Book Review: The Hands of the Emperor

The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

An impulsive word can start a war.
A timely word can stop one.
A simple act of friendship can change the course of history.

Cliopher Mdang is the personal secretary of the Last Emperor of Astandalas, the Lord of Rising Stars, the Lord Magus of Zunidh, the Sun-on-Earth, the god.
He has spent more time with the Emperor of Astandalas than any other person.
He has never once touched his lord.
He has never called him by name.
He has never initiated a conversation.

One day Cliopher invites the Sun-on-Earth home to the proverbially remote Vangavaye-ve for a holiday.

The mere invitation could have seen Cliopher executed for blasphemy.
The acceptance upends the world.

Where do I even start with this?

IF YOU LOVE THE GOBLIN EMPEROR AND NEED MORE POLITICS/ROMANCE/TANGLED INTRICACIES/COURT MANNERS IN YOUR LIFE, GET THIS BOOK.

This is also highly recommended for anyone who liked The Curse of Chalion or A Memory Called Empire, or wished GRRM’s stories were a bit less sprawling and murderous and just a bit nicer.

On the surface, this is a story about a Chancellor putting his head on the line to suggest that his Emperor, the Radiant and Illustrious One, might like to take a holiday.

(The Emperor does not Do holidays. Or emotions, really. Or anything beyond huge works of magic, overseeing court functions and occasionally wrangling committees.)

And the Emperor says yes.

The slight issue with this, of course, is they then have to navigate how that all works, when you’ve got a bunch of rituals (and some small issues like; if the Emperor touches anyone, it could mean death) and strictures and prohibitions and courtly ceremonies and… he just wants to go snorkelling?

This is a story about an Emperor going on holiday, and the friendships that come from that; and how those friendships change both the people involved, and change the world.

And underneath, there are some absolutely wonderful undercurrents. It’s a story about political change and how one person, in the right place, can move mountains. It’s a story about culture and self, and how to carry it with you, and what you give up when you leave or return. It’s a story about family and friends and assumptions and bias, and what we value, and learning to value others and ourselves. It’s a story about racism and prejudice and navigating cultural differences and change alongside personal and political change. And it’s a story about friendship, and love, and how connections make the world.

In short; it’s a book that I have read and re-read, alongside The Goblin Emperor. It’s absolutely huge (969 pages in print!) but also keeps the story very tightly told; it’s just long, rather than being complicated, and it never feels boring or slow. It’s about people, and it’s so sweet and good while also taking you on a rollercoaster of emotions – and all over the Empire in terms of cultural expectations! There are a wonderful set of characters, from the main quartet around the Emperor to Cliopher’s (very large) family, to the Princes and politicians, to the scholars, to those lost and gone but not forgotten. It’s a beautifully-told story, and is absolutely on my favourites list.

There is also a sequel – The Return of Fitzroy Angursell – and it’s a wonderful sequel; I bought it straight after finishing Hands and plunged straight in, and it’s both a wonderful change of pace and an excellent continuation (plus I did almost scream when I figured the name out, and then had to go and re-read Hands with new knowledge in mind!) It is shorter, but there are more stories about the characters; The Bride of the Blue Wind follows Pali, and Stargazy Pie is set in the same universe.

Book Review: Scales and Sensibility

Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

A regency heroine with a dragon curled on her shoulder - Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie BurgisSensible, practical Elinor Tregarth really did plan to be the model poor relation when she moved into Hathergill Hall. She certainly never meant to kidnap her awful cousin Penelope’s pet dragon. She never expected to fall in love with the shameless – but surprisingly sweet – fortune hunter who came to court Penelope. And she never dreamed that she would have to enter into an outrageous magical charade to save her younger sisters’ futures…

However, even the most brilliant scholars of 1817 England still haven’t ferreted out all the lurking secrets of rediscovered dragonkind…and even the most sensible of heroines can still make a reckless wish or two when she’s pushed. Now Elinor will have to find out just how rash and resourceful she can be when she sets aside all common sense. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll even be impractical enough to win her own true love and a happily ever after…with the unpredictable and dangerous “help” of the magical creature who has adopted her.

This is billed as “a frothy Regency rom-com full of pet dragons and magical misadventures” and it absolutely, wonderfully, lives up to every aspect of that. It’s completely delightful fluff, and is the perfect book for curling on the sofa – with shoulder-dragon if you have one, or a cat if you’re not quite at the pet dragon level of society yet. I spent a very contented afternoon with a cup of tea, and got lost in a Regency world where dragons are the latest thing – but also, when you’re a penniless poor relation and depending on your rather spoiled cousin for support, a rather troublesome thing. Certainly when it comes to said cousin mistreating said dragon, and you just happen to lose your temper and storm out…

…and then bump into a dishy fortune-hunter trying to court said awful cousin. And that, of course, comes with additional problems, alongside the perfect solution – which, as expected, just causes more chaos. Add in some rather interesting visitors, a very sweet but also slightly clueless tiny dragon, a whole heap of misunderstandings and a large dash of romance… and it’s the perfect read. It’s also the first in a series, and while this one wraps up Elinor’s story, the second and third are promising to follow her sisters – and I am definitely looking forward to them!

ARC courtesy of the author, although I had already pre-ordered myself a copy based on the first chapter alone! You can follow Stephanie on Patreon, with sneak peeks of writing and a book club. This is also the author who wrote Thornbound – which, if you haven’t read, is absolutely as good!

Writing: Wizards & Work, Part 6

All the best things come in sixes, maybe? I had a midnight flash of inspiration for more of these, so have some new character scribbles! (Standard disclaimer: very very loosely based on people at Rebellion, and not intended to be a comment on anyone at all!)

You can also read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

 

She spoke in strange tongues as she worked, littering her speech with odd syllables and unknown words. We were not sure where she had picked it up, for the language was none of the known spell-speeches, but her words often made her work go faster. None of us could replicate her effects, although our efforts caused her much amusement.

But the mystique was undone when one day a visitor laughed, and said something in the same tongue. The staccato reply made it clear that their input was not welcome, but they just laughed again.

“What did she say?” I asked them as we retreated from the sorceress muttering her alien spells to her machine.

“Oh, she is calling it a plate of… I don’t know the word. It is an insult.” The visitor shrugged. “It makes it work better.”

 

Hir wisdom was boundless, deep as the sea and old as the mountains; hir thoughts ran in ages and aeons, and disdained such human notions as “hours”.

Hir colleagues eventually reached a compromise on the concept of “months”, mostly by pointing out how inconvenient it would be if they passed away from old age in mid-conversation.

 

The story of the princes who turned into swans is not exactly inaccurate; but the stories don’t say what happened to the ordinary folk caught in the same circumstances. Those without a beautiful sister to make them sweaters with spells woven into the patterns (an ancient art in itself), or without a handy hero to see them dancing in worn-out shoes, or without anyone to remember that they were once human.

Some do remember, though. Both humans, and birds.

And so if the wildfowl on the river flock to his handfuls of bread more quickly and readily than they do anyone else, maybe it is because they alone understand his murmured words, and appreciate his remembering what they once were.

 

“That was a terrible joke!”

“Oh, really?” the selkie says in his broad accent, not at all offended. “Ah thought it was alreet. I’ll get mah skin.”

 

The machine had been built to write routine spells: put a script in one side, and get a functional spell out the other. The problem came when it somehow got infected with sarcasm, irony and an awareness of current affairs.

Everyone agreed that the resulting weekly newsletter was very good, and even won some awards; and the machine’s notably radical leanings didn’t seem to affect the reliability of the spells at all.

They kept a wary eye on the effects, though.

 

She was usually cheerful; round-cheeked and smiling between sips of coffee and bursts of work. But woe betide if you crossed her.

The burned holes in the roof had been patched, and the tail-smashed desks replaced: but nothing could quite erase the soot-stains in the corner, or the memory of the dragon raging in the middle of the office on the day the coffee machine had finally broken.

And whether it was repairable was rather a moot point, now that it was a charred and melted heap.

A Basket of Reviews: Shorts & Anthologies, July 2021

A selection of short stories, anthologies and novellas wot I has been reading recently.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built – Becky Chambers (Monk & Robot Bk 1)

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend. One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honour the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of ‘what do people need?’ is answered. But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how. They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

The first in what sounds like a new series of novellas, set in an Earth where the robots gained consciousness and – left us, heading out into the wilderness. The world left behind sounds adorable, actually – craftspeople and families, and tea-monks who travel around with their kettles & cups & blends, offering a cup of tea and listening ear to anyone who needs one. (I definitely want a little pedal-powered caravan to travel in, even if it does end up hung with a whole variety of drying herbs and stuffed to the gills with tea blends.) But then the tea monk decides to go off the beaten track, and meets a robot, coming to check on humanity…

There’s a lot of talk in the novella; a lot of philosophical musing, and explanations of misunderstandings, and dialogue between two cultures that have diverged, but want to learn. It’s very sweet and very cute, and it’s going to be interesting to see where the next one goes!

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler (novella)

Kas is a junior academic on a research mission to old Earth. When a con-artist tricks her into wagering a huge sum of money she doesn’t have on the outcome of a manned robot arena battle she becomes drawn into the seedy underworld of old Earth politics and state-sponsored battledroid prize fights.

I really enjoyed this! It sounds like it was originally going to be a short story, but I’m glad he expanded it into a novella. I loved the characters, the mix of cultural backgrounds, the misunderstandings, the GIANT ROBOT FIGHTS – and it’s wrapped up in a cute romance. Who could want more?

Beyond the Dragon Gate by Yoon Ha Lee

Former Academician Anna Kim’s research into AI cost her everything. Now, years later, the military has need of her expertise in order to prevent the destruction of their AI-powered fleet.

This is a novella from Yoon Ha Lee, author of Ninefox Gambit and Phoenix Extravagant (and, disclaimer, a Rebellion author.) I loved Ninefox – once I got past the “what the hell is happening” feeling of the first three chapters – and also enjoyed Phoenix, so I picked this up on a “let’s give it a try!”

It was… ok. It feels like a proof-of-concept, almost; a short story that’s somehow novella length, and I really wanted more to happen, or to see more of the world, or… well, just something more. So – a good short, but not really worth the read.

Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory by Martha Wells

Set just after Exit Strategy, the fourth novella in the series. It’s a cute, short story from the perspective of Dr. Mensah, who is one of the key players in the first novella (and now someone who is… well, isn’t exactly friends with Murderbot, because Murderbot doesn’t have friends: friends involve Feelings and having to pause the latest downloaded drama) and who is currently trying to sort out her emotions around the events of the first few novellas. Murderbot is assisting by asking for assorted ridiculous weaponry, which… actually seems like quite a good coping mechanism! Cute and sweet, but very short, and definitely only to be read in the context of the series.

Alias Space by Kelly Robson

This is a lovely, varied collection of speculative fiction short stories by award-winning writer Kelly Robson – and the collection has the added bonus of a short passage by Robson after each story, giving more background on the story and adding interesting context to each. The stories range from sci-fi to horror to historical fiction to fantasy, and all have an interesting thread to them; there’s certainly nothing here that’s boring!

The collection starts with Two-Year Man, a world where those allowed to fight for longer are the higher-ranking (hence two-year man; a lowly janitor). But the titular janitor cleans a genetics lab, and finds unwanted babies in the trash – those thrown out because they’re wrong, or broken, or defective – and he takes them home. Intervention, later in the anthology, also deals with the theme of children – the lovely idea of childminding taken up by those who really want to, and how a creche would work with worlds spread across the solar system. How do you mix the latest child-minding science and psychology with the fact you’re raising new people, with all their foilibles and flaws? And what happens to a society that hates children, but then realises that they need them? I’d actually read this before as part of Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity’s End anthology, but it’s just as good the second (or third, or fifth) time around.

The titular story, Alias Space, is one of three loosely-connected stories. In the first, The Desperate Flesh, the manager of a retirement home for lesbians is trying to stop it being demolished by the city, but there’s the small issue of the residents’ penchant for strip tease… and in the second, Alias Space, strip tease dancers elbow themselves room in a city festival. The third, Skin City, puts a futuristic spin on the strip-tease concept; an artist breaks copyright law in an effort to get their forbidden love to talk to them! It’s a fun interlinked trio, all exploring different aspects of a common theme.

La Vitesse is the first of the fantasy stories: what if dragons started invading, and became a nuisance species? And if you’re a school bus driver, that means trying to figure out how to escape a fire-breathing terror that wants to rip your bus open… and that also means figuring out how to connect with your grumpy fourteen-year-old who’s definitely got her own opinions on how to drive a bus, and what good ice cream is. The other major fantasy story is a longer novelette, Waters of Versailles, and is set in eighteenth-century France; an inventor is enchanting the Court with new water closets, but the secret to how he does it is closely guarded – and his problems expand from how to keep his courtly patrons happy to how to keep the water-controlling nixie happy!

Plunging back into sci-fi is Two Watersheds, a scientist in VR exploring how invasive lichen can be managed while dealing with her own personal problems. A Study In Oils is probably my favourite in the book, and is a really interesting exploration of art, murder and intent; an athlete accused of murder (despite murder being semi-legal during a game…) goes to a remote village to try to escape people hurting him as a punishment; he loves creating art, and the story explores what art means to him, especially in the context of his actions and their own context of the game and society. The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill is also a very hard-hitting story about choices; a raped & murdered girl ends up being saved by an alien parasite, and has to explore the consequences of both of those. (Robson’s note on this story is particularly interesting as well!) And We Who Live In The Heart is another hard-hitting story that deals with choices and murder; humans have made habitats in huge, whale-like creatures… but they are still learning the biology, still learning how to live, and when you add human choices & relationships into the mix (and in particular, love and revenge) then it gets complicated – and interesting.

There are a number of mixed genre stories, too, which mix into the scifi. What Gentle Women Dare strays into historical fiction, with a street walker’s life, and her choice when she’s offered a devil’s bargain… So You Want To Be A Honeypot is a slightly-unfocused, very fun spy thriller, following a cohort of trainee spies as they take their first assignments and get used to life, and get used to being able to make their own choices. And the final story in the collection, A Human Stain, is a wonderful gothic horror: a governess comes to remote castle to look after a child, but there are many mysteries surrounding it… and she finds it is more terrifying – and beguiling – than she had thought…

A very mixed and very interesting collection, and well worth a read.

Five Happy Things: July 2021

Happy things! Happy things! All of the happy things!

1.Sitting in our neighbour’s garden with a fire globe & wine & fish and chips

We were over near our definitely-not-local fish shop (there is a local one, which isn’t yet open… progress on that is a matter of fierce anticipation for everyone in the area!) and picked up some for our neighbour as well as ourselves – perfect social distancing food, as everyone can just eat out of their own boxes! We had old fence wood to get rid of, too, and so we got to use said neighbour’s fire globe… and the wine, well, you gotta have a glass of something. It was a nice, quiet evening, and was very much a balm to the soul – plus we got some cat company, which is always a pleasure. (The fish may have had something to do with that, I admit!)

2.The weight is lifting…

I’m not doing a whole bunch of stressful admin for an old house (it’s been handed over to a lovely agent, who will definitely be better than me at remembering when to get new certificates for everything, and trying to fix everything that’s gone wrong this month) and it just feels so much better. I’m a bit frustrated at myself that I didn’t ask for help earlier (to be fair, I didn’t realise that I could) but better late than never, I guess.

I also saw some ex-work friends for lunch (which was lovely – I really do miss the people!) and everything’s still generally on fire there, and IT IS NOT MY PROBLEM! It’s such a great feeling. I knew it was all heavy, but didn’t realise quite how much it had dragged me down until it wasn’t any more, and I’m in a job that doesn’t demand my heart&soul and spend every working hour reminding me that however much I do, it will never be enough. I’m still absolutely fucking angry about that whole thing, but I’m also aware that there’s nothing more I can do, and it’ll just drag me down again to be thinking about it – so I’m trying not to. But it is lovely to hear about the rolling chaos and know that I don’t have to give a single fuck any more.

3.Travel? (UK… and further?)

I’ve been booking bits for December – we’re going to Chester – and London in October, and it’s been very satisfying to be able to think about travel again… even if it does get cancelled, which is fine, and we have contingency, but it’s a nice possibility! We’re also thinking about Canada and Antwerp for next year, but that one’s a bit more of a “let’s just see how the next few months go…”

We’re also starting to do more in the local area, too – Otter & I have been trying to find things that are nicely distanced, so we’re going kayaking next week sometime, and hopefully trundling out for some walks that we’ve wanted to try for a bit. Wytham Woods is first on our agenda!

4.The Garden

Having spent the last year or so with zero energy and zero spoons and absolutely no desire to go into our garden (our neighbour’s garden has been the saving grace for getting outside, as they are a keen gardener and so if we wanted beautiful flowers, there’s always something there), I finally have more energy and a desire to do something, and we did a Garden!

We’ve taken out the over-enthusiastic goose grass, put in purple wisteria (not in the same quantities…), added two raised beds, cleared the path, encouraged the tomatoes, planted some more veg, got to the gooseberries before the birds (TAKE THAT, YOU THIEVING BASTARDS – we got TWO last year. TWO!) and some raspberries, took a bunch of old wood over to our neighbour for burning, added some trellis for various things, restrained some rather enthusiastic growers, and generally Tidied.

We’ve got a few more plans, too, which feels nice (and like they might actually get done!) – dig in the path, sort the patio, add some plants to the fence (we have some small flexible plant pots, so we want some climbers/smellies/herbs in the pallet holes), tidy the shed, and sort the compost. But it feels like a nicer area to be in, and that’s really satisfying.

The wild meadow in the centre is growing nicely, too – we put yellow rattle in last autumn to fight back against the grass and that’s flowered nicely this summer, plus there’s been a bunch of other odd things popping up from the wildflowers I scattered in October. The bees are definitely enjoying it!

5.WOE (and also WOE, and more WOE, and have some extra WOE)

There has been the standard amount of very vocal woe from a small black furry Woe Machine, but there have also been purrs – so many purrs! I picked him up the other day and he was just rumbling away in my arms. He’s been DEMANDING cuddles in the morning (me) and evening (my partner) and enjoying belly rubs (!!!!!! – only my partner is brave enough for this, I haven’t dared yet.) In short, he’s being absolutely spoiled rotten, and is enjoying it thoroughly – despite the ever-present wailing and claims that he is Starved and Neglected and How Very Dare We. Dare I say, he is actually quite happy (especially when there are biscuits.)

And generally…

As you can probably hear, I’m doing better; there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not on fire! I’m definitely still grey, and have occasional bad moments, but they’re nothing like as bad as they were. I’m slowly coming out of a pit of no-energy too, but it’s translating at the moment into something that feels almost manic; I’m keeping going and keeping going and somehow it doesn’t really feel like my brain’s involved in that! But if it means I can get out into the garden and not either immediately feel horribly overwhelmed or need to spend a day recovering from the small amount of work I do manage, then I’ll take it.

I have to admit, I’m actually worse with motivation now; I’m able to feel slightly enthusiastic about some things, so it’s making everything that I’m not enthusiastic about that much harder. I’m also still finding people hard; I don’t know what to say! I’m doing my best to keep going and also respond to people who have contacted me, and start to repair some of the missed communication threads, but it’s going to be a slow process. (As one of my ex-colleagues said: you send someone an email, and then they email back – and expect you to reply again?! I already did the email thing!!)

I’m also now having to deal with some Actual Feelings, and that has meant a few breakdowns – the nice thing about not caring is that, y’know, zero fucks, but now… but hey ho, I have coping mechanisms, and I just gotta get the practise in again! It does also mean that I’ve got to actually deal with/work through/get out a bunch of stuff, so that’s going to be fun – especially if this is only the start of everything lifting. But again, if it means I’m actually feeling instead of just being numb, then I’ll take that as progress.

So overall: doing better, and cats.

Death with a kitten. "Cats are nice."
Unfortunately via Pinterest, so no source