Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell mashes up space opera with a Marriage of Convenience, with the added level of this being one partner’s second marriage of convenience after his husband is killed in what appeared to be an accident. I read the original version of this story on AO3, but long enough ago that I wasn’t sure how much had changed or been added for this new version. (Note that its previous iteration was not fanfiction.) The political plot involves their small, out-of-the-way empire renewing its ties with the larger galactic powers; if those ties are not renewed, it’s highly likely they will be invaded and devoured. Smaller mystery plots run throughout, though the main focus is Kiem and Jainan learning to trust and love each other. Kiem is an extrovert and, on the surface, a flake; Jainan is an introvert and fiercely devoted to his duty, which to him includes hiding the less savory aspects of his previous marriage. I felt the characterization was the best part, but I also enjoyed the worldbuilding, particularly details like the habit Kiem’s people have of using earth animal names for much more dangerous alien creatures. Content warning: past domestic abuse. Den of Geek interview with the author..
Red Rose by Mary Balogh was a DNF (Did Not Finish) because the plot was too Old School for my tastes: the hero is a virulent misogynist. Even for a favorite author, that ruined my enjoyment of the story.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is first in the Lady Astronaut trilogy, an alternate history in which Dewey wins the presidential election and begins the United States’ space race sooner; but then, in 1952, a devastating meteorite strike wipes out most of the Eastern Seaboard, initiating what will likely become an extinction event, which leads to accelerated international efforts to colonize the Moon and Mars.
The first person narrator, Elma York, is a pilot and math prodigy with two doctorates, whose supportive husband Nathaniel York becomes lead engineer of the space program, while she’s content to work as a computer, finding safety in the predictability of mathematics. Meanwhile, the American public does not necessarily believe in the greenhouse effect or that so much money should be spent on fleeing the planet, or that women should risk their lives by going into space. This means politics and journalism are often as important to the project as science, and as the wife of someone who often serves as the face of the program, Elma is pushed out of her comfort zone. She suffers from extreme anxiety when speaking in front of a group, or confronted by reporters, which adds personal challenges to her efforts against misogyny.
The entire first section vividly portrays the meteorite strike and its immediate aftermath, which is harrowing and gripping, if you’re up for it. CW for loss of family members. Then there’s a time jump, and the story becomes all about the space race and fighting for inclusion, for both women and non-white people. Elma is white and Jewish; she and her husband were taken in after the meteorite disaster by black fighter pilot Eugene Lindholm and his wife Myrtle, who had worked as a computer in the past. Via Myrtle, and also later several others who either work with Elma as computers or are fellow members of a club for women pilots, barriers to inclusion are addressed in several different ways, with Elma herself slowly realizing from these friends how segregation and racism affects everything, and making efforts to address it.
I liked that Elma is in no way perfect when it comes to race issues; for example, in the first section, she doesn’t notice there are no black refugees coming in from the East Coast until Myrtle points it out to her; later in the novel, Elma knows enough to take note when there are no black women in the first group of “lady astronauts” and how the single Asian woman candidate is dismissed because of a previously undiagnosed and probably imaginary heart murmur. I also liked that the black characters are shown realistically taking things into their own hands, for instance dropping flyers on black neighborhoods to let them know where to show up for evacuation, or contacting black-owned newspapers to publicize how highly-qualified the passed-over black candidates are in comparison to the white women chosen.
The Fated Sky is second in the Lady Astronaut series, and first shows the new moon base, then covers the first manned (and womaned!) expedition to Mars, which is suspenseful and sometimes heartrending. Going to Mars has not eliminated racism, and Elma York, the white Jewish pov character, learns when she can help and, perhaps more importantly, when she can’t help and should be quiet and listen. I gulped it down very quickly.
I re-read Watership Down by Richard Adams for an online group discussion. This is a book I read multiple times in middle school. Some parts of the narration had worn grooves in my brain; some things I didn’t remember at all, like the outcome of General Woundwort’s invasion of Watership Down. This time, I noted how few female characters there were, given that this story began as one Adams told to his daughters. The rebellious teenager Nelthilta, a vivid character, doesn’t escape Efrafa; Thethuthinnang is mostly Hyzenthlay’s sidekick; Clover has a fair amount of lines but her major story role is being protected and having babies. Hyzenthlay is, I think, the main female character, for what that’s worth; her speaking role was larger than I remembered pre-escape and smaller post-escape.
I noted, as others also did, how most of the main male rabbits lacked toxic masculinity. Hazel in particular is amazingly collaborative in his leadership style; he uses empathy and observation of the others’ skills to help him decide who can/should to be set to different tasks. I wholeheartedly agree with Hazel on this: “There are too few of us for giving orders and biting people.” He takes advice from Fiver, Holly, Blackavar, and others. Fiver and Pipkin, the smallest male rabbits, are shown to be as brave and clever as the others.
In contrast, General Woundwort is the complete opposite, ruling Efrafa as a tyrant and bully, resulting in a fascist society that harshly punishes dissent and is beginning to eat itself from within. The mendacious Cowslip, though not technically Head Rabbit of his warren, suppresses talk of the farmers’ snares, oppressing dissent and twisting survival instinct; their warren is one of capitalist plenty at the expense of the few who are inevitably killed but not acknowledged for their sacrifice.
Where the Need is Greatest by Niitza posits that after being unfrozen, and catching up on history, Captain America/Steve Rogers trains as a medical professional and goes to work for Médicins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. Events of The Winter Soldier turn out differently. It was very satisfying.
in death’s dream kingdom by therestlessbrook is the MCU “Snap” (half of the population is removed from the world) from the perspective of Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, and reporter Karen Page, Netflix Marvel series versions. I have not yet seen the final season of Daredevil, nor did I see The Punisher series, but that didn’t matter for this story. It’s essentially a post-apocalyptic road trip and homebuilding story, with romance. Some typical Post-Apocalyptic Fiction Badness happens, but they make it through with each others’ help. Karen is re-reading her copy of Watership Down to Frank throughout the story, and those scenes are gold.
Vormarlow’s Honour by Ankaret crosses over Antonia Forest’s Marlow books with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Grumpy Captain Lord Piotr Vormarlow escorts Ivan Vorpatril to a space station at the back end of nowhere, where he encounters troublesome Cetagandans, someone from his past, and a bar fight. Everything turns out great. I have never read Forest, but I enjoyed the story anyway; some knowledge of Bujold’s work is helpful.
I read a Work In Progress because it doesn’t look like it will ever be finished, according to the author’s note; however, it’s over 232,000 words. An Undeniable Impression by Ansud crosses over Anne McCaffrey’s Pern with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. It looks to me as if the Pern parts go AU after Robinton’s canonical death (I didn’t read that book, and barely remember the last few) by having him not die, instead being saved by an AI, who needs someone to investigate a wormhole that has recently opened in the vicinity. This leads to a group of Pernese and a lot of firelizards going to Beta Colony and encountering Admiral Naismith and the Dendarii Mercenaries. The AI gets a herm sexbot body, which was okay, I guess. It felt a little Heinlein-esque to me, sometimes; something about the prose and Robinton’s narrative gaze, maybe, not anything that I think was intentional. It had a lot of fun ideas, and I was entertained.
Progress by Spooks and thesuninside is the second part of Neighborly, in which teenaged Dean and his brother Sam Winchester from Supernatural live next door to Frank Castle from The Punisher, and end up being taken in by him after their father’s death. It looks like the kids might be staying past Christmas, so Frank has to figure out how to make things a little more legal, while dealing with his own issues. I like the quotidian feel of these stories, and the characterization of two familiar characters as kids.
The Startling Secret Identity of The Batman by Nokomis hilariously posits that a (real life) web series called “Buzzfeed Unsolved” figures out Batman’s true identity, but dismisses it as ridiculous. Then it gets sillier. It’s a lot of fun.