A Bucket of Reviews: April 2021

A couple of quick recommendations; I can highly recommend The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune for a cute found-family story, and The Library of the Dead by T.L.Huchu is great fun – a mix of Zimbabwe and Scottish culture & magic, plus finding your place, plus a really freaky library and talking to the dead and a bunch of mystery & danger. I loved it.

I had a DNF, too; I have read half of Nophek Gloss, but the protagonist is SO WHINY! It can’t just be me on that one, right?

Network Effect by Martha Wells

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

The first full-length novel in The Murderbot Diaries; I read All Systems Red and loved it, and have been working my way through the rest!

I’m not sure if it’s my reading slump (slowly getting better, as evidenced by this post, but still going slow) or the book itself, but I wasn’t quite as into this as I have been with the previous novellas. It’s a good length, and works as a novel; there’s enough plot and action going on to fill it out nicely, and it’s all interspersed with snark, ART being an Asshole, Murderbot having to Interact With People, and a nice dose of Feelings – which is quite sweet. It’s a good, snarky, action-packed read, but I do wonder if the novella format works better? I’m definitely going to pick up the next anyway – Fugitive Telemetry, due out at the end of April!

Anyway, if you haven’t read Murderbot, or have a lot of sympathy for someone that just wants to be left alone to watch their shows and not have humans keep bothering them – then start on All Systems Red. And if you like Murderbot already, then this is an excellent continuation of the series.

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Speaking of novellas…

Fire burns bright and has a long memory….

Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

I would have liked this to be longer (a common wail when reading novellas, I’m sure!); it was a beautifully wrapped up story, but… wasn’t enough.

The characters are sweet (or sharp, or naive, or so bound up in duty that they’ve forgotten how to feel) but it didn’t feel like I had long to appreciate Thanh; I would have liked to spend longer inside her head and as she adjusted back into a political role. And, of course, I’d like to know what happens next… it does very much feel like the start of a story, not one that can really be encapsulated into such a short text. But it’s beautiful, and very sweet, and very easily tugs at a whole range of emotions – credit to Aliette’s haunting writing! Worth a read, but I’d like more.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless – people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumoured healing powers.

Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again – but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realisation about a horrifying future.

I think that, in a book full of interesting and readable things, my absolute favouritest one was a love interest who only occasionally interacts with the protagonist. She’s got her own life. Her own career. Her own secrets. And we don’t hear about most of them!! It’s such a refreshing change to not have a romance that absolutely entangles two people; and for one of the surprises to come at the end, and never get explored. (I mean, there’s plenty else going on so we don’t feel its lack, but it’s so nice.)

The rest of the novel is excellent – a blend of strange and normal, the boredom of having to go to work sitting alongside miracles and mental projections. I loved the sheer normality of everything, woven through with the strangeness that both Rosewater and Kaaro’s talent create; even those with the power to read minds and find anything have to go to work and do the daily grind!

The protagonist, Kaaro, definitely has enough going on to fill the book. The novel alternates between Then and Now, exploring Kaaro’s life, his relationship to the strange dome that Rosewater has grown up around, his current work, his indifference and relationship with his bosses… and as the story goes, we get more and more information as secrets are teased out, and everything slowly becomes more interlinked. The tangle of the ending is excellently done; nothing is clean and simple, nothing is settled, but everything has been pushed onto a new enough path that humanity can keep on trundling along in the day job.

I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next one, although I’ve been recommended the entire trilogy, as well as just the first one; there are hanging questions, but nothing immediately biting. But it’s an excellent, thoughtful, action- and culture-packed novel with enough science fiction to make us question exactly what humanity is made of.

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

[Spoilers for Children of Time – this is the last review in this blog post, so don’t continue reading if you think you might pick that up!]

It has been waiting through the ages. Now it’s time . . .

Thousands of years ago, Earth’s terraforming program took to the stars. On the world they called Nod, scientists discovered alien life – but it was their mission to overwrite it with the memory of Earth. Then humanity’s great empire fell, and the program’s decisions were lost to time.

Aeons later, humanity and its new spider allies detected fragmentary radio signals between the stars. They dispatched an exploration vessel, hoping to find cousins from old Earth.

But those ancient terraformers woke something on Nod better left undisturbed.

And it’s been waiting for them.

I loved Children of Time (that ending!! I had to read the book in stages, but it is so worth it – although don’t pick it up if you don’t like spiders) and this is an excellent sequel. It continues the format of older terraformers interspersed with the slow growth of a new species – in this case, adorable, curious octopodes – and then the result when the search party of Humanity and Portii arrive. Having a similar format to Children of Time works well, with a new cast – particularly with the unique way of thinking and philosophy of the octopodes (my philosophy is “if you’re going to mangle language, go all-out”) – and it’s really fun to see how humanity and the spider civilisation react when they come across the new world. Plus, of course, the danger of Nod… I love the Biblical names, and it’s a really well-woven sense of danger that pervades the book. The ending is a satisfying one, too; it doesn’t seem like there’s anything more planned in this universe, but it’s definitely a very interesting and thought-provoking duo of novels. Definitely recommended.

A Basket of Reviews: February 2021

Random things that I have managed to read recently!

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Despite increasing restrictions on the freedoms of women on Earth, Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation. It’s humanity’s last hope for survival, and Naomi, Valerie’s surrogate daughter and the ship’s botanist, has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity like this – to step out of Valerie’s shadow and really make a difference. But when things start going wrong on the ship, Naomi starts to suspect that someone on board is concealing a terrible secret – and realises time for life on Earth may be running out faster than they feared . . .

This is what Do You Dream Of Terra-Two should have been. It’s an excellent, thoughtful and far-too-close-to-the-bone look at what the future could hold for space travel, once the Earth’s climate problems have got too big to ignore: a journey to a distant Goldilocks planet that could mean a wonderful new home for humankind. Unfortunately, it could also mean that humankind’s worst traits come too, with a side dose of unfortunate political thinking; like the relegation of women to childmaking and rearing, and their exclusion from everything else. When a team of five women astronauts steal a spaceship and set off for the new planet, they start to dream of a Utopia – only to find that someone may have been thinking steps ahead of them, and their plans to ensure that Humanity’s future is better than it was on Earth could have costs that they are not willing to pay. Goldilocks is a disturbing near-future story with rich, beautifully-drawn characters and a rather terrifying message of hope.

Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard

On a string of orbitals called the Scattered Pearls Belt lives Sunless Woods—sentient spaceship, master of disguise, and master thief who chafes against the obscurity that comes with her retirement. There, too, lives Vân, a poor scholar with little confidence but plenty of heart, and whose income comes from tutoring a wealthy student.

Their lives are turned upside down when Vân finds a corpse in her student’s quarters and Sunless Woods, intrigued by Vân’s sense of justice, offers her help. Scholar and spaceship must chase the mystery around the empire’s forgotten edge: from rundown teahouses to ascetic havens, and even in the wreck of a spaceship—and all the while, they begin to fall for each other in earnest. But the secrets they’ve kept from each other are large and devastating—will they and their love survive the revelations?

I absolutely love Aliette’s short stories, and particularly the Xuya universe – so a longer novella-length story was something I jumped at! However, I have to say that this is good, but not great. The universe is beautiful, and the scenery is rich and detailed as always; I love the tiny details and the way that the characters are tied into their backgrounds by the hundred little gestures, comments, words that they choose. The plot itself is interesting, and kept me pulled along. However, I think it was the relationship between Vân and Sunless Woods that didn’t ring quite right; I can’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t manage to buy into it, even though I wanted to. That said, it’s a lovely story, and worth a read if you like the other stories in the Xuya universe.

The Sword in the Street by CM Caplan

Trial by battle is a holy rite on Hillside. Hired blades bleed their foes in savage duels, settling everything from petty grievances to the corporate laws that keep their citizens in line. Embroiled in these cutthroat political games is John Chronicle, an impoverished swordsman with no better prospects, seeking the duel that will free him from the Dregs.

Meanwhile, John’s boyfriend Edwin, an autistic university student, befriends a fellow scholar who claims to study the arcane art of thaumaturgy. When she offers to teach Edwin this subtle magic, he hopes that he can use it to bolster John’s skill with a blade. But thaumaturgy is a dangerous magic, and the forces that drive it have other plans.

The couple soon find themselves entangled in the web of intrigue surrounding the swordsmen and their sponsors, and they’re forced to question how bloody they’re willing to get to escape poverty — and they don’t come away with the same answer.

This is one that I was lucky enough to read while formatting, and it’s adorable. If you want the full review quote: “Gritty and sweet… as much about the relationships as it is about the action. It’s a sword-filled story of desperation and hope, and a man fighting for his passion – and his love.” It’s always nice when I get a book for formatting that I really enjoy – and also bloody irritating, as I forget what I’m doing when I get too into reading…

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where gods’ and mortals’ lives are intertwined.

There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

But it’s not just mortals who have secrets worth hiding and Yeine will learn how perilous the world can be when love and hate – and gods and mortals – are bound inseparably.

This is the first in the Inheritance Trilogy, and I admit to being on the fence about picking up the next. I enjoyed the book; it’s a very good story of politics, centred around Yeine, stranger and “barbarian” to a new city, who is just trying to survive the power struggle between both herself and her cousins, and between the enslaved Gods and their human masters. Her plunge into the new world keeps pulling along right to the end, and I enjoyed reading – I suppose my reservations about picking up the next are more to do that I don’t feel I need to find out what happens next! It’s almost standalone enough, and the story and characters are richly drawn and compelling. Worth a read if you like epic fantasy and political intrigue.

A Bucket of Reviews: Jan 2021

I have managed to do some reading! I don’t have the brain power for big reviews, but I can be generally enthusiastic…

A Deadly Education

The latest from Naomi Novik, and it’s heading into Harry Potter meets Hunger Games, with a lot more snark, diversity and fewer annoying cliches! (And also an author who isn’t a bigot, so that’s a huge plus.) The Scholomance is a school for magic-users, but it’s infested by monsters, and so has a bit of a downside – you graduate, or you die. El Higgins is a snarky loner with an affinity for dark magic – but she’d rather not accidentally kill all the other students, so she’s trying to get through her studies without using her power – or the ever-so-helpful spells of pure destruction that the school keeps giving her. I absolutely adored this, and have already re-read it multiple times. It’s gory, snarky, and a wonderful heap of friendships, characters, people just trying to survive, and a very strange (and murderous) school. The next one is straight on my TBR!

Of Wars, And Memory, And Starlight

A beautiful collection of shorts from Aliette de Bodard – there’s a mix of Xuya universe and The Fallen, but every story is very different. There’s the birth of a mindship, and a Queen trying to leave her life (or regain a former one?); a thief who steals memories – which I think was my favourite, just for the beautiful twist in the end – and a birthday party that goes very wrong. If you like imaginative and thoughtful science fiction/gothic fantasy, this is a lovely read – and you’d do well to pick up any of Aliette’s other books, too!

Stories of Your Life and Others

This is a collection from Ted Chiang, and includes the story that was the basis for the film Arrival (I haven’t seen it, but Otter was impressed.) The collection varies from hard sci-fi to more lyrical stories; my favourite was the first, Tower of Babylon, with a shout-out for Seventy-Two Letters (a wonderful take on making golems and the Industrial Revolution) and Story of Your Life (which is the Arrival story). The others were hit and miss; I definitely found Liking What You See an interesting concept but too long, and Hell Is The Absence of God is a brilliant concept, but a horribly depressing story! It’s a collection that is definitely worth a read, though.

Piranesi

A lovely and lyrical story from Susanna Clarke – part self-discovery, part locked-room mystery, part art critique… Piranesi (although he knows that’s not his name) lives in the House, which has endless rooms filled with statues. He fishes, and catalogues the statues, and talks to the one other person in the House – but the secrets and the mysteries just keep stacking up, and slowly he begins to remember.

A Memory Called Empire

I have raved about this before, but I love this – if you like The Goblin Emperor, this pulls all the same strings, but in space! The protagonist is a new Ambassador from an outlying space station to the Teixcalaanli Empire; she’s got the previous Ambassador’s memories to rely on, but they out-of-date, and it’s her first posting. And when she arrives, she finds that his ‘accidental’ death most likely wasn’t – and that she’s now in the middle of a political tug-of-war. I love the details of this, the political intricacies and the characters – it’s tiny touches that speak for the clash of cultures and also the longing to be part of them. Definitely looking forward to the sequel!

 

Review: Silk & Steel

Silk & Steel by Janine E Southard (ed)

There are many ways to be a heroine.

Princess and swordswoman, lawyer and motorcyclist, scholar and barbarian: there are many ways to be a heroine. In this anthology, seventeen authors find new ways to pair one weapon-wielding woman and one whose strengths lie in softer skills.

“Which is more powerful, the warrior or the gentlewoman?” these stories ask. And the answer is inevitably, “Both, working together!”

Herein, you’ll find duels and smugglers, dance battles and danger noodles, and even a new Swordspoint story!

From big names and bold new voices, these stories are fun, clever, and always positive about the power of love.

So I backed this on Kickstarter after spotting it on Aliette de Bodard’s Twitter, and it was so, so worth it! Every story in this anthology is cute, fun, quirky, action-packed and absolutely, adorably queer. I think my favourite thing is the fantastic mix of genres and styles in a collection that feels both cohesive and very mixed – and it’s absolutely, unashamedly fun. My top picks are “Little Birds” from Cara Patterson for a heart-tugger, “Elinor Jones vs the Ruritanian Multiverse” by Freya Marska for sheer fun, and “The Parnassian Courante” by Claire Bartlett for a lovely mix of action and court manners, but there isn’t a single story that isn’t worth reading, and every writer has managed a ridiculously fun and queer story that makes the entire anthology a joy to read.

The anthology starts with the adorable “Margo Lai’s Guide to Duelling Unprepared” from Alison Tam: what to do when you wake up (with a hangover, incidentally) to find that you’ve accidentally talked yourself into a duel – with a wizard! – for the hand of your best friend, which you definitely, absolutely don’t want? Try to talk the wizard out of it, and then get said best friend to learn magic… the back-and-forth between Pip and Madge is the best part of the story, but I also adore the oh-so-easy worldbuilding and the hilarity of the pair of bumbling young adults figuring it all out as they try to escape the consequences of… well, everything.  “Danger Noodle” by SK Terentiev also has a similar feel, and I absolutely loved the mix of geek, snark and personalities – a couple have headed out to explore, and unfortunately find something a little more dangerous than the monster they were expecting… I love the back-and-forth, and the sheer amount of enthusiastic monster-geek!

“Elinor Jones vs the Ruritanian Multiverse” by Freya Marska is another fun one; portals make it possible to step into another world when you’re fed up of this one, and if you happen to look like their princess, then you can by royalty! Which also comes with associated peasants, court politics, assassination attempts… and bodyguards, who can come in handy when trying to both foil a plot against your life and perform some much-needed political reformation. “Positively Medieval” by Kaitlyn Zivanovich mixes a scarily-near vision of the future (ruining someone’s credit with no-star reviews!) with a wonderful fantasy twist, and I really enjoyed the digs at modern life and fantasy tropes, as well as the trolls-eye view of strange humans. And “The Parnassian Courante” by Claire Bartlett is a story of courtly manners mixed with action as the lowly scribe struggles with her place in Court, and the Princess struggles with her assigned future and the rules that bind her – and I loved the ending to this one.

“Princess, Shieldmaiden, Witch and Wolf” by Neon Yang is a lovely change of pace and tone to the other stories; a princess’ bodyguard, trying to find their place in the world – and the princess struggling too. It’s a lovely twist on the fairytales, and I adored the ending. “The Sweet Tooth of Angwar Bec” by Ellen Kushner is a lovely, short story, and as sweet as the titular tooth! And “The Epic Fifth Wedding Anniversary of Zaynne the Barbarian and Tikka the Accountant” by Elizabeth Davies is another wonderful short; the wedding anniversary always gets interrupted, and this time Tikka has been kidnapped by something evil – and what a wonderful treat for Zaynne to get to rescue her! I loved the sly jabs at classic fantasy tropes, too.

“Plan Z” by Django Wexler is action-packed, with an eternal hope that Plan A might work this time… or possibly Plan B… but actually, when you get right down to it, Plan Z (“shoot your way out”) is really more fun! “Chicago Iron” by Chris Wolfgang was one of two slight off-notes for me in the book; I just couldn’t get into the characters, but the world was fun – roaring 20’s and prohibition era, except not everything is as it seems… and “The Commander and the Mirage Master’s Mate” by Elaine McIonyn was the second off-note, as I just found it a little too long. But again, the world was fantastic, and the mix of Napoleonic-era action with magic thrown in works very well. “Book and Hammer, Blade and Bone” by Ann LeBlanc is a slightly darker (but still cute!) story, but it’s also about belonging, and love… and libraries, knowledge and librarians. So that’s a definite win! “What Finds You In The Deep” by K A Doore is another action-packed one, with a couple exploring an ancient – and cursed – crypt while trying to figure out their relationship… and “In The Salt Crypts of Ghiarelle” by Jennifer Mace is a horror-tinged story about body-snatchers, threats to an isolated kingdom, and a guard just trying to do the right thing.

There are some longer, heart-tugging stories scattered throughout: the beautiful “Little Birds” by Cara Patterson is likewise both heart-aching and heart-tugging – it’s a brutal world, with the ‘Little Birds’ being flying soldiers, knowing that they are unlikely to survive long in the battles and also knowing that they will be cast aside once they are injured. But Court life is no less brutal, and when romance blossoms between a soldier and a servant, the hope of escape grows… I love the mix of court life and war, and the tiny moments between the two hopefuls as their hope grows. Yoon Ha Lee’s “The City Unbreachable” is a story of subtle intricacies, politics and duels on a hiding ship-city; and “The Scholar of the Bamboo Flute” by Aliette de Bodard, the final story in the anthology, mixes mythology and wonder with magic, and demonstrates the price of getting exactly what you asked for – and the price of getting what someone else needs.

The whole anthology is filled with queer and joyous fun, and is absolutely, definitely worth a read.

A Basket of Reviews: June 2020

Long time no read! Or at least, I’ve been reading things that I already love, so there’s not a lot of point in telling you about them. But… I have managed to read some new things!

Embers of War by Gareth L Powell – a book about a poet on the run from people trying to kill her, a misfit-laden ship trying to rescue her, and the cracks left over from the previous war. Action-packed, thoughtful, decent characters, and I like Trouble Dog (the ship.)

Moontangled by Stephanie Burgis – a novella in the same world as Snowspelled. Cute, adorable, and needs to be longer! You do need to read Snowspelled and Thornbound first, though, but I don’t think that’s a hardship – Regency feminist magic with adorable characters!

Recursion by Blake Crouch – a romance for people who don’t like romance. Very hardcore sci-fi and action, but a love story at heart; definitely got some mind-bending stuff in it, but it’s all fairly follow-able.

Ninth House by Leah Bardugo – urban fantasy meets screwed-up student going to Yale… it’s got a nice dose of reality but I wonder if the “Yale is seriously messed up in a whole new magical way!” is the reason it was so popular? Fun character interactions though, it was a good read. Not sure if I’ll pick up the next one or not.

Aaaaand – I can talk about this now! The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison, Sherlock wingfic in a fantasy London, with a whole bunch of really good twists on the Sherlock canon. It’s ridiculously fun and I love it!