Category Archives: Review

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.

Review: Sing For The Coming of the Longest Night

Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night by Katherine Fabian & Iona Datt Sharma

The world you know is underneath the substance of another, with cracks in the firmament that let the light of its magic in…

Layla and Nat have nothing in common but their boyfriend – enigmatic, brilliant Meraud – and their deep mutual dislike. But when Meraud disappears after an ambitious magical experiment goes wrong, they may be the only ones who can follow the trail of cryptic clues that will bring him safely home.

To return Meraud to this world, the two of them will confront every obstacle: the magic of the wild unknowable, a friendly vicar who’s only concerned for their spiritual wellbeing, and even the Thames Water helpline. All of which would be doable, if only they didn’t have to do it together.

But the winter solstice is fast approaching – and once the year turns, Meraud will be lost forever. In this joyously queer novella, Nat and Layla must find a way to overcome their differences before it’s too late.

So, basically, it’s a story about following a trail of clues; Meraud has done something stupid, and his lovers have to follow a trail of very Meraud-like clues to get all the pieces they need to try to bring him back. In the process, they have to work together – and navigate actually finding the bloody clues from wherever Meraud has hidden them…and despite the fact that Meraud isn’t really a present character in most of the story due to being, well, missing, he’s most definitely the heart and centre of the book, and one of the more frustrating characters! For us as well as for Nat and Layla, I feel…

The book overall is a light and fairly easy read; described as “joyously queer” – it is! It’s fabulous and complex, with bisexual and polyamorous relationships overlapping and weaving around children, adulthood, friendships and new families; but to call it queer leaves out so much of the tapestry of normality that makes this book so rich. Religion of all types crosses with magic; adult life overlaps with children, growing up overlaps with past memories and traumas; fairyland overlaps with reality and history; and the personalities of all of the characters weave in and out of each other to make the story so much deeper. But the thing that really makes this book so compelling and joyous is the personalities, the friendships and the relationships and the people;  the love and the tenderness; the problems and the conflicts and the way you can just hear Nat thinking, “For fuck’s sake, Meraud…”

It’s a story about finding someone – but it’s a story about finding other people, too, and learning to live with the tendrils of love that spread; working together to make relationships work, amongst life and children and growing and someone doing something really stupid, Meraud… and overall, it’s a gentle, magical, joyous and utterly queer story.

Review: Reel Love

Reel Love by Owen Michael Johnson

Reel Love by Owen Michael JohnsonIn a quiet corner of England, a young boy visits the cinema for the first time. Overwhelmed by the experience, he returns to see a movie which will ignite his imagination, fill his head with fantasy and change the course of his life. That enthusiasm carries him though to his adolescence, when he gets a part-time job as an usher at his local cinema. Falling in with the motley crew of cinephile staff, he falls in love, finds his tribe, and fantasises about his film-filled future.  The final act sees that same boy as a grown man, back in his hometown after life panned out in a slightly unexpected way. When an opportunity to break into the film world presents itself, he finds that his life has come full circle as he sets out again to make his magnum opus…

It’s a bit of an unusual read for me; film and memoir aren’t usually my genre, but I bought this (hard copy! Signed!) on the recommendation of a colleague – and it’s definitely worth it.

This is a sweet, poignant and drama-filled story about cinema; about growing up, discovering love and life and passion; about having dreams broken and then finding them; and about how to rediscover something that you weren’t sure if you’d broken forever, or just needed to see under the layers of influence and memory.

The artwork is lovely; Johnson’s got a dramatic style and an eye for visuals that really works with the subject matter, and takes a lot of influence from a wide variety of film. There are multiple references to the genre – both from the visuals, the plots, and the directing side – but it’s also a sweet and simple story about love, and family, hometowns, moving away and coming back, teaching, memory and learning.

There’s a lot of love and passion that comes through in the story; it’s a tribute both to growing up, to memory and influence, and to the films that shape the protagonist, and a beautifully drawn series. If you’re into film or memoir, it’s worth a read.

Review: A Trio of Crime

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Saville’s corpse, already stiff, was laid on a table beneath the kitchen window; upstairs the shape of his sleeping self was still indented on the sheets and pillow of the cot.

On a summer’s morning in 1860, the Kent family awakes in their elegant Wiltshire home to a terrible discovery; their youngest son has been brutally murdered. When celebrated detective Jack Whicher is summoned from Scotland Yard he faces the unenviable task of identifying the killer – when the grieving family are the suspects.

The original Victorian whodunnit, the murder and its investigation provoked national hysteria at the thought of what might be festering behind the locked doors of respectable homes – scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing.

So I think the attraction in this is the detail; it’s the little things about Victorian life and the life behind closed doors that attracted the Victorian press and now the modern read.

But, I admit, it’s not for me. I read the first quarter or so, and got bored…I skimmed, skipped to the end, and was happy enough having read the conclusion. Otter has been reading this too and we got to discuss some of the details, so that’s been interesting – but overall, I just found it too slow and almost devoid of personality, for all that it’s touted as being full of drama. Mr Whicher’s process and conclusions were interesting, and it being one of the first detective cases…but overall, just not my thing.

Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder by Kate Colquhoun

In July 1864, Thomas Briggs was travelling home after visiting his niece and her husband for dinner. He entered a First Class carriage on the 9.45pm Hackney service of the North London railway. At Hackney, two bank clerks entered the carriage and discovered blood in the seat cushions; also on the floor, windows and sides of the carriage. A bloodstained hat was found on the seat along with a broken link from a watch chain.

The race to identify the killer and catch him as he flees on a boat to America was eagerly followed by citizens both sides of the Atlantic. Kate Colquhoun tells a gripping tale of a crime that shocked the nation.

Unfortunately, this was pretty much the same feeling as Mr Whicher. I got further with this one – nearly halfway! – but again, the multitude of details and the writing style just didn’t grab me. I found the repetition of details frustrating – I was being told something, and then given the original wording from a newspaper that said the same thing – and the frequent diversions into details about life at the time were both useful/interesting and frustrating! That said, it’s a very interesting book, and I definitely appreciate the interest in the case at the time; Otter complained that Mr Whicher had rather spoiled whodunnit, but I don’t think that’s really the point of the Mr Briggs case – it’s more the inconsistencies and questions over the entire case which meant that the man they hanged might not have been the right man! It’s much more a study in the detection process in its infancy, and all the problems inherent in that.

So – very good if you’re into that sort of thing, but not for me.

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Martin Chorley, aka the Faceless Man, wanted for multiple counts of murder, fraud and crimes against humanity, has been unmasked and is on the run.

Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard, now plays a key role in an unprecedented joint operation to bring Chorley to justice.

But even as the unwieldy might of the Metropolitan Police bears down on its foe, Peter uncovers clues that Chorley, far from being finished, is executing the final stages of a long term plan.

A plan that has its roots in London’s two thousand bloody years of history, and could literally bring the city to its knees.

To save his beloved city Peter’s going to need help from his former best friend and colleague – Lesley May – who brutally betrayed him and everything he thought she believed in. And, far worse, he might even have to come to terms with the malevolent supernatural killer and agent of chaos known as Mr Punch . . .

This is very much a continuation of the same Rivers of London vein; action-packed, decent characters, lots of mythology, and some nice nods to a whole bunch of London and police in-jokes. However, for me it was spoiled by two things; minor errors on the copy-edit side, and the fact that I read the last book at least a year ago and so can’t remember a) most of the plot, and b) who anyone is. Despite that, it was an ok read; I definitely could have done with re-reading some sort of summary, but that’s mostly on me not managing to pick this up- it was a good read anyway, albeit occasionally confusing. It is also the seventh in the series, but if you liked the rest – you’ll like this!

Review: Love&Bubbles

Love&BubblesA Collection of Queer Underwater Love Stories, edited by Jaylee James & Jennifer Lee Rossman

Love & Bubbles coverDive into romance with these twelve stories of queer love under the sea!
Love & Bubbles is a short fiction anthology of love stories united by an underwater theme and featuring characters from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
Go on a deep-sea voyage to study a brand-new species alongside a cute, distracted scientist. Discover your magic with a water witch and the help of a cute mermaid. Explore the waters of an alien ocean. Get summoned to the surface with a grumpy old merman and his non-binary water demon neighbor. Swim with a catfish goddess, rescue a dolphin… and so much more!

So. Cute! The anthology is a lovely collection of sweet stories, and definitely worth picking up if you need the equivalent of a warm hug. I love the sheer range of protagonists, places, romance choices and possibilities; from the one central theme, the authors have all gone in very different directions, while still keeping the thread of romance and sweetness throughout.

Summoned by Minerva Cerridwen is about a very sweet elderly couple; a grumpy merman meets his strange neighbour and accidentally ends up going along for his next job…which, incidentally, made me laugh that you’d summon the equivalent of a demon for it! In the second story, Worlds Between Us by Riley Sidell, I love the dual-world nature; it’s got long distance relationship issues alongside communication and “will this magic even work?” problems, and I love the complex relationship and cultures hinted at – and the nosy whale, who is adorable.

Some of the stories have similar themes; Color and Pressure by Evvan Burke follows undersea scientists, and I like the worried and reserved nature of the protagonist. Stuck by Mharie West has a similar premise, but taken in a more sci-fi direction as it follows scientists working undersea, getting hung up on an ex…and what happens if your attention gets distracted by a colleague! The Dwindling Forest of Kelp by Victoria Zelvin also has a sci-fi feel, alien and yet familiar; a visitor to the planet trapped along with an inhabitant, learning to communicate and also wondering where/how they’re going to go…

The Selkie Wife by Lia Cooper is a very sweet story; I love the idea of a selkie in the modern world, and the changes in the seas that make coming back to the one place that much harder! Familiar Waters by VS Holmes has a similar feel; it’s very poetic and beautiful, with a mix of mythology and romance – the idea of migration and leaving, and the changes that happen over time, but the relationship remains. Shallows by Jennifer Lee Rossman has a more modern theme, with dolphin shapeshifters and romance – what’s not to like? Signing Under The Sea by Lizzie Colt is also quite modern, following a slowly growing relationship between an ocean dweller and human visitor.

Some of the stories are more human-centric; possibly my favourite story, Tanner and the Water Nymph by Jaylee James, has a non-binary protagonist and a problem with the shower which means meeting an unexpected visitor, and I love the conclusion to this story! It’s so sweet. A Happy Place by Maggie Derrick follows a witch in exile because she hasn’t yet found her magic, and the realisation that maybe she doesn’t have to stick within the confines of what she’s expected to do…especially as she meets someone she’d like to know better… And the last story, Ondine by M Hollis, follows someone returning home after their mother’s death, remembering former history and an old love, and wondering if it’s something they want to return to.

So, overall – a very sweet and unexpected anthology, and definitely worth a read if you want a diverse and light-hearted, romantic read.