Since my last post, I have been focused on shorter fiction, the highlights of which are three Tor novellas and a stunning Peter Pan-based romance novel. Let’s dive in.
1) River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
I’ve been sitting on River of Teeth since it came out almost a year ago, chipping away at my to-read pile until I could finally justify buying it. It was beyond worth it, and I should have chipped faster. Set in an alternate history where the US Congress followed through on a plan to import hippos as an alternative food source to cattle, River of Teeth combines some of the atmosphere and dark flirtations of noir with the fast pace and hyper-competent ragtag team-up of a high-stakes heist.
Winslow Houndstooth, notorious outlaw and mercenary hippo wrangler, has been tasked by the federal government with emptying feral hippopotamuses from a stretch of the Mississippi River known as the Harriet, to reopen the river to trade. The crew he selects for the task includes trusted friend and conwoman Regina Archambault, the deadly (and pregnant) mercenary Adelia Reyes, poison and demolitions expert Hero Shackleby, and gunman Cal Hotchkiss, who comes with a fraught history tied to Houndstooth. And, of course, their hippo steeds. In order for their plan to succeed, they go toe-to-toe with bloodthirsty businessman Travers, who owns the water and the casino riverboats that patrol it, throwing liars and cheats to the feral hippos below.
Gailey’s tight prose layers romance and a shifting landscape of character relationships with sudden, breathtaking action and vibrant descriptions of a world that exists between. Between land and water, between murder and deception (look, nobody’s really unquestionably moral enough in this book to stand at the north pole of rightness), and between a caper and an operation. While the fast pacing and novella length place constraints on the characterization and make certain developments feel rushed, the powerful personalities and exhilaration of the plot balance it out. The characters also fall on a wide spectrum of queer and racial identities, which adds extra joy and hints of complexity to the world.
2) The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson
I picked up Tade Thompson’s novella based on premise alone: whenever Molly Southbourne bleeds, a clone is born. They have all her skills and training, and once they go bad, they are dead set on killing her unless she can kill them first.
Thompson’s writing is dark and brutal. In addition to the jaw-dropping depictions of physical violence, he explores the deep mental and emotional trauma that would come from not only having clones, but having to kill them and grow up watching your loved ones kill them. While Thompson hints at the dystopian nature of the world, and dives more into that facet of the story in a pace-disrupting expository letter near the end of the piece, most of the text focuses on character, developing Molly from childhood to early adulthood. This scope allows for an intimate exploration of identity as she confronts endless variations of herself, subtly different based on the circumstances of their birth. Thompson’s precise, detailed prose is equally riveting and disturbing; the high tension and sharp twists make it near impossible to look away.
3) Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
With the conclusion of the “Binti” trilogy, The Night Masquerade, releasing earlier this year, it really was beyond time to sit down with Binti. The eponymous Binti is a daughter of the Himba tribe, a culture native to Namibia and, in this story, looked down on by the Khoush people even though their inventions are integral to society. She is the first of the Himba to accept an invitation to Oomza University, a school that sprawls across a whole planet and which is reached by organic spaceships similar to giant shrimp. She fills a jar with otjize, a reddish clay with which the Himba cover their hair and body, and sneaks away from home, knowing that her decision will cause her family to treat her like an outsider. The ship to Oomza is attacked by a jellyfish-like race of aliens known as the Meduse, a longstanding enemy of the Khoush under a fragile peace. Binti is her story of quick-witted survival and careful diplomacy.
Okorafor hits hard and fast in this novella, discussing racism and the exploitations of colonialism within the framework of a lush future setting where math borders on magic and organic spaceships travel the stars. She constructs a diagram of bigotry and implicit bias as a structure pervading all levels of society, with as many reactions to it as there are levels. Binti herself experiences this bigotry in several forms, from strangers aggressively grabbing her hair and referring to her as unclean to the words people at the university use to describe her, like “tribal” and “exotic.” Okorafor’s handling of these events is direct and powerful, while suggesting the complex discussions of communities addressing them.
4) Peter Darling, by Austin Chant
Peter Pan is locked in the public consciousness as the boy that never grew up, the boy who flies, the spirit of childhood, halfway fae and unknowingly cruel. He’s been rewritten and revised for both page and screen. Neverland and Pan capture the imagination, offering a ripe setting to explore new ideas. In Peter Darling, Austin Chant envisions Peter as a trans man who returns to Neverland after growing up, and a Neverland that increases the stakes accordingly.
Rewriting Peter Pan as a trans man seeking escape from a Darling family and a culture that offers no understanding and no compassion, Chant writes a deeply emotional character piece about the role of story as survival, and the need for love to ground us. While the plot rotates between magical settings and swashbuckling fantasy action, the tension and drama is rooted in the characters’ development and their growing attractions for each other. Chant subtly repositions Pan’s casual cruelty from being a trademark of his eternal childhood to a side effect of toxic conceptions of masculinity. Peter’s template for masculinity is based on his father and ideas of “how boys should act;” he must rework these ideas into something authentic and healthy. Opposite Pan, Hook struggles with the traumas that led him to seek refuge in Neverland and a growing thirst for something real and authentic. Though Pan and Hook are the centerpiece for these conflicts and growth, new character Ernest serves as the short arm of a potential love triangle that grows into sincere friendship. Together, their dynamics are a roller coaster of confused feelings, denial, and coping mechanisms on the way to acceptance.
In Chant’s rendition, Neverland on some level reflects the power and prominence of storytelling in queer communities. We find ourselves reflected in stories that allow us to explore and define ourselves, see those stories reflected in others, and know we are not alone. Chant shows a young Peter telling stories to justify his existence, and a grown Peter returning to that story because he has not found it reflected anywhere else. Neverland is a dream made real, a collaborative story told to escape from a world that often seems filled with hate. And Peter finds his story echoed in both Ernest and James Hook. They find themselves and each other in a story, and they carry that strength and their love back to our own world.