Talis and Almoris are a bonded pair of mid-level drones, spouses, who run a boarding house for factory and dock workers. Both are secretly wielders, which means they can magically control the elements: water for Talis, fire for Almoris. Unfortunately, in the colony where they live, wielders must keep their powers secret, else risk being accused of trumped-up crimes and enslaved in the factories. They use their powers to help runaway slaves escape to more enlightened colonies. In this story, one such slave reaches them, a wood-wielder, and gets them into a lot of trouble.
The narrator uses ze/hir pronouns for all characters but doesn’t explain why, so the reader has no idea whether this is a species that only features one sex, or whether it is a species that prefers not to refer to sex, or whether it is just the narrator who prefers not to refer to sex. Functionally, it has exactly the same effect that redacting all the pronouns would have in any other book. It’s interesting in that the reader has to fight back stereotypical assumptions that a character doing certain actions is either male or female, but mostly it’s an irritation. A fictional text is a document telling us to imagine something, and withholding such basic information gets in the way of that.
On the other hand, this is quite a basic tale of oppressed superpowers, with very little actually happening, and it is lent a little bit of novelty by its unusual degree of narrative withholding. As well as not being told the sex of any of the characters, we aren’t told directly what type of species they are, just given clues here and there. We learn early on that that they have antennae and four arms. A slaver and some drones have wings. But we don’t find out until page 70 of 91 that as well as the skin mentioned throughout the book, Talis also has a partial shell, and not till page 76 do we find out that Almoris has two legs.
Some reviewers have taken them to be insects, given their antennae, thoraxes and the colonies they live in, and that the narrator talks about eggs and larvae. But unlike insects they have skulls, spines, noses, tongues, necks, stomachs, guts, chins, teeth, hearts, chests, torsos, waists, skin, hair on their heads, and knuckles that lose their colour when tightened. Also, they drink whisky, eat cheese, keep chickens and goats, use tables and chairs, tie their shoelaces, run small businesses and in all other respects behave very much like us.
In a science fiction book, this would all feel like a half-hearted failure to imagine an alien civilisation. (Compare it, for example, with the insect novels of Lorinda J. Taylor, interviewed in TQF66, who didn’t just imagine insect civilisations, but also their languages.) Little has changed other than that they have four arms and blue hair, and there’s no sense at all that their biological differences from us have affected their society, other than that their buildings are hexagonal. But in what I took to be a fantasy book, it felt quite novel. And I did enjoy the absurdity of all the characters in a serious, humourless book randomly having four arms.
There are a handful of typos, none of which would normally be worthy of comment, but it’s not often you read an award-nominated book that gets may/might, their/they’re and complimented/complemented mixed up. (It was up for best novella in the British Fantasy Awards.) And as often seems to happen with neopronouns, perhaps because authors and editors haven’t got used to them yet, there are places where an overabundance of the same pronouns make it difficult to know who is doing what, e.g. “Fire flowed over hir scalp just before ze was pulled off hir feet. Ze fell onto hir behind and caught hir tongue between hir teeth.”
Overall, not great, not terrible, and in some respects an interesting experiment. ***