Category Archives: Review

Review: Girl Genius series

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Mad, bad and dangerous to know…and in charge. If your country gets taken over by an army of intelligent lobsters, well, that’s pretty much normal for this alternate universe. The story and world are littered with mad inventors, crazy ideas, strange politics, stories of derring-do and general insanity…

Agatha starts the story as a lab assistant who can’t quite get any of her inventions to work. When Dr Beetle gets an unexpected visitor, a dose of double-crossing (possibly involving a fishbowl) mean the visit doesn’t quite go to plan. Agatha opts for getting away from it all – but runs straight into the forces of Baron Wulfenbach, Europa’s least mad inventor and therefore its Force For Sanity, and is imprisoned aboard his airship. In short order, she has to find out where she is, who she is, what she can do, and why she apparently smells quite so good – although apparently not to Wulfenbach’s son, who consistently puts his foot in his mouth, mostly when it comes to Agatha.

I really enjoyed this; it’s a fast-paced and amusing romp, all done with tongue firmly in mechanical cheek and littered with jabs at steampunk, inventors, scientists, history and mad machines. The plot does get quite intricate and it can be hard to follow the politics, but I found that I just sat back and accepted a lot of it, trusting that it would be sorted out later – and it usually was. You definitely can’t take this book seriously, and it’s a tremendous amount of fun.

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is the second in the series. Agatha has succeeded in escaping from Baron Wulfenbach’s airship, but has landed herself in the middle of the dangerous, monster-infested Wastelands with only a talking cat and a home-made doomsday machine to assist her. When she stumbles across a travelling circus, they take her in and she learns to fight – and build. But the circus soon arrives at even more trouble; Wulfenbach is not the only mad inventor around, and other people have plans for Agatha – and her voice.

The second book doesn’t let down the pace – very often a sequel starts wandering. This one? Nope! It’s got as many mad inventions, laughs, perilous situation and general mad shenanigans as the first. The political situation develops further, landing Agatha in a whole heap of trouble, but we do meet some more faces. The ending is something of a cliffhanger for the third book…

Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle follows Agatha on her quest to return to the castle in Mechanisburg, hereditary home of the mad genius Heterodyne family. The only issue is that the castle itself is insane and there’s another Heterodyne claimant around, determined to take over the castle and fight Baron Wulfenbach’s rule. In addition to those problems, Agatha’s got to sort out two genius lovesick inventors and keep her mind intact, all while trying to convince the Castle that it’s not fun to kill guests…

As mad, as fun, as interesting – but while the story is as fast-paced, I’m not as sure about the plot. This book is longer, and it feels it: without spoilering, I feel an entire arc towards the end could have been chopped out without any problems – and I’m currently not entirely sure about where it ended. The first and second books ended on natural arc end points, whereas this book has ended very much on a nailbiting cliffhanger of “they’re actually in mid-peril”…and now I have to wait? *scowl* So while I do have grabby hands for the next one, I’m also a little miffed. However, the world’s as insane, the machine are as monstrous, and the jokes are still firmly present; the book’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of madness.

I am definitely enjoying the series, and if you like steampunk, mad scientists, general chaos and a fun romp through absolute chaos, you’ll enjoy these.

On a side note, the books are based on the webcomic Girl Genius by the same authors. I read the books first, and have only got a few pages into the webcomic before deciding that actually, I’d rather have the images in my imagination!

Review: Fool If You Think It’s Over

Fool If You Think It’s Over by Jo Thomas

Fool if youThis is the third in the Elkie Bernstein series – the first two were 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf and A Pack of Lies. Fool If You Think It’s Over is out soon…watch @FoxSpiritBooks for a date!

As far as Elkie’s concerned, it’s all over and her happy ending is just around the corner.

She’s on her way back to Wales having freed Ben from the clutches of the controlling Dr Olsen and ensured that Dave, her ex-everything, will never be in a position to kill again. She’s even managed to find herself a (somewhat unwilling) father figure in Conn, the one werewolf in the world who seems to have his shit together. All she has to do is say “thank you” to the Valemon, a company so at odds with Olsen they were willing to support her, then get on a plane for home.

Easy, right?

The book finishes off Elkie’s journey to Norway, and completes the story that started when she got attacked by a werewolf – and won. Killing werewolves wasn’t meant to become a habit, but 25 of them later, it was sort of a Thing…and then it was a case of tracking down the person responsible. Unfortunately, that wasn’t just a single person involved, and Elkie got dragged into a political minefield. Plus there’s an ex-boyfriend, a reluctant father-figure, two sisters and a manipulative sort-of-ex to figure out…

Without spoilering too much there’s a second organisation that can (probably) turn into animals (I don’t really know enough about Norse mythology to know where some of the details and ideas come from)…and they don’t like Olsen. They do like Elkie. She’s not entirely keen on this but manages to learn a few things which, from a reader’s perspective, were incredibly helpful to the story but I admit I didn’t entirely understand. I need to go re-read my mythology now!

Anyway; Ben’s still a slimy little weasel (although I always think that’s a bit unfair to weasels), Conn’s still unsure and annoyed, and the wolfpack is just trying to navigate their place in the world. Elkie’s mullish, belligerant, chin-out stubborn and loyal to a fault. The plot nicely ties up the ends from the previous two books: the ending was unexpected, and I admit I was a little disappointed by it. I’d have liked Elkie to be a bit more proactive, have more of a…but that’s spoilers. It was a good ending, regardless.

So, overall? I liked the first one; amusing, witty, fast-paced. The second and third both get detailed and political, and – particularly in this last one – the motivations can sometimes be hard to figure out. In general, enjoyable and worth reading if you’ve read the previous two, just to finish the series – but 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf is definitely my stand-out win.

A bagful of reviews: Hmm

all the birds coverAll The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Patricia is a witch who can communicate with animals. Laurence is a mad scientist and inventor of the two-second time machine. As teenagers they gravitate towards one another, sharing in the horrors of growing up weird, but their lives take different paths… When they meet again as adults, Laurence is an engineering genius trying to save the world and live up to his reputation in near-future San Francisco. Meanwhile, Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the magically gifted, working hard to prove herself to her fellow magicians and secretly repair the earth’s ever growing ailments. As they attempt to save our future, Laurence and Patricia’s shared past pulls them back together. And though they come from different worlds, when they collide, the witch and the scientist will discover that maybe they understand each other better than anyone.

I was warned that the first few chapters aren’t great, and to power through them because the rest of the book is worth reading. Well, that happened. I got to page 19 and texted @Vicorva to check if it really did get better, because I wanted to throw the damn thing at the wall. (I didn’t. She’d lent me the book, and I don’t like damaging other people’s beloved copies). She said yes, it did get better, and so I flipped ahead to Chapter 12.

It does get better. It’s a weird world, a weird concept, with magic and technology mixing, an AI gone rogue, birds that talk, robots with emotions, witches and healers and tricksters. It’s a love story, and one about saving the world, and one about decisions and consequences. The style is flippant and direct and quick-paced, and I loved that; it’s a nice read. I think the beginning could have done with being re-written at the end, if you see what I mean – it was definitely slow to start, lacking that ‘voice’ that brings the rest of the book to life. It’s a shame, as it is a good read that I simply wouldn’t have continued with if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of another reader.

So…if you like magic and technology and weirdness and character writing, or if you liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, then try it. Push through the first few chapters and keep at it. It does get better.

Ps. This was one of my Discoverability Challenge books.

silent city coverSilent City by G R Matthews

This is the first in the Corin Hayes novella series.

In the Corporation owned cities life is tough. All Hayes wants is money and a bar to spend it in. He is about to learn that some jobs in the abyss can be killers. For a man who has lost everything, is life even worth fighting for?

Corin Hayes was a fish-suit diver in a Corporation city deep in the ocean, able to get where the subs couldn’t, ensuring the city foundations remained stable…until he caused an accident. Now he drinks to forget and tries to dodge the people who want to beat him up – until he’s offered another assignment.

The worldbuilding is interesting; undersea cities are the norm after a disaster on the surface, and human life is relegated to the bottom of the oceans. While the city and the surrounding world (and accompanying politics) is an interesting setting, I didn’t entirely warm to Hayes to start with; he reminded me too much of the bitter noir detectives with their cynical attitudes and bad drinking habit. It didn’t help that a typo early on left me with a nagging confusion about the child who died (it’s fine, it’s fixed in the ebook!) and I wasn’t entirely sure about the direction of the plot – I was a little worried that it was going to devolve into cliché. Hey, I’m cynical. Bite me.

The story itself is part thriller, part almost military spy novel…Hayes is recruited to visit a ‘silent city’, part of the ongoing battle with another power, an almost cold-war situation of submersibles and listening stations spread across the ocean. Add in some political tangles, traitors and hidden motives, and Hayes’ own personal issues, and it’s a tense ride. I warmed to the story after the first few chapters as the plot took over, and while I did get slightly lost at the very end (which is possibly either my reading skills being Fail or just that it isn’t too clear) the story did keep me hooked.

While the plot for this story gets (mostly) wrapped up, there are a few loose ends and extra hints that hopefully play out in the next novella in the series, Nothing Is Ever Simple.

land of giantsIn The Land of Giants by Max Adams

This is a non-fiction walk (and motorbike ride) through the Dark Ages of Britain – through the remainders of the lands, circles, forts, houses and monuments left by those left behind after the Romans retreated. It’s billed as part travelogue, part historical study.

I admit…I haven’t enjoyed it. I’ve been reading it piecemeal, and while it’s interesting, it’s frustrating. I don’t know enough about the places he’s visiting to be able to see them – I need a book of maps and a photograph gallery alongside this, damnit! Adams’ way of describing things is just tantalising enough that I need imagery as well, and it’s frustrating that there’s so little. The history isn’t entirely helpful, either; again, I just don’t know enough! I’m not uniformed by any means (hey, classical scholar, albeit for the period before – but I have picked up some Dark Ages stuff) but I simply can’t keep track of what’s where and who. It means I’m reading this with a sort of “meh, ok” feeling, resigned to missing half of my information and trying to enjoy the admittedly beautiful descriptions Adams gives of the places he’s visiting.

So – frustrating, if beautiful prose in places. If you know your Dark Ages then definitely pick this up, but if you have middling to no knowledge, don’t bother.

Review: Autonomy

Autonomy by Jude Houghton

AutonomyBalmoral Murraine works in a Battery, assembling devices she doesn’t understand for starvation pay. Pasco Eborgersen is the pampered son of an Elite, trying to navigate the temptations of the Pleasure Houses, the self-sacrifice of the Faith, and the high-octane excitement of Steel Ball. They are two strangers, who never should have met, and now they will rip apart the world.

What happens when ninety percent of the world lives on skaatch – a jellyfish and insect composite? What happens when mankind spends more time in alternative life sims instead of in the “real” world? What happens when economic interest is the sole determinant of global decision making? What happens when a single secret is discovered that calls into question everything we have ever believed? Welcome to the Autonomy. Welcome to your future.

“Name badge? That tab on his shirt? I didn’t even notice.”

“iNet teaches you not to notice.”

The story is compelling, twisting around three people from completely opposite ends of life. The twins, Pasco and Tristram, are born and brought up in the richest elite where their mother spends all of her time in a sim-world and their father is a politician, gambling the futures of millions. Balmoral is born in the slums to a mother who couldn’t stop working even for Balmoral’s birth, too afraid she would lose her job. They live in a world destroyed by famine and controlled by economics, where humans are a commodity and the overriding need is to produce goods as cheaply as possible. And the lives of everyone are ruled by iNet, accessible and consuming, providing information and temptation – the offered salvation of Faith, the distractions of the Pleasure Houses, the excitement of the Steel Ball.

But there is rebellion. There is revolt. When Balmoral, Pasco and Tristam get sucked into the fight, it tests their beliefs and their morals – and when iNet threatens to take over, to get inside your head and never leave…what does humanity really believe in?

Freaky, unsettling, fast-paced, and a dystopian fiction that’s just a bit too close to the bone to be comforting.

NB. This is a Grimbold book, but I say what I think – and Autonomy is one of the best books I’ve read this year!

Review: The Midnight Queen

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

Midnight QueenIn the hallowed halls of Oxford’s Merlin College, the most talented and highest born sons of the Kingdom of Britain are taught the intricacies of magickal theory. But what dazzles can also destroy, as Gray Marshall is about to discover. 

Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace and without a trace of his power. He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender, working in the gardens of Callender’s country estate and hoping to recover his abilities. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter.
Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety. But against her father’s wishes, Sophie has studied his ancient volumes on the subject. And in the tall, stammering, yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who encourages her interest and awakens new ideas and feelings.
Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them. And after the king’s closest advisor pays the professor a closed-door visit, they begin to wonder if what Gray witnessed in Oxford might be even more sinister than it seemed. They are determined to find out, no matter the cost.

If you enjoyed The Split Worlds series, The Lie Tree , Rachel Aaron’s Nice Dragons series or Marie Brennan’s Natural History, you’ll love this. Being a history geek, I love the wealth of alternate information – the Roman traditions, the place names, the Tudor links and the magical twists on life. And the plot’s excellent – the story’s a real page-turner and you get so caught up in the story. I adore these books!

Grey starts off as the focus; lanky, unsure and plunged accidentally into the middle of something that’s obviously big but equally unclear. Accused of killing a fellow-student, he’s whisked off to the Professor’s country home, and meets Sophie – herself fascinating and with several mysteries following in her footsteps. As they work out what’s planned, they have to take drastic steps – and a flight across Britain follows, trying to save both King and Country.

lady of magickThe supporting characters are all excellent – the Professor (distracted and icy), Sophie’s sister Joanna (fond of meals and rather too outspoken for everyone’s liking), Mrs Wallis (smug and knows-something-you-don’t) – and the world is just wonderful. The little touches add so much brilliance, and the smallest detail can matter to the story (although it’s ok if you missed it, things are explained) and the alternate world history is so brilliantly envisioned. The plot races along, and the growing friendship of Sophie and Grey is so much fun to read. I may have nearly missed my stop on the train because I got sucked in!

I loved this – I don’t know why it’s not more popular, but it should be! I’ve already read the second one, Lady of Magick (which is just as good) and my fingers are itching to get the third, which is just out. If you like character-centred stories, magic, action, alternate histories, a love story and a story of someone learning that they can be who they want to be – read this.

Ps. This is one of my Discoverability Challenge books.