Category Archives: Review

Review: Not In Use For Navigation

Not In Use For Navigation: Thirteen Stories by Iona Datt Sharma

The bell, the lantern, the witching hour…

A refugee arrives from elsewhere in time; a generation ship makes landfall; a vast galactic empire settles to the business of government. Tarot readers find hope in the cards; witches live through the aftermath of war; and Indian mothers think it’s high time you were married. Here are thirteen stories of love and queerness, hope and decolonisation, and the inevitability of change.

Iona Datt Sharma is a writer that I came across through The Underwater Ballroom Society, and also did Sing For The Coming Of The Longest Night. When she emailed to ask if I’d like a review copy of her latest collection of short stories – YES!!

The collection overall is lovely; it’s a woven mix of thoughtful, sweet and amusing stories that all vary wildly, but all have a thread of wonderful characters and detail-orientated worldbuilding running through them.

Light, Like A Candle Flame; actually, this story was my least favourite! It’s a sweet story about a council member trying to make changes aboard a ship, but it felt a bit too abstract for me to get into. However, the second story, Death Comes To Elisha, tugged me back into the collection – a bit of a different take on Death visiting after being drawn in a Tarot deck!

Akbar And The Crows is the first of a collection of sweet and thoughtful stories about an emperor and their woes – more akin to moral tales than stories, and very much in the vein of A Thousand And One Nights etc. Birbal And The Sadhu is the second story, and this one is clever; I love the sci-fi twist on an old tale, and the idea that there are some things you never forget! (Not saying more because spoilers, but it’s worth a read.) The third is Akbar’s Holiday, which is a lovely take on the wronged spouse taking their favourite thing with them; Akbar Learns To Read And Write is a nice version of “what goes around, comes around” in the doing of favours and the idea that maybe everyone should be doing the things they long to do, even if they’re not necessarily very good at them; and enjoyment means more to life than ticks in boxes.

One-Day Listing is a bit weird, honestly; I love that the story doesn’t tell you much about the world and lets you figure it out for yourself, but I could have done with a bit more detail! It’s a story about mental health and coping strategies and alien worlds and justice and adapting, and it’s got a lot of nice detail woven through. I also wasn’t entirely sure about Landfall (your shadow at evening, rising to meet you); this made me think of the Lady Astronaut Books, with The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky and definitely The Lady Astronaut of Mars. It’s a short story about the people living on Mars, and their quest for more people – but also the grumpy first pioneer, looking back at Earth, grouching through their days and thoroughly enjoying it – for all that the story is more of a vignette, the characters are wonderful! Alnwick was another odd one; it’s almost half a story. It starts with a pod of supplies that’s crashed on launch, and following the investigator; again, another character study and almost half a story, which definitely works – but I’d like to see more of it.

Flightcraft – I loved this! It’s a story about a new arrival meeting a local engineer of a new type of plane, and helping her work; but when an accident happens, more is revealed than either of them want to be… I want to see more in this world; I want another story about what happened next, or something else in the same vein. I love the fact that the engineering doesn’t really get explained, but they know what’s going on; I love the relationships between the characters and the unspoken history, both of the people and of the country/world. It’s a lovely story. I also adored Archana and Chandni – it’s an Indian wedding with The Aunts and all the usual wedding stress plus one of the siblings is an AI; I ended up quoting bits of this one and giggling, and I adore the idea of “so when are you getting married and having children, na?” that involves a spaceship. “What, you think I’ll meet a planteoid with prospects?”

Nine Thousand Hours – I thought I’d read this one before, and it’s come back to me where I did; Strange Horizons! It’s a story in the Salt universe, with magic powers in something resembling our world. Nine Thousand Hours is the story of someone who has managed to remove all writing, and broken the world with it – and how they strive to get it back. The second Salt story is Quarter Days, which I think is actually closer to a novelette or novella;  it made me think of Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series, and I really like that we get to see more of the Salt magic! The three central characters are summoned to investigate an accident with a train, where the magic signal system has apparently gone wrong – but there are racial and magic tensions in the city, a new apprentice to worry about, and Ned lost his magic during the War; I love the little nods to outside events and tensions, the mix of daily life and magic and wider politics. It’s a wonderful world and system, and the story is both sweet and tense.

Eight Cities is again, almost a character study; two old friends, one of whom now teaches, the other who has come to visit – and their current lives, their world’s distrust of science, and the gentle pace of their lives as they try to build understanding. Ur is similar, but it’s a story of cultures – of an alien and a human culture, living together, and the steps they take to understand each other. I liked the small details in this, and it’s definitely worth a read; I found bits of it stayed with me after I’d finished. And the final story is Refugee, or, a nine-item representative inventory of a better world; this one makes you focus on the story to understand it, and leaves more questions than it answers – but it’s an interesting story of a refugee fleeing from their world, and then returning.

Out of all the stories, I adore the Salt world – I don’t know if there are more stories, but I’m definitely going to look into it! Flightcraft is also a world I’d love to see expanded, and Archana and Chandni was my favourite in terms of one-offs; but the whole collection is thoughtful and sweet, filled with characters that spark and worlds that shine, and definitely worth picking up for those odd five minutes of reading time.

Review: This Savage Song

This Savage Song by VE Schwab

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city, a grisly metropolis where the violence has begun to create real and deadly monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the inhabitants pay for his protection. August just wants to be human, as good-hearted as his own father but his curse is to be what the humans fear. The thin truce that keeps the Harker and Flynn families at peace is crumbling, and an assassination attempt forces Kate and August into a tenuous alliance. But how long will they survive in a city where no one is safe and monsters are real…

A teenage coming-of age combined with a world where monsters come out of violent acts, and now the city is split – one half controlled by the Flynns and the other by the Harkers, and both with monsters that roam…

The world-building is really well done; definitely a future but one that is disconcertingly similar. I liked the characters; August, who just wants to play his violin… his character came through very clearly, a monster who just wants to be human, but can’t help being a monster. Kate is more of a difficult one, but her background came through well, and her relationship with her father was interesting – along with her relationships with her schoolmates! I loved the rationale behind the creation of the monsters, too, and finding out about August’s past added a lot of both creepiness and sympathy to him.

The plot was fast-paced enough to keep me interested, and it’s got some nice twists – some aspects are predictable but I did like the lack of cliched romance (sorry, slight spoiler – but the twist on that is a good one, so you’ll forgive me) and the reveal at the end. It’s the first of a trilogy but does end on enough of a satisfying conclusion that I don’t feel I’m missing out if I don’t manage to pick the second up immediately.

So, a good read if you’re into YA and modern urban fantasy/dystopia!

Review: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Translated by Roy Bradbury.

Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, Allan Karlsson is waiting for a party he doesn’t want to begin. His one-hundredth birthday party to be precise. The Mayor will be there. The press will be there. But, as it turns out, Allan will not . . .

Escaping (in his slippers) through his bedroom window, into the flowerbed, Allan makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, Allan’s earlier life is revealed. A life in which – remarkably – he played a key role behind the scenes in some of the momentous events of the twentieth century.

I was talking to a friend about this, and told them the title. They said, “So…let me guess, it’s about a hundred-year-old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared?”

“Yes! Except there’s an elephant. And he met Stalin.”

“O-kay.”

“It’s great!”

And it is great! It’s ridiculous, enthusiastic, cheerful and strange, and I loved it!

The story is basically what it says on the tin, except so, so much more! It’s a cross between a historical narrative, told from the point of view of an apolitical Swede who manages to amble his way into various major political situations – mostly on account of having blown things up previously – and then cheerfully ambles his way out; and a modern-day mystery crossed with a heist of sorts, as Allan walks off with a suitcase and various people try to work out where both Allan, the suitcase, and subsequent other missing people have got to…

And there’s an elephant. She’s great.

The tone is chatty, friendly and very easy to read; the characters are full of interest, likeable and varying widely. I loved the way that the historical and modern stories wove together, and while they don’t exactly feed into one another, Allan remains as the central figure.

It’s an easy, fun and amusing read that mixes modern-day mystery, historical fiction and a cheerful story about unlikely friendships, and it’s the perfect rainy-day book!

Review: Dangerous to Know

Dangerous To Know: The Chronicles of Breed: Book One by KT Davies

After Breed, a thief-assassin of small renown is chased by a dragon, tricked by a demon, almost killed by a psychopathic gang boss, and hunted by a ferocious spider, life really takes a turn for the worse.

Sentenced to five years bonded servitude to a one-handed priest magician, Breed must find the hammer of the ancient hero known only as The Hammer of the North within a year and a day…

Or Else.

So, with only a drug-addicted vagrant, a rat-faced child, and a timid priest for backup, Breed sets out for the mighty city of Valen and the tomb of the Hammer.

What could possibly go Wrong?

As it turns out…just about everything can go wrong. As, honestly, you’d expect from someone tricked into a deal with a demon and then enslaved by a priest…

But Breed’s not exactly sympathetic. A thief, murderer, general doesn’t-care attitude…plus being a mixed-race monster that just about everyone else distrusts is not exactly a recipe for being liked. That said, Breed’s very endearing as a character; when catastrophe after annoyance after disaster keeps happening, they’re still trying to come out – not necessarily on top, but at least the right way up. They’ve also got a refreshingly direct moral compass, a not-so-subtle way of dealing with things, and a foul mouth. It’s a winning combination.

The plot’s entertaining, if fairly full of politics and backstabbing; this is also the first of a trilogy, so while several of Breed’s problems get sorted, various more are still lying in wait for future books. However, it’s a story that rattles along with various amounts of snark, questionable characters, choices of dubious value, and some good old punch-ups. I’ll be interested to see where Breed goes next!

Review: In The Vanishers’ Palace

In The Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…

A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.

A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.

When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

Unsettling, sweet, disconcerting, thoughtful and weird…a mix of sci-fi and classic fantasy, with an interesting and complex protagonist, a story that weaves and never quite goes where you expect it, and a world that’s broken and hard, leaving the characters to do what they can to soften the edges.

Vu Côn is a cool and thoughtful foil to Yên’s more impetuous nature, although it’s a pleasure to see Yên grow from the shuttered and wary soul, despite the occasional frustration that Vu Côn – and the reader – get from her growth! It’s also satisfying to see more of Vu Côn’s history throughout the story, and their reasons for their actions – and in addition, seeing the growth of the two children. The relationship between Yên and Vu Côn is thoughtful and slow, and I like seeing them tread around each other – and around the rest of the world and events.

It would have been satisfying to see more of Yên’s explorations of her writing, her magic, her passion for words and teaching; they took second place to the pace of the plot towards the end, which worked very well in story terms, but left me a little sad for that side of Yên’s personality (she got bribed with a library and then immediately left it! *cries*) But the story itself is very satisfying; the tangles and growths of all of the characters are complex and interesting, and the ending is sweet.

Definitely a book worth reading if you like sweet and thoughtful sff stories.