Issue #61

This is the May 2024 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

  • Cover: Green(ock) Woman: This issue's cover is Green(ock) Woman, by Iain J Clark

  • Ninth Life: The latest novel in Stark Holborn's Factus Sequence focuses on the lives of Gabi Ortiz: child general, rebel commander, and wanted murderer

  • The Brides of High Hill: Cleric Chih is back on the road again. But where is Almost Brilliant? And what about all those dead women...

  • Thornhedge: There is a princess trapped in a tower. Goddess help us all if she ever gets out.

  • The Association of Welsh Writing in English Conference: Cheryl is off into the wilds of Wales for a weekend of academia

  • The Word: Is there science fiction written and published in Wales? Of course there is. But because it is written and pubished in Wales, you probably haven't heard of it--until now

  • Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Could witch trials in the early modern period be evidence of a survival of shamanistic practices among the country folk of Britain? Emma Wilby thinks so.

  • X-Men ’97: The X-Men animated series is back. Can comics' greatest soap opera have another hit? Or, like the movies, is this another X-Men disaster?

  • Star Trek Discovery – The Final Season: Discovery had boldly gone and re-invented the past, and explored the future. Now we say goodbye to Michael Burnham and her crew. Has the series found its feet at last?

  • Editorial – May 2024: In which there are new things.

Cover: Green(ock) Woman

This issue’s cover is the last of the Iain J Clark covers that I’m running to help promote the Glasgow Worldcon (and, of course, Iain’s work). This one is called Green(ock) Woman. I have no idwa what Scottish thistles smell like, having never got close enough to one to find out, but I love the concept.

As usual, you can find a larger, unadorned version of the art below.

The Glasgow committee noted:

Glasgow 2024 has been incredibly privileged to have been supported by the donated artwork of Iain J Clark. He was a Hugo nominee in the ‘Best Fan Artist’ category for three consecutive years and he won the BFSA award for best artwork in 2020 with ‘Ship Building Over the Clyde’ and in 2021 with the ‘Glasgow Green Woman’ which are available along with his other beautiful work at

If you want to know more about the Glasgow Worldcon, their website is:

Ninth Life

If you, like me, have been avidly following this series from Stark Holborn, you will know that the first two books were called Ten Low and Hel’s Eight. You too many have been expecting the new book to have a Six in the title, and be somewhat bemused by the reversal of the counting sequence. However, there is sense to this (or at least what passes for sense on Factus, the Outlaw Moon).

Ninth Life is not a book about Ten, or Hel the Converter, or whatever she is calling herself right now. It is about Gabi; that is, Gabriella Ortiz, Implacabilis, Hero of the Battle of Kin, the Dead General. Gabi, you may remember, was a child soldier, a Captain-General of the Minority Force, genetically engineered to be a perfect weapon in the armed forces of the Accord. Once the war she was created for was over (oh, Ten, you did that, didn’t you), the Minority Force was surplus to requirements and the Accord sought to destroy them. But Gabi ended up on Factus, where she died, met Ten, and met them. Which is how she became the rebel leader known as Nine Lives.

The thing about Factus is that it is home to the Ifs, them, the mysterious alien creatures who seem to live off, thrive off, probability. The Ifs exist across all possible worlds and, if you can call upon them in just the right way, they can ensure that the path through the multiverse that you end up in is the one in which the outcome you wanted, no matter how improbable, has actually happened.

Needless to say, calling upon them is a very imprecise science. Also, they are not exactly the most reliable of allies. But they do seem to like the plucky rebels of Factus, perhaps because their cause is so obviously hopeless.

The trouble is, the existence of the Ifs is now known outside of Factus. In particular it has come to the attention of the fabulously wealthy mining magnate, Lutho Xoon. He believes that the power of the Ifs can make him immortal, and he will stop at nothing to get it.

Much of this you should know from the first two books. Where has Holborn chosen to take the story next?

The first thing to note is that, because this is a book about Gabi, it is less of a Western and more of a war story. Gabi is, after all, a soldier. As we shall see through the course of the book, she spends most of her lives fighting against Xoon, his mercenaries, and the forces of the Accord. It is, inevitably, a hopeless task.

Our story begins in the future with Gabi crash-landing on Jaspal-Pero Mining Satellite V (Jaypea V to its inhabitants). There she falls into the custody of Havemercy Grey, a young deputy in the Accord law enforcement service. Gabi is wanted for the murder of one Lutho Xoon. The reward is fantastically high. Hav’s family are dirt poor. She has to try to collect. But every bounty hunter in the system is going to be trying to stop her and claim the reward for themselves.

As for Gabi, she’s cool about the whole thing. When the Ifs saved her on Factus, they gave her nine lives. Well, eight more anyway. She’s on her last. Given what she has done, it seems likely that it will be a short one. So she agrees to go with Hav on the condition that she is allowed to tell the story of how she spent those other seven lives.

That in itself would make for a fascinating book, but Holborn ramps up the complexity by adding another layer of abstraction. Military Proctor Idrisi Blake is an employee of the Accord. He has been assigned to investigate the so-called Luck Wars, and in particular the impossible story of Gabriella Ortiz. Of course no one can really have nine lives, so presumably there have been multiple rebel leaders over time who assumed the identity of Ortiz. Or perhaps she was just very lucky…

Blake has in his possession several important pieces of evidence. Others he has to track down in the decrepit and corrupted computer systems on backwater worlds such as Jaypea-V. As fast as he can find them, these records seem to disappear, sometimes shortly after he has read them. But he does, at least, have his own copy of the most important source: the Testimony of Havemercy Grey. It is a strange document. Ortiz’s life, as filtered through Grey, seems too crazy to be true. Also, if Grey is to be believed, while in the middle of a story, Ortiz occasionally addresses Blake in person, as if she knows he will be reading what Grey writes down.

If that hasn’t whetted your appetite for these books, I don’t know what else I can say. Holborn has created something amazing here. The voices of the Western in the first two books, and the War Novel in this one, are beautifully rendered. The Ifs are a truly fascinating alien species. Lutho Xoon is exactly the right villain for a story being written now.

But, you know, just in case, and because style is everything with these books, there is one more voice on the page. It belongs to DJ Lester Sixofus of the non-stop wire show, ‘Perpetual Notions’. Lester exists in Hav’s timeline, and he’s keen to keep his listeners up to date with the story of how the notorious Nine Lives is finally being brought to justice by a plucky young deputy from a backwater moon. Lester, I am fairly sure, was inspired by DJ Crash Crash who provides updates on the hunt for Cindi Mayweather on Janelle Monae’s classic concept album, The Electric Lady.

Power Up, y’all.

Ninth Life will be published on July 23rd. Stark kindly sent me an advance copy.

book cover
Title: Ninth Life
By: Stark Holborn
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Brides of High Hill

You know the drill by now. Cleric Chih and their neixin, Almost Brilliant, are somewhere out in the world. They get into an adventure. Stories are told, and a mystery is solved. Except, of course, if Nghi Vo did the same thing with every story in the Singing Hills cycle, it would get quite dull. So she doesn’t. While every story has those core elements, each one proceeds very differently. Sometimes we are even deprived of the company of Almost Brilliant, as is the case for most of The Brides of High Hill, though I hope Vo won’t do that too often because the neixin is very much the star of the show.

The Brides of High Hill, as you might perhaps expect from the title, starts of with something of a Bluebeard theme to it. Cleric Chih has fallen in with a party on the road. The Phams, a somewhat impoverished noble family, are taking their young daughter, Nhung, to get married. She is to wed Lord Guo, of the city of Doi Cao. He is very wealthy, and very old. He has had several wives before. He also has a son, whom Nhung is told is insane. Of course the young man is handsome, and he tries to give Nhung a terrible warning.

Nhung’s parents are far too keen to avail themselves of part of Lord Guo’s fortune, and his impressive hospitality, to worry about the fate of their daughter. Fortunately for Nhung, she has taken a liking to Cleric Chih, and clerics have sufficient status in society for our hero to be of some small assistance to the unfortunate girl.

You can see where all of this is going. Except of course you can’t, because this is a Singing Hills novella, so you know that there will be a twist somewhere towards the end of the story.

This latest installment in the series is somewhat darker than previous books, though it is apparently nowhere near as dark as the legendary baby-eating story that Vo talks about in her recent appearance on The Coode Street Podcast. are probably right to have passed on it, because the market these days seems to be very much in favour of fluffiness, but I do hope that it gets to see print at some point in the future.

Beyond that there is not a lot I can say, except that I love these books, and I will keep buying them as long as Vo keeps churning new ones out.

book cover
Title: The Brides of High Hill
By: Nghi Vo
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


Once upon a time there was a princess in a tower.

That, you might think, has already been done to death. But writers are endlessly inventive and, in Thornhedge, T Kingfisher has found a new angle. What if, she asked, the princess has been put there for a reason? What if people are terrified of what might happen if she gets out.

This, then, is the story of Toadling, a human princess who was stolen away by wicked fairies shortly after her birth. Thanks to the weird way time works in Faerie, she grew up happily amongst a group of pond folk, and she learned a little magic on the way. Meanwhile, in the royal castle where she was born, and a changeling has been left, all hell was about to be let loose. Only one person can prevent it.

Our story begins hundreds of years later. The castle containing the sleeping faerie princess has long since vanished behind a wall of thorns and brambles. Toadling still watches over it, just in case. And here, along the road, comes Halim, a young Muslim knight who is far more interested in books than tournaments, and who has found references to a mysterious lost kingdom and a hidden tower containing a sleeping girl.

Toadling has fought to keep her changeling foster sister contained for centuries. People she can manage. Magic she can counter. But can she fight the power of story?

Despite what budding writers may think, having the idea is only a small part of the job. Lots of people could have come up with a similar take on Sleeping Beauty. Few, if any, could have told it the way Kingfisher does. And that is the difference between an ordinary story and a great one.

“Tomorrow,” said Halim. “Tomorrow we will try to break the curse.”

“And if, as I keep saying, there is no curse?”

“Then I will brave the curse for you, Mistress Toadling. I have brought climbing equipment and an axe. The monk said that there aren’t many curses that can hold up to an axe.”

“He sounds very wise, this monk,” said Toadling. “I wish he’d been wise enough to tell you to stay away.”

“He is as curious as I am. It’s a dangerous thing, curiosity.”

book cover
Title: Thornhedge
By: T Kingfisher
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Association of Welsh Writing in English Conference

One of the interesting things about conquests and colonization is how language shifts as a result. England was conquered by the Normans in 1066. The Norman aristocracy continued to speak French for a long time thereafter, but the English people never adopted that language and eventually the nobility started speaking English. It took the Normans a lot longer to extend their conquest into Wales, and it wasn’t really until the time of Henry VIII that Wales became fully subsumed into the British state. People in Wales continued to speak Welsh right up until the 19th Century, when the Victorians decided that the Welsh should be forced to speak English, on pain of strict punishment. Since Devolution, the Welsh language has seen something of a revival, at least in official spheres, but the rise of English as a world language has made it hard to explain to young Welsh people why they should have to learn their native tongue.

What does all this mean for Welsh Literature? There are some who think that to count as such a work has to be written in Welsh. But if you insist on that strict definition you are ruling out, amongst much else, the entire oeuvre of Dylan Thomas, arguably the greatest Welsh poet ever. Not to mention the great Welsh fantasy and horror writer, Arthur Machen. So most people accept that Welsh literature can be written in English. They still argue over whether the author has to have been born in Wales, live in Wales, be eligible to play rugby for Wales, or any other definition of nationality, but Welsh Literature written in English is officially a thing. And that means that academics will study it.

So, an academic conference, at a lovely location in central Wales, and an opportunity to give a paper about Nicola’s Griffith’s brilliant novel, Spear. How could I resist?

Let’s start with the venue. Gregynog Hall is a mock-Tudor stately home situated in large grounds a few miles north of the town of Newtown in Powys. While the area has been occupied since at least the 12th century, the current building is only around 150 years old. The ‘half-timbered’ look is entirely artificial. Of rather more interest is that the whole thing was done using what, for the 19th century, was a new and unusual building material—concrete.

Prior to the reconstruction, there was a Jacobean mansion on the site. The builders left one room of that house standing, and built the new house around it. The so-called Blayney Room dates from 1636 and is entirely wood-paneled, with all sorts of interesting carvings that I would love to investigate more.

The Hall has extensive gardens (including several Redwood trees which just love the damp Welsh climate). I’m told that we got a superb view of the aurora on the Friday night. Sadly I had gone to bed and missed the whole thing.

One downside of the venue is that it is not very accessible. In particular the two conference rooms are on the second floor (third floor if you are American) and there is no lift. However, there is good wifi in the conference areas and the event is mostly hybrid.

This being Wales, much of the content was about poetry. We even had some well-known poets at the event, including the fabulous Taz Rahman. But there were things more in my wheelhouse as well. I was particularly impressed by the opening keynote from Dr. Mary Chadwick. She has just edited a new edition of Ellen, Countess of Castle Howel by Anna Maria Bennett. That’s a book you have probably never heard of, and indeed this is the first new edition since 1794, but it was a massive best-seller in its time, alongside works by Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Along with Bennett’s six other works, it was almost certainly read with enthusiasm by the teenage Jane Austen. There were, after all, not many women novelists for her to read.

Bennett has been forgotten for many reasons, starting with her being a woman. She was also Welsh, hailing from Merthyr Tydfil with a family name of Evans. After an unhappy marriage to a Bristol man called Thomas Bennett, she ran away to London where she caught the eye of Admiral Thomas Pye. She was his mistress for many years, and turned to writing only when the relationship began to sour. All of her books were published after Pye’s death, and the income from them helped Bennett and her daughters survive. One of those daughters, Harriet, became an actress and mistress of the Duke of Hamilton.

I do love a bit of forgotten feminist history, and this was a fine example of the genre.

There were presentations from some current creative writing students. My friend Jo Lambert is working on a story about the legendary Welsh outlaw, Twm Siôn Cati, who seems much more interesting than the modern, sanitized versions of his story make out. Also Mari Elis Dunning has a forthcoming novel called Witsch, about an alleged witch from early modern Wales. The history of witch trials in Britain is fascinating for many reasons, one of which is the geographic distribution. While the Scots condemned thousands of alleged witches to death, and the English hundreds, the Welsh executed precisely 5. Mari argues that a Welsh witch would only be found guilty if she had fallen foul of the local nobility; otherwise she was a valued member of the community.

My own paper went down well enough, though it did suffer from being in the part of the schedule that was double-streamed. I also got to meet and chat to some of the great and good of Welsh publishing, which will hopefully be useful for Wizard’s Tower. I very much enjoyed the weekend, and look forward to going again next year.

The Word

One of the reasons I’m interested in the subject of Welsh Writing in English is to enable me to track down Welsh science fiction and fantasy. There have been a few science fiction novels written in Welsh. Not all of them have been translated into English. There are also Welsh people who are famous in the SF&F community: Al Reynolds, Jo Walton and Gareth Powell, for example. There are Welsh immigrants you will have heard of too, including Jasper Fforde, Stephanie Burgis and Tim Lebbon. Mostly these folks are unknown on the Welsh literary scene. But there are also people writing SF&F in Wales, and being published in Wales, who seem completely unknown in the wider SF&F world.

One such writer is JL George. A copy of her debut novel, The Word, was thrust into my hands at the AWEE conference (thanks Kirsti!). The book won the Rubery Book Award, which is an award for self-published books and books from small presses, in 2022. The Word is published by Parthian, a well-respected Welsh publisher that also does a lot of translations. I have a collection of Slovak fantasy stories that they did on my TBR pile.

I don’t know why George elected to go with a small Welsh mainstream publisher rather than an SF&F press, but I suspect it is because The Word is very much a Brexit novel. The subject matter would have been unpalatable to a London publisher, and impenetrable to one outside of the UK. This is a shame, because the book deserves to be much more widely read.

The Word is set in the near future in what Britain is likely to become if the Tories win the coming election, and was probably influenced by 1984. ‘Foreigners’ of all sorts are viewed with deep suspicion. We have always been at war with Europe (and occasionally random streets get bombed as an example of ‘European aggression’). The internet, and computers in general, were heavily restricted and eventually banned. Christian belief is becoming a social necessity.

Into this, George tosses some teenage mutants. Not, you will understand, people with fantastical powers who run around in gaudy costumes saving humanity. There is one sole mutation. It gives the mutant the power to force others to obey. If you use The Word, people will do what you tell them.

Nor is there a lovely old mansion in Westchester County where kindly Professor Xavier helps his young pupils come to terms with their abilities. Instead there is The Centre, a grim government establishment somewhere on the Welsh borders where mutant kids are brought in ‘for their own good’ and clipboard-armed people in white coats do experiments on them to see if The Word can be deployed in the service of the government.

The story switches back and fore in time as we discover something of how the world of the novel came to be, and get some backstory on the four inmates of The Centre: Rhydian, Jonno, Rachel and Cadi. We also get to meet May, the deaf teacher who has been employed to tutor the kids, and Irena, a Polish woman searching for a lost daughter. All of this is brought together in a satisfying way at the end.

From a science fiction point of view, there’s not a lot innovative about the book. Its portrayal of post-Brexit Britain as a small-minded, bigoted country, isolated from the world and in thrall to a far-right government is, however, the most brutal I have yet seen. For that alone, The Word deserves to be more widely read. In addition, George has that talent that all novelists wish for: the ability to keep you reading because you desperately want to know what happens next.

book cover
Title: The Word
By: J L George
Publisher: Parthian
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

The history of witchcraft is a popular subject these days. However, most historians tend to focus on the social conditions that made witch hunting a popular and profitable occupation in early modern times. When asked to think about the accused, historians tend to assume that these were marginalized people who were easy to make into scapegoats, and whose confessions were largely the result of suggestion by their captors/torturers.

Emma Wilby of the University of Exeter takes a very different tack. What if, she asks, the accused witches were actually telling the truth? What if they believed that they could commune with spirits and faerie people? What if they were practicing some sort of dimly remembered version of shamanic magic?

It is important at this stage to note that Wilby is NOT making the argument that witchcraft was evidence of the survival of a pre-Christian religion. Indeed, she is making the argument that the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain did not really have a religion at all. Because if you look at existing shamanic cultures in the world today—for example in Native American cultures, or in Siberia—they are nothing like what we regard as a religion. Rather they exhibit a general belief in a spirit world with which some gifted individuals can make contact, and from which they can gain magical powers.

Common characteristics of religions are that they have some sort of official priesthood, and they often have a relationship with the state. If there is no organised priesthood and no state, but merely autonomous individuals in tribal units, there can be no religion as we usually understand it.

Wilby’s argument falls roughly into three parts. Firstly she examines the testimony of accused witches from trial records to look for common features of witch belief and practice. Next she looks at the beliefs and practices of modern-day shamanic practitioners. Finally she argues that these two groups of beliefs and practices have significant degrees of similarity, and that therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the people being condemned as witches were engaged in a form of shamanic practice, and may well have believed in the existence of spirit guides, familiars and so on.

With any piece of history like this, the non-specialist reader is, to a certain extent, at the mercy of the evidence presented. I have no way of knowing whether the conclusions that Wilby presents are a fair and reasonable inference from the data at hand, or whether they are the result of cherry-picking examples to fit her thesis. What I can say is that her ideas seem far more plausible to me than theories of survival of pagan religions. What’s more, Ronald Hutton has blurbed the book. He uses words such as ‘interesting’, ‘novel’ and ‘courageous’, which sounds to me that he’s not won over by the argument but feels that it is worth considering further.

I’d like to see more work in this area too. In particular I’d like to see people apply theories of parasocial relationships to the testimony of the accused witches. If modern day people can genuinely believe that they have relationships with characters from soap operas, surely witches can believe in their familiars.

Wilby herself has published two further books on the subject. Both of them look in detail at specific examples of witch trials: one a single case in Scotland; the other a series of trials from the Basque region. I’ve not read these, but from reviews it seems like Wilby is doubling down on her thesis.

I should note that Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits is a very academic tome. There’s a colon in the title, after which we get: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. The academic style is essential to the argument that Wilby is making, and the type of audience she will have to convince, but it does make the book tough going for the casual reader. If, on the other hand, you are writing a book about witchcraft in early modern Britain, I would suggest that you take a look at this one because you may find it very useful.

My thanks are due to Kit Whitfield for pointing me at this book. I look forward to seeing what she does with the ideas presented in it.

book cover
Title: Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
By: Emma Wilby
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

X-Men ’97

Data Point 1: I grew up on the X-Men. Thanks to Power Comics, I had access to X-Men stories from issue #1 (in Fantastic). I could also follow The Avengers in Terrific. Both of these became firm favourites because they had reasonable female characters (unlike British comics which were very gender-specific). Janet van Dyne was my role model—the sort of capable, independent and fashionable woman I hoped to grow up to be. But Jean Grey was my big sister—the closest thing I had to a character to identify with.

Data Point 2: By 1969 I was able to buy the actual Marvel comics. I adored the magnificent Neal Adams artwork towards the end of the original run. But sadly the book was cancelled. Then, in 1975, it was relaunched with some guy called Claremont in charge. He did awful things to Jean. I was furious and stopped following the book.

Data Point 3: The 1990s were a difficult time for me, ending with moving to Australia and gender transition. I entirely missed out on the original animated series.

Bearing all that in mind, what did I make of X-Men ’97?

The trouble with the X-Men movies is that both series felt the need to climax with the Dark Phoenix storyline. It is a terrible story, and inevitably ends your movie sequence on a massive downer. In contrast, X-Men ’97 takes place after Jean has regained control of the Phoenix force, and we are back to what passes for normality in the X-Men world again. Jean and Scott are recognizably Jean and Scott, and are doing typical Jean and Scott things. Hank is his usual loveable self. Ororo is serene. Logan is grumpy. All is right with the world.

Well, almost. At the end of the original animated series, Professor X is assassinated. He’s actually still alive because the Shi’ar have spirited him away just in time, but everyone on Earth thinks he’s dead. In his will he leaves his school to his old friend and sometime enemy, Magneto. Scott is not happy.

Poor Scott, he always has something to be unhappy about. The series piles on the agony with a very truncated version of the Madelyne Pryor plot, in which Mister Sinister creates a clone of Jean to infiltrate the X-Men and Scott is totally fooled.

Mainly, however, the series arc focuses on The Sentinels and the growth of anti-mutant sentiment. The season finale is a three-parter called “Tolerance is Extinction”. As we all know by now, Magneto was right. X-Men has always worked brilliantly as a queer allegory, and it has never been more important than it is now, with anti-trans legislation becoming commonplace in both the US and UK, and further anti-queer legislation likely to follow. It is notable that the script has America showing far more sympathy to mutants after a genocidal attack than it is currently doing to the Palestinians.

Neither the original animated series, nor this new version, is a direct book-to-screen version of the X-Men story. There is far too much of it for that. It is, effectively, a re-boot, and that allows the scriptwriters to look at the original stories with the benefit of hindsight and, hopefully, make them make more sense. The stories do get heavily truncated, and sometimes that shows, but you can live with it because it is a cartoon and therefore liable to be a bit weird.

Apparently a second season is currently in production and a third in development. This is a big relief because the first season provided some massive cliff-hangers. I want to know what happens next.

Star Trek Discovery – The Final Season

Having sent the Discovery and her crew into the far future, Paramount seem to have decided to use the series to explore some classic science fiction themes. The finale of Season 4 owed a lot to the movie, Arrival, and of course the brilliant Ted Chaing story on which it is based. Season 5 mines another classic plot: alien technology so powerful that only our heroes should be allowed to have it.

The plot has its origins in the Next Generation episode, “The Chase”. In that story, an old archaeology professor who once taught Picard is chasing down rumours of an ancient alien race whom, it is said, seeded all of the life in the universe. The Klingons, Cardassians and Romulans are also on the hunt, but obviously the Enterprise gets to the prize first. The aliens, known as Progenitors, claim to have the power to direct evolution, but the key to that technology is hidden elsewhere in the galaxy. This is the last we hear of the story in Next Gen.

Skip forward now to the Discovery timeline where we learn that a group of scientists from various planets conducted a search for the Progenitor technology, and eventually found it. But they deemed the galaxy too warlike for such power to be made available. Rather than claim the power for themselves, they created a complex puzzle which, they hoped, only a sufficiently moral and upstanding sentient being could solve. Oh yes, that would be you, Michael Burnham.

Drama is added to by the presence of a couple of clever chancers called Moll and L’ak who have discovered the existence of the Progenitor technology for themselves and are determined to get hold of it first and sell it to the highest bidder. For complicated [spoiler] reasons, this means that the Breen get involved.

That’s the structure for the story arc of the episode. It works pretty well. Of course that can’t be all that there is to the series. We get sub-plots involving various characters as well. Burnham and Book are trying to repair their relationship after the unfortunate events of Season 4. Obviously they do, because Book is the Dishiest Man in the Galaxy. Stamets and Culber continue their role as Gay Dads to Adira, who has some growing up to do.

The bridge crew are mostly their usual place-holder selves. However, this season does introduce a new First Officer. Rayner is a crusty older captain who gets asked to take early retirement because he can’t adapt to service in peacetime. Burnham gives him a second chance, and their relationship is one of the more interesting aspects of the season.

So where is Saru, you ask? Well, he has transitioned to a role as a Federation Ambassador which allows him to spend more time with his beloved T’Rina, the President of Vulcan. Watching two people who are massively uncomfortable expressing emotion fall in love is, in my humble opinion, the best entertainment of the season. They are unbearably cute.

There is, of course, the main plot to resolve. I’m pleased to see that the scriptwriters came to the correct decision, though it did seem remarkably easy. We could have done with Philippa Georgiou around to mess things up a bit. But, as seasonal story arcs go, this is probably the best of all five seasons.

The decision to cancel Discovery seems to have come shortly after filming finished for the season. At any rate, the Discovery team were given permission to film an epilogue. This takes the form of a sequence featuring an older Admiral Burnham and her family (Book and son, Leto). I’m not sure how long it was, but it felt at least as long as the interminable ending to Peter Jackson’s film of The Return of the King (not as long as the ending to The Battle of the Five Armies though, I’m too old to live through that again and would be doing a Miss Haversham impression by the end if I did). It is nice that Paramount let them do it, but really, was it necessary?

It is unclear what will happen next with the Discovery timeline, but it has recently been announced that Star Fleet Academy will be set in the Discovery era. This will allow Tilly to guest star as one of the instructors and provide some continuity. We might expect people such as Admiral Vance and Saru to also pop in from time to time. It could be a good show.

Meanwhile it is much too long to wait until the next season of Strange New Worlds.

Editorial – May 2024

This issue is a bit thin again, but at least my life is starting to sort itself out. Most importantly, I have a car again. Which means I should be able to get to Worldcon with a bunch of books for sale.

On that topic, we have a new book due out from Wizard’s Tower in June. It is Mary Ellen, Craterean!, the latest in the Crater School books from Chaz Brenchley. I know I am biased, but I think Chaz has out-done himself this time. I found myself tearing up every time I did any work on it.

Also in the works, I’ve just exchanged contracts with a new writer, the first of whose novels should be out for Worldcon. Press release about that coming soon.

I’ve also been getting contracts back for a new anthology. Whether that one makes it in time for Worldcon depends mainly on whether we can get a cover in time. But it is very exciting.

Less exciting for you, but more so for me, is that I have a new kitchen tap. This means that said tap is not running continuously, and that I am not having to keep the water off at the mains for most of the day.

June is looking fairly quiet, save for a trip to Oxford to see Neil Gaiman give the Tolkien Lecture. But in July I will be off to Finncon, and having a brief side-trip to France thereafter. August, of course, is mad.

Issue #60

This is the April 2024 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

The Book of Love

For a couple of decades now, Kelly Link has been one of the stars of the fantasy short fiction scene. She’s won a Hugo, three Nebulas and three Word Fantasy Awards amongst a fine collection of trophies. And in all that time, people have been asking her, “Kelly, when are you going to write a novel?”

The longer it goes on, of course, the harder it becomes. And then the MacArthur Foundation went and gave her a million bucks so she could go and write in peace and security. No more excuses. Can you imagine the pressure? You have to deliver, and you can’t just produce any old fantasy novel. You are Kelly Link, you have to produce the Great American Fantasy Novel.

So does The Book of Love fit the bill? Well obviously everyone’s reaction to a book is different. Suffice it to say that, a few chapters in, I was starting to think, “why does anyone else bother writing, when Link can do this?”

The Book of Love is set in the small Massachusetts seaside town of Lovesend. Is that Love Send, or Love’s End? Who knows? It is, however, the home of Caitlynn Hightower, America’s most successful and celebrated romance writer. And we all know that people in romance novels have happy endings. If only that were true of ordinary people.

Let’s meet our protagonists. Laura and Susannah Hand are two sisters currently attending the town’s high school. Together with their neighbour and childhood friend, Daniel Knowe, they have formed a band. It is called My Two Hands Knowe You. Terrible name. Not a great band either. But Laura knows that she will make it in the music business one day, with or without the band. As for Susannah and Daniel, well being in a band is fun, and despite Laura’s insistence on No Fucking between band members…

Then, one day, Laura, Daniel, and their friend Mo, all vanish. The police are baffled. There’s no trace of them. The book begins eleven months later. Despite Laura being the most annoying younger sister any girl could possibly have, Susannah is still distraught and furious. It’s a good job that, unlike Laura, she didn’t have any plans for her life. But something strange is about to happen.

In the music room of their school, Laura, Daniel and Mo step back into their real world. Their music teacher, Mr. Anabin, appears to be some sort of magician, and may have brought them back from that awful place they now only part remember. It appears that they have been dead, and now they are not.

That would be quite enough of a problem. But also there is this fellow called Bogomil who can turn into a wolf and who appears to be the lord of wherever they had gone. He and Anabin are enemies of some sort. Bogomil wants the kids back, and unless they can solve some sort of riddle he will get them.

Oh, and someone else came through into life at the same time as the kids. Someone who has been dead for a very long time.

The most immediate problem is what to tell friends and family. Mr. Anabin has a fix for that. Now everyone in Lovesend thinks that the three kids have been out of the country on a music scholarship. So folks, next time that you hear someone say that they are “going to Ireland”, be aware that this may be a euphemism for spending some time dead. Thanks Kelly, that’s hilarious!

What else do you need to know? Well for starters Mo is actually Mohammed Gorch. He is Caitlynn Hightower’s grandson. And yes, he’s brown and Muslim, and gay. As for the sainted Ms. Hightower, beloved of women all over America, she’s just a penname. Her real name is Maryanne Gorch. She’s a Black girl from Tennessee who, years back as a single mother in the Deep South, decided to try her luck at romance writing and made a fortune.

You may also have noticed that our two heroines have the surname, Hand. Obviously Kelly Link and Liz Hand know each other. Neither Laura nor Susannah is much like Liz, save for their love of music. Susannah, however, strikes me as the sort of girl who might, given the wrong choices in life (and Susannah is a master of making wrong choices) grow up to be someone like Cass Neary. As for Laura, all I’m going to say is that I think Link loves Waking the Moon as much as I do.

In style, The Book of Love seems to me very reminiscent of John Crowley. I was pleased to discover, on a recent visit to London, that John Clute agrees with me on this. And frankly, if you are going to write the Great American Fantasy Novel, you pretty much have to reference Little, Big in some way.

I should also note that The Book of Love is very long. I think it is worth the time, but your mileage may vary. Around half way through we start to find out a lot of what is actually going on, and who Anabin and Bogomil actually are. If you can make it that far, I think you’ll want to go to the end. But you may give up before then because you find it all too confusing.

Finally I should note that this is a book I would class at YA. That’s because it is a book about actual teenagers who have genuine teenage preoccupations that are treated seriously by the author. It doesn’t strike me as something that actual teenagers would roll their eyes at. Some adults, on the other hand, might think those kids just need to grow up a bit.

Which reminds me, the characterization of all of the humans (and tigers) in this book is spot on. The supernatural characters are perhaps a little less convincing, but the book isn’t really about them. Link’s portrait of a small seaside town struggling to some extent with the onset of multiculturalism also seems very real to me.

It should be clear that I love the book. Lots of other people do too. Many of them are big name writers. Comments like ‘genius’, ‘pure enchantment’ and ‘greatest living fabulist’ are being bandied around. But the blurb that struck me was one from Cory Doctorow. He said:

“Link wraps a terrifying core of rusty razor blades in deceptive layers of charming, daffy quirkiness.”

He’s spot on. You have been warned, but you will be charmed.

book cover
Title: The Book of Love
By: Kelly Link
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Song of the Huntress

I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time. I know Lucy Holland quite well and gave her a bit of historical help on her previous book, Sistersong, so I was aware of the struggles she was having with the new book. I’m very glad that all came to a successful conclusion.

Song of the Huntress is also set in the South-West of England (or, as the Saxons used to call it, West Wales). However, we are two hundred years on from the events of Sistersong. Cerdic’s descendants still rule the nascent kingdom of Wessex, while Dumnonia is still proudly independent (and Welsh/Cornish). The men of Wessex have pushed as far west as a line defined by the River Parrett, but have to watch their backs due to potential threats from other Saxon kingdoms. Penda, whom you will be familiar with from the Hild books, is long dead, but his descendants still rule Mercia.

Ӕthelberg is the Queen of Wessex and, much to the distress of the Saxon menfolk, is clearly their most competent general. Her husband, Ine, is much more comfortable doing diplomacy than war, but together they make a good team. There is only one problem: they have yet to produce an heir. Rivals for the throne (and obviously the clergy) are starting to mutter that the Queen’s “unnatural” habits are to blame.

That’s one half of the story. The other half centers on Herla, once the leader of an Amazon-like group of women cavalry in the service of Queen Boudica. Herla, being something of a disaster lesbian, had a massive crush on her sovereign. With a confrontation with Rome looming, Herla sought to trade with the Otherworld for power beyond imagining. The crafty Gwyn ap Nudd granted her wish, but Herla and her troupe found that, while they had become immortal, they were now bound to lead the Wild Hunt for all eternity.

800 years have passed, though it seems like a dream to Herla and her companions. Then a chance encounter in the Summer Country brings her face-to-face with another woman warrior crowned with a mass of tawny hair just like Boudica’s. Herla is about to fall in love with the wrong woman again, and when she does it will have profound consequences for the Wild Hunt, for Wessex, and for Dumnonia.

Fans of Sistersong will be pleased to know that Emrys, the gender-fluid shaman, is still around to cause trouble. Also the great Dunmonian king, Constantine, has passed into legend, though mainly thanks to the angry rantings of Gildas.

I am, I suspect, much too close to this book, and the people and landscapes it features, to have a balanced opinion of it, but I love what Holland has done here. She’s having to work with much more clearly defined history than last time. The intrigues of the various nobles and clergy that make up Ine’s court are well done, and both Ӕthelberg and Ine seem entirely plausible given what we know about them. However, Holland still finds a way to make an excellent fantasy novel out of it. And, like with Sistersong, there is much for queer readers to enjoy.

book cover
Title: Song of the Huntress
By: Lucy Holland
Publisher: Macmillan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Butcher of the Forest

Premee Mohamed is hugely popular with many of my friends. A lot of what she writes sounds a bit too much like horror for my tastes, but The Butcher of the Forest is a novella and it sounded more like dark fantasy, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

If I were to do one of those horrible elevator pitch things for this book it would be Hansel & Gretel in Mythago Wood. There are indeed two young children lost in the woods in this book. But witches in gingerbread houses are the least of the threats that they face. Parents tell their children not to go into the North Woods because no one has ever come out of them. No one.

Well, not quite no one. There was Veris Thorn. And she brought a young girl back with her. Aside from that, no one has ever returned from those woods.

Veris thought getting out with her life, and the life of the girl, would be an end to it. After all, no one in their right minds would go in there. But some children are just too foolish. Especially children who have been raised in such an atmosphere of power and authority that they assume that no one and nothing could ever be a threat to them.

Thus it is that Veris Thorn finds herself dragged before The Tyrant. He will stop at nothing to get his children back. As military force has proved spectacularly ineffective, he wants Veris to go instead. And if she doesn’t return with both children alive, he will have her entire family killed. Simples.

What I love about this book is the way that Mohamed describes the denizens of the North Woods. Here’s an example:

Last time she had seen but not spoken to this creature—or something very like. Smaller than her, skinny, dark-haired, like a cross between a man and a hare and a deer, antlers bone-white out of a wood-brown body, wearing only a loose cloak of leaves woven into some kind of net. Now, closer, she looked down at his three-toed feet, which seemed real enough, and were stained with mud and bits of broken leaf. His eyes were large, liquid, and reminded her of nothing so much as the night sky: black from corner to corner, filled with innumerable little glints of light.

He edged closer to her. “Is that…cheese?”

At Luxcon I was on a panel about The Weird and we were desperately trying to find a definition of what weird was. That there was weird. Very much so.

The ending, perhaps, let the book down a little. Clearly Veris is in a lose-lose situation. Even if she gets out with the kids alive, The Tyrant isn’t going to thank her. He’ll still be as vicious and implacable as ever. So Mohamed had to come up with a resolution that didn’t betray that reality, but didn’t sound utterly hopeless either. Whether it works or not will be down to individual readers. But the rest of the book is lovely as long are you are OK with lots of dead things.

book cover
Title: The Butcher of the Forest
By: Premee Mohamed
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Bird, Blood, Snow

As I’m writing a paper about Nicola Griffith’s Spear for an academic conference, I figured I should look for other modern versions of the Peredur story. As it happens, Seren’s series of Mabinogion re-tellings includes a version of Peredur. It is by Cynan Jones, who is a successful Welsh literary writer (published in Granta and the like). He’s not, as far as I can see, known for fantasy.

In Bird, Blood, Snow, Jones sets Peredur in a modern day working class housing estate. Peredur’s lost father was a minor crime boss. His mother an alcoholic. In one of her more lucid moments, the mother takes Peredur away from the estate to try to raise him away from gang culture. It doesn’t work. One day Peredur sees a group of older boys go past on their bikes. They seem to him like knights out of a story book, and he decides to follow them.

Thanks to childhood trauma, young Peredur has serious mental health issues. The only way he knows to interact socially is through violence. Unfortunately he is very, very good at it.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of police officers, social workers and health workers, all of whom, with the best of intentions, try to get Peredur to live a normal life. They all fail. Many of them die. Killing is all that Peredur knows how to do.

I’m at a bit of a loss to understand what Jones was trying to do with this book. Is he making a comment on the violent nature of Arthurian romances (the Peredur of his book doesn’t kill anywhere near as many people as the Peredur of legend)? Is he pouring scorn on the well-meaning but useless service workers? Is the book a statement about the inherent violence of life on working class housing estates? It all seems a bit nihilistic.

What I will say is that Jones writes very well, and even though a lot of the text is somewhat experimental it is easy enough to follow the action. But I’m not sure that this book engages with The Mabinogion original in any useful way.

book cover
Title: Bird, Blood, Snow
By: Cynan Jones
Publisher: Seren
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

LuxCon 2024

Made it at last!

For those of you not up to speed with the saga, I was supposed to be a Guest of Honour at LuxCon last year. But I got COVID at Eastercon and could not go. Very kindly, they asked me back this year.

LuxCon is, of course, the annual science fiction convention of Luxembourg. Given that Luxembourg is a rather small country (it has about a fifth of the population of Wales), they can’t run to separate conventions for different types of fandom. LuxCon is all in. That means that the majority of attendees were interested only in comics, TV and movies. A significant proportion were in costume. (The cosplay contest was very good.) Girls in cat ears and boys dressed as stormtroopers were everywhere. But tucked away upstairs was one room running a literary programme in English. (I think there was also a literary programme in German, but my German is hopeless so it was hard to say.)

Surprisingly for such a small event, there were a lot of guests. In addition to myself the English language programming had Samatha Shannon and Lavie Tidhar, plus Peadar Ó Guilín who apparently turns up every year because he loves the event. There was also Eric Stillwell who has done a lot of writing and production work on Star Trek over the years. His panels were separate from ours, but he hung out with us quite a bit of the time. I was pleased to see that he was as sad as me about there being only one more season of Lower Decks.

The panels were fun. That was at least in part because I had either Lavie or Peadar on with me, and they are both very sharp and very funny. They were not on the one about female representation, but it turns out that Samantha has an excellent line in feminist ranting so that was fun too. I don’t think we managed to come up with a definition for The Weird except that it is what Jeff and Ann VanderMeer point to when they say something is Weird. I did get to talk about the history of punk rock on the xxxxpunk panel.

The other thing that they had us do was participate in a live role-playing session. Well, when I say “us”, I mean Peadar and myself. The other two chickened out. It was quite silly, though nowhere near as alcohol-fueled as I had been promised. I did, at one point, manage to save the lives of the rest of the party by summoning Lady Gaga.

Samantha, by the way, is lovely, and has legions of adoring fans. She’s just finding her way into the SF&F community having come up through self-publishing and then having a massive hit with The Priory of the Orange Tree. The girl read Olde English at Oxford, so she knows a bunch of weird stuff. If you are looking for a headline GoH, she’d be a good pick. She tells me that she’ll be at Worldcon this year so you can check her out.

I should note that the organization was a little chaotic at times. It wasn’t entirely the con’s fault. Apparently the venue withdrew some of the rooms they’d been promised at the last minute, entailing some emergency relocation of panels. Also the local bookshop pulled out the day before the con, apparently claiming that they didn’t think it would be worth their while. Samatha and Lavie were not impressed.

One good thing the con did was that the car park for the venue was full of street food trucks. It was all a bit German (or in some cases Polish), but a hot dog made with a French baguette and a German sausage, and served with Belgian fries, is far better than an American hot dog, and also very Luxembourg.

There are a couple of things I should note about Luxembourg. Firstly, all public transport is free. Whether it is a bus, a tram, or conventional rail, as long as the journey is within the country, you can just get on and off when you want. The second is that, being a very small community, the country does actually care about economic prosperity for all.

On the Sunday evening we took advantage of the free trains to travel south to the community of Belval. In past times, this was a big steel town. Parts of the huge steelworks still dominate the town. But, thanks to changes in the global economy, steel-making is no longer a viable industry in Europe. So the steelworks has closed, and the government of Luxembourg has embarked on a €450m redevelopment programme for Belval. This includes a new science campus for the University of Luxembourg, and a big concert hall. All of this is being built in and around the old steelworks, which is being treated as an art installation. I know that sounds weird, but it looks amazing.

Contrast that to South Wales where the huge steelworks and Port Talbot is closing, and the reaction in Westminster is that if a large number of Welsh people starve that will make the UK stronger and fitter.

My thanks are due to Ani, Audrey & Keren for looking after us so well, and especially to Jean for not only looking after us but also being a wonderful tour guide. On the Monday we all got a tour of the fun historic parts of Luxembourg and on Tuesday Jean and I headed across the border into Germany for a look at Augusta Treverorum, a city that was one of the capitals of the Roman Empire during the 4th Century. It was Maxen Wledig’s capital, which is a huge thing if you are Welsh. Also they had the most beautiful little bronze statue of Attis, and one of the most famous examples of flying penis Roman wind chimes.

I’m not sure that I would recommend anyone from the UK coming over for the weekend as the con is very small, and the literary part of it even smaller. But Luxembourg is a wonderful place to visit, so if you fancy a bit of conventioning with your tourism it might be a good bet.

The Silver Arm

I have owned a copy of Jim Fitzpatrick’s The Book of Conquests for many years, but for some reason I never got a copy of the sequel. When I noticed a copy in my local bookstore, I figured it was about time to get one.

Fitzpatrick’s book is, of course, a graphic novel adaptation of the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, the Book of the Taking of Ireland. The first part is mostly taken up with the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann and their war with the Fir Bolg, culminating in the first battle of Maighe Tuireadh. Although the Dé Danann are victorious, their king, Nuada, loses his right arm in the battle. The laws of the Dé Danann state that their king must be physically perfect, so Nuada is forced to abdicate. Book 2, The Silver Arm, takes up the story.

The Dé Danann elect as their new king a chap called Breas the Beautiful who had fought bravely in the battle and is also very handsome. Unfortunately he turns out to be a terrible king, being ungenerous and prone to favouring flatterers. The Dé Danann turf him out, and Nuada, who has been made a silver prothesis to replace his lost arm, resumes the kingship.

Unfortunately, Breas’s father was one of the mysterious Fomorians. Those people take badly to his ousting, and war once again looms. It ends in a second battle at Maighe Tuireadh in which the young hero, Lugh, saves the day by killing the Fomorian wizard, Balor One-Eye.

King Nuada, from The Book of Conquests

That’s a very brief summation of the plot. It is much more complicated than that. And, because this is a story written down by Christian monks based on ancient oral traditions, it is quite confused in places. The most mysterious aspect of the story is the Fomorians themselves, because they are not treated as inhabitants of Ireland, and yet they are always there. Possibly this is because they spend much of their time on their fastness of Tory Island (which is a real place, not a euphemism for England). Or possibly because they are not human at all.

These days we are used to thinking of the Tuatha Dé Danann as fairy folk, but at one point in the story, being short on manpower, Lugh enlists the aid of the Sídhe. Although Nuada is probably best known for his silver arm, at one point in the story it is deemed insufficient for him to qualify for kingship so he gets a replacement flash arm instead. From a literary point of view it is all a bit messy but, as with The Mabinogion, it is all we have.

If I simply wanted a version of the Leabhar Gabhála, I could get a modern translation. But I love Fitzpatrick’s version because of his amazing art. Hopefully the examples I have included here will help you understand why.

Lugh fights Balor, from The Silver Arm

book cover
Title: The Silver Arm
By: Jim Fitzpatrick
Publisher: Paper Tiger
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

As noted elsewhere, I’m currently writing an academic paper about Spear, the Nicola Griffith novel based on the Mabinogion story of Peredur. Whenever one is discussing Peredur, it is necessary to also discuss the Holy Grail, even though that artefact never actually appears in the story. Later versions of the legend do include the Christian references, and these days they have taken over the narrative. And the most famous modern version of the story is undoubtedly the one featuring coconuts, anarchist peasants, and a great deal of running away.

I can’t remember whether I have watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail before, but it turns out that it didn’t matter because I knew most of the dialog off by heart. People quote it so often that it has become part of the cultural background. I suspect that if you asked a lot of young people these days where the phrase, “I fart in your general direction” comes from, they’d have no idea. But they would be very familiar with the phrase, and probably even know that it should be said in a very bad mock-French accent.

However, I was not watching the film to consider its impact on Western culture, I was interested in its relationship to Arthuriana.

When you ask a question like that, you also have to ask what period of Arthuriana you are looking at. Is it The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Mallory, Tennyson, TH White, Disney? Each age re-invents the Arthur story for itself. As it turns out, the Python version is a bit odd. It claims to be set in the 10th Century, which is both too late to see much in the way of actual resistance to Saxon rule of the Eastern part of Prydain, and too early for the cod-mediaeval idea of knighthood that the film uses.

Mostly the film is making fun of the view of mediaeval life that was common when it was made (and not that different from the one in A Song of Ice and Fire). Lancelot’s excessive violence and Galahad’s struggles with his chastity sound more Mallory to me than anything else. Miraculously the character of Tim the Enchanter manages to poke fun at John Boorman’s Excalibur even though the Python film was released 6 years earlier. But there are a couple of places where the film digs deeper.

Firstly there is the landscape. A defining feature of Arthurian landscapes is that they are vast wildernesses punctuated by castles. There is little evidence of any society outside of the castles and their inhabitants. And, as in A Song of Ice and Fire, there is little sign of any economic activity that could finance the knights and their wars. Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates this well, and so does the Python film.

My favourite part of the film, however, is the encounter with the Knights Who Say “Ni!”. They live deep in the forest. Michael Palin’s character as the head night, with his vast height and antler-crowned helmet, is very Celtic. And while I don’t think there is any mention of shrubberies in The Mabinogion, I can quite imagine one of Arthur’s men being asked to chop down a tree with a fish (probably a salmon rather than a herring), and somehow succeeding in the quest. In part because it has come down to us via Christian monks and dodgy English translations, The Mabinigion is often a very silly place.

Editorial – April 2024

This issue is a little thin. My excuse is that I have been travelling for a couple of weeks during the past month. That was first to Malta for an Assyriology conference, and then to Luxembourg for LuxCon.

Malta is an incredibly beautiful place, but as I spent most of my time in university buildings, and had to rush off to Luxembourg, I don’t have much of a tourist report. In particular I did not get to visit the Neolithic temple complex on Gozo. Must go back.

Luxembourg was great fun. See the con report elsewhere in this issue.

Travelling is great for getting reading done. I got through a couple of long novels while I was on trains and aircraft. But it is useless for anything else, because your entire day is given over to the travel, or the thing you have travelled to do.

By next issue I should have finished both The Three Body Problem (on Netflix, which I an very much enjoying this far), and Discovery Season 5. I also have an ARC of the new Stark Holborn novel, which I am very excited about.

Also in next issue I should have a report from this conference. Should be fun.

Issue #59

This is the March 2024 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

  • Cover: Nøkken on a Bridge: This month's cover is 'Nøkken on a Bridge' by Peter Dobbin, and is taken from his book, Mythical Monster Stories

  • The Library of Broken Worlds: In Cheryl's opinion, this was the best SF novel of 2023

  • HIM: The perfect read for this year's Easter Sunday? Geoff Ryman re-imagines Jesus as a trans man.

  • ElfQuest, The TV Series: Paul Driggere looks forward to what will hopefully be an epic animated TV series

  • Mythical Monster Stories: A very beautiful collection of monster-themed art

  • Enheduana: Who was the world's first author? As far as we know, she was a royal priestess from Sumer who lived al around 4500 years ago.

  • Dune 2: If ever there was a movie made for the big screen, this is a fine example of one.

  • This Year’s Hugo Finalists: Fresh from the catastrophe of Chengdu, the Hugos are back. Can they restore their reputation?

  • Museum Bums: Naked buttocks are everywhere in our museums and art galleries. At last they are being celebrated.

  • Spirited Away: Cheryl is possibly the last person in the world to watch this famous movie.

  • Editorial – March 2024: Awards: you lose some, but occasionally you win. Also the Locus fundraiser and April travel plans.

Cover: Nøkken on a Bridge

This issue’s cover is Nøkken on a Bridge by Peter Dobbin, taken from his book, Mythical Monster Stories. The Nøkken is a water spirit from Scandinavian folklore, apparently fond luring young women to their deaths. A full version of the art as it appears in the book is included below.

The Library of Broken Worlds

I am annoyed with myself. I know how good Alaya Dawn Johnson is. I’ve really enjoyed some of her previous work. So I bought her latest book, and then put it aside because it is marketed as YA and I had lots of high-profile adult books to read. Consequently, until very recently, I did not get to what, in my humble opinion, is the best science fiction novel of 2023.

There are many reasons why a book gets marketed as YA. Sometimes it is a genuine coming-of-age novel. Sometimes it is just because the characters are mainly teenagers. And sometimes it is because the author is a woman. There is a certain amount of coming of age to be done by the main character in The Library of Broken Worlds, but she’s an AI inside a human teenage body, so I’m not sure the lessons are entirely appropriate for actual young adults.

But then there is all the other stuff. The Library of Broken Worlds is one of those books that will enthrall people who started books like The Shadow of the Torturer, or Gideon the Ninth, and thought to themselves, “I haven’t got a clue what is going on here, but it is fascinating so I’m going to keep reading to find out.” You have to work hard at books like this, just to keep up with the journey on which the author is taking you. I’m sure that some YA readers will love this book as much as I did. I’m equally sure that very many adults will put it aside because it is just too confusing and hard work.

So let’s try to give you an idea of what it is about. The Library of Broken Worlds is set in a universe where there are four important solar systems. There may be others, but if they have intelligent life it has not yet been contacted. One of those solar systems has worlds called Tierra (with its satellite, Luna) and Mars, so it might feel familiar to us. Another has Mahām with its satellite, Miuri. There is the third system with the world of Awilu. And finally there is a star around which revolves a constructed disk which is home to the great Library.

The various solar systems are linked by wormhole transits known as tesseracts. Each system is also home to at least one Material God. A material god is distinguished from a spiritual god in that it has an actual, physical existence and may be communed with.

The non-divine inhabitants of all four systems are described as humans, though it appears that humanoid life evolved separately on the three planetary systems.

Around 500 years ago, these worlds were engaged in a Great War. Eventually peace was declared, and a Treaty signed to ensure that no such conflict should ever happen again. The Library was created to be the guardian of the Treaty, and the place where inter-system disputes are resolved.

Our main character is Freida. As noted earlier, she is not entirely human, though she is indistinguishable from one from the outside. She is actually the daughter of Iemaja, one of the four Material Gods that reside in the Library system. No one knows why Iemaja decided to create a human-like child.

Freida has friends of her own physical age. Joshua is a young law student from Tierra. He belongs to an indigenous tribe from that planet whose ancestral lands are under threat from Lunar colonists. He has come to the Library in the hope of finding a legal argument to help his people. Atempa is the daughter of a powerful priest from Mahām. The Mahām god, Namaren, is particularly warlike and bloodthirsty, not to mention fanatically patriarchal. Atempa has come to the Library to spite her father. Finally there is Nergüi. She is a disciple of the Lighted Path, a spiritual religion based on Mirui. The Miuri people form an ethnic minority that is regularly oppressed by the Mahām. Nergüi has come to the Library seeking asylum in fear for her life.

There are two other important characters that we need to meet. Nadi is the Head Librarian. Ze is an Awilu, and a person of their third gender. (It is not explained whether this has a social or biological basis, and it is not relevant.) Nadi has adopted Freida, feeling that Iemaja must be up to something important. But having Freida as a ward is dangerous, because Nadi’s position is under threat from zer ambitious and corrupt rival, Quinn. Anything that Freida does that is controversial is liable to be used against Nadi. And Freida is nothing if not controversial.

Nadi still holds to the view that the duty of the Library is to defend the Treaty and the peace that it ensures. Quinn cares for nothing but wealth and power. Meanwhile the Mahām priests are rattling their sabres. Namaren is restless, they say, and demanding blood. To placate him they must declare a War Ritual, which is essentially a ritual sacrifice of large numbers of Miuri. It is necessary, they say, to maintain peace.

Then there is Joshua, and his search for a legal basis to defend his own people, which might just have implications for oppressed peoples elsewhere.

Hopefully you can see that this is an incredibly sophisticated political novel, but it is also one that has at its heart the mystery of Freida’s creation which, like Joshua’s legal case, can only be solved by digging into the remote past.

In her Author’s Note, Johnson notes, “The political conundrums philosophies, stories and histories in this novel are entirely fictional and not intended to represent modern human cultures, beliefs or conflicts.” This statement is in a similar vein to when Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings is not “allegory”. What both authors mean is that there is not intended to be a one-to-one mapping of things in the book to things in the real world. This does not mean that the books are not relevant to the real world.

It should already be obvious that The Library of Broken Worlds has much to say about colonialism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples. But that is by no means all that it has to say.

The book is, for example, in conversation with the history of science fiction. In discussing the origins of the War Ritual, there is mention of Tierran history, before contact with the Awilu, when the Tierrans were using generation ships to flee the planet they had so thoughtlessly set on a path to environmental destruction.

“It started because the seed ship’s life systems were failing, and they claimed that some must die for the good of all. That was not true, but survival would have made their rigid social hierarchies unsustainable. So they sacrificed the ones whose philosophy threatened revolution. They continue to do so, for much the same reasons.”

I think you can all guess which famous SF story that is referencing, alongside the equally obvious attack on austerity politics.

Then there are issues relevant to current US politics:

“The Treaty enshrined two kinds of Freedom in the primary node; freedom from, a state of being unbound, and freedom to, a state of potential actualization.

At one point Johnson mentions a saying attributed to a famous Tierran philosopher. I’ll save you looking it up. It is Karl Marx.

There is also a subtle reference to the causes of Earthly climate change, but I can’t give you an example of that without a significant spoiler.

Not content with all that, Johnson reveals her story though the medium of myth. Not for nothing is the subtitle of the book, Daughter of the God of Stories, Writer of her own destiny. The various Material Gods each have a number of semi-autonomous avatars created to converse with humans, and each only has a partial grasp of actual history. They talk in stories, The skill of a Librarian is knowing what questions to ask of them, and how to interpret the answers.

In Freida’s case the most relevant story is that of the girl who finds herself working in a great bathhouse by a river, and who falls in love with a boy who is also a lizard. It is, as she admits in the Acknowledgements, the plot of Spirited Away. But it is a plot that is twisted and changed through multiple tellings over many years, and through many mouths. Johnson describes it as a series of jazz riffs on an original theme, which I think is a lovely way of putting it. It is also very reminiscent of the way in which literature worked in the ancient world, as explained by Helle in his discussion of the work of Enheduana.

I could talk way more about this book, but really you should just go read it yourselves. And also not worry when books are marketed as YA, because they can be every bit as sophisticated as the best adult novels, if not more so.

book cover
Title: The Library of Broken Worlds
By: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Publisher: Magpie
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


The right wing part of social media has been in meltdown once again this month, this time over the fact that the disgusting trannies have failed to move the Trans Day of Visibility to a different day because Easter Sunday happens to have moved onto March 31st. How dare they? Easter has been cancelled!!! Oh dear.

In view of which, it is just as well that none of them have read HIM by Geoff Ryman, because there might be actual heart attacks rather than just cases of the vapours.

HIM starts from a very simple and obvious scientific fact. Virgin births are common throughout the animal kingdom, and in all such cases the new life produced is female, usually a clone of the mother. Therefore, if Mary gave birth by parthenogenesis, Jesus must have been born a girl. And if He hasn’t come down to us in history as a girl, why he must obviously be a trans guy.

Thus begins a re-examination of the New Testament on that basis. What would it mean? Can it help us make sense of the story? Ryman is, after all, a science fiction writer. Extrapolating from a premise is what he does.

It makes a lot of sense too. Jesus’ message is very much one of anti-Patriarchy, about caring for others rather than being an angry old man with an imposing beard. It is one that someone not born and raised male might have come up with, and certainly one that might attract women followers.

That we know is true. Ryman makes good use of the characters of Joanna and Susana from the New Testament. They are not people we learned anything about when I was in school, but it seems clear that Joanna bankrolled Jesus’ movement. Also we know from history that women were hugely important in the early Christian church under the Roman Empire, despite all of the nonsense from St. Paul.

The central character of the book, however, is not Jesus, but Mary, or Maryam as Ryman would have her. She does, after all, bookend Jesus’s life on Earth. And she makes a fascinating narrator. Ryman’s Maryam is a smart young woman from an important Jerusalem family. Not wishing to be lorded over by some beardy misogynist, she contrives to marry a bookish lad called Yosef whom she is sure she can order around. But Yosef has heretical ideas that he can’t keep quiet about, leading to him being exiled from Jerusalem. And Maryam, well, who is going to believe a young woman who claims she has become pregnant without having had sex?

Now it gets complicated. As an intelligent woman, Maryam is delighted that God has given her a daughter. Here at last will be a prophet who can preach on behalf of women. She is therefore horrified when her daughter claims that she is a boy called Yehush. Maryam does everything she can to get her daughter back, while the sweet, kind-hearted Yosef just accepts everything calmly. It is a fascinating gender reversal of what all too often happens to trans kids.

Maryam, because she really wants a woman prophet, eventually comes around because she realises that the message is more important than the messenger. A harder nut to crack is the sister, Babatha. She’s very conventionally feminine and is furious that her elder sibling gets away with avoiding all of the women’s work around the house. She eventually does the ambitious woman thing of finding a rich idiot to marry, and therefore gets to represent White Feminism in the book.

Eventually young Yehush becomes a cult leader, and here Ryman provides us with a convincing portrait of a revolutionary movement that is growing too quickly to control. And of a young person who is finding it increasingly difficult to embody the role for which He has been created.

Someone who is a better theologian than me will doubtless write a fascinating analysis of this book, but my simplistic view of Ryman’s argument is as follows. God has decided that He doesn’t understand humans properly, so He creates an avatar so He can walk among them. But young Yehush quickly realizes that God has been wrong about many things, and that smiting humans when they don’t do what they are told isn’t a very good strategy. Unfortunately, channeling God, and trying to change God’s mind at the same time, is way to much for a human body and mind to cope with, and things start to unravel.

One of the interesting things that Ryman does is to try to fit stories from the Gospels into his narrative. One clear example is that Yehush does not raise Lazarus from the dead on a whim, but rather because He knows that He will rise from the dead soon and He needs to work out how it is done.

Possibly less successful are some of Ryman’s choices about how to embody 1st Century Judea. On the one had he has his characters talking in a very modern way. On the other he insists on what I assume must be period-correct spelling for the names of people and towns, and for some nouns. That makes it difficult to work out who is who, and I don’t see the point of that because we all know the story.

Overall I found HIM a fascinating book, and one that I whipped through quickly. But judging the argument(s) that it makes will take a whole lot more reflection, and knowledge of theology. I’m really looking forward to hearing some conference papers about this book.

As to the trans content, it is well done, but rather less central to the book that you might imagine. But I do appreciate the book having a pronoun for the title.

book cover
Title: HIM
By: Geoff Ryman
Publisher: Angry Robot
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

ElfQuest, The TV Series

Well, it’s taken 42 years, but it looks like ElfQuest fans, young and old, who have grown up with Richard and Wendy Pini’s creation since 1978, may have finally reached sorrow’s end.

Fox Studios confirmed a script commitment has been inked for a series of hour-long animation shows through Modern Magic, a production studio helmed by Rodney Rothman (director of the Spider-man “Spiderverse” movies) and Adam Rosenber, (formerly of MGM Studios as senior and exec vice-president). Emmy-award-winning studio Bento Box Entertainment, fresh off its successful first season of the critically acclaimed musical animation gem, Hazbin Hotel, is in line for the animation. Susan Hurwitz Arneson, producer of The Tick and Preacher shows, will write the adaptation, showrun, and be an executive producer.

ElfQuest is a fantasy story about a band of elves of different types, including the Wolfriders of the verdant forests, the Go-Backs of the cold mountains, and the SunFolk of the heated deserts, struggling to survive and peacefully co-exist on a primitive planet similar to Earth, but with two moons in the night sky. The 1980s saw the underground comic series win many awards for its art, style, and stories. Over the years, ElfQuest has held the distinct honor of being the most successful independent comic creation of all time. Through their comic company, WaRP Graphics, the Pini’s ElfQuest series was blessed to grace the covers for Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse Comics.

In February of 1978, the first ElfQuest story, “Fire and Flight,” illustrated the tale of a group of elves, led by a chief named Cutter, suddenly forced from their forest holt by the evils of man. They embark on a journey of discovery to find a new place to call home. The series followed the elves as they traversed the hot desert and met the SunFolk, elves like themselves but more advanced in technology and magic. Cutter met and fell in love with Leetah of the SunFolk, and through “recognition,” they became life-mates. She joined the Wolfriders on further adventures.

But let’s not howl at the moons just yet, ElfQuest fans. We’ve been down this painful path before, haven’t we?

In 1982, the Pinis announced they were in talks with Nelvana to bring an animated film to the screen to celebrate its 20th issue, but nothing more was ever said.

In the early 1990s, an animated adaptation of ElfQuest was considered, but the Pinis soon informed readers they’d withdrawn from the deal. A 50-minute VHS tape from Abby Lou Entertainment, copyrighted in 1992, was released, but it was mostly color still images from the comics mixed with some animation and dialogue. The “animated” video is available on the official ElfQuest website.

In 1994, the Pinis signed a development deal with film producer Edward R. Pressman, who had produced Street Fighter and The Crow at the time. Jeremiah Chechik, fresh off his success directing Benny and Joon, was set to direct. Again, nothing happened.

In 2008, Warner Brothers announced its intention to bring ElfQuest to light, with Rawson Thurber (Skyscraper and Red Notice) serving as writer and director. However, this, too, didn’t pan out. I suspect personally that Warner Brothers very likely didn’t want ElfQuest competing with their film, The Hobbit, which was released in 2013. So, again, nothing happened.

The only thing fans have seen as far as motion goes was a fan-made trailer created by Stephanie Thorpe and Paula Rhodes in 2011. That video trailer can be viewed on YouTube here. It had the full backing of the Pinis; they even helped with dressing and fundraising.

So, hang tight, everyone. While it’s exciting to hear, once again, that ElfQuest could finally get its shot at the silver screen, we should observe cautious optimism at this point. But the Pinis seem more hopeful this time. “ElfQuest couldn’t be in better hands,” they said in a statement to Deadline. “Our collaborators trust the story. We have the highest regard for their previous achievements, and they have our blessing and input. We know their adaptation of ElfQuest will be a dream come true.”

Let’s hope it is.

Forty-two years is a long time to wait for dreams to come true.

But someone reminded me that if your dreams come true, it doesn’t matter how old you are.

Perhaps I will howl at the moon tonight.

Mythical Monster Stories

It is quite rare that I get sent books of any type these days. It is even more rare for me to get sent a graphic novel. So I was very surprised when Peter Dobbin asked me if I would like a review copy of his book, Mythical Monster Stories.

Dobbin is a professional artist, with many years experience in computer games and illustration. You can see some of his work on his website. Most interestingly from my point of view, he worked on a computer game based on The War of the Worlds. He’s also been involved in a couple of games about that boy wizard chap. Mythical Monster Stories is more of a personal project.

What Dobbin has done with the book is collect monster stories from around the world, do a feature image of each one, and also write a page or so of comic story about the monster doing the thing it is best known for. The book features 39 monsters from all corners of the globe. There are some famous names such as the sasquatch, banshee and yeti, but there are many that I had not previously heard of.


The feature illustrations are, as I hope you can see from the few I have featured here, absolutely spectacular. If you like beautiful art, the book is well worth it for that alone. I note that the book more than doubled its goal when Dobbin ran a Kickstarter campaign for it.

The comic art is inevitably simpler, and the panels are drawn in shades of blue-gray rather than full colour. The story plots are interesting, and often heartwarming, but the actual text is a little simplistic. I have some sympathy here, firstly because Dobbin is still far better at words than I am at art; and also because he’s very limited on space. It is a small criticism, but one you notice because the rest of the book is so beautiful.

‘Basilisk Attack’

Dobbin tells me that he’s working on a second book, and I’m sure that will breeze through Kickstarter as easily as this one did.

For complicated Amazon reasons, the book is currently unavailable at Amazon. Hopefully it will be back soon. But you can get it from Waterstones.

‘Book Opening’

book cover
Title: Mythical Monster Stories
By: Peter Dobbin
Publisher: Twisted Spirit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura


When I reviewed Sophus Helle’s new translation of Gilgamesh I made the point that Helle brings a highly unusual mix of talents to the task. He’s familiar with the literary world, and learned wordsmithing from his father who is one of Denmark’s foremost poets. But he is also an Assyriologist who can read Sumerian and Akkadian in their native cuneiform, and who has an excellent grasp of the cultures from which works such as Gilgamesh originated. This makes him the ideal person to also produce a translation of the first works of literature in human history to have been credited to an individual author. Hence, to give the book its full title: The Complete Poems of Enheduana, the world’s first author.

Enheduana was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (the real one, not the far-right troll who uses that name on social media), a man who also staked his claim in history by becoming the world’s first emperor. It was Sargon who united the fiercely independent city-states of Sumer under his control, and who began the linguistic shift to the use of Akkadian rather than Sumerian as the principal language of the region.

Religion was a key instrument of social control at the time, so Sargon gave his daughter the key post of the High Priestess of the city of Ur. While the Sumerians broadly worshipped the same pantheon of gods, each city had a chief god to whom the main temple was dedicated. As High Priestess of Ur, Enheduana’s first duty was to Nanna, the god of the Moon. But she also seems to have had a particular fondness for Inana, the wild and unpredictable goddess of love and war (better known by her Akkadian name of Ishtar).

One of Enehduana’s surviving works is a lengthy hymn of praise to Inana. This is the work in which she describes the various powers of the goddess, including the ability to turn men into women, and women into men. Enheduana’s works make it clear that gender ambiguity was a key facet of Inana’s cult.

But the work for which Enheduana is most famous, because we have a complete copy of the text, is the one we now call “The Exaltation of Inana”. We have that copy because, 500 years after her death, Enheduana’s works were a key element of the curriculum in the schools of the Old Babylonian Empire. An archaeological excavation in Babylon chanced upon a building that must have housed a scribal school, because multiple, inexpertly written copies of the Exaltation were found there.

Because she was governing a Sumerian city, and was serving as High Priestess of a Sumerian god, Enheduana wrote her poems in Sumerian. That in itself is remarkable. The world’s first known author wrote her best-known works in her second language. But, in much the same way as Latin became the language of the church in mediaeval Europe, Sumerian was preserved as the language of religion for the Babylonians. And they trained their scribes on the work of the best known writer from (their) antiquity, who was a woman.

One of the benefits of having Helle write this book is that he is able to explain just how good a poet Enheduana was, because he is familiar with the language in which she was writing.

The Exaltation is not just a hymn of praise for a goddess. It is also autobiographical. Indeed, the fact that it needed to be may have been what prompted Enheduana to insert her name into the text. The Sumerians were not exactly happy about having been conquered by Sargon. In Ur, a rebellion led by a man called Lugal-Ane deposed Enheduana and forced her into exile. Having appealed to Nanna for help in vain, Enheduana turned to her favourite goddess instead. And that appeal is what the Exaltation is all about.

Our knowledge of the history of those times is inevitably sketchy, but we have a limestone disk showing an image of Enheduana performing her religious duties and inscribed with her name. It was found by Katharine Wooley, who oversaw much of the excavation of the city while her husband, Sir Leonard, was off giving lecture tours about how he discovered the birthplace of Abraham. We have also found the graves (identified by their personal seals) of her hairdresser, her steward, and one of her scribes. Her tomb, if it was in Ur, was probably looted and destroyed, because Ur was sacked by the Elamites after Sargon’s empire collapsed some decades after his death. Enheduana was most definitely a real person.

I’ve gone on a bit, but there are a few other things I would like to highlight. Firstly, at one point during the Exaltation, Enheduana says:

“Inana: I will let my tears stream free to soften your heart, as if they were beer.”

Ah, Sumerians, they did so love their beer. But, as Helle points out, there is also the implication that Inana finds human suffering intoxicating. Gods are weird people.

Next up, Helle notes that Enheduana describes the action of authorship as a form of weaving with words. He goes on to explain that, in the ancient world, originality was less valued than it is today (and copyright didn’t exist). What was valued was taking existing strands from well-loved works and weaving them into new and different forms. In other words, fanfic was a common form of literary expression (and The Aeneid is totally Homer fanfic).

What Helle doesn’t say is that weaving is, and pretty much always has been, women’s work. And if authorship is a form of weaving, that to me suggests that it too was probably practiced mostly by women.

Finally there is the question of Enheduana’s position in the annals of feminism. There is no doubt that, today, the fact that she is the world’s first known author is of great importance to women. However, Helle states that reading the Exaltation as a proto-feminist text would not make sense because, at the time of writing, “feminism had not yet been born.” I’d like to unpack that a little.

Comments like that always remind me, uncomfortably, of the people who claim that trans folk cannot have existed in the past because being trans had not been invented then. But that claim is heavily dependent on a definition of being trans that they, and generations of cisgender doctors, have created.

So when was feminism born? And who birthed it? Was it Mary Wolstonecroft? Margaret Cavendish? Christine de Pizan? Hypatia?

If we follow Marie Shear and define feminism as, “The radical notion that women are people,” then feminism will have existed as long as men have looked down on women as lesser beings. That, I suspect, takes us back well before Enheduana’s time. Helle himself notes that neither Inana nor Enheduana are typical of Sumerian womanhood:

“Women were expected to look after the house, cook, clean, wave, mash, manage the domestic expenses, and look after the children. They were supposed to be healthy, humble, caring, quiet, and attractive to look at.”

It is entirely true that Enheduana’s outrage at being deposed and exiled by Lugal-Ane is the outrage of the daughter of an emperor who has been rebelled against by one of the conquered. But we laud the suffragettes as feminist despite the fact that most of their leaders (Sylvia Pankhurst excepted) were not keen on allowing working class women the vote. They were not too keen on women of colour either, save for the fantastically wealthy princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

So my view is that Enheduana was doing the sort of feminism we might expect from an elite woman who had been deposed by a man of inferior status who very probably had told her that she, being a woman, had no right to rule over him. Also she suggests that he insulted her by claiming that she was not behaving as a woman should, but rather like that awful Inana of whom she was so fond.

In Enheduana’s time, poems did not have titles. They were known by the first line of the text. The Exaltation was therefore known as “Nin me ŝara.” That translates literally as “Queen of all the me,” where me is a Sumerian word meaning a skill or power. So metalworking, weaving and writing are me, but so are wisdom and justice. Weirdly the Sumerians seem to have believed that, at least in the divine realm, me took physical form and could be stolen by one god from another. Which is how Inana managed to steal a whole bunch of me from a male god called Enki, including the me for giving blow-jobs. I want to know what Enki was doing with it in the first place.

Helle translates the first line of the Exaltation as “Queen of all powers”, which is a good attempt to render me in a way that is understandable to modern readers. I would have rendered it as, “All-powerful Queen,” because Enheduana goes on to state that Inana is not just one god among many, she is the most powerful god of all. And claiming that the supreme god is female is, I submit, a profoundly feminist statement.

If anyone thinks that I need support from a professional Assyriologist, I note that Julian Reade suggested that Sennacherib might be a feminist.

That quibble aside, Enheduana is a wonderful book containing beautifully executed translations of Enheduana’s works, and insightful essays about them and their place in human and literary history.

book cover
Title: Enheduana
By: Sophus Helle
Publisher: Yale University Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Dune 2

When the first part of Dune came out I was still very much avoiding movie theatres. This time I was able to see the film in the beautiful little cinema at Brynamman, which is very much how it was supposed to be viewed. I even got an ice cream in the intermission between the tailers and the main feature.

I mention that piece of cinema tradition because the thing that came to mind most after seeing Dune 2 is the work of Cecil B DeMille. This was movie-making on a grand scale. It was what movies were made for. The canvas was vast, the stakes epic, the visuals stunning, and the soundtrack arresting. I expect the film to feature heavily in next year’s Oscars.

I’m also planning to buy the film on BluRay so that I can watch both films back-to-back when I get the chance (probably next Yule).

And yet, and yet, I worry.

Some people, I am sure, will object to changes made to the plot of the book. Some of these were done to avoid having a “ten years later” interlude, but I think maybe the story works better with Paul becoming a dangerous demagogue with him being still a teenager and having so little life experience to temper his behaviour.

Other changes are perhaps more fundamental. Paul’s sister, Alia, has not yet been born. There is no sign yet of his son with Chani. Chani herself has undergone a major change in character. Some of these, I think, will make it easier for Denis Villeneuve to pitch a third film to the studio. Others, particularly the Chani one, are for the better. It is a long time since I read the books, but I do remember them devolving into an unfocussed mess. And also, if you have Zendaya in your movie, you’d be an idiot not to give her a bigger and more important role.

My main concern about the film, however, is that, despite its length, it tries to fit too much in. The characters aren’t given enough time to develop naturally, and instead have to rely on brief staged scenes to convey their changes in view. Consequently Stilgar ends up seeming like a bit of an idiot, and the Harkonnens are way too cartoonish in their villainy.

I also worry that anyone who isn’t familiar with the book will be completely lost as to what is going on. Personally I had some difficultly spotting the difference between Princess Irulan and Lady Margot. And if I’m confused, heaven help anyone who hasn’t read the books.

So where did all the time go? Dune 2 is 11 minutes longer than the first movie, giving a combined total of 321 minutes. That’s still almost 100 minutes short of the running time of the John Harrison TV series, which I thought did a decent job with the plot. You can fit a lot of plot into 100 minutes. Also Villeneuve spends a lot of time giving us amazing visuals, which is great, but doesn’t advance the plot.

Of course there is probably no way Villeneuve could have got permission to make 3 extra-long films to get this far. Especially as he clearly wants to make at least one more film. So we have to be grateful for the stunning movie experience that he has given us. I’m not going to complain. Much.

I will, however, complain bitterly if we don’t get a third film, because we are yet to see a Guild Steersman, or a Face Dancer.

This Year’s Hugo Finalists

Well, here we go again. And with many people in fandom having declared that the Hugos are over and deserve to die in a fire, what are we to make of this year’s crop of finalists?

First up, Glasgow seems to have made a good job of presenting the finalists. There is inevitable muttering about the list being released over the Easter holiday weekend, but that is when Eastercon happens so for a UK Worldcon it is the obvious timing. Also not every fan in the world is a Christian, or even lives in a Christian country.

Nicholas Whyte promised in advance to give a full list of any recusals and disqualifications when the finalists were announced, and he seems to have made good on that. Transparency, as I have said, is a two-edged sword. It is only because the Hugo process is so transparent that we know about the shenanigans in Chengdu. But once you commit to transparency you have to embrace it, and that is what Glasgow appears to have done.

Dell Magazines, who are the owners of the Astounding Award, have kindly asked that Xiran Jay Zhao, one of the victims of political censorship by Dave McCarty and his crew, be given another year of eligibility. This is, of course, only possible because the Astounding is Not A Hugo, and because Dell Magazines is a private company, not a club run by town meetings as is the case for WSFS. They can take whatever decisions they want about their award without having to ask permission from the members.

I’m delighted to see a significant number of Chinese works among the finalists. I very much hope that some of the Chinese fans who have come on board WSFS as a result of Chengdu will stick with the Hugos and buy supporting memberships for subsequent years so that Chinese works can continue to grace the ballot.

Also, kudos to Glasgow for getting someone who can read Chinese and pronounce it well to read the nominees. Good work, Sophia Xue. They also had someone who can correctly pronounce Pádraig Ó Méalóid, which I haven’t managed after years of trying. Good work, Nicholas Whyte.

Kudos too for the decision to list the translators along with the authors on all of the translated finalists.

As to the actual finalists, as usual, I am well out of step with fandom. I have read four of the Best Novel finalists and did not nominate any of them. Two of my picks got onto the Novella list. Surprisingly I’m more in tune with the movies. I’m disappointed that The Marvels didn’t make the list, but I will have a hard time choosing between Barbie, Nimona and Across the Spider-Verse.

I look forward with interest to see if and how the Best Game finalists are represented in the Voter Packet, and very much hope to see something other than a computer game next year. Hint, hint.

Adrian Tchaikovsky was full of praise for David Thomas Moore at the BSFA Awards ceremony. It is great to have an editor from a smaller UK press on the list.

That The Library of Broken Worlds did not make it onto the Lodestar ballot is an absolute travesty. But it won a BSFA Award so I am slightly mollified.

Museum Bums

If you followed me on Twitter, back in the days when it was not just a propaganda tool for fascists, you may well have seen me retweet posts by the Museum Bums account. Well they were funny. Also I had a personal connection. I’ve known Mark Small for many years via OutStories Bristol. He and Jack Shoulder were clearly having a lot of fun with their account. And because fun sells, that account is now a book too.

The basic concept of Museum Bums is that our museums and art galleries are chock full of representations of naked buttocks. Much of that is due to prudishness about the depiction of genitals, especially those of the male variety. The other side of the nether regions was so much less likely to cause outrage. And clearly wasn’t anything to do with sex. Unless…

Unless you happen to be a couple of gay boys with a wicked sense of humour, in which case the sight of all those tight male derrieres can be quite overwhelming.

To give them their due, the book isn’t entirely about enticing male buttocks. The cover has a nice bit of gender balance, featuring an engraving of Venus and Mars by Angelo Bertini. The first chapter is devoted to bottoms of the female persuasion. And there is one chapter entirely about things that look like bums but are not bums. Peachy!

The rest of the book, on the other hand…

I should also note that not all of the images that are included were intended to titillate our homophilic friends. There’s an entire chapter on religion, much of which is devoted to one of my favourite paintings: ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. That is absolutely stuffed with images of naked bums. Us girls manage to sneak into that chapter too, partly because we inhabit the afterlife as much as men, and partly thanks to the wonderful Luis Ricardo Falero’s depictions of witches’ sabbats and the like.

Part of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymous Bosch

You’ll note that I’m wittering on about artists. Small and Shoulder know a lot more about art than I do, and their knowledge is one of the joys of the book. They couldn’t have done it otherwise.

But the book is also full of puns. It is cheeky about both cheeks. Because how can you not have a book all about naked bums and not descend into silliness at every available opportunity?

‘Allegory of Purity and Lust’ by Luis Ricardo Falero

The great thing about this book is that it is both a very erudite coffee table book full of beautiful images of amazing works of art, and a very irreverent book about the joy of a shapely pair of naked buttocks. It is just the sort of thing with which to torment your racist uncle.

Or just to have a quiet giggle over yourself.

book cover
Title: Museum Bums
By: Mark Small & Jack Shoulder
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

Spirited Away

Because of the connection with The Library of Broken Worlds, I decided that I should finally get around to watching Spirited Away. It is on Netflix, after all. I realise that I am very late to this and I’m assuming that almost everyone reading this has already seen the film.

Because I am going deaf, I have subtitles enabled on Netflix. But most of the dialog was quite clear, and it was obvious that the subtitles were often quite different to what was being said. I have no idea why, but it was very distracting.

The animation is very simple, but that may be a stylistic choice and in any case things have come along way since 2001. Besides, the simple style served to accentuate the surrealistic nature of the narrative.

The story is very fairy-tale-like and heartwarming. I suspect that, if you can approach it as if you were watching something like Alice in Wonderland, you’ll be perfectly OK with it. But I spent much of the film worrying that I didn’t understand Japanese culture enough to get the subtext.

Imagine watching Alice in Wonderland and worrying that you don’t understand the English enough to get the subtext. They are, after all, strange and inscrutable people.

Having read a bit about the film online, I can see that Miyazaki has put a lot of Japanese culture into the film. Also (and this was fairly obvious), there is a lot of criticism of Western consumer culture. Chihiro’s parents are drawn to look very Western, and they drive a German car. The river spirit who arrives seeming exceptionally stinky is that way because he (and the river he represents) is full of garbage. However, how all of this plays out in a Japanese context isn’t clear to me.

I think I need to watch The Boy and the Heron, both to understand how Miyazaki’s art has developed over the years, and to see what caused Nimona to not win the Oscar it so richly deserved.

Editorial – March 2024

Awards are funny things. I was very disappointed that Glenda Larke’s The Tangled Lands did not make it onto the Aurealis Awards short lists. I still think it is a brilliant book. I was less surprised, but also disappointed, that the Green Man books did not make it onto the Best Series short list in the Hugos. I was not feeling particularly confident about awards. And then The Green Man’s Quarry went and won Best Novel in the BSFA Awards. Reader, if you heard a shriek of delight emanating from South Wales at that moment, it was me.

Obviously huge congratulations are due to Juliet, who absolutely deserves what is her first major award win. Also congratulations to Toby Selwyn, the editor, and to Ben Baldwin, the cover artist. Both of them have been with the Green Man books from the start, and both do superb work. For this particular book, Juliet also thanks Shona Kinsella, the Scottish cultutral consultant, and Liz Williams for help with ritual practice.

I am utterly boggled.

This is also a good time to mention the annual Locus fundraiser. There is no way that Locus can do what it does on the basis of subscriptions alone. It is therefore reliant on these fundraisers to fill the gap in the finances. There are just 5 days to go, and while it is a flexible goal so they will get some money, they currently have less than half of what they need. I’d much rather people subscribed, because that’s what magazines need, but there are a whole lot of creator-related goodies up for grabs should you be so inclined. Our field would be much the poorer without Locus, so do please donate if you can. Full details here.

Next weekend I will be off to Malta for my once-every-two-years dose of Assyriology. After that it is straight off to Luxembourg for Luxcon. There will be trip reports in the next issue, and hopefully I will get a lot of reading done while on planes.

Issue #58

This is the February 2024 issue of Salon Futura. Here are the contents.

The Dawnhounds

Update: This review has been corrected for pronouns because the “About the Author” section in the book is out of date. I have a sneaking suspicion that I should have known this, but I’m old and the memory is not what it was. Anyway, I’m now even more happy that I loved the book.

Sometimes the influences on a book can be fairly obvious. On reading The Dawnhounds you will likely be quickly reminded of China Mièville’s New Crobuzon. The book has the same mad alchemical science that fuses technology and biology. Where Mièville has his Remade, Sascha Stronach has Blanks. Equally the book draws something from Jeff Vandmeer’s Ambergris, because mushrooms are a key part of the biotech. The other obvious major influence is Star Trek: Discovery, because like the Discovery, Stronach’s world has a spore drive.

This is not intended as a criticism. Lots of science fiction books have warp drives, for example, and many of them are set in cities that are reminiscent of William Gibson’s Sprawl. But New Weird as a sensibility is harder to pull off. It is less familiar, more gruesome. You have to work at describing the setting and the technology. Stronach is brave enough to attempt this, and good enough to succeed.

The book has an interesting history. Back in 2020 there was a Worldcon in New Zealand. Thanks to COVID, very few of us were able to attend. Stronach presumably did as she lives in Wellington. Indeed, she is Māori. At that convention, The Dawnhounds won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel. That’s the New Zealand national awards. They are not normally a path to publishing success. But fellow Kiwi, Tamsyn Muir, has been championing the book, and maybe she had a hand in Simon & Schuster picking it up for wider publication.

Thematically, the book could easily be about the UK in 2024. The city of Hainak is going through a difficult time. The current government is doing badly in the polls. Our central character, Yat Jyn-Hok, has joined the police hoping to do something good for the city, but she quickly discovers that the police exist mainly to protect the powerful from the poor. Worse still, they look down on anyone who breaks social norms by, for example, being gay.

Here’s a quick example of the social message of the book:

“Folks like us? We die often, in the quiet places, and nobody talks about it because to those who decide things, we barely even count as people. We only matter when we’re keeping their factories running, when we’re filling their pockets. If we stopped working for them, we would hold no value in their eyes.”

As for Yat, technically she’s bisexual, but she can’t resist a pretty girl, and for the social conservatives that’s enough:

They’d always been looking for defects in her, as if women were defective men, and women who loved women were defective women who loved men. As if anybody who loved both wasn’t a part of the equation and could be sorted into one or the other without their consultation. She would never be good enough, because she wasn’t the person they wanted her to be.

There are two other significant characters in the book. Sargeant Yit Kanq-Sen is an older, working class policeman who has taken Yat under his wing, hoping to protect her until she can curb her naïve idealism and honesty. Fans of police-themed TV series will doubtless recognize the character.

In addition we have Sibbi, the lesbian pirate captain. There is definitely a lot more to her than meets the eye. The world of The Dawnhounds has a complex religious system with many animal-themed gods. The government of Hainak is run by the Crane Cult, and birds do their bidding. Yat, who loves climbing, has been noticed by Monkey. Sibbi, being a pirate and a lesbian, fights against the government, yet she too is a devotee of Crane. But then Sibbi seems to have had a very long life. She knows what it means to get involved with the schemes of gods.

Yat, of course, is young and naïve, but she’ll learn. After all, she hasn’t died even once yet.


I really enjoyed this book, and wisely Stronach has left a lot of the world unexplained. There’s a sequel due out in August. I will be pre-ordering it.

book cover
Title: The Dawnhounds
By: Sascha Stronach
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

As you have probably noticed, the big trend in genre publishing these days is ‘cozy’. Books are getting marketed as ‘cozy’ even if they are anything but. Allegedly the world is now such a scary place, that only warm and unchallenging fiction will sell. I see the point. Sean McMullen’s Generation Nemesis is a brutal examination of just how awful a post-climate-collapse world might be. I really like the book, but it is not selling as well as I’d hoped. At Eastercon last year people straight up told me that they didn’t want to read anything that was depressing.

The challenge for writers, then, is to produce work that is at least superficially cozy, but also has something that readers can get their teeth into if they want. Malka Older is doing this brilliantly.

On the face of it, the Pleiti and Mossa books are charming detective stories about two middle-aged women who had a relationship while they were at university, and are now finding each other again. There is some peril involved for them in the process of investigating bad guys, but it is peril made mild by the knowledge that all will come out right in the end.

Where, then, is the depth? Well to start with the mystery element of the novellas is very well done. This time I managed to work out who the bad guy was before the end, but Mossa was well ahead of me in solving the case as a whole. That’s how it should be. Mossa is, after all, the Holmes of the partnership.

Next up there is the worldbuilding. The stories are set a few hundred years in the future, at which point Earth has had to be abandoned, and humanity has settled on a series of platforms orbiting Jupiter. Older has clearly put a lot of thought into how this all works. In this book we get to learn a lot more about the history of the colony, including the fate of the original colony, which was established on Io.

Colony, of course, is a word loaded with significance, and the process of telling the history of how Jupiter was settled allows Older to examine the whole process of settlement: who gets to do it, what type of world do they hope to create, and how might that turn out in practice? The latter, of course, is often very different from what was envisaged, especially if the people doing the settling were wealthy and privileged, and therefor knew little about survival.

So there you have it: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is another lovely little story about two middle-aged lesbian ladies who endure mild peril to bring nasty murderers to justice. Plus, along the way, plenty of things to think about should you be so minded. Perfect for today’s publishing market.

book cover
Title: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles
By: Malka Older
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Four Deaths and One Resurrection of Fyodor Mikhailovich

A new book from Zoran Živković is always welcome here, though the latest one does take me a little out of my comfort zone. It is called The Four Deaths and One Resurrection of Fyodor Mikhailovich, and the Fyodor Mikhailovich of the title is, of course, the man better known to Westerners as Dostoevsky. Živković is fond of books that comprise several short stories with a linking theme, which he calls “mosaic novels” rather than “fixups”, a much nicer title. This book comprises four stories, and poor Dostoevsky dies in all of them.

Živković is a massive Dostoevsky fan, so it doesn’t surprise me that this book exists. What concerned me on receiving it (and Živković is one of the few authors who still regularly sends me copies of his new books) was that I know almost nothing about the great man. I wondered if this would impair my enjoyment of the book.

I’m happy to say that it mostly didn’t. The first story is a science fiction tale of parallel universes, inspired by Dostoevsky’s novel, The Double. Interestingly that novel got a scathing review from the Russian literary critic, Belinsky, who felt it was too fantastical for serious fiction. We feel your pain, Fyodor Mikhailovich, we really do.

Story 2 is a detective piece about a possible murder in the restaurant car of a train. I think I probably enjoyed it more because I haven’t read Dostoevsky and therefore had no hope of guessing the denouement. Story 3 is a hilarious rant about the state of modern publishing, told by an AI copy of Dostoevsky who has been created, at great expense, to continue the great man’s career.

The story which requires the most knowledge of Dostoevsky is the final one, which delves deeply into various incidents in his life. However, I found that there was much interesting history to be uncovered, and was happy to start reading about Dostoevsky’s life having been primed to do so by Živković.

I should note that Cadmus Press has once again treated us to a beautiful cover by Youchan Ito. Randall A. Major has done a fine job of turning Živković’s Serbian original into very readable English.

book cover
Title: The Four Deaths and One Resurrection of Fyodor Mikhailovich
By: Zoran Živković
Translator: Randall A. Major
Publisher: Cadmus Press
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Last to Drown

I’ve been meaning to get to Lorraine Wilson’s work for some time because it has been clear from the way she’s getting reviewed by others that she’s a special talent. Having a book of hers in the Luna Press novella series was a perfect opportunity. And it turns out that my esteemed colleagues are dead right about her ability.

The Last to Drown is a story about Tinna, a young woman who was born in Iceland but now lives in Scotland. Two things about her life are important. The first is that, when she and her brother were very young, her mother and her aunt fell out, and her mother took her family off to the UK. The other is that Tinna has been in a car accident. She has some horrific injuries, but her beloved husband, Ben, is dead.

Wilson is something of an expert in writing about trauma. It is her thing, apparently.

Tinna has chosen to visit the old family home on the coast of Iceland and stay with her aunt Lilith as her body tries to recover from its injuries. It is soon obvious that aunt Lilith is deeply superstitious, as she won’t let Tinna go anywhere near the sea and refuses to explain why. Is this perhaps what Tinna’s mother and aunt fell out over? The trouble is, as anyone who has ever contemplated suicide knows, the sea can hold a fatal fascination.

This, then, is a story about grief, and the inability to let it go. If you can’t, it can easily consume you. That may mean that you don’t want to go on living. It may also be powerful enough to bring you back from the dead to wreak vengeance on those who caused your loss.

The Last to Drown is great little book, and Wilson is clearly a superb writer, albeit one who produces work that can be very difficult to read, especially if you are emotionally fragile yourself. Well done to Francesca and the Luna Press team for discovering her. I understand that Wilson’s latest book, Mother Sea, is from a literary small press, and I was delighted to spot it on the shelves in Blackwells when I was in Oxford.

book cover
Title: The Last to Drown
By: Lorraine Wilson
Publisher: Luna Press Publishing
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura

The Meat Tree

Gwyneth Lewis is not the sort of writer who normally features in these pages. She’s primarily a poet, and her achievements include being made the inaugural National Poet of Wales in 2005, and winning the Bardic Crown at the 2012 National Eisteddfod. (The Crown is awarded for free verse, as opposed to the better known Chair which is for a long poem in strict metre.) If you have ever been to Cardiff, the words inscribed on the roof of the Millennium Centre were written by her. That’s serious mainstream literary credibility.

And yet, Lewis has written science fiction. The Welsh publishing house, Seren, commissioned a series of re-imaginings of The Mabinogion, and 2010 saw the publication of The Meat Tree, a science fiction novella by Lewis based on the Fourth Branch. Lewis notes in her Afterword that she has long been fond of science fiction, and made a point of studying it before writing the book. This is no arrogant literary author slumming it in a genre they know nothing about, this is the real thing.

I’m not going to recap the plot of the Fourth Branch (as much as anything in The Mabinogion can be said to have a plot). Suffice it to say that it is the section that contains the stories of the rape of Goewin, and the tale of Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers. It is very weird.

The Meat Tree, in contrast, at least starts in a sensible and predictable manner. The story has just two characters. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks. It is his job to visit newly discovered derelict spaceships and find out what happened to them. This is to be his last mission. Management has decided that the job is better done by robots. Campion thinks this is daft, because robots don’t understand humans and will never get to the bottom of a wreck mystery. But he’s also old, possibly too old, and terrified of the boredom that retirement will bring.

Nona is new to the job. As physical inspections are to be discontinued, she doesn’t understand why she’s been sent on this crazy mission with an old fool who keeps muttering about the good old days and treats her like an idiot. Having never been on such a mission before, she is indeed an idiot much of the time. The story revolves around how these two very different people come to understand each other better, and appreciate each other’s strengths.

The wreck is a very old Earth vessel. So old that there is actually a cassette tape player on board. (It does not belong to Peter Quill.) The logs say that it had a crew of three: two men and one woman, but there is no sign of any bodies.

What Campion and Nona do find is a very sophisticated VR system. Clearly the crew needed something to while away the time during a long voyage. Perhaps the game that they were playing will throw some light on the mystery of what became of them.

Thus our two heroes find themselves partaking in a VR re-telling of the Fourth Branch. They end up taking the parts of various characters including Gwydion, Math, Goewin, Arianrhod, and Bloduewedd. It is not a pleasant experience for either of them.

Another comment in the Afterword tells how Lewis was inspired for part of the plot by meeting Joan Roughgarden while working at Stanford. Roughgarden is the trans Professor Emeritus of Biology whose book, Evolution’s Rainbow, has been invaluable to my writing on gender in the natural world.

I can’t tell you too much more, because the book is only a novella and I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that the ending is sufficiently strange to do justice to the source material. I wish I had known about this book back in 2011, though Ted Chaing won the novella Hugo that year with The Lifecycle of Software Objects, and I don’t think Lewis would have begrudged him his victory.

book cover
Title: The Meat Tree
By: Gwyneth Lewis
Publisher: Seren
Purchase links:
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Amazon US
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