Friday, March 24, 2023

Short Book Reviews: Tracking Down a Husband Across Dimensions

 Spelunking Through Hell, (A Visitor's Guide to the Underworld), by Seanan McGuire (DAW)

I have enjoyed Seanan McGuire’s “Incryptid” series since I discovered it. Earlier volumes felt like related, spin-off stand-alones set in the same world with characters who were loosely related to one another. I was particularly delighted to discover that Rose Marshall, from The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, a series I loved, is a distant, although usually off-scene character. The last couple of volumes were a bit of a disappointment, but on the strength of the earlier ones, I decided to give Spelunking Through Hell a try. It was richly worth it.

The crossroads—as in the place you go to make deals with the devil that never, ever turn out well for you—are sentient entities who make an appearance from time to time in McGuire’s related novels. To say they are nasty is an understatement. One of those bargains involved the magician, Thomas Price. He’s been confined to the premises of his (haunted, see Rose, above, and Mary Dunlevy, a ghost who occasionally doubles as a babysitter) house, but it’s part of the price he pays (to the crossroads, see above) for getting to be with his adored wife, Alice Healy. But when the crossroads eventually come to collect their debt, not even Mary can forestall them. Then he vanishes in the middle of the night and everyone is convinced he’s dead…except Alice, who waits only long enough to give birth to their second child and then embarks upon a five decades-long cross-dimensional search for her husband.

Along the way, she acquires friends and allies, including Ithacan satyrs, Helen and Phoebe, and Naga, the giant snake-man who is a professor of extra-dimensional studies. She also survives dimensions that are dying because their world-souls have been stripped, world inhabited by maniacal cannibals, and worse yet. Her kids won’t talk to the mom who abandoned them. Yet she refuses to give up.

This book is about her happy ending and what it cost her. It’s a brilliant, touching page-turner.


Monday, March 20, 2023

Love Letters from Space Telescopes

 What an age we live in!

A spectacular trio of merging galaxies in the constellation Boötes takes center stage in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. These three galaxies are set on a collision course and will eventually merge into a single larger galaxy, distorting one another’s spiral structure through mutual gravitational interaction in the process. An unrelated foreground galaxy appears to float serenely near this scene, and the smudged shapes of much more distant galaxies are visible in the background. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Sun. Article here.

On March 1, 2023, NASA’s Juno spacecraft flew by Jupiter’s moon Io, coming within 51,500 km (32,030 miles) of the innermost and third-largest of the four Galilean moons. The stunning new images provide the best and closest view of the most volcanic moon in our Solar System since the New Horizons mission flew past Io and the Jupiter system in 2006 on its way to Pluto.

Jupiter’s moon Io, as seen by the JunoCam instrument on Juno, on March 1, 2023. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/ processed by Kevin M. Gill.
Cleary, Io still looks like a pizza. The mottled and colorful surface comes from the volcanic activity, with hundreds of vents and calderas on the surface that create a variety of features. Volcanic plumes and lava flows across the surface show up in all sorts of colors, from red and yellow to orange and black. Some of the lava “rivers” stretch for hundreds of kilometers

Glimpsed only occasionally at the hearts of massive clusters of galaxies, ultramassive black holes are some of the largest and most elusive objects in the universe. These black hole behemoths have masses exceeding that of 10 billion suns, making them far more monstrous than even the supermassive black holes found at the centers of galaxies like the Milky Way, and their tremendous size has long perplexed astronomers. 

Now, researchers studying a rare galaxy merger with three supermassive black holes at its center may have finally discovered the origins of these cosmic monsters. 

Using a high-resolution cosmological simulation called ASTRID, the team modeled the evolution of the universe as it appeared about 11 billion years ago. In the simulation, the team witnessed the birth of an ultramassive black hole following the merger of the three galaxies. Each of these galaxies contained its own quasar, a supermassive black hole that feeds on gas and powers massive outbursts of radiation that can outshine all the stars in their host galaxies combined.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Short Book Reviews: Bad Snake Things Waking Up

The Thousand Eyes, by A. K. Larkwood (Tor)

This sequel to A. K. Larkwood's debut fantasy, The Unspoken Name, continues the adventures of many of the original characters, including some we thought were dead. It seems that in Larkwood’s world of “The Serpent Gates,” you cannot count on anything staying dead, whether they be people (not strictly limited to humans), gods, empires, or gigantic mystical serpents. It’s now two years after our heroes/anti-heroes—ogre Csorwe, her girlfriend, mage Shuthmili, and ne’er-do-well Tal Charossa—supposedly defeated the immortal wizard, Belthandros Sethennai. Who, of course, is not actually dead, in no small part because he’s made a bargain with a snake goddess to become her mortal, unstoppable incarnation.

Making bargains with snake goddesses never turns out well, as our friends discover when they unearth an ancient artifact, the Mantle of Divinity, from the long-extinct snake empire. And wake Bad Snake Things up.

Without giving away too much of the marvelously convoluted-but-circular plot, the Bad Snake Things include the last royal soldier of the above-mentioned extinct Snake Empire, a person of truly epic obsessive loyalty. The Mantle of Divinity does its thing, turning a mortal into a divine incarnation of the original snake goddess, who then commences to remodel all the linked dimensional worlds into a recreation of the original above-mentioned extinct Snake Empire. But Belthandros Sethennai is not only not dead, he’s been systematically destroying all the subsidiary incarnations of the One True Snake Goddess so that he can become Her. And matters go pear-shaped from there.

Like its predecessor, this is a long novel, lushly detained, and for all the horrific ways Things Go Wrong, it’s a joy to spend this much time (and these many plot reversals) with our friends. It’s not the place to start, but for everyone who, like me, fell in love with the world and its characters, it offers a rich feast of the imagination.



Monday, March 13, 2023

Auntie Deborah's Agony Column (The Best of...)

Back in 2015, I had fun playing around with an advice column for my favorite characters. I hope you'll enjoy these "Best of..." entries from that column.

Dear Auntie,

After way too many experiences dating angsty, unemployed vampires, I finally met a nice, soft-spoken, polite man. He even has a fairly normal name, Norman. He even has a job, working at a motel. Things were going very well when I realized something was a little “off.” I wonder if that’s my own projection from my past romantic relationships. How do I know what’s normal? Anyway, he’s invited me to meet his mother. What should I bring?
— Buffy

Dear Buffy,

You are wise to trust your instincts, for they have served you well through many perils. All too often, women are trained to ignore otheirgut feelings about a person or situation. We allow ourselves to be persuaded into dangerous circumstances instead of standing up for ourselves. Norman may be what he seems, but he may harbor a darker side that your intuition is warning you about.

My advice is to come prepared for anything. Never mind flowers or a bottle of wine! Bring your slayer arsenal — stakes, spears, swords, the works — and keep your wits about you. Make sure you have an exit strategy if things go sour. And whatever you do, do not get into the shower.

— Auntie Deborah

Dear Auntie Deborah,

I’ve suddenly found myself in a land of many colors, where troubles melt like lemon drops. My problem, though, is that this green-faced woman keeps sky-writing love letters to me…for everybody to see! I don’t return her affections, so what should I do?

Dear Dorothy,
You’ve clearly ended up in a slash version of your own book. My advice is to click your heels like crazy before the flying monkeys get any ideas.

—Auntie Deborah

This last entry contains references to the works of J. K. Rowling. It's behind a page break. Like the others, it is from 2015. Please take it in the playful spirit in which it was originally written.

Dear Auntie Deb,

Friday, March 3, 2023

Short Book Reviews: Witches and Pirates in Love

The League of Gentlewomen Witches, by India Holton (Berkeley)

This book ought to have been sub-titled, Witches and Pirates Pretending to Hate One Another but Really Having Way Too Much Fun. And falling in love. Rival organizations, the Wisteria Society (pirates who go to battle in flying houses) and the League of Gentlewomen Witches (who insist that witchcraft doesn’t exist and will batter you with tea and polite manners until you agree) have been at odds forever. When an immensely powerful amulet is re-discovered, it’s a race for who can get their hands on it first. For the witches, Charlotte Pettifer, titular heir to the League’s leadership. For the pirates, well…all of them but in particular Alex O’Riley, who has made a lifelong study of the art of being a dashing rogue. Blades clash, sparks fly, passions ignite, and humor abounds. Hilarity and wit embroider every page, but underneath lie more serious themes: lingering childhood trauma and its effect on self-esteem, and the healing power of honesty, acceptance, and love.

And tea.