Category Archives: Review

Review: The Underwater Ballroom Society

Would you rather dance beneath the waves or hide your smuggled magic there? Welcome to a world of sparkling adult fantasy and science fiction stories edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent and featuring underwater ballrooms of one sort or another, from a 1930s ballroom to a Martian hotel to a grand rock ‘n roll ball held in the heart of Faery itself.

This anthology is a collection of wonderful stories – all with a nod to an underwater ballroom. I was lucky enough to be given an ARC in exchange for an honest review, and I can truthfully say that I absolutely adore this collection!

The first story, Ysabeau S. Wilce’s “The Queen of Life” is great fun; a mix of fairy tales and myths, and rock’n’roll! loved the twists and turns of this, and it’s got a really upbeat vibe. Y.S. Lee’s “Twelve Sisters” is a wonderful take on what happens next after the soldier solves the mystery of the princess’ worn-out shoes and midnight dancing…and also provides a haunting woven-in story that gives more depth to the fairytale, and shows us more of the princesses. Iona Datt Sharma’s “Penhallow Amid Passing Things” involves smugglers, Revenue inspectors, magic, illicit goods, adventure…I loved the relationships and characters woven into this, and I’d love to see more of the wider world in a longer story even though this story itself is an excellent read in its own right!

Tiffany Trent’s “Mermaids, Singing” puts us into Victorian England, with mudlarks on the banks of the Thames, a freakshow circus with real creatures…and a captured shapeshifter with no memories and a chance to escape. The story’s very well-written and the period comes through nicely, but I thought the motivations could have been laid out a bit more clearly; I did struggle to understand why some of the characters were acting as they did, but loved the weaving of Victorian London into the strangeness of another world. Jenny Moss’ “A Brand New Thing” is a change of tone again, with a sweet, fairy-tale like quality; a girl who loves to read, who doesn’t quite fit in, and who is given a key to a dream world…and Cassandra Khaw’s “Four Revelations from the Rusalka Ball” was my favourite; short, sweet, lyrical and evocative, mixing fairytale and darker myths.

“Spellswept” by Stephanie Burgis is an even better read if you’ve read her novel “Snowspelled”, but it’s a great short! It’s Regency with magic, and a family who dare to challenge the way things are done – for the best reasons. Laura Anne Gilman’s “The River Always Wins” is a mix of grunge, punk, anger, dance, memories, with a nice dash of weird thrown in: I love how she’s conjured up the emotions, the mix of anger and no-fucks with the sinking feeling of growing up, becoming boring, until everything’s stirred up again…Shveta Thakrar’s “The Amethyst Deceiver” was the one sour note for me; the story is excellent and well-written and I loved the setting (1920’s vibe with added weird!) but I didn’t entirely understand the point of the plot & events; while the story itself makes sense, I felt the character motivations were harder to understand. It certainly doesn’t detract from the read though! And the final story, Patrick Samphire’s “A Spy in the Deep” is a turn-of-the-century adventuring plus Martian sci-fi mix; a new spy-in-training is given a tough assignment, with a couple of problems thrown into the mix including a fellow-trainee who doesn’t like her, a bumbling brother-in-law, and an unfortunately timed murder…

The whole collection is a wonderful, changeable mix of genres, storytelling styles, characters and vibes; I love the central thread of the underwater ballroom – never overtly stressed but always present – and how every author has turned that into something with such a different tone and place. The anthology is wonderful, and well worth a read!

Available on Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords.

Review: The City of Woven Streets

The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

The tapestry of life may be more fragile than it seems: pull one thread, and all will unravel.

In the City of Woven Streets, human life has little value. You practice a craft to keep you alive, or you are an outcast, unwanted and tainted. Eliana is a young weaver in the House of Webs, but secretly knows she doesn’t really belong there. She is hiding a shameful birth defect that would, if anyone knew about it, land her in the House of the Tainted, a prison for those whose very existence is considered a curse.

When an unknown woman with her tongue cut off and Eliana’s name tattooed on her skin arrives at the House of Webs, Eliana discovers an invisible network of power behind the city’s facade. All the while, the sea is clawing the shores and the streets are slowly drowning.

Just wow. If you like lyrical poetry, beautiful imagery, stunning worldbuilding and a tense mystery, read this. It’s been compared to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I think it’s closer to Margrét Helgadóttir in the lyricism, Mieville in the worldbuilding – it’s strange, alien and familiar, set on an island where the sea is rising and the Tower stands tall. The House of Webs endlessly weaves and re-weaves their maze-path, and Eliana walks the corridors to make sure nothing lurks in the darkness of dreams.

But if you suffer from nightmares – if they crouch on your chest and try to show you another future in the night – then you are outcast, sent to the House of the Tainted. The nightmares are a sign of a threat, a plague that is spreading through the Islands again – and the Council are doing everything in their power to stop it.

But the appearance of the unknown woman, attacked and bleeding in the Weaver’s courtyard with no tongue, no name and no record, is a mystery that shouldn’t happen. And the name on her palm – a name that Eliana shouldn’t be able to read, and one that has only been given to her – is a mystery that will take Eliana down a path of strange weavers, inks and tattoos, maps and books, and eventually to some of  the secrets of the Island itself, even as the waves rise higher and higher.

The thing I loved most about this story was the detail; it’s the normalcy of a life that is so strangely woven. I loved the relationships and conversations, and the way that everything weaves together by the end. It’s a beautiful read and a wonderful story.

I have picked up Memory of Water, and I’m looking forward to it! But definitely worth picking The City of Woven Streets up.

Review: Children of Time

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovksy

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?

Definitely sci-fi, but good sci-fi. And this is coming from someone who definitely dislikes the This-Is-How-It-Works-In-Ten-Pages-Of-Detail that seems to plague so many of the classics. I did find it slightly heavy going (and tended to read in chapter-sized chunks) but the payoff is absolutely worth it.

It’s a story of genetics and modification and evolution, but it’s also characters. It’s humanity’s last rag-bag of peoples who have clawed their way up through the ruins of our civilisation, and done the best they can with the remnants of technology to leave a dying Earth. But when the ship Gilgamesh, carrying its cargo of humanity, reaches their best hope, they find it’s occupied – and the sentinel does not want them to land.

And down on the terraformed planet, the experiment to produce a new space-faring race is progressing – species rise and clash, adapting and moulding to their environment, facing challenges that are both similar and unexpected to humanity’s journey. But over two thousand years, what rises to meets its test isn’t what the sentinel expected.

The two strands wind nicely; the evolution of life on the planet jumps forward, generation by generation, but I loved that the names stay the same to keep a sense of continuity. And up on the Gilgamesh, it’s the same names, coming in and out of deep-sleep over the course of time. The character’s stories are as fascinating and enthralling as the technology is, and I absolutely love the part-alien, part-familiar mindset of the planetside civilisation.

And that mindset, for me, is what makes this book absolutely worthwhile – the final twist is brilliant. It’s a story of challenge and technology and people and civilisations, and it’s definitely worth reading.

Review: The Carpet Makers

The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach.

Since the time of pre-history, carpetmakers tie intricate knots to form carpets for the court of the Emperor. These carpets are made from the hairs of wives and daughters; they are so detailed and fragile that each carpetmaker finishes only one single carpet in his entire lifetime.

This art descends from father to son, since the beginning of time itself.

But one day the empire of the God Emperor vanishes, and strangers begin to arrive from the stars to follow the trace of the hair carpets. What these strangers discover is beyond all belief, more than anything they could have ever imagined…

Well. Um. Good, but weird?

It’s pieces of a story, all smushed together. There is a thread running through it: carpets made of hair, woven over a lifetime by the carpet makers from the heads of their wives and children. Delivered to the traders and then taken to a spaceport, and then taken to the Emperor: eternal, everlasting, and ruler of the universe.

Except that the rebels who have taken over, killed the Emperor and destroyed the Empire, have no idea about them. So where are they going? Why are so many worlds dedicated to producing these beautiful, eerie carpets, and what are they for?

I found the book frustrating, in many ways. It’s a collection of short stories; the view jumps from the carpet maker and his wayward son to an explorer, back to a trader, to a tax collector, to a rebel…we see a lot of different aspects of life in the Empire and on the worlds, and the main characters from one story rise again in other stories, woven in the background and scenery. It’s very clever and very different, but it also meant that I was putting the book down a lot between the chapters, unsure of how anything fitted (which is the point) but also unsure if I wanted to keep reading.

The language and telling of the story is beautiful in places, but it’s the strangeness of the world that takes centre stage, and the lives of the characters for the brief moments that we stay with them. It’s definitely a sci-fi story, but I liked the way it doesn’t focus on the technology; it’s just an odd, broken machine, and we swoop from part to part until at the end, we understand the whole.

I can’t say I necessarily recommend it; it’s an interesting but odd book, and honestly there’s other things I’d rather read. But it’s worth reading, just to experience something that isn’t your run-of-the-mill storytelling. And if you start it and like the first few stories, push on: it’s worth finishing it.

Review: Catalysts, Explorers and Secret-Keepers

Catalysts, Explorers & Secret Keepers: Women of Science Fiction

Catalysts cover“Catalysts, Explorers & Secret Keepers: Women of Science Fiction” is a take-home museum exhibit celebrating women who, as both writers and characters, set new horizons for the science fiction genre. This anthology features stories about protagonists with agency who save lives, explore strange new worlds, prove their mettle, and voyage toward self-discovery. Curated by Museum of Science Fiction staff under the direction of lead editor Monica Louzon, this take-home exhibit is meant to be savored and shared.

Just….ARGH. Read it. I don’t know if I can pick any one particular story – the one that stood out was the one I didn’t get on with, because all the rest were beautiful and amazing. Read it.

The first story isn’t, really; it’s a poem by Jane Yolen called “The Physics of a Dying Star”, strange and twisting, about stardust and barns. It’s a beautiful start, and the next story – “Ice In D Minor” by Anthea Sharp – is probably my favourite story of the anthology, because it’s such a beautiful melding of two weird concepts (a polar icecap and an orchestra, of course…) – it’s simple and haunting.

“What We Knew Then, Before the Sky Fell Down” by Seanan McGuire has a classic fantasy feel; a Quest, a Thief…and the thing he’s come for is all too practical in this new, shattered world. “Battle Royale” by Kiini Ibura Salaam is the one I didn’t entirely get on with; it’s a fluid story, twisting through scenes and times, taking us through struggles and back again…but it just didn’t fit with me, and that’s fine. “A Ceremony of Discontent” by Eleanor Arnason, on the other hand, I love – how do you rid yourself of anger and discontent? I love the society and village, the interactions and the personalities, which make the simple story complex. Personalities and society is also at the forefront of Pat Murphy’s “Fix-It Shop”, and I adored the turn-around twist to the society in this; it’s a thoughtful mirror on our own.

Jane Yolen’s second poem, “Juno in July”, is a thoughtful and pointed comment on NASA’s aim for the Jupiter mission, and Monica Byrne’s “Free Fall” keeps up the sci-fi theme with a winding story between two times, a relationship and a fall through the grid, falling to the other side of the world. “A Peculiar People” by Betsy Curtis adapts the sci-fi theme into an almost Victorian feel with a sweet story about relations between Mars and Earth, new technology and old lives, and how love can make a difference.

Nancy Kress’ “My Mother, Dancing” is a sweet and thoughtful story about aliens, visitors, seeding life, and the choices made…and “A New Panama” by Karen Lord is a story about colonies, and the search for new homes – and how that might look when humanity decides to spread out into the stars.

N. K. Jemisin’s “The Trojan Girl” takes us into the world of the Amorph, the shadow-world to ours, and the wolves that hunt there – unreal and real and somehow incomplete. “The Greatest Discovery of Dr. Madeline Lightfoot” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam drops us into the world of the biologists and explorers, discoverers of a new species – and how they effect the world, society, and Dr Lightfoot herself. Jane Yolen’s final poem, “Not So Great A Divide” suggests a bridge between science and storytelling; and then Carrie Vaughn takes us into a more classic fantasy tale in “For Fear of Dragons”, and what happens to the girls sacrificed to the dragon. It’s one of my favourites in the anthology, although it felt a little out of place amongst the more sci-fi themed stories.

Naomi Kritzer’s “Cleanout” is a modern story with a clever undertone; three daughters clearing out their parents’ house, analysing their relationships and choices against a background of questions about their parents.  “Walk in Silence” by Catherine Asaro continues the family theme, and this was one I’d love to see expanded, even though it is one of the longest in the book – a story of love across cultures.

“Being Kitty” by AJ Lee takes us back to our world, with a sweet story wrapped around the advent of AI and voices at the other end of the phone.  “Midnight on the the Space Station Alcatraz” by Floris M. Kleijne was another favourite; a war criminal sentenced to death, with a clever twist that I loved! Sarah Zettel’s “Fool’s Errand” stays in the sci-fi space-faring genre, with a fool chasing down a rogue AI; and the final story, Sarah Pinsker’s “Remember This For Me” is a beautiful one and another favourite – a story of old age, memory loss, genius and inspiration and art.

The entire anthology is filled with beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring stories – and is well worth reading.