiers, officials and spectators alike. One corpse chased the bailiff across the execution ground, while several others closed in on the hangman, who cried, “I didn’t pass the sentence, I just executed it,” over and over again before the dead dragged him down.

The body of Yordirr the Just rose from his pall. He advanced upon Khureim, wrapped his bony hands around his killer’s neck and wrung the life out of him.

Up on the gallows, Meldom had just freed the last of the girls.

“Run,” he cried, “Run for your lives.”

In response, the girls jumped from the platform and ran for the woods, still dressed in their execution gowns, their bare feet pittering and pattering upon the mossy ground.

Meanwhile, Thurvok grabbed Sharenna, much weakened now and barely able to hold herself upright, and hustled her away.

Meldom swept up Lysha in his arms. “Come. I’ll take you away from here.”

***

When the blood moon had sunk beneath the horizon and the first rays of the sun were reaching for the sky, Thurvok, Sharenna, Meldom and a shivering and terrified Lysha were clustered around a campfire at the edge of the wasteland called the Bleak Heath, well away from Greyvault and its Forest of the Hanged.

Meldom had wrapped his cloak around Lysha, while Sharenna handed her a cup of herbal tea brewed over the fire.

“Here. This will calm you and help you rest.”

“Thank you,” Lysha said and took a sip of tea.

Sharenna swayed and Thurvok caught her by the waist. Her skin was paler than usual and dark rings had formed under her green eyes. By now, Thurvok knew the signs well. It was the toll that using her magic always took on her body.

“You should have some tea as well,” he said quietly, “And something to eat.” He reached into his pouch and gave her a few dried grapes.

In response, Sharenna flashed him a grateful smile and briefly allowed herself to lean against him.

Meanwhile, Sharenna’s brew seemed to do its job, for Lysha indeed stopped trembling. She turned to Meldom who hadn’t taken his eyes off her for even the space of a heartbeat, ever since they’d rescued her, and touched his face, as if she still couldn’t quite believe that he was real.

“I… I never thought I’d ever see you again,” Lysha said.

Now, Meldom did lower his eyes. “I never wanted to come back either,” he said, “But I couldn’t let them hang you.”

Lysha cast a shy look at Thurvok and Sharenna. “And who are these people?”

Meldom gave her a lopsided grin. “These are Thurvok the sellsword and Sharenna, sorceress and occasional necromancer.”

“Only when I cannot avoid it,” Sharenna said.

“I know they look scary, but they’re my good friends,” Meldom said, “We travel together and work for whoever will pay us.”

“So you’re a mercenary now?” Lysha asked.

“Aye.” Meldom nodded, though Thurvok could not help but notice that he was still unable to meet Lysha’s eyes. Quite probably because he had done things that would horrify the girl who’d hidden a scrawny thief in her wardrobe all those years ago.

As he moved, the silver amulet that Meldom always wore around his neck gleamed in the light of the flickering flames. The glimmer caught Lysha’s eye. She reached out and touched the amulet.

“You still have this?”

Meldom nodded. “Always, my love.”

He wrapped his arms around Lysha and pulled her close, for this one moment keeping her safe from the world and all its dangers.

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month for April 2021

Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month
It’s that time of the month again, time for “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie and small press authors newly published this month, though some March books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Once again, we have new releases covering the whole broad spectrum of speculative fiction. This month, we have epic fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal mystery, paranormal romance, science fiction romance, space opera, military science fiction, dystopian fiction, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, gothic horror, vampires, werewolves, dragons, demons, aliens, ghosts, superheroes, time travel, global warming, voodoo, space explorers, wizards, cyborg detectives, crime-busting witches, crime-busting psychics, paradox twins and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Speculative Fiction Showcase, a group blog run by Jessica Rydill and myself, which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things speculative fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

The Red Man and Others by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van StratenThe Red Man and Others by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten:

Teenage con-artist Sebastien and sell-sword Kaila get even with a cult, while Ymke learns what true strength is. As the women find each other, the boy finds sainthood.

Three journeys of self-discovery; three stories of loss, love and adventure:

In a divided city, the small but tough sell-sword Kaila and the teenage con-artist Sebastien don their disguises and play their parts to get their own back on a religious cult.

In the war-torn north of Cruoningha, Ymke and her father live in exile. When her father rescues a giant warrior, Ymke learns that strength is not a matter of muscle alone, and that sometimes the price of hiding is too great.

As Sebastien is elevated to sainthood on the rock of Otasfaust, the Kaila and Ymke find each other, and a new purpose for their talents.

The paperback edition is expanded from the digital edition, and features additional art, flash fic and an interview.

Coyle and Fang: Curse of Shadows by Robert Adauto IIICoyle and Fang: Curse of Shadows by Robert Adauto III:

Sherlyn Coyle is left for dead by her murderous ex-fiance, known around the world as “The Ripper”. Using her brilliant crime-solving skills to become a detective, she plans to bring him to justice. But the year is 1892 in a male-dominated world and the odds are pitted against her.

Fang, a lab-created vampire assassin, has just broken out of her cell and she’s looking for the man who put her there. But the ghost of her dead sister turns her in a different direction, one that requires her to seek help in the form of a brilliant detective.

Together they learn an ancient book, The Curse of Shadows, has been stolen by an evil genius; Moreci, the same man who helped create Fang. Can Coyle and Fang trust each other enough to find and stop Moreci from killing tens of thousands?

Set in an alternative steampunk history, Coyle and Fang: Curse of Shadows is the first installment of a series. Each book is packed with rich characters, intrigue and so much action, you won’t want to put the book down.

Warrior's Reign by Emma AlisynWarrior’s Reign by Emma Alisyn:

Redemption. Assassination. A bond forged under dark fire.

Reign Obe’shan is hot headed. Infuriating. Ambitious—

—unfailingly loyal and willing to maim, kill, or die for duty.

Reign’s boss, Imperial royal warrior Vykhan loves her in secret, concealing his identity. Dark secrets shadow his steps, and despite his vow to protect her from a distance, his past threatens to ensnare them both.

He fears if he unleashes his inner beast it will have no mercy, not even for his fated mate.

But to block an enemy from claiming her—body and life—he has no choice but to let his dark side reign.

Warrior’s Reign is a sci fi alien fantasy romance for readers who love adventure, enemies and friends to lovers, fated mates, royal intrigue and steamy, edgy chemistry. Standalone, Book 6 in the Warrior of Yedahn series.

Tossing Dice by A.E. BransonTossing Dice by A.E. Branson:

Humanity has divided into two factions: the Elite ruling class that demands all persons submit to biotechnical enhancements, and the opponents driven underground because they desire to retain their individuality.

When an Intellectual Militant Prototype, known by the acronym IMP, decides to desert the Elite forces that created him, he gambles there is one logical choice on where to go. As a soldier genetically engineered to be a physically superior man, he isn’t readily received by his former enemies. But there are those willing to wager he can tip the odds in their favor to end a decades-long war.

His new life brings the IMP closer to his own humanity, but he also discovers an incredible secret that could end this conflict. And if the Elite find out about it, mankind may lose its last chance for survival.

Asylum by Lindsay BurokerAsylum by Lindsay Buroker:

A young woman with cybernetic upgrades, Mari Moonrazor has decided to flee the restrictive machine-worshipping cult she was raised in. She longs to know what it’s like to live among normal humans and experience simple biological pleasures like consuming alcohol, kissing a boy, and—most importantly—eating chocolate.

But her mother, the infamous astroshaman leader Kyla Moonrazor, is determined to get her back, even if it means sending a bounty hunter after her.

Mari’s only hope for freedom is to be granted asylum from the leaders of the powerful Star Kingdom. First, she must prove that she has knowledge and resources she can offer them. Second, she has to earn their trust.

This all would have been easier if her people hadn’t bombed their planet…

~

Asylum is a stand-alone novel in the Star Kingdom universe. It introduces new heroes, but old fans will enjoy visits with Casmir, Kim, Qin, Laser, Oku, and other favorites from the original series.

Kingdoms at War by Lindsay BurokerKingdoms at War by Lindsay Buroker:

As a cartography student, Jak has always dreamed of finding the lost dragon gate and exploring and mapping distant worlds.

Developing magical powers and becoming a powerful wizard? Not a chance.

Wizards are cruel and inhumane, warring with each other from their great sky cities and keeping most of humanity enslaved. Jak wants nothing to do with them.

But when he and his archaeologist mother unearth the gate, they attract the attention of the very wizards they sought to avoid. Even more troubling, Jak starts developing magical powers of his own, powers that could rival those of the great rulers.

Fate may have given him the opportunity to change the world.

But the wizard rulers don’t like change, and when they detect threats, they send their elite assassins to eliminate them.

If Jak can’t unlock the power of the gate, and the powers within himself, the world will remain enslaved forever.

The Paradox Twins by Joshua ChaplinskyThe Paradox Twins by Joshua Chaplinsky:

The Paradox Twins is a copyright infringing biographical collage that exists on the Internet, pieced together by an unknown auteur.

Named for the famous thought experiment, it concerns estranged twin brothers who reunite at their father’s funeral to discover they no longer look alike. Haunted by the past (and possibly the future), they move into their father’s house to settle his affairs, only to reignite old rivalries and uncover long-hidden secrets, most of which involve the young woman who lives next door.

An epistolary work comprised of excerpts from various memoirs, novels, screenplay adaptations, and documents of public record, The Paradox Twins is an experimental, sci-fi ghost story about the scariest, most unknowable quantity there is-family.

unravelingtheparadox.com

Still of the Night by Cerise ColeStill of the Night by Cerise Cole:

he seals are cracking. Hell will follow after, and I’m caught in the middle.

Everyone says I’m cursed. My father would’ve used the word evil. That’s his excuse for being so strict, at any rate. Little does he know how right he is. I might look like a good girl on the outside, but deep down I’m really not.

I carry the mark on my hand to prove it.

But being good means not getting in trouble at school or he’ll take it out on me. I am barely allowed to hang out with my friends, and they’re starting to resent it. The safe and stable life I’ve been forced into is falling apart.

Then my stepbrother moves in.

Suddenly, being good doesn’t seem so important. He makes friends with the local bad boys, and being around them feels like exactly where I belong. The problem is that Dad is having none of it. They’re trouble, I’m supposed to be good, and the only one suffering here is me.

I’m going to have to choose what matters most. Is it the years I’ve spent with my best friend? The boyfriend who’s my escape from this insanity? Or maybe it’s the three guys who finally make me feel alive – even with all the secrets they keep.

Secrets that I’m stuck in the middle of.
Secrets that prove I’m so much worse than I thought.
Secrets that are tied directly to the scar on my hand.

Supernova by C. GockelSupernova by C. Gockel:

The final chapter in the Archangel Project Series.

Beyond the borders of known space a Dark Fleet is gathering…

Volka, 6T9, Carl Sagan, and their band of sentient faster-than-light ships are charged with finding the Dark’s forces. But the enemy is closer than they realize, and the Dark’s next strike will be sooner than they think.

When the attack comes our heroes will be forced to evolve once more. Volka has become a true telepath. To fight the Dark, she must become a true leader as well. 6T9 is capable of destruction with a machine’s lack of remorse. He must learn when to stay his hand…not just to save humanity, but to keep the woman he loves.

They must succeed, because the Dark has been evolving too. Carefully. Methodically. And it will stop at nothing short of the extinction of the human race.

Hex, Drugs and Rock and Roll by Lily Harper HartHex, Drugs and Rock and Roll by Lily Harper Hart:

There’s a dark shadow hanging over the French Quarter, and Ofelia Archer is constantly looking over her shoulder because of it, waiting for the enemy to strike. While searching for one enemy, however, she finds another.

On what was supposed to be a relaxing day on the riverwalk, a knife-wielding man tries to take out a street performer and chaos ensues. Ofelia manages to disarm the assailant, but when he’s being loaded into a police cruiser he explodes – literally – releasing a wave of magic that knocks down everybody in Jackson Square.

Upon waking up, Ofelia is convinced it was some sort of surgical attack. When some of the people present at the event start tracking her down with murder on their minds, she becomes more convinced than ever that she was right.

Tourists, police officers, and locals are becoming possessed. The one thing they all seem to have in common is a need to track down Ofelia … and end her.

Zacharias Sully vowed to protect Ofelia no matter what. The odds this time feel longer than ever.

Ofelia and Sully are a team. Working together, they must find a hidden enemy while another stalks their every move. It’s going to take both of them together to come out safely on the other side.

What’s waiting for them there might be even more terrifying.

Legend of the Easter Dragon by Kelsey HodgeLegend of the Easter Dragon by Kelsey Hodge:

Alwyn

Secrets and ancient prophecies are all make-believe, right?

I’m nobody special, just your average person looking forward to the one day a year I get to spend with my best friend. Suddenly, when fairytales and prophecies storm into my life, everything changes… quite literally.

Llewellyn

Some secrets are necessary when the truth is unbelievable.

Alwyn’s always been special to me, but there are things I keep hidden from him. Revelations that are too unbelievable for the human world. When my best friend is suddenly thrust into my world, the truth must be told, and our friendship and future change in ways I never expected—but always secretly hoped for.

The Grissom Contention by Julia HuniThe Grissom Contention by Julia Huni:

Honor and glory await those who graduate from the Explorer Academy. Or so she’s been told…

Fresh from the mission to Earth, Siti Kassis, daughter of the “Hero of Darenti Four,” enrolls in the Colonial Explorer Corps academy–the same academy where her father was the captain of the grav-ball team, and still holds flight records for the extreme piloting competitions. As the daughter of a revered alum, she’s expected to lead the legacy students to victory in every training scenario and game.

But Siti wants to prove her own worth. Shunned by the other legacies when she refuses to play by their unfair rules, she joins a band of misfits for her class’s most arduous trial: Prime Survival Week.

When Siti and her friends discover they’ve been dropped into PSW with no supplies, no rules, and no end, will they figure out how to survive? Or will they devise a plan to win?

Tropical Punch by S.C. JensenTropical Punch by S.C. Jensen:

Strippers, Drugs, and Headless Corpses…

All in a day’s work for Bubbles Marlowe, HoloCity’s only cyborg detective.

What do an anti-tech cult, a deadly new street drug, and the corrupt Chief of Police have in common?

It’s a question Bubbles can’t afford to ask. Last time she got curious it cost her job, a limb, and almost her life.

She vows to stay out of police business. But with a newly minted cybernetic enhancement, a semi-legal P.I. licence, and a knack for asking the wrong kind of questions…

Vows are made to be broken.

But as the body count stacks up, Bubbles realizes she’s made a terrible mistake.

Can she figure out who is behind the murders before she loses her head?

If you love glitter, grit, and hard-boiled badassery, you’ll love this new take on the classic detective novel because it’s got non-stop action, lots of laughs, and a sassy robotic pig.

God King Rising by Jeffrey L. KohanekGod King Rising by Jeffrey L. Kohanek:

Two queens.

One rules by fear, her citizens laboring to fund the lavish lifestyle of the wizard class. The other believes in justice and compassion, earning her the love of her subjects…and the enmity of her wizard peers.

Both will die.

In one wizardom, a secret rebellion brews. A hero to the people rises, fueled by a mysterious sorcerer’s blood magic. But at what cost?

Conspiracies and assassins lurk in every shadow, threatening the throne of another nation. The scheming wizard behind it will stop at nothing to claim the crown. Yet, even he is a pawn.

What force is behind it all? What is their endgame?

Blood Debt by Erme LanderBlood Debt by Erme Lander:

“It’s not a nervous tick Gavin. If this gets out I could kill someone.”

Addicted to the drugs she is taking to suppress her changing abilities, Mika is readying herself to take over the position of Court Medici when she hears her sons have arrived at the border between the two countries and are asking for her. They are strangers, she’s not met them since she gave them up as babies thirteen years ago and they have their own problems. Her only hope – and theirs – lies in the changer community in the mountains.

Mika – nothing more than a fifteen year old girl who has lost her twin brother. The circumstances leading to her arranged marriage and the unwanted discovery that she can change her skin.

The Medici Chronicles follows Mika through nearly twenty years of her life as she disguises herself as a boy to survive, learns to become a Medici and struggles to find where she belongs.

The events in Blood Debt happen about three years after those in Medici of Ackbarr.

A Little Slice of Death by Amanda M. LeeA Little Slice of Death by Amanda M. Lee:

Stormy Morgan thought coming home to Shadow Hills would break her. Instead, she’s found strength, and only part of it is because she’s discovered that she’s a witch. Now, with her great-grandmother coming to town, she’s finally in line for some answers. Now she just has to solve a pesky little murder before she’s free to cast and curse.

Following their first date, a quiet outing for pizza and romance, Stormy and her boyfriend Hunter Ryan discover that the owner Giovanni Rossi was gunned down in his parking lot sometime during the overnight hours. To make matters worse, Stormy believes she dreamed of the murder before finding out about it, which throws everybody for a loop.

Even though Hunter would prefer Stormy focus on her great-grandmother, he’s resigned to the fact that she can’t turn away from the investigation. Together, they start digging … and discover some disturbing clues involving various community members.

Stormy’s magic is evolving, almost on a daily basis, and it’s only outpaced by her curiosity. Once faced with a mystery, she can’t look away, and those who love her most will be dragged along for the ride.

Strap in, because as Stormy learns more about what she can do – with a little help from the Winchesters from Hemlock Cove – she’ll become a force to be reckoned with. She just has to survive long enough to reach her full potential … and that’s easier said than done.

Too Good to Be True by M.T. McGuireToo Good To Be True by M.T. McGuire:

A job that calls for a hero. But they’re busy.

When The Pan of Hamgee encounters some mudlarkers trying to land a box on the banks of the River Dang he is happy to help. Having accepted a share of the contents as a reward he cannot believe his luck. It contains one of the most expensive delicacies available in K’Barth, Goojan spiced sausage. If he can sell it, the sausage might spell the end of his troubles. On the other hand, knowing his luck, it could bring a whole load more.

Written in British English with a dash of light swearing. Suitable for any reader of any age from 10 up – younger readers who have read all the Harry Potter books without any worries will be fine with the Hamgeean Misfit stories.

Imperial Recruit by Terry MixonImperial Recruit by Terry Mixon:

Andrea Tolliver—a genetically designed human from the Singularity—has finally earned a spot in the Imperial Marines. If she makes it through training, she’ll earn citizenship.

If not—well, best not to think about that.

With ruthless enemies willing to do anything to stop her, she’ll need all the help she can get to survive. Even with friends working from the shadows to keep her safe, will that be enough to keep her alive?

The Emissary by G.J. OgdenThe Emissary by G.J. Ogden:

Space is cold. But the heart of an Omega Captain is colder still

The Sa’Nerra were close to defeat, then everything changed. Armed with a unique neural weapon, the merciless alien warriors turned Fleet crew against their own. Entire warships went rogue. Suspicion and fear ran riot. Surrender seemed like the only option.

But Captain Lucas Sterling knows that in the fight against the Sa’Nerra there is only victory or death.

Sterling is an Omega Captain. His rank and his command of the Fleet Marauder Invictus were both won in a depraved and monstrous trial of grit and determination.

Sterling will do anything to ensure the Sa’Nerra do not prevail. Even if that means killing Fleet crew that have been “turned”. Even if that means killing the people he loves.

But the neural control weapon is not the only danger Fleet faces. Deep inside the Void the aliens are building a super-weapon. Sterling and his crew must destroy it at all costs.

Back on Earth, the United Governments are desperate for peace. Then after fifty years without a single word of contact between the two races, the Sa’Nerra finally send an emissary.

But the belligerent alien race sent an emissary of war, not peace.

The fate of humanity now lies in the hands of Captain Sterling and the Omega officers of the Invictus. But victory is only possible if he is willing to do anything it takes to win.

The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers by Matthew Pungitore The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers and Other Stories by Matthew Pungitore:

In “The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers,” Matthew Pungitore crafts a spine-chilling story about a surreal chain of maddening events surrounding a historian and his beloved friend. Encounter a lurid report written in a disturbing manuscript found in a Gothic crypt guarded by strange rumors and an indescribable being. Additionally, this anthology includes many more thrilling yarns most grotesque, most sublime, wonderfully Gothic, charmingly dreamy, and certainly weird: “Black Torque Demon,” “Dubhdris Abbey,” “Fetch of Prismatic Froth,” “Grumocruth,” “Idyll For An Allhallowtide Masque And Romance,” “Jade Gorget Hex,” “O Tumult Unearthly,” “Platinoid Pearl Rapture,” “Ultramundane Numina in the Forbidden Tomb,” and “Zynzblazoth.”

Eyes of Tomorrow by Glynn StewartEyes of Tomorrow by Glynn Stewart:

An ancient power unleashed from its prison.
Fleets summoned by oaths old and new alike.
A rising tide of war that may consume the galaxy!

Captain Morgan Casimir’s mission to stop a war has ended in a nightmare. In the heart of an ignored nebula, trapped behind a ring of newborn stars, she has awoken a creature of another time: the horde of biological starships who call themselves the Infinite.

Fifty thousand years ago, the Infinite drove the galaxy’s Alavan Precursors to a grave mistake that destroyed all that was. Unleashed once more by the very people Morgan Casimir sought to stop, the Infinite now threaten an entirely new era. The only thing standing in their way is a fragile alliance of old enemies, determined to keep them contained in the Astoroko Nebula.

But when that ancient prison fails, the galaxy must stand together—or watch the beginning of a golden age dissolve into apocalypse…

Cursed Demon by Brogan ThomasCursed Demon by Brogan Thomas:

In this world…

…being human is a death sentence.

Surrounded by powerful and dangerous creatures, Emma relies on her demon master for his protection. She has spent her whole life trying to keep out of trouble and stay in his good graces.

But when a freak accident causes her to stumble upon a restricted building, she makes a shocking discovery, a rare female wolf shifter.

Determined to help the wolf shifter escape and find her pack, Emma is forced to flee the demon’s estate…all the while dreading the reaction of her demon master once he finds out. But he’s the least of her problems. She soon finds herself in the crosshairs of a less-than-grateful elite hellhound.

Accused of crimes she didn’t commit and kidnapped by the infuriated hellhound, Emma’s only solace is in the fact that she’s immune to magic. But immunity to magic, as she finds out, can be both a blessing and a curse…

Tempest in the Tea Leaves by Kari Lee TownsendTempest on the Tea Leaves by Kari Lee Townsend:

In the fortune telling business there are a lot of pretenders, but Sunshine Meadows is the real deal—and her predictions can be lethally accurate…

Leaving the Big Apple for the quaint town of Divinity, New York, Sunny is determined to make it on her own as a psychic. With an ancient Victorian house as her place of business, Sunny uses various psychic methods to aid the town’s residents. But when she uses tea leaves to give a reading for a frazzled librarian, what she finds at the bottom of the cup is anything but helpful. Sunny informs the police of her deadly vision, but her warning is too late. And with hard-nosed, ruggedly handsome Detective Mitch Stone denying her abilities and naming her prime suspect, the situation is dire. Now Sunny has to use her visions to clear her name, before the killer can put an end to the psychic’s.

SpiceFire 3: The Temple of Andromeda by B.J. WestSpliceFire 3: The Temple of Andromeda by B.J. West:

Spider King barely knows anything about the mysterious programmer known only as St. Jude,” except that she pays well and keeps her cards well-hidden. That’s understandable considering she’s hiding from Richard Newbridge, a cold-blooded industrialist bent on killing her for stealing priceless secrets.

Once again, she comes to the Gordian Net for help, but this time it’s a job so dangerous that no amount of money seems enough to take it on. She is asking them to break her father, a top-level computer scientist, out of the most secure prison on the planet.

Are Spider, Nishi, and Elegua in over their heads this time?

Carrie Anne's World by Mark WhitewayCarrie Anne’s World by Mark Whiteway:

Mike O’Keefe arrives on the paradise island of Koh Tao only to be caught up in a terrorist attack by a radical environmental group. In a recurring dream, he encounters a mysterious young girl on a beach who cannot remember her past. She writes a message in the sand, 6 = 3, and begs him to help her find the “Saelak”. Dismissing the experience as the product of a fevered imagination, he settles into life on the island. But when the environmental threat ramps up and elements of his dream world begin bleeding into reality, Mike is propelled on a journey across time and space that must end in the destruction or salvation of Humanity.

Bayou Whispers by R.B. WoodBayou Whispers by R.B. Wood:

Bayou Whispers, the latest thriller from horror writer R.B. Wood, is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones.

Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian god.

Proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing—Tales from the Darkest Depths.

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Indie Crime Fiction of the Month for April 2021


Welcome to the latest edition of “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of crime fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some March books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Our new releases cover the broad spectrum of crime fiction. We have cozy mysteries, culinary mysteries, historical mysteries, Jazz Age mysteries, 1950s mysteries, paranormal mysteries, hardboiled mysteries, steampunk mysteries, science fiction mysteries, humorous crime fiction, crime thrillers, adventure thrillers, environmental thrillers, legal thrillers, sea adventures, police officers, amateur sleuths, private investigators, FBI agents, lawyers, gangsters, serial killers, organised crime, missing girls, wrongful accusations, bioterrorism, crime-busting witches, crime-busting socialites, crime-busting maids, crime-busting seamstresses, cyborg detectives, murderous carnivals, deadly divorces, murder and mayhem in London, Venice, Minnesota, California, Louisiana, the Florida Keys, Hawaii and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Crime Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Indie Crime Scene, a group blog which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things crime fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

Coyle and Fang: Curse of Shadows by Robert Adauto IIICoyle and Fang: Curse of Shadows by Robert Adauto III:

Sherlyn Coyle is left for dead by her murderous ex-fiance, known around the world as “The Ripper”. Using her brilliant crime-solving skills to become a detective, she plans to bring him to justice. But the year is 1892 in a male-dominated world and the odds are pitted against her.

Fang, a lab-created vampire assassin, has just broken out of her cell and she’s looking for the man who put her there. But the ghost of her dead sister turns her in a different direction, one that requires her to seek help in the form of a brilliant detective.

Together they learn an ancient book, The Curse of Shadows, has been stolen by an evil genius; Moreci, the same man who helped create Fang. Can Coyle and Fang trust each other enough to find and stop Moreci from killing tens of thousands?

Set in an alternative steampunk history, Coyle and Fang: Curse of Shadows is the first installment of a series. Each book is packed with rich characters, intrigue and so much action, you won’t want to put the book down.

An Untidy End by Blythe BakerAn Untidy End by Blythe Baker:

Anna Fairweather stands on the brink of discovering the answers to questions that have haunted her since childhood. Still, danger looms over her…

When Anna, Jerome, and Mrs. Montford journey from London to Venice in search of a missing person, a train conductor turns up dead. Can Anna capture the murderer before they reach their destination?

 

 

A Stab of Dread by Blythe BakerA Stab of Dread by Blythe Baker:

A Christmas eve party with friends ends in an unexpected death, leaving it up to Lily and Iris Dickinson to catch a murderer. But when details of a horrible event from the past come to light, will both sisters be too distracted to see the final answer that has been right in front of them all along?

 

 

 

Waterborne by J. Luke BenneckeWaterborne by J. Luke Bennecke:

A thought-provoking thriller about a very real threat to the essence of life: water. You’ll be forced to consider how you’d react if you were cornered and trapped in a terrifying, life-threatening situation. Jake Bendel and a cunning team of experts create a five-plant desalination system – all powered by environmentally friendly molten salt reactors – providing clean, healthy drinking water to millions of thirsty Californians. But the dark side of humanity sees this as a chance for revenge against the United States. A genius weaponizes the system, threatening to kill more Americans than all of World War II.

The clock is ticking. Can Jake and the FBI stop the terrorists before more innocent people are murdered in the name of the Jihad? WATERBORNE will grab you by the throat and pull you into a vicious struggle that will define the fate of the world for generations to come.

The Inexorable Tide of Mystery by Beth ByersThe Inexorable Tide of Mystery by Beth Byers:

August 1925

London England

Severine DuNoir has escaped the gangsters in America and journeyed with her friends across the sea. Everything is different. Most importantly no one cares who her family is or what they’ve done.

That is, until, a body turns up and the members of Severine’s makeshift family are among the suspects. Now it’s time to discover who killed this person, why, and how they’re going to prove it.

Twisted Justice by Dennis CarstensTwisted Justice by Dennis Carstens:

“I’M BETTER OFF KILLING HER,” HE SAID…

Those offhand words come back to haunt him when his wife’s found stabbed in her lover’s parking garage. It seemed like a harmless enough remark at the time – the joking reaction of a wealthy man to the cost of divorce.

But now he’s the obvious suspect.

And his lawyer, Marc Kadella, has to tell him the other bad news. His wife was running quite the side business as a dominatrix.

The husband thought she was just a lady who lunched, who’d never had a job other than the one she had when he met her – Minnesota Vikings cheerleader – but it seems she and her friends were still a hard-working squad.

The group of eight ex-cheerleaders had moved their gymnastics indoors, building a lucrative prostitution business, and his wife had developed her own specialty—along with a stash of secrets belonging to some of the most influential and powerful men in the state.

The case is a prosecutor’s dream—the defendant’s phone records show he went to a party, then traveled to the scene of the murder, and back to the party. So obviously open-and-shut the police haven’t even bothered to look at other suspects.

That leaves Marc an opening for the daring defense known in the trade as SODDI: Some Other Dude Did It.

Fortune Funhouse by Jana DeLeonFortune Funhouse by Jana DeLeon:

Death is a roller coaster.

The traveling carnival has made its stop in Sinful and everyone is ready for thrilling rides, challenging games, and most importantly, funnel cake. But when a man is murdered in the funhouse and Emmaline LeBlanc is knocked unconscious so the killer can escape, the good times are over. Carter is beside himself wanting to hunt down the man responsible for putting his mother in the hospital, but he can’t investigate when he’s related to one of the victims.

Palmer Reed was well known as a boy by most everyone in Sinful for being a sneak, a liar, and sometimes a thief. As an adult, he continued his reign of underachieving and mostly making people angry wherever he went. Now he’s a state police detective and is assigned to the case, but Fortune knows that to get Carter the answers he needs, Swamp Team 3 has to take on the investigation. As they dig deep into the confusion and lies that surround the murder, they uncover a secret that could devastate Carter and Emmaline, but Fortune is determined to discover the truth…whatever that may be.

Justice in Time by John EllsworthJustice in Time by John Ellsworth:

Assistant District Attorney Lettie Portman charges a U.S. Senator with the murder of his wife. The wife was found dead sitting in her Mercedes with a garden house from the exhaust into her window. Suicide? Maybe, except the detectives learn the wife’s fingerprints are nowhere on the hose. She appears to reach from the grave and point an accusing finger at her husband. And there’s another twist: the Senator’s Million Dollar Lawyer is involved in a deadly conspiracy against Lettie.

Lettie is hard at work on the case when she finds Detective Tony Reedy won’t give up on her. She’s been injured before when she lost her childhood. But she wants to love again and she asks him to wait. He reaches out but will he be able to touch her?

The Big Gamble by Mike FaricyThe Big Gamble by Mike Faricy:

Dev Haskell receives a phone call from an old friend. It’s feared Dev’s old high school flame, Maddie McGuire, has fallen through the ice along the Mississippi River and can’t be found. Dev hasn’t seen her since she married ne’er do well, Colton Ferral. After attending the memorial service and reconnecting with her sisters, he comes away with more questions than answers.

Local crime lord, Tubby Gustafson, has some questions for Dev, too. Amazingly, Colton Ferral’s name comes up. Of course, what better time to offer a spare bedroom on Airbnb, not to mention a surprise guest who arrives on the scene.

Sit back and enjoy another delightful Dev Haskell tale.

A wonderful read to remind you that, actually, your life is pretty good!

As always, Morton, Dev’s Golden Retriever, provides a dose of sanity.

Hex, Drugs and Rock and Roll by Lily Harper HartHex, Drugs and Rock and Roll by Lily Harper Hart:

There’s a dark shadow hanging over the French Quarter, and Ofelia Archer is constantly looking over her shoulder because of it, waiting for the enemy to strike. While searching for one enemy, however, she finds another.

On what was supposed to be a relaxing day on the riverwalk, a knife-wielding man tries to take out a street performer and chaos ensues. Ofelia manages to disarm the assailant, but when he’s being loaded into a police cruiser he explodes – literally – releasing a wave of magic that knocks down everybody in Jackson Square.

Upon waking up, Ofelia is convinced it was some sort of surgical attack. When some of the people present at the event start tracking her down with murder on their minds, she becomes more convinced than ever that she was right.

Tourists, police officers, and locals are becoming possessed. The one thing they all seem to have in common is a need to track down Ofelia … and end her.

Zacharias Sully vowed to protect Ofelia no matter what. The odds this time feel longer than ever.

Ofelia and Sully are a team. Working together, they must find a hidden enemy while another stalks their every move. It’s going to take both of them together to come out safely on the other side.

What’s waiting for them there might be even more terrifying.

Tropical Punch by S.C. JensenTropical Punch by S.C. Jensen:

Strippers, Drugs, and Headless Corpses…

All in a day’s work for Bubbles Marlowe, HoloCity’s only cyborg detective.

What do an anti-tech cult, a deadly new street drug, and the corrupt Chief of Police have in common?

It’s a question Bubbles can’t afford to ask. Last time she got curious it cost her job, a limb, and almost her life.

She vows to stay out of police business. But with a newly minted cybernetic enhancement, a semi-legal P.I. licence, and a knack for asking the wrong kind of questions…

Vows are made to be broken.

But as the body count stacks up, Bubbles realizes she’s made a terrible mistake.

Can she figure out who is behind the murders before she loses her head?

If you love glitter, grit, and hard-boiled badassery, you’ll love this new take on the classic detective novel because it’s got non-stop action, lots of laughs, and a sassy robotic pig.

Sunken Graves by Alan LeeSunken Graves by Alan Lee:

Peter Lynch is a monster. A sociopathic attorney hiding in plain sight behind billboards and a successful career. With the highest connections, he terrorizes the city and buries the evidence, and there’s no way to stop him. Until one discharged Green Beret decides to try…

A novel of crime and suspense, from best-selling author Alan Lee.

 

 

A Little Slice of Death by Amanda M. LeeA Little Slice of Death by Amanda M. Lee:

Stormy Morgan thought coming home to Shadow Hills would break her. Instead, she’s found strength, and only part of it is because she’s discovered that she’s a witch. Now, with her great-grandmother coming to town, she’s finally in line for some answers. Now she just has to solve a pesky little murder before she’s free to cast and curse.

Following their first date, a quiet outing for pizza and romance, Stormy and her boyfriend Hunter Ryan discover that the owner Giovanni Rossi was gunned down in his parking lot sometime during the overnight hours. To make matters worse, Stormy believes she dreamed of the murder before finding out about it, which throws everybody for a loop.

Even though Hunter would prefer Stormy focus on her great-grandmother, he’s resigned to the fact that she can’t turn away from the investigation. Together, they start digging … and discover some disturbing clues involving various community members.

Stormy’s magic is evolving, almost on a daily basis, and it’s only outpaced by her curiosity. Once faced with a mystery, she can’t look away, and those who love her most will be dragged along for the ride.

Strap in, because as Stormy learns more about what she can do – with a little help from the Winchesters from Hemlock Cove – she’ll become a force to be reckoned with. She just has to survive long enough to reach her full potential … and that’s easier said than done.

The Easter Egg Ennui by Katy LeenThe Easter Egg Ennui by Katy Leen:

It’s almost Easter. Time for bunnies, bonnets, and bonbons. Not bedlam. Unless you’re Lora Weaver, that is.

With the scent of spring in the air and the promise of a long weekend looming, Lora is looking forward to a few days relaxing with her beau Adam, taking long walks and short naps snuggled together in the warm glow of Easter chocolate wrappers.

Until Lora spots a bouquet of Easter lilies at the home of bff Camille Caron’s aunt and soon finds herself donning a bunny suit and slinging more than Easter eggs.

Whiskers deep in a mêlée of sparring seniors, Lora must keep herself from falling into a rabbit hole she can’t escape. All while grappling with the clamorous Caron clan, mama-to-be Tina, and Lora’s enigma of a boss, Laurent, who may be hiding more secrets than a Kinder egg.

The Easter Egg Ennui is a holiday novella from the Lora Weaver series.

Shark Cove by Toby NealShark Cove by Toby Neal:

The past never stays buried.

Sixteen years ago, Sergeant Lei Texeira met Harriet Vierra and Malia, the infant she adopted, in a deadly encounter in Mexico. Now a detective with the Maui Police Department, Harry works with Lei, and Malia, a teen sleuth, is determined to find her lost friend Camille.

But Camille is only one of many missing girls.

Young women are vanishing across the islands without a trace. Lei and Harry search for answers with the FBI, as Malia secretly conducts her own dangerous investigation: but for the girls taken by traffickers, time is running out.

Rising Tide by Wayne StinnettRising Tide by Wayne Stinnett:

When a small homemade boat drifts under the Seven Mile Bridge, Jesse McDermitt doesn’t hesitate to jump in and pull the boat ashore on Pigeon Key with an injured boy aboard.

The boy provides more questions than answers. He’s believed to be a Cuban refugee, yet when he regains consciousness, he speaks perfect English, but can’t even remember his name.

Clues point to the boy coming from Fort Myers, Jesse’s hometown. After going to war with drug smugglers there, Jesse has no desire to go back. But something is pulling at his wife’s heart strings.

With only a week before he has to leave for bigger, broader horizons, will Jesse be able to solve the mystery of the “lost boy” in time. Will the clues he finds along the way lead him deeper into the world of gang warfare than he wants to go?

Things are about to get hot in the Florida Keys, and it’s not just the spring weather.

Murder at the Dude Ranch by Lee and Norm StraussMurder at the Dude Ranch by Lee and Norm Strauss:

Murder’s a wild ride!

Rosa Reed takes a much needed break from her thriving private investigative work by joining her cousin Clarence and Aunt Louisa for a weekend getaway at the Black Stallion Dude Ranch near Santa Bonita, California. It’s the beginning of 1957 and Rosa is ready for a fresh start. Newly single, all she needs is time on the trails, and cuddles from her tabby cat, Diego.

The peace and quiet of ranch life is soon disrupted when a horse returns from a trail ride without its rider. When foul play is determined, Rosa finds herself thrust once again into a murder investigation alongside the handsome detective Miguel Belmonte.

Suspicion falls on many of the guests—the failed investment banker, the laundromat owner, the heiress, and to Rosa’s dismay, her own cousin Clarence.

Can Rosa prove her cousin’s innocence before the cows come home?

Tempest in the Tea Leaves by Kari Lee TownsendTempest on the Tea Leaves by Kari Lee Townsend:

In the fortune telling business there are a lot of pretenders, but Sunshine Meadows is the real deal—and her predictions can be lethally accurate…

Leaving the Big Apple for the quaint town of Divinity, New York, Sunny is determined to make it on her own as a psychic. With an ancient Victorian house as her place of business, Sunny uses various psychic methods to aid the town’s residents. But when she uses tea leaves to give a reading for a frazzled librarian, what she finds at the bottom of the cup is anything but helpful. Sunny informs the police of her deadly vision, but her warning is too late. And with hard-nosed, ruggedly handsome Detective Mitch Stone denying her abilities and naming her prime suspect, the situation is dire. Now Sunny has to use her visions to clear her name, before the killer can put an end to the psychic’s.

Bayou Whispers by R.B. WoodBayou Whispers by R.B. Wood:

Bayou Whispers, the latest thriller from horror writer R.B. Wood, is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones.

Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian god.

Proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing—Tales from the Darkest Depths.

Cold as Ice Cream by P.D. WorkmanCold As Ice Cream by P.D. Workman:

How could a few bubbles have gone so wrong?

It’s a CO2 cook-off! Chef Kirschoff and Vic’s friends from the Alaskan cruise are back for a carbonation contest, with Erin and Vic acting as two of the judges. It’s fizzy, it’s fun, what could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, someone did not get the memo. At first, when Beryl Batcombe is found dead in the restaurant’s cold room, everyone assumes it was a terrible accident. But as Erin and Vic are drawn into the mystery, it becomes obvious that this was not an innocent mistake.

***** I love this series! This time Erin and Vic are reunited with friends they made on a recent Alaskan cruise. When Chef Kirschoff asks them to judge a culinary contest, they have no idea it will turn deadly. Many secrets will be unearthed before the killer is found. The plot is as twisty as a country road and the characters are well-developed and believable.

Like baking mysteries? Cats, dogs, and other pets? Award-winning and USA Today Bestselling Author P.D. Workman brings readers back to small town Bald Eagle Falls for another culinary cozy mystery to be solved by gluten-free baker Erin Price and her friends.

Have your gluten-free cake and eat it too. Sink your teeth into this sweet treat now!

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New Science Fiction Story Available: Spelunkers

With all the other announcements of the past two weeks, I have almost forgotten that I have a new release to announce as well.

Spelunkers is another story, which came out of the July Short Story Challenge, where the aim is to write one story per day during the month of July. However, Spelunkers came out of the 2019 July Short Story Challenge. I recently dusted it off, because there was a call for submissions I thought it might fit. Alas, it didn’t fit that particular market due to length. But upon rereading the story, I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit and decided to publish it as a standalone.

As with many July Challenge stories, Spelunkers was inspired by a piece of SFF art, namely this one by Nele Diel. This piece of artwork gave me a situation, namely three explorers in a cave with a mysterious portal to hell knows where.

I started writing and quickly realised that I needed a cave, preferably one that was vast enough that you could imagine it containing a mysterious interdimensional portal. So I thought back at all the caves I visited in my life and quickly hit upon the caves of Han-sur-Lesse in the province Namur in Southern Belgium close to the French border. During the last ice age, the river Lesse burrowed its way through a mountain in the Ardennes, leaving behind an extensive network of caves, vast enough to contain a few surprises, including a previously undiscovered interdimensional portal.

Nowadays, the caves of Han-sur-Lesse are one of Belgium’s most popular tourist attractions. I visited them as a teenager and when I needed a cave for Spelunkers, Han-sur-Lesse was the first that came to mind.

Once I had decided on a cave, the setting also influenced the rest of the story. And so the beer that Evan, Kate and Matt are drinking on the patio of their hotel is implied to be Rochefort 10, brewed at the Trappist abbey in the town of Rochefort near Han-sur-Lesse. Rochefort has a cave of its own, which is actually an offshoot of the better known cave of Han-sur-Lesse, though the town is more famous for its beer than its cave. Rochefort 10 is also a personal favourite of mine.

Another personal favourite of mine that made it into the story is Redu, the “village of books”, where Kate would rather browse the shops than trudge through a cave. Redu is another real place in Southern Belgium. It’s one of the oldest book towns in Europe, operating since 1984. Redu has more than twenty bookshops and only about four hundred inhabitants. Alas, the vast majority of the books sold there are in French, so most of what I bought there were comics.

However, Redu doesn’t have only bookshops, it also has an ESTRACK radio antenna and a space-themed museum/theme park hybrid, which makes it even cooler.

I enjoyed those trips to the Belgian Ardennes as a teenager very much and always wanted to write a story set there. In the end, it took almost thirty years for that story to come together and it also wasn’t the story I initially planned to tell, cause that one was about a siren living in the river Lesse and an immortal crusader still ensconced in his castle. Who knows, maybe I’ll eventually write that story as well.

But for now, follow Kate, Evan and Matt as the venture into the uncharted parts of the caves of Han-sur-Less in…

Spelunkers
Spelunkers by Cora BuhlertDuring a holiday in Belgium, college students Evan and Matt decide to explore an uncharted cave in the Ardennes. Also along for the ride is Evan’s sister Kate, who has been tasked with looking out for her brother since early childhood.

Deep inside the cave, Kate, Evan and Matt stumble upon a portal to another world. But does this portal represent the greatest adventure of their lives or a terrible danger…?

This is a science fiction short story of 3800 words or approximately 15 print pages.

 

More information.
Length: 3800 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio and XinXii.

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Cora’s Adventures at Flights of Foundry, the Obligatory 2021 Birthday Post and Some Other News

Life has been busy this last week, so here is an overview post about several of the things that happened in the meantime.

As you may recall, I took part in the virtual 2021 Flights of Foundry convention last weekend.

Last year, Flights of Foundry was one of the first virtual cons. Those experiences were clearly put to good use, because I found Flights of Foundry a well-organised and run virtual con. They used WebX for the panels, which doesn’t have a chat function, so questions were asked in Discord. This set-up took some getting used to, but worked well, once you did.

I was on three panels, moderating two, all on Sunday. My first panel was “Making Your Reader Hungry: Food in SFF”, which I moderated. Initially, there were supposed to be four panelists, but one had to drop out because of a scheduling conflict and one never showed, so I was down to two panelists, Nibedita Sen and Shweta Adhyam. Lucky for me, they were fantastic and I think we had a great and mouthwatering panel.

If the first panel of a con goes well, I’m usually a lot more relaxed about future panels. I also had three hours between my first and second panels, which was another bonus. My second panel, which I also was moderating, was “Romance in SFF” with Grace Draven, Cassie Hart, Elle Ire and Jeffe Kennedy. This was another panel that went really well and with barely a hitch except that one panelist dropped out due to connection issues for two minutes or so. As I’ve said elsewhere, the key to a good panel are really the panelists. If you have good panelists, who have interesting things to say and insights to offer, but who don’t ramble on endlessly, then the panel is certain to be good.

After the romance panel, I had ten minutes or so to switch gears, before I was due to appear on the panel “The Unique Challenges of Speculative Translation”. At least, I didn’t have to dash from one panel room to the next, which sometimes happens during physical cons. Also, I wasn’t moderating this one. Instead, the moderator duties were handled by the excellent Fabio Fernandes. My fellow panelists were Marina Berlin, Julia Meitov Hersey and Janna Ruth. We discussed pronouns, gendered languages and the unique challenges of translating Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie among other things.

Many of the Flights of Foundry panels and presentations were recorded and should be up on the Dream Foundry YouTube channel eventually, so you can still enjoy them, even if you did not get to see them live.

I didn’t get to attend as many other panels, presentations and readings as I wanted either, because Sunday, April 18, also happened to be my birthday, so inbetween panels I was unwrapping presents as well as dealing with phone calls and my lone birthday visitor (except for my parents whom I see every day anyway), my neighbour Rosi, which was a bit of an odd experience, because that’s not normally something that happens during a physical con. I also was out for an hour or so in the afternoon, enjoying nature and the fresh spring green. Initially, I wanted to get myself a celebratory ice cream, but the line at the ice cream parlour’s take-out window was way too long and also standing way too closely together that I decided to scratch that and just enjoyed a walk through the woods instead.

Sailor's Curry

It’s my birthday and a weekend, too, so it was time for sailor’s curry, my favourite childhood dish.

For more about this North German maritime take on curry, go here. If you want my family recipe, it’s in the back of Freedom’s Horizon. Or you can just ask me.

Wrapped birthday presents

Wrapped birthday presents.

Cora unwrapping birthday presents

Unwrapping presents while my Mom looks on.

Unwrapped birthday presents

Unwrapped birthday presents: Behold all the pulpy goodness.

I have now finished replacing my crappy old Robert E. Howard editions full of posthumously completed or altered stories with the Del Rey’s editions. I’m still missing Howard’s westerns and the boxing stories, but I’m not sure if I really need those. Maybe I should try some of the stories before buying to see if I enjoy them.

Some other things happened last week as well: On Wednesday, I was interviewed by a reporter of the local paper Kreiszeitung about my Hugo nomination. The article hasn’t come out yet, but it will be linked here, when it does.

In other news, the progress report No. 1 of Chicon 8, the 2022 Worldcon in Chicago, Illinois, came out last week as well. Normally, this is something I would post in the weekly link round-up at the Speculative Fiction Showcase, but not here.

However, I’m making an exception this time around, because I happen to be mentioned in this progress report on page 14. If PDFs are not your thing, you can also get the gist at File 770.

In short, Chicon 8 has decided not to run the 1947 Retro Hugos because the low participation does not justify the work and costs involved. Instead, Chicon 8 will be running a 1946 Retrospective to take a look at what SFF fiction, non-fiction, film, radio drama, comics and fandom had to offer in 1946. There will be program items, exhibitions and more.

And who will be running this great project? None other than yours truly.

You’ll be hearing more about this in time, but for now I’m really excited to share the SFF of 1946 with the members of Chicon 8 and the rest of the SFF community.

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier come to the conclusion that it’s “One World, One People”

It’s time for my review of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale. If you want my thoughts on previous episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, go here.

Thankfully, Disney is about to come to an agreement with Alan Dean Foster about paying him, as Adam Whitehead reports. However, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw reports, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, who created the Winter Soldier for Marvel, are not getting paid for the use of the character in the series due to bad contracts.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut! Continue reading

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Face the “Truth”

It’s time for my episode by episode reviews of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. If you want my thoughts on previous episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, go here.

Thankfully, Disney is about to come to an agreement with Alan Dean Foster about paying him, as Adam Whitehead reports. However, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw reports, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, who created the Winter Soldier for Marvel, are not getting paid for the use of the character in the series due to bad contracts.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut! Continue reading

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Some Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Finalists

So here is my Hugo finalist reaction post at long last. I know it took a bit longer than usual to get the post up, but since I’m a Hugo finalist myself this year, I took some time off to celebrate, congratulate fellow finalists and update everything that needed updating.

So let’s take a look at the finalists for the 2021 Hugo Award. You can also read the reactions by Camestros Felapton, Doris V. Sutherland, Font Folly, Rob Bricken and Alasdair Stuart. And if you want to read/watch the finalists for yourself, the always excellent JJ has you covered and lists where to find the 2021 Hugo finalists online for free (and legally) at File 770.

And now, let’s delve right into the categories:

Best Novel

This is an excellent, if unsurprising ballot, because all six finalists are books that got a lot of buzz and attention last year. Rebecca Roanhorse is one of the most exciting new voices in our genre and Black Sun is great novel.

N.K. Jemisin has won four Hugos in five years. The City We Became is an expansion of her 2017 short story Hugo finalist “The City Born Great”, which I enjoyed a lot.

Piranesi is Susanna Clarke’s first novel after her 2005 Hugo winner Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and got a lot of buzz well beyond the SFF community. I have to admit that I haven’t read Piranesi yet, even though I enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a lot back in the day. However, I’m no longer the same person I was in 2004/05 and my tastes have changed. Also, as Adri Joy and Joe Sherry point out in their analysis of the 2020 Nebula finalists at nerds of a feather, times have changed a lot in the past sixteen years and the Hugo (and Nebula) ballots look very different today, so what felt like a breath of fresh air back then may no longer feel as fresh today. Which dosn’t mean that I won’t enjoy Piranesi, though it explains why I haven’t been moved to read it yet.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, Network Effect by Martha Wells and The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal are all sequels to previous Hugo finalists and – in the case of the Murderbot and the Lady Astronaut books – winners. Harrow the Ninth and Network Effect are also both highly enjoyable. I haven’t read The Relentless Moon yet.

I’m a bit surprised that Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia did not make the ballot, but then it was maybe a bit too much horror for the tastes of Hugo voters.

Diversity count: 6 women (which I’m sure will lead to the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth among the usual suspects), 2 writers of colour, 2 international writers*.

Best Novella

Again, the finalists in this category are not particularly surprising, because all of them got a lot of attention and buzz last year.

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire is the latest installment in her popular Wayward Children series, which has racked up several Hugo nominations and one win over the past few years. I have to admit that I don’t love the Wayward Children novellas as much as many others obviously do, but they’re clearly popular.

Sarah Gailey is another great new writer who burst onto the scene in the past few years as well as a previous Hugo finalist and winner. The novella seems to be their natural form and Upright Women Wanted is a great story, which also was on my ballot.

P. Djèlí Clark is yet another excellent new writer who came to prominence in the past few years. And yes, I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s the truth. Ring Shout is part of the current mini-trend of Lovecraftian retellings from the POV of people whose mere existence would have horrified Lovecraft. I liked Ring Shout a lot, though it did not make my ballot in the end.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, Finna by Nino Cipri and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi all got a lot of attention last year. Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of them, so I can’t say more about the stories. However, I look forward to checking them out.

Last year, it seemed as if the dominance of Tor.com in the novella category had been broken, but this year it’s back with a vengeance, since all six novella finalists were published by Tor.com. I predict wailing and gnashing of teeth among the usual suspects.

Diversity count: 2 women, 2 men, 2 non-binary, 3 writers of colour, at least 3 LGBTQA writers**

Best Novelette

Yes, I know I’m repeating myself here, but this is another excellent selection of finalists.

“Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker is a great story and was also on my ballot.

“Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A.T. Greenblatt is a story I enjoyed a lot, though in the end it did not make my ballot.

Whenever I see Naomi Kritzer’s name in the TOC of a magazine, I always know that I’ll get a story that’s well worth reading. “Monster” is not exception here. It’s not a happy story, but a very good one. It was not only on my ballot, it was also the first entry on my personal list of potential Hugo nominees for the year 2020. Sadly, “Monster” was a bit overshadowed by another story that came out in the same issue of Clarkesworld, so I’m glad to see it get its due.

Which brings me to “Helicopter Story” by Isabel Fall. This story, known then as “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, caused a massive uproar, since some people felt it was transphobic and thought that it was an attempt to troll Clarkesworld, based on the fact that no one had heard of Isabel Fall before and that her bio was extremly scanty. Things turned ugly, when the Internet suddenly fell on Isabel Fall’s head, leading her to pull the story. It also turned out that Isabel Fall was trans herself, but not yet out, hence the scant bio. Camestros Felapton chronicles the whole saga here.

I actually read the “Helicopter Story” back when it first came out, a week or so before all hell broke loose. At the time, my reaction was, “Nah, I’m not sure what to make of this one. Feels a bit transphobic. Not going to link it in the weekly round-up at the Speculative Fiction Showcase.”

Considering that as many people defended the “Helicopter Story” and nominated it for a Hugo as condemned the story, it truly seems to be a Marmite story. I suspect part of the reason is that Isabel Fall attempted something very ambitious with this story and didn’t pull it off.

Aliette de Bodard is another author whose stories I normally read as soon as they pop up in the TOC of a magazine. Nonetheless, “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” passed me by, probably because it came out at a time when I was very busy. However, I look forward to trying it.

“The Pill” by Meg Elison is a story I haven’t read. It’s also a Nebula finalist this year, so it clearly struck a chord.

We also have a nice distribution of sources here with two stories from Clarkesworld, two from Uncanny, one from Tor.com and one from a collection.

Diversity count: 6 women (cue wailing and gnashing of teeth), 1 writer of colour, 1 international writer, at least 2 LGBTQA writers

Best Short Story

Another selection of fine stories.

“Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher was also on my Hugo ballot, while “Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer, “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee and “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson made my longlist, but not my ballot in the end, because there are simply too many good short stories out there.

I have read neither “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad nor “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, though both are also Nebula finalists this year.

Again, we have a nice distribution of venues with two stories from Uncanny, one from Tor.com, one from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, one from Diabolical Plots and one from an anthology.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 2 writer of colour, 1 international writer, at least two LGBTQA writers

Best Series

Repeating what I said back in 2019 and 2020, I initially was in favour of the Best Series Hugo, but I don’t think it’s working as intended.

When the Best Series Hugo was proposed, the argument was that a lot of popular and long-running series are overlooked by the Hugos – or the Nebulas for that matter – because the individual novels don’t stand alone very well and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

However in practice, such series, no matter how popular, are rarely nominated. Particularly The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is notable by its absence, even though the Best Series Hugo seems tailor-made for this series.

Instead, the Best Series ballot tends to consist of trilogies by authors Hugo voters like and where individual volumes have often made the ballot before as well as of works set in the same wold that form a series if you squint really hard. I guess most Hugo voters simply aren’t series readers.

That said, the actual Best Series ballot looks pretty good this year. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is a hugely popular series where prettty much every installment has either been a finalist or would have been, if Martha Wells hadn’t withdrawn two Murderbot novellas from consideration in 2019. It’s also a great series.

October Daye by Seanan McGuire is something of a fixture on the Best Series ballot by now, since this is already its third nomination in this relatively new category. This is also the series that comes closest to the kind of longrunning series the award was initially created for. Besides, it’s a great series.

The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal and The Interdependency by John Scalzi are both very popular series by popular writers. Volumes from both series have been nominated before and Lady Astronaut has won both Best Novel and Best Novelette. I’m not the biggest fan of either series and prefer other series by the writers in question, but I’m not at all surprised to see these series on the ballot.

I enjoyed The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty quite a bit and am happy to see it nominated. I’m afraid The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang doesn’t work for me, though again I’m not surprised to see it nominated, because a lot of people seem to like it and besides, R.F. Kuang won the Astounding Award last year.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man (but it’s the dreaded John Scalzi, so cue wailing and gnashing of teeth), 1 writer of colour, at least 1 LGBTQA writer

Best Related Work

So far I’ve been very positive about the 2021 Hugo ballot. But I’m afraid I can’t be as positive about Best Related Work.

As I’ve stated several times before, I have a string preference for well researched in-depth non-fiction books in this category. Non-fiction books is also what the category was originally designed to honour, before the definition was expanded to cover things like the online version of the venerable SF Encyclopedia.

However, edge case finalists have appeared in the Best Related Work category for as long as I’ve been voting for the Hugos. And since I enjoy reading genre-related non-fiction, these edge case finalists have annoyed me for almost as long. A lot of those edge case finalists were perfectly fine in themselves, but they’re not what I’m looking for on the Best Related Work ballot anymore than I want a sausage, no matter how good, when I’m craving ice cream.

But whereas we only had one or two edge case finalists per year, when I started voting, by now they have become ever more numerous and edgier, until they’re drowning out what the category was designed for, namely non-fiction books. And I for one find this a pity, not just because I like genre-related non-fiction, but also because non-fiction books often take years to research, don’t pay very well or at all (academic publishing is terrible with regard to paying writers) and are written out of a desire to inform people about the genre or some aspect thereof. Non-fiction writers deserve to be honoured and not snubbed in favour of something that might be a perfectly wonderful projct, but is in no way even remotely non-fiction.

After the lengthy introductory, let’s take a look at the finalists, starting with the one which comes closest to what this category was initially designed for, namely A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by Lynell George. It’s not only the sole actual non-fiction book on the ballot, but also a vey good one, which means that I will probably rank it highly.

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley got a lot of positive attention last year and is certainly a deserving finalist. However, it is also an edge case, especially since translated works of fiction generally are nominated in the respective fiction categories. See the nominations and wins for Liu Cixin, Hao Jingfang and Thomas Olde Heuvelt and their translators Ken Liu and Lia Belt respectively. However, there were only eight years between the first publication of The Three-Body Problem as a serial in a Chinese science fiction magazine in 2006 and the publication of the English translation, which would go on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.  The Beowulf manuscript, however, is roughly a thousand years old and the story is probably even older. Not to mention that there are lots of translations and adaptations of Beowulf floating around. So in the absence of a Hugo Award for Best Translation, Best Related Work is the most suitable category.

Another edge case is The Last Bronycon: A Fandom Autopsy, a YouTube documentary by Jenny Nicholson. Now I initially was opposed to documentaries ending up in Best Related Work, since Dramatic Presentation is a better fit and has actually been won by documentary works such as the TV coverage of the first Moon landing before. However, documentaries would likely never even make the ballot in Dramatic Presentation and if they did, they would get squashed by popular Hollywood movies and TV shows. Besides, documentaries and non-fiction use different mediums for the same purpose, to inform or educate about a specific subject. So I’m okay with documentaries nominated in Best Related Work by now.  I can’t say anything about The Last Bronycon specifically, because I haven’t watched it yet.

Blog posts and essays have been popping up in Best Related Work for several years now. One of them – “We have always fought” by Kameron Hurley – even won in 2014. There is no minimum length requirement, after all. That said, I rarely find individual essays or blog posts equivalent to full length non-fiction books or documentaries.

This year, Natalie Luhrs’ blog post “George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition)” has been nominated in the Best Related Work category. It’s probably the most controversial finalist this year, not so much because it’s only 1600 words long, but because it contains the F-word and metaphorically threatens grieveous bodily harm to a pillar of the SFF community. There are also concerns whether a Hugo finalist whose title insults a Worldcon member might be a Code of Conduct violation. This is an interestingly precedent, largely because Natalie’s sweary post is not the first potentially offensive Hugo finalist. A lot of the finalists during the puppy years, including such gems as “Safe Space as a Rape Room”, Wisdom from the Internet or “If You Were an Award, My Love…”, were a lot more offensive than Natalie Luhrs swearing at  George R.R. Martin. “If You Were an Award, My Love” was also a direct attack against Hugo finalist and Worldcon member Rachel Swirsky.

ETA: My most excellent fellow Best Fan Writer finalist weighs in on Natalie Luhrs’ post and whether it violates the Code of Conduct. Like me, Paul is in the middle with regard to this issue with friends on both sides.

ETA 2: Camestros Felapton also weighs in on Natalie Luhrs’ post and whether it violates the Code of Conduct.

ETA 3: Simon McNeill also weighs in on Natalie Luhrs’ post.

Natalie’s post was written in response to the neverending Hugo ceremony from hell of 2020, where toastmaster George R.R. Martin lost himself in endless reminiscences of “the good old days” and lost the audience in the process. A lot of us were angry about the disastrous Hugo ceremony and blogged about it. You can read my reaction, which is less sweary than Natalie’s but no less annoyed about the whole thing, here.

Most of the criticism seems to focus on the fact that the blog post might be offensive to George R.R. Martin. However, George R.R. Martin is a grown man, one of the most famous authors on the planet, has more money than God and should be able to take some criticism from a blogger, even if that criticism is sweary. And George R.R. Martin has certainly earned that criticism, though personally I would have phrased it (and did phrase it) differently. Besides, it’s not as if Natalie Luhrs is really going to build a rocket in her garden and shoot Martin and Robert Silverberg into the sun. She was just venting, like many of us.

That said, I’m not a big fan of inside baseball Hugo finalists, whether it’s Laura Mixon’s report about the internet troll known as RequiresHate (though I did end up voting for Laura Mixon), Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech, Chris Garcia’s Best Fanzine acceptance speech or Natalie Luhrs’ angry rant. The Hugos are about the history of our genre, what we consider important and worth preserving. In cases like this, I always wonder whether anybody will even care about this controversy in ten, twenty, thirty or fifty years. Or will these controversies be as opaque to future fans as fanzine controversies of the 1940s are to us? Natalie Luhrs is a fine blogger and I hope we’ll see her on the Best Fan Writer ballot again someday. But maybe not for a single, angry blog post.

Which brings us to the two finalists that stretch the definition of Best Related Work to the breaking point, namely the virtual conventions FIYAHCON and CoNZealand Fringe. Now both virtual cons were projects created out of enthusiasm and love for the genre and brought many people a lot of joy and information. FIYAHCON was a great con. CoNZealand Fringe incurred some justified criticism due to appropriating CoNZealand’s name without asking permission and taking place on the same weekend, though there was no overlap with official CoNZealand programming, since CoNZealand Fringe ran on European time. But even though the organisers made mistakes regarding the name and timing, the project (which I watched come together behind the scenes) was born out of enthusiasm and a desire to cover subjects that the official CoNZealand programming did not cover. However, this category is still called Best Related Work, not Best Convention.

Some people have said that the nominations for Natalie Luhrs’ blog post and CoNZealand Fringe are intended to send a message to Worldcon that some members are dissatisfied with the convention and the way it does things. However, the Hugo ballot is intended to celebrate excellence in the field, not to send a message, no matter how justified.

I’m not the only one who is frustrated with Best Related Work becoming increasingly diluted until its original purpose is lost. Doris V. Sutherland expresses similar thoughts in her post about the 2021 Hugo finalists and indeed, a lot of people are unhappy with Best Related Work being stretched way past its breaking point. There is also an increasingly heated comment thread at File 770.

I expect that there will be one or more proposals to reform the category filed at the DisCon III business meeting. If someone comes up with a good one, I will certainly co-sign. Personally, I think the best solution would be to split Best Related Work in Best Non-Fiction for non-fiction books, documentaries and the like and Best Miscellany or Best Fannish Thing for things like virtual conventions, the Mexicanx Initiative, AO3, acceptance speeches, etc…

Diversity count: 12 women, 2 men, 1 unknown, six finalists of colour, eight international finalists, at least 2 LGBTQA finalists

After all that blather, let’s get on to…

Best Graphic Story

This category has felt a bit stale in recent years with the same popular series being nominated over and over again.

However, the 2021 Best Graphic Story ballot looks a lot more diverse than in recent years, with only two repeat nominees, Volume 5 of the perennial Hugo finalist Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda and Volume 2 of DIE by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans, which also was a finalist last year.

The other four finalists are new to the ballot. Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over by Seanan McGuire,  Takeshi Miyazawa and Rosi Kämpe is a new Marvel series by a popular writer featuring a popular character, namely Gwen Stacy, formerly known as Spider Gwen. Invisible Kingdom, Vol. 2: Edge of Everything by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward is an interesting looking space opera comic. Once & Future Vol. 1: The King Is Undead by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora is delightfully strange sounding comic featuring an elderly monster hunter, her grandson and undead Arthurian heroes and villains.  The graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, finally,  got a lot of positive reviews also beyond the usual comics sphere.

In previous years, the Best Graphic Story category was often dominated by Image Comics with the occasional webcomic mixed in. This year, however, we have a nice mix of publishers. Image has two nominations, Marvel, Dark Horse and BOOM Studios have one each, as has Harry M. Abrams.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make comics.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long

2020 was a strange year for cinema, because a lot of the movies we might have expected to see on the Hugo ballot such as Dune, Black Widow, The Eternals, etc… never came out due to the pandemic. This might give smaller indie movies a chance to hit the ballot or it might mean a ballot composed almost entirely of whole seasons of TV shows.

In practice, option 1 is closer to what happened, though sadly none of the fine movies that got an eligibility extension at CoNZealand made the ballot. Now Bacurau was probably too obscure, but I had hoped that The Vast of Night or Color Out of Space might make the ballot.

So let’s take a look at what did make the ballot: The Old Guard is a great update on the old Highlander concept of immortals living among us, featuring a badarse Charlize Theron and the sweetest gay couple you’ve ever seen (they met during the Crusades and kept killing each other, until they found a better use for their time). Honestly, what’s not to love?

I already mentioned my thoughts on Birds of Prey and the very long title and Tenet in the Nebula finalist comments thread. Basically, I had forgotten the existence of Birds of Prey and the trailer didn’t appeal to me. As for Tenet, I have disliked Christopher Nolan’s since Memento. Though a German streaming service as Tenet, so I have no excuse not to try it. Though of the two DC superhero movies to come out this year, I would have preferred Wonder Woman ’84 to Birds of Prey. For movies which made it into the theatres before the pandemic hit, I would have preferred The Invisible Man, which was a great update on a classic story, to Birds of Prey.

I haven’t seen Palm Springs, but it got a lot of positive reactions and I’m looking forward to watching it. I’m not the target audience for Pixar movies, but they’re popular with the Hugo electorate and Soul actually looks more interesting than most. Besides, it’s on Disney Plus, so I should be able to watch it.

The one finalist in this category that really surprised me is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. In fact, my initial reaction was, “Sure, the Eurovision Song Contest can certainly be genre-adjacent at times, but how can it be nominated, since it was cancelled in 2020?” However, this nomination is not for the actual Eurovision Song Contest, but for a comedy about the contest. Apparently, it has mild fantasy elements. No idea what to make of this one, since I hadn’t even heard of its existence before it was nominated.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make movies.

Best Dramatic Presentation Short

TV was much less affected by the pandemic than movies and so the Best Dramatic Presentation Short ballot is very strong this year – with one exception.

Everybody’s favourite series about bountyhunting and raising alien Jedi babies, The Mandalorian, nabbed two nominations this year for the episode “The Jedi” and “The Rescue”. I would have preferred “The Believer” to “The Rescue”, but I’m still very happy to see Mando and Baby Grogu nominated.

Doctor Who is almost guaranteed a slot on the Hugo ballot, whenever it’s on. And unlike some of the weak episodes nominated during the later Steve Moffat era, “Fugitive of the Judoon” is actually very good.

The Expanse is another perennial Hugo favourite. I’m woefully behind on the show and so I haven’t seen the nominated episode “Gaugamela” yet, but I’m sure it’s good.

The nomination for the two-part series finale of the new She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was somewhat unexpected, but then the series is hugely popular and also apparently very good. I haven’t watched it yet – the animation style does not appeal to me – but I’m a She-Ra fan of old and always happy to see a childhood favourite honoured. Besides, She-Ra is the closest to sword and sorcery and traditional planetary romance we’ve seen on the Hugo ballot for a long time, so go She-Ra with the power of Greyskull.

And now we get to the turd in the punchbowl, namely the inevitable episode of The Good Place. Though at least the series ended, so this is the last year we’ll have to deal with it. Now I think The Good Place is a terrible show. I find it literally unwatchable, but apparently lots of others feel differently. But even if a lot of people like The Good Place, can we maybe vote for something else this year? The Good Place has won three Hugos in a row and doesn’t need another, whereas The Mandalorian and She-Ra have never won (and this is the last chance for She-Ra, which has finished as well) and The Expanse and Doctor Who haven’t won in a while now.

I’m a bit surprised by the absence of Lovecraft Country, Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard. Lovecraft Country got a lot of positive buzz last year. It didn’t end as strongly as it started, but it had some outstanding episodes along the way, one of which was on my ballot. The third season of Star Trek Discovery was its best to date and though Star Trek Picard‘s resolution was a bit weak, it had some excellent episodes along the way.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make TV shows.

Best Editor Short

This is one of the categories where we usually get a lot of repeat finalists, simply because there are only so many editors working in the field. That said, Mur Lafferty and S.B. Divya are new to the ballot this year as editors of Escape Pod. Neil Clarke, Ellen Datlow, C.C. Finlay, Jonathan Strahan and Sheila Williams are all people we’ve seen in this category before. They’re all most worthy finalists.

Diversity count: 4 women, 3 men, 1 editor of colour, 1 international editor.

Best Editor Long

This is another category where we have comparatively little churn, because there are only so many editors. That said, a lot of this year’s finalists are younger editors who haven’t been on the ballot twenty times before.

Nivia Evans of Orbit is the only new name on the ballot and officially a Publishers Weekly superstar. Sarah Guan and Brit Hvide are on the ballot for the second time, Diana M. Pho for the third. Sheila E. Gilbert and Navah Wolfe have both been nominated a few times before and Navah Wolfe has also won most deservedly for two years in a row. Once again, they’re all very worthy finalists.

Diversity count: 6 women (duh – book editors are overwhelmingly female), 3 editors of colour (which is great, because publishing is still a very white industry)

Best Pro Artist

Maurizio Manzieri, who does the beautiful covers for Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe novellas among others, is the only brand-new name in this category, though he is an established artist. Tommy Arnold, Rovina Cai and Alyssa Winans were finalists last year, while John Picacio and Galen Dara are relative Hugo veterans. Once again, they’re all excellent.

Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, 3 artists of colour, 2 international artists

Best Semiprozine

This is probably the category with the most repeat finalists, simply because the pool of potential finalists is limited and the big zines with large reader-/listenerships are privileged over smaller venues.

Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Strange Horizons are three excellent magazines which have been around for a long time now and keep doing good work. FIYAH is not only a great magazine, their editorial staff are also some of the nicest folks in the genre, so I’m always happy to see them nominated. The two fiction podcasts Escape Pod and PodCastle round out the ballot and also show the rise of fiction podcasts. PodCastle is the only new finalist on the ballot. All six are great magazines/podcasts.

No diversity count, way too many people (a whopping 87 in the case of Strange Horizons) are needed to make magazines.

Best Fanzine

The good news is that we have six excellent finalists in this category. nerds of a feather has been offering insightful SFF reviews, interviews and commentary for many years now and has been nominated in this category several times before. Lady Business always offers great genre commentary, recommendations and reviews from a feminist perspective. With Journey Planet, every issue brings something new and it’s always fascinating. Plus Journey Planet is holding up the flag for traditional fanzines in a category that is increasingly dominated by blogs. The Full Lid is Alasdair Stuart’s and Marguerite Kenner’s weekly SFF e-mail newsletter. It’s always interesting and I’m always happy to find a new issue in my inbox. Quick Sip Reviews is one of the few places in the internet where you can find short story reviews (Locus and nerds of a feather also review short stories on occasion. There’s also Tangent Online). Finally, I’m really happy to see my friends Olav Rokne and Amanda Wakaruk of the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog on the Hugo ballot, because they’ve been doing great work for years and deserve recognition.

That said, I’m a bit disappointed that my friends and colleagues of Galactic Journey did not make the ballot this year. However, there can be only six and Galactic Journey will be represented in my voter packet via some of the articles I wrote for them.

So did my Fanzine/Fancast Spotlight initiative make a difference? I’m not sure. The number of nominations for Best Fanzine is still low, the second lowest behind Fan Artist. That said, I featured four of the six finalist (plus two Journey Planet contributors for their individual zines). I also suspect that if the Fanzine/Fancast Spotlight had an impact, it will become more apparent on the longlist than on the actual ballot, which is also what happened with the Retro Hugo project last year.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making fanzines.

Best Fancast

The fancast category tends to be a bit stale with the same podcasts getting nominated over and over again. This is a pity, because there is an embarrassment of great genre podcasts out there.

This year, however, we have a nice mix of repeat finalists and newcomers. Be the Serpent, The Coode Street Podcast and my friend of The Skiffy and Fanty Show have all appeared in this category before and I’m happy to see them on the ballot again, because they do great work. Worldbuilding for Masochists is new to me (and to the ballot). I look forward to checking it out. Finally, we have Claire Rousseau and the first time finalist Kalanadi representing the Booktube community.

I featured only one of the six finalists as a Fancast Spotlight and sent the questions out to another who didn’t get around to replying yet. However, I’m working on interviewing the others. This is also as good a place as any to announce that I will continue to do Fanzine/Fancast Spotlights, because there are a lot of great fanzines, blogs and fancasts out there I didn’t get around to featuring in the first round.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make fancasts.

Best Fan Writer

This is my category and once again, I’m in most excellent company. Paul Weimer is a good friend, insightful reviewer, great photographer and one of the nicest folks in the SFF community. I got to know Alasdair Stuart when we were ballot buddies last year and am always looking forward to finding The Full Lid in my inbox. Charles Payseur has been doing great work for years reviewing short fiction. Elsa Sjunneson always offers great insights about the intersections between disability and SFF such as the portrayal of disabled characters. Finally, Jason Sanford’s Genre Grapevine column is a must-read. Jason was also the one who broke the story that Baen’s Bar, the forum of SFF publisher Baen, was being used by a handful of members to advocate political violence. He got a lot of crap up to and including death threats as a result, so I’m really happy to see him on the ballot. Besides, this is Jason’s first Hugo nomination, though he has been a Nebula finalists a few times.

I did see some grumblings online that the wrong people had been nominated and that it’s just the usual suspects. Of course, there are always complaints about the fan writer category and last year, 41 Hugo voters hated all of us so much that they no awarded the entire category. But then, no one has to like what I or my excellent fellow finalists write and they’re free to criticise our work.

However, I don’t think we’re “the usual suspects”. Paul, Elsa and I are on our second nomination, Charles and Alasdair on their third. For Jason Sanford, it’s his first nomination. None of us has ever won in this category, though Elsa won for her work with Uncanny. Dave Langford we’re not and indeed, the fan writer category has not had a single repeat winner since Dave Langford’s last win in 2007. And this is a good thing, because it means that we have a vibrant fan writing scene out there.

Diversity count: 2 women, 4 men, 2 international writers

It is notable that Fan Writer is the only category, which is male dominated, which should appease the “Wah, where are the poor widdle menz?” brigade. On the other hand, they’re probably not happy with Paul, Charles, Alasdair and Jason either.

Best Fan Artist

Once again, we have a great selection of very different artists here.

Iain J. Clark has created some great artwork for the Dublin Worldcon and the 2024 Glasgow Worldcon bid. Check out “Shipbuilding over the Clyde”, which he did for the Glasgow in 2024 bid. Sara Felix creates beautiful jewellery, sculptures and other artworks. She has also designed several Hugo bases, but never won one. Laya Rose and Grace P. Fong both create beautiful fantasy art. Finnish artist Maya Hahto is best known for the humorous illustrations and mascots she created for Worldcon 75 and DisCon III. Cyan Daly is the only new name in this category. Her name was also new to me, but her work was not, because I had admired it on the cover of FIYAH Magazine.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 2 artists of colour, 4 international artists.

Best Video Game

This is a special one-off Hugo given out by DisCon III. I’m not a gamer, so I can’t really say much about the finalists except that I’ve heard about all of them and that I’ve heard only good things (except for some aggrieved fanboys complaining about The Last of Us, Part II). The finalists also seem to be a nice mix of big budget games by big studios and small indie games.

For those who like me are not gamers and have problems properly evaluating this category, DisCon III has promised to put up some demo and gameplay videos on their YouTube channel.

Lodestar Award for Best YA Book

This is the first of the two not-a-Hugos, which are awarded and administered alongside the Hugos according to the same rules.

I’m not a big YA reader, so I have read only one of the finalists, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher, which was delightful.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik got a lot of buzz, though I haven’t read it yet, because her work is hit and miss for me and besides, I don’t particularly like stories about magic schools. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn also seems to start out as a novel about magic at an exclusive school, but then it takes a turn into Arthurian territory. It also sounds really interesting.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko are also finalists for the Andre Norton Award and so I discussed them in my overview of the 2020 Nebula finalists.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is completely new to me, though it looks interesting.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 non-binary, 4 writers of colour, at least 1 LGBTQA writer

Astounding Award for Best New Writer

The renamed Campbell Award continues to offer up excellent finalists. Jenn Lyons and Emily Tesh are the only repeat finalists and I enjoyed their work very much last year. The debut novels of Micaiah Johnson, Simon Jimenez and A.K. Larkwood got excellent reviews last year and are also really great books.  Lindsay Ellis is a popular YouTuber and film critic with a huge following. She also was a Hugo finalist two years ago for her documentary about The Hobbit films and self-published a novel with a co-author in 2013, which did not meet the SFWA requirements and therefore doesn’t count towards the Astounding Award. I haven’t read her debut novel Axiom’s End, but I’m looking forward to trying it.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 2 writers of colour, 2 international writers

And that’s it. All in all, the 2021 Hugo ballot looks excellent and not just, because I’m on it. There are a few finalists I don’t particularly care for, but that’s always the case. Best Related Work is the only category I’m not really happy with.

Unlike previous year, I don’t see any particularly strong themes on this year’s ballot. We have several robot stories and two very different takes on the Arthurian legend, but otherwise the ballot is highly varied, covering the various flavours of science fiction, fantasy and even horror.

I’ll keep the comments open for now, but if things get rude or people start fighting each other, I reserve the right to close them.

 

*I identify “international” as a writer/creator living outside the US. If we include writers who are first or second generation immigrants, there would be several more.

**The number of LGBTQA people on the ballot might be incorrect, because I don’t know everybody’s orientation. Not to mention that not everybody is out.

 

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Cora Goes to Flights of Foundry

Flights of Foundry banner

I promise you that the detailed analysis of the 2021 Hugo finalists is coming, but for now I want to focus on a completely different convention.

Because this weekend, April 17 and 18, 2021, I will be at Flights of Foundry, a virtual SFF convention for people all around the world to enjoy. Registration is free, though donations are encouraged.

You can find me on the following panels:

Sunday, April 18 • 17:00 – 17:50 UTC: Making Your Reader Hungry: Food in SFF

For a long time, speculative fiction rarely engaged with food. Over on the science fiction side of the fence, protagonists lived on food pills or ordered “Tea, Earl Grey, hot” from the replicator, while fantasy characters subsisted on the ubiquitous stew and quaffed tankards of ale. However, this has changed in recent times and now detailed food descriptions are a lot more common in SFF. Nor are we just seeing only stereotypical western and American food anymore, but also dishes from non-western cuisines and food traditions. This panel will discuss how food is portrayed in science fiction and fantasy and how this parallels real world developments, whether it’s meal replacement products like the unfortunately named Soylent or trends like pandemic baking.

Moderator: Cora Buhlert
Panelists: Nibedita Sen, Shweta Adhyam, Georgina Kamsika

Sunday, April 18 • 21:00 – 21:50 UTC: Romance in SFF

Romance has been a part of speculative fiction since its earliest days, even though SFF and romance are often viewed as polar opposites. Nowadays, SFF romance is a broad and varied field, encompassing anything from fantasy and paranormal romance via time travel romance to science fiction and post-apocalyptic romance. But even though speculative romance is popular and very successful, it is often ignored by the SFF community. This panel will give you an overview of the spectrum of SFF romance and discuss why speculative romance still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. And of course, we’ll also offer you reading recommendations.

Moderator: Cora Buhlert
Panelists: Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Cassie Hart, Elle Ire

Sunday, April 18 • 22:00 – 22:50 UTC: The Unique Challenges of Speculative Translation

Translation is always challenging, but translating the weird, fantastic, and out of the world elements of speculative fiction presents its own special test of skill. This panel will discuss the trade-offs, linguistic tricks, and techniques these translators have utilized when working with speculative material.

Moderator: Fabio Fernandes
Panelists: Janna Ruth, Julia Meitov Hersey, Marina Berlin, Cora Buhlert

So what are you waiting for? Register and join us at Flights of Foundry.

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Cora is a Hugo Finalist Again!

Hugo Award Logo

As you probably know, the finalists for the 2021 Hugo Awards have just been announced. You can watch the announcement video on the DisCon III YouTube channel. And I promise you that the detailed analysis of the finalists, which I know you’re all waiting for, is coming as soon as I can get it done.

But for now, I want to focus on just one category, namely the 2021 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. Cause if you take a look at that category, you will find – among most excellent company – my name.

Yes, I’m a Hugo finalist for Best Fan Writer again!

I’ve known about this for about three weeks now (for those who don’t know, the Hugo coordinators contact you beforehand to ask if you want to accept the nomination). Indeed, I got the mail from DisCon III about three hours after I posted my Open Letter to the 2021 Hugo Finalists on this blog.

It’s a great honour to be a Hugo finalist for the second time and I want to thank everybody who nominated me. I’m also in the excellent company of Paul Weimer, Alasdair Stuart, Jason Sanford, Charles Payseur and Elsa Sjunneson, all of whom are great fan writers.

Unfortunately, DisCon III recently moved their dates to the fourth advent weekend, which is way too close to the holidays for me to attend, even if the German and US government will let me travel. So sadly, I will lose out on my chance to attend the Hugo ceremony in person as well as the reception beforehand and the Hugo Losers’ Party afterwards again. That said, I got the full Hugo finalist experience in Dublin in 2019 as the designated accepter for Galactic Journey. But I’m still sad I can’t go, though on the plus side I don’t have to buy a new evening gown.

I also have a request. Like all Hugo finalists, I will be asked to put together a selection of writings for the Hugo voters packet. And that’s why I need your help. Which 2020 articles, essays or reviews of mine should go into the Hugo Voters packet? There is a full list here, so let me know in the comments which ones you think should go into the packet. You can still download my 2020 Hugo Voter Packet for free here BTW.

How can you vote for the 2021 Hugos? I guess pretty much everybody here knows how it works, but for those who don’t, it’s quite simple. If you buy a supporting membership for DisCon III, the 2021 Worldcon, you can vote for the Hugo Awards as well as vote to select the location of the 2023 Worldcon. You also receive all of the convention publications and get access to the Hugo Voters’ packet, which contains most of the nominated works either in part or as a whole. If you buy a virtual membership, you can also attend the virtual panels and other events online. If you want to attend in person, you’ll need an attending membership.

As I said above, the detailed analysis of the 2021 Hugo ballot is coming soon. But for now, I just want to say thank you for nominating me.

ETA: Many thanks to Malka Older for pronouncing my name (and those of the other finalists) correctly. Her unicorn hat as well as Sheree Renée Thomas’ cyberpunk headgear were also a delight.

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