I’m almost certain Fiona J.R. Titchenell has never been a con artist on an intergalactic space station, but she could’ve fooled me. The Acid Test of Naia Mills, the first in Titchenell’s series of novella-length science fiction fairy tale adaptations, was so textured it jumped right off the page.
Before starting the novella, I wondered if I would have enough to write a review about. Even though we’ve reviewed short stories on F-BOM many times, we usually do so as part of a collection, so more themes can be drawn out.
I needn’t have worried. Naia and Co. blew me away. It’s no surprise there’s a solid rating on Goodreads. Let’s dive in:
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pt / Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts / Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts / Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts / Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
The story’s verve came from con woman Naia Mills, who has the bad luck to scam the police chief’s son. To avoid a deadly prison sentence, Naia cuts a deal. However, even the conniving Naia may have oversold on her abilities when she promises to deliver a hundred thousand credits’ worth of gold.
In true con artist fashion, Naia hedges her bets by running at least three counter-operations, leaning on gullible allies, the greed of enemies, and some fast talk to wriggle out of every net. I GUESS she’s supposed to be the princess from the original fairy tale. The general resourcefulness from the original Rumpelstiltskin story is there, but I don’t recall so much criminal behavior…
As I said above, there was so much texture to this setting. Fiona clearly had a good handle on the entire world, which meant fascinating concepts could be sprinkled throughout the story.
One of these concepts was the way Kryssitids (a non-human species) reproduce. If they do not lay their eggs into a living host, they produce only sterile males. Nowadays, females can be produced in labs using flesh substitutes. However, there are still those who say they only way to produce strong females is through living hosts — eating their way out of the hosts ensures a “fighting spirit” in the larvae. As you may have guessed, the process is fatal for the hosts.
The leap to themes of reproductive justice isn’t difficult. I don’t read or watch the horror genre much, so my exposure to reproduction in horror is often the “Mystical Pregnancy.” You can hear all about why this trope is bad in this video. The other is lame thought experiments that feel forced or unreasonable.
Fiona’s take was deft and thought-provoking, because while I firmly know where I stand on being a host for larvae, I could still understand the culture around the practice, and therefore why the issue was complex and important to these characters.
And briefly, another aspect I appreciated were Naia’s relatively casual comments on her past in a brothel. As I mentioned in my review of the show Carnival Row earlier this year, I did not appreciate the show’s ham-fisted attempt to positively portray prostitutes while insisting the main character could not become one. Prostitution is another complicated issue, and there seem to be a lot of (male) writers who haven’t figured out how to responsibly represent it. If you’re looking for more positive SFF representations of women who have been prostitutes, I recommend Six of Crows.
Fiona also has a NEW novel out, a contemporary adult fiction called The Future Mrs. Brightside. You can learn more about the book (and Fiona!) on her website here.
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