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Hugh Likes Fiction: Space Opera

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Space Opera
Written by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Saga Press

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The Skinny: In this farcical and inventive Sci-fi novel, aliens arrive on Earth to welcome Humanity to the galaxy. There’s only one catch: They’ll have to prove themselves in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, the universe’s greatest song contest.

I was a big fan of Star Trek growing up, but there was one thing that always bothered me about the show. Everyone was obsessed with historical Earth culture. From reading Shakespeare to playing baseball to Bach recitals to so much Sherlock Holmes, it’s all Earth, all the time. And everything was nice and public domain, of course.
This did make sense, from a certain perspective. It connects the viewer to the characters through shared culture, and makes the unfamiliar setting of an interstellar spaceship that much more human. But I always wanted to know a bit more than than the show let on about the alien cultures. What would an alien world’s culture really be like? Further more, what would their POP culture be like? Catherynne M. Valente’s newest novel, Space Opera, makes that question its central premise.
Once, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros were once the biggest band in the world. They’ve broken up, and their a bit washed up these days, but none of that matter when aliens invade Earth, looking for the greatest musicians on the planet to represent Earth in the galaxy’s greatest song contest, The Metagalactic Grand Prix. Decibel and remaining band mate Oort St. Ultraviolet get the nod, by virtue of being the only band on short list that’s still alive. Invitation to the Grand Prix is a great honor, and will give humanity the stars. But if they come in last, the Earth will be destroyed. So, no pressure.
Equal parts Douglas Adams and FM radio count down, Space Opera hilarious, tragic, and breathtakingly intelligent. Valente’s novel examines the utopian science fiction trope of the society that is not merely scientifically advanced but culturally advanced, and twists it to great effect. Continuing her style from previous work like Radiance and The Refrigerator Monologs, She once again has invented entire pop cultures out of whole cloth to both satirize and celebrate parts of our own. In this case, it is the Eurovision song contest, a post-War signing competition that functions much like the Olympics but run by record labels. As someone who likes the idea of Eurovision more than the actual glitzy performances, I expected to be lost in a sea of references, but that was not the case. Outside of a few section quotes and an explanation in the acknowledgements, there is little actual mention, and you don’t need previous experience going in.
Valente structures her novel in her own instantly recognizable style, shifting between the history of the contest and the competing alien cultures and the story of the Absolutes Zeros from their first show to the intergalactic stage. She does more telling than showing, and the non-linear style can be disorienting if that isn’t your thing, but she pays it all off beautifully in the end.
Space Opera is a glittering cavalcade of brilliantly conceived big-idea science fiction, winking satire, and bold, unflinching cultural criticism. It is very well executed, and you should probably be reading it right now. It’s available from the usual suspects.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: It Devours!

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It Devours!: A Welcome to Night Vale novel
Written by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Crainor
Audiobook read by Cecil Baldwin
WELCOMETONIGHTVALE.COM

The Skinny-The creators of “Welcome to Night Vale” return with another delightfully creepy and silly novel set in their quiet desert town.

Following up their best-selling eponymous Welcome to Night Vale novel, It Devours! continues the formula of giving a spotlight to some of the supporting characters from the podcast. The story falls a bit outside the purview of the half-hour pseudo-radio show, but is still great fun for fans.
The story follows Nilanjana, a scientist investigating a series of mysterious and unofficial earthquakes, and Darryl, a member of the friendly cult The Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, which may be involved in a series of disappearances. The pair will have to contend contend with pushy spokespeople, lonely surveillance helicopter pilots, and most importantly, their very different world-views to solve these mysteries.
While readers don’t need to have read the previous novel or be up to date on the podcast, the story is full of references to both. The most important thing to know going in is that Night Vale is weird. And that weirdness comes with neither explanation nor apology. Bits like the town’s monstrous City Council, the fad for invisible food, and the barista district all swing by fast enough to upset a new reader’s train of thought if unprepared. But the story is well-told and engaging. If you are new to Night Vale and find the vast backlog of podcast episodes intimidating, It Devours! might be a great place to give it a try.
The audio book is read by Cecil Baldwin, the host of the podcast. He does an excellent job bringing the huge cast to life. Fans of weird fiction will find a lot to like in this heartwarming end-of-the-world adventure.
It Devours is available from Amazon in print and Audible in audio book. You can also find it at your Local Independent Bookstore!

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Gluttony Bay

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Sin Du Jour: Gluttony Bay
Written by Matt Wallace
Published by Tor

The Skinny: Matt Wallace returns for the sixth installment of his Sin Du Jour series, and the penultimate volume is just as nasty, brutal, and short as you’d expect. And that’s why it’s great.

After building tension over the course of five novellas, Matt Wallace’s “Sin Du Jour” Series is reaching the end of its rope, and it’s been one hell of a climb. Focusing on the misadventures of a supernatural catering service, the series has had a solid thematic line of making deals with the devil. The first novel involved a celebratory dinner for a whole tribe of demons, in fact. And the consequences of those decisions are finally coming home to roost for Wallace’s huge cast of characters.
As the crew of Sin Du Jour’s relationship with government contact and string-puller Allensworth continues to sour, he reveals to them his most closely guarded secret: Gluttony Bay, a combination black site prison/five star dinning experience for his most discerning supernatural contacts. I’ll leave you to guess what’s on the menu, but Bronko, Lena and the rest will have to make a difficult choice, and hopefully live with the consequences.
We’re nearly at the end of Wallace’s masterfully crafted rollercoaster ride, and the tension is so thick you can cut it with the finest of chef’s knives. Wallace doesn’t pull any punches with this one, and he leaves us with more of a statement than a question. The supernatural catering company has always danced around the question of how do you serve monsters without becoming one. And the answer is, simply, that you don’t. He makes his characters face an impossible choice, and the writing is as juicy and delicious as a perfectly prepared steak.
SIn Du Jour book six, “Gluttony Bay” is available from amazon.com, or your preferred ebook retailer. If my previous six reviews haven’t swayed you, don’t sleep on this one.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Star Wars: Canto Bight

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Star Wars: Canto Bight
Written by: Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant, and John Jackson Miller
Published by Del Rey

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The Skinny: A collection of four loosely connected novellas set in the Star Wars casino-city of Canto Bight, as briefly seen in The Last Jedi.

In the latest Star Wars film, “The Last Jedi,” we get a very short glimpse of the casino city, Canto Bight, a playground for the rich and powerful play while the rest of the galaxy fights for survival against The First Order. But aside from the message that nobody good profits in wartime, and a delightfully destructive chase sequence, we spend little time there. Del Rey has released a novella collection focused on four stories of gamblers, tourists, servants and criminals that call Canto Bight home, and it is a delight.
The best of the four is “The Wine in Dreams,” by Mira Grant. It follows the self-described greatest sommelier in the galaxy, Derla Pidys, as she attempts to buy a rare bottle from a pair of sisters claiming to be from another dimension, all under the nose of a dangerous night club owner who will do anything to get it.
These four stories are very much in the vein of the new Expanded Universe. You won’t see any familiar faces from the movies in these pages, but they do a magnificent job of transforming a galaxy far, far away into a living, breathing place rather than a backdrop for Our Heroes’ Adventures. They also serve as a light, quick introduction to the writing of four excellent authors. You can find Star Wars: Canto Bight on Amazon, or in person at your local independent bookstore.

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The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang: The first of a pair of fantasy novellas, Yang crafts an elegant tale about family and responsibility in a gorgeous Eastern fantasy world that is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s a beautiful jeweled puzzle of a book, with characters that come alive in just a few sentences.Killing Is My Business by Adam Christopher: Christopher returns to his post-post-singularity alternate 60’s L.A. for another mystery staring Ray Electromatic. The robot detective turned assassin solves another brilliantly noir science fiction mystery that is a unique delight for fans of either genre.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: Saunders spins a single tragic event, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son WIllie in 1862, into a strange portrait of America, populated by selfish ghosts unaware of their true nature, mixed with conflicting accounts of the events leading up to the boy’s death. The novel is by turns clever, sad, and hopeful. The audiobook version further elevates the material with a stellar full-cast read that includes Saunders himself.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Cathrynne M. Valente: A brilliant metafictional take on women in superhero comics, Valente builds an entire universe of superheroes and tears them down again. The women and their stories are all instantly recognizable and totally fresh. This is a love letter to comics that cuts it to the bone at the same time, and is well worth the time of any pulp fan.

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey: Gailey’s inventive alternate history gives us a rollicking river-boat adventure staring queer, hippo-riding cowboys. It was exactly the novella I didn’t know I needed this year.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Killing Is My Business

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Killing Is My Business

Written by Adam Christopher

Published by Tor

The Skinny: Christopher’s follow-up to Made To Kill is another rollicking robot noir set in 1960’s L.A.

Ray Electromatic is the last functioning robot in1960’s Los Angeles, and he’s the world’s only robot private detective. At least, that’s what his business cards say. His real job is assassination. With his trusty computer/business partner Ada, he finds his target and gets the job done. But when Rays targets start turning up dead or missing before he can complete the job, he starts to wonder who he can really trust.

Christopher returns to his post-robotics Los Angeles for a second novel that is as much of a noire delight as the first. Like all good detective novels, it doesn’t rely on having read Made To Kill, while pushing Ray’s story forward in some fun and interesting ways. The author has a knack for voice, and he balances the 60’s sci-fi and noire elements superbly. Ray’s momento-like limitation, the fact that his memory tape only lasts 24 hours, is used to good effect in this story, and requires Ray to engage in a fair amount of trust, something that always goes awry in a noire world.

Killing Is My Business is a cracking read, and you can pick it up from your local bookstore, or download a copy from Amazon.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Vampire Hunter D

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Vampire Hunter D
Written by Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano
Translated by Kevin Leahy
Published by DH Books

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The Skinny: Kikuchi blends Horror, Sci-FI, and Western tropes into an exciting novel, but the penny dreadful style keeps it a guilty pleasure.

It’s Dracula Season once again! The time of year when I turn my blog over to all manner of spooky content. And today we’re looking at Hideyuki Kikuchi’s original novel, Vampire Hunter D.
In the year 12,090 A.D, post-nuclear war humanity rises from the ashes, only to be enslaved by ancient horrors, the vampires. But even their immortal reign is not absolute, and as their empire crumbles, a single vampire hunter, half-human and half-vampire, rides the frontier. When he meets a teenage girl on the side of the road, a victim of her local vampire lord, he becomes embroiled in saving her from the count, his daughter, and the fearful townsfolk.
Vampire Hunter D is a whole-hearted embrace of genre. It mixes Western, Horror, and Science Fictions aesthetics to create something both iconic and familiar. Kikuchi’s love for black-and-white horror movies is evident, and the book is sprinkled with cameos and references, beginning with the villainous Count Lee. The sci-fi tropes stand up surprisingly well alongside the horror aspects. The world of the frontier is grim, and humanity lives mostly in the ruins, first of the modern world, then of the fantastic one created by the vampire civilization. But as powerless and preyed upon as they are, Kikuchi’s vision of humanity is still resilient and relentless, ready to conquer the challenges in front of them no matter how long it takes. D, the mysterious rider in black, takes up most of the oxygen in the story, but the world building is constantly surprising and delightful.
Unfortunately, not all of the tropes Kikuchi takes stock in are as amusing. His female characters in particular come up short. Doris is at turns shown as strong, smart, and capable, but she is constantly in need of rescue, and is almost totally valued as an object. In this short novel, she’s stark naked at least twice, and is threatened with rape more than once. These tropes also go back to the tone and trappings of the Western and Horror genres that Kikuchi revels in, but the sexism in this book leaves a bitter aftertaste to the more engaging parts.
The book is also illustrated by powerhouse artist Yoshitaka Amano, and he brings a heavier pen and ink style to these illustrations that are a stark contrast to the watercolors he is more generally known for, such as his character designs.
Vampire Hunter D is a thrilling adventure novel with genre trappings, over the top prose, and some problematic choices on the part of the author. You can find it in ebook and print from your favorite retailer.

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