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Review: When You’re Strange

When You’re Strange: An Anthology of Strangers by the CASFWG

Weirdos, freaks, and misfits welcome!

There are things that define us. Things that separate us from the whole. Everyone’s a stranger in some way or another. Whatever the circumstances, strangers are compelling protagonists.

For CASFWG’s third anthology, we present fifteen stories of strangers. From distant planets to rural locals, enjoy the unfamiliar.

This is an anthology of fifteen stories, all dealing with people or things that are somehow…strange. Weird. Different. Unusual. The stories range from traditional fantasy to horror, and the anthology overall is interesting and varied!

Luck of the Draw by Julie Burton is a fantastic, horror-tinged card game where the prizes are beyond your wildest dreams…and the second story, Dead Air by PC Keeler, is as fantastic a story in a different way; a radio debate between those who favour a dying naturally, and those who favour life extension – at a cost. I loved the twist to this one! Always Always by Jennifer Lee Rossman is a thoughtful mix of the divide between the city and country, rich and poor, and how AIs could fit into a world – and the problems they could cause; and Superman Has Left The Building by Tom Howard is a sweet and sad story about superheroes with odd powers – and the decision to use them, or not.

Fire and Water by Megan Neumann is another sweet and sad story, told in letters, about a girl who runs away for love, and her struggles to fit in to her new family and life. Hipsters vs the VCR by Sallie McDaniel was one of my favourites; I loved the play on D’n’D stereotypes in this story! Family Reunion by Tori White starts as family squabbles, ends up as…well, weird…and The Collectors by Lin Christie is short and poignant, a story about life and death.

Convincing Vince by Mike L Lane is a story about a paranormal investigator who goes to investigate a railroad mystery, and it’s wonderfully spooky! The Thief of Merrick by Tabitha Di Giacomo is traditional fantasy style setting, and story about a child thief meeting a stranger.  The Dionesian Wave by Ray Daley is a haunting sci-fi with a horror tinge; Earth has been invaded by aliens and the narrator has gone to their world to learn more about their culture. however there’s a dance they can’t complete…and Guitaria by AP Sessler also has a supernatural tinge, with a boy who plays an invisible guitar, and the day that everyone listens to him…

Alice by Lisa Paul is a mystery that feels like a mix between urban fantasy and fairytale; from an alternate world, an Alice is chasing her partner, who has crossed over into ours…and Devour by Danne Boyd is a fun take on a modern world with a magical twist; sin-eaters and necromancers, and a motive from beyond the grave. The final story, Possession by Sarah Vestal, was a little hard to get into, but is a story about overcoming death with cybernetics, and makes for an interesting end to the anthology.

The stories are all varied, and I love the mix of genres and styles. There isn’t any one story that particularly stands out, but the anthology is worth a read if you’re into strangers with a dash of horror and mystery.

Review: The Bull-Riding Witch

The Bull-Riding Witch by Jamie Marchant

The bull-riding witch coverWaking up in a man’s body would ruin any princess’s morning.

Daulphina’s father, the king of Asteria, has always wanted a male heir. Unfortunately for him, Daulphina’s magic means that will never happen unless her bastard half-brother displaces her on the throne. But she’ll take on all the gods herself before she lets that happen. He isn’t nice enough to be a good king.

But apparently, the gods don’t like being challenged because she’s flung across the void and into the dumpy old trailer and chiselled body of Joshua Killenyen, a rodeo bull rider from Alabama. With nothing to eat but Frosted Flakes and no knowledge how she got there, she better find a way home before she gets her head stomped in by the bulls she must ride. Or her brother will take the throne and reduce her people to slavery. Remember, he isn’t nice.

So, advanced warning for readers: this is the first half of the story, so it does end on a cliffhanger. The author’s currently writing the sequel though!

The Bull-Riding Witch is a cute story; it’s a mix of adventure, self-discovery, a dash of romance, and a lot of general chaos! The plot is a bit of a different twist as the fantasy princess is thrown into a bull-rider’s body, and includes some nice tangles of personalities and politics,  with some sly, amusing digs at gender roles in fantasy and a hefty dose of American small-town with added magical confusion and, obviously, bull-riding!

My main issue with the story was the pacing, as I felt that the story took a while to get started. While Daulphina does get thrown across into Joshua’s body quite quickly, the plot line focuses more on her struggle to get acclimatised to the strange world than finding out what’s going on – and while I did enjoy the confusion and general chaos caused by things like cars, it meant that I wasn’t getting many answers to what had happened or why, and I found that I was losing interest within a few chapters. While I liked the way that we see both worlds (and Joshua’s absolute confusion at Court etiquette), I also couldn’t really identify with either a lost princess or a bull-riding cowboy, and I didn’t really feel any particular sense of place for either location – it was hard to imagine the scenery a lot of the time, and so the characters end up being the centre of focus. However, Daulphina was an interesting personality and brought some nice life to the scenes, and the wide mix of supporting characters bouncing off Daulphina and Joshua worked well.

I tried skipping ahead to see if I could regain interest (which does work for me, and I may possibly have read The Hobbit middle-back-front… :-/) but unfortunately I just couldn’t get back into it, and ended up skimming to the finale. I think my take-away from this is to put my hands up and say, “Not my type of story” – I’m not really into bull-riding or Americana, and when the plot didn’t pull me in, even the dash of fantasy and mystery unfortunately couldn’t bring the story to life for me.

Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass: Book 1 of the Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher

Since time immemorial humanity has lived inside the Spires, habitats towering for miles over the dangerous, monster-inhabited surface of the world.

Captain Grimm of the merchant airship, Predator, was dismissed from Spire Albion’s military in disgrace – now his ship and crew are all he has, and he’s fiercely loyal to both. When the Predator is severely damaged in combat Grimm has only one choice – take on a clandestine mission for Albion’s leaders, or stay grounded for good.

And even as Grimm undertakes this perilous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake . . .

This has been on my TBR pile for aaaaaages, and I keep meaning to read it! One of the issues was that I’d got it in hardback, which is great, but not helpful for carrying around. However!

Definitely, definitely worth the wait.

It’s action-adventure in its full, crystal-enhanced, cannon-splintered, cutlass-swinging glory. Or possibly cat-claw swinging? It’s Napoleonic-era battleships combined with fantastical spires, aetheric powers mixing with good old-fashioned politics, human relationships of all types mixing with the more dubious motivations of Rowl’s cat-kin and the strangeness of crystal-speakers….

In short, it’s an excellent read.

I loved the worldbuilding; the Napoleonic-era terminology lends itself incredibly well to flying ships, and it’s really nice how the familiar mixes with the strange to make the world work. The spires are home to humans but also monsters, and….cats? Rowl is a wonderful character; as aloof and self-centred as everyone knows cats are, but also fiercely loyal and looking out for his humans.

The rest of the cast is as good. I loved the villains; they’re a brilliant mix of “just doing my job” and evil/insane/weird motives. Madame Cavendish is particularly freaky! And the heroes; Gwen was my favourite, with her penchant for sticking her foot in things, but I loved Folly’s oddness and Bridget’s outsider perspective, and I liked seeing how the relationships developed. I loved Grimm too – his relationship to his crew and boat and superiors, and the dollop of past history that hasn’t been explained yet – but explained just enough to keep everyone guessing!

It is the first in a series and so while the arc of this book gets resolved, it’s left open for more – and I’m definitely on the lookout for them. It’s a brilliant, fun, action-packed, character-filled first book that combines war, steampunk, action, romance and…problems with doorknobs? Well, even the best wizards struggle with technology…

Review: The Rise of Io

The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu

The rise of Io cover

Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace. With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?

Exciting, action-filled and dramatic! This is a sci-fi adventure, although it’s set on Earth and the aliens aren’t little green men (both of which are definite pluses). It’s a mix of action and thriller, with some nice tense moments; a good read for anyone who likes either of those genres! I haven’t read the rest of the series – although I believe they’re set in the same world, not necessarily concurrent. Certainly it doesn’t affect this book if you haven’t read any of the others.

While the set-up at first seems fairly simplistic (there’s a good side and a bad side, and the Baddy Is Bad) it gets more complex later on. I admit I struggled a little to follow the twists, but that’s more my not reading closely enough than any fault of the writing! Certainly it makes for some interesting action twists in the second half of the book. I liked Ella and the other characters are fun, nasty, interesting and attractive – Chu’s writing is fun and the character descriptions definitely give you enough insight into the figures that surround Ella.

So overall, it’s fun, action-filled, and worth a read if you like action sci-fi – I’m not sure if I’m going to pick up any of the others, but it was certainly a good recommendation! (via Books on the Hill).

Review: Best of British Science Fiction 2016

The Best of British Science Fiction 2016

Editor Donna Scott has selected the very best short fiction by British authors published during 2016. Twenty-four stories, from established names and rising stars.

This anthology is an eclectic collection of science fiction with a very broad range of stories, writers and styles! It’s a fun read whether you’re into sci-fi or not, and it’s a brilliant introduction to the genre or an excellent selection of modern sci-fi, depending on your reading in 2016.

The anthology opens with a story I already knew from Fight Like A Girl: Joanne Hall’s Arrested Development, a wonderful and poignant story about a fighter just trying to win one more fight, one more paycheck. Peter F Hamilton’s Ten Love Songs to Change the World is next with a wonderful take on the 1960s hippy culture crossed with time travel, crossed with romance and the desire to change the world…

I admit the next couple of stories didn’t grab me quite as hard, although not through any fault of the writing. Eric Brown & Keith Brooke’s Beyond the Heliopause is a story of the edge of the universe and of home, a mix of sci-fi and faith: what is out there, beyond the heliopause? And what does that mean for humanity, and our relations to each other and the world around us? The Seventh Gamer by Gwyneth Jones takes the idea of the life around us in a different direction, looking at gaming culture, alternate realities, real life, aliens…it’s quite a long story and I admit I didn’t find the payoff entirely satisfying; it’s an interesting concept for a story though. Nick Wood’s Dream-Hunter has echoes of classic sci-fi: if you could control dreams in someone else’s mind, you could see their secrets – but what happens if you can’t control it? And Robert Bagnall’s Shooting the Messenger which, to be honest, I just found a bit weird: it’s a story of aliens getting in contact in a war zone, but no one believes it – I think?

The next few stories, however, I found wonderful. Neil Davies’ The Lightship is a brilliant mix of war story and horror: two races are fighting each other for control of an old ship, but something doesn’t like either of them…and Liam Hogan’s Ana is a wonderful, amusing metaphysical discussion of alternate universes from a child who’s scared of the monster under the bed. Jaine Fenn’s Liberty Bird has echoes of Arthur C Clarke, telling the story of a young man trying to win a race and fight for his future in a lovely mix of sci-fi and personal, and Sarah Byrne’s Joined is eerie and brilliant, with a story of the unforeseen effects of a technology to join two lovers together.

Heinrich Himmler in the Barcelona Hallucination Cell by Ian Watson is, I think, simply not to my taste: it’s a weird take on alt-history and time travel, with a dose of paradox theory thrown in, but would probably suit anyone with a taste for the absurd. I also wasn’t entirely sure about Una McCormack’s Taking Flight; it’s a story that weaves love, romance, politics, personalities and relationships, a futuristic take on how human creations would still fall into a tangled web of love and deception – but despite the excellent writing and the interesting narrator, I felt this could have been a stronger story.

People, Places and Things by Den Patrick is an eerie take on the apocalypse; people simple vanish, written out of existence – and how does that leave everyone else to cope? Paul Graham Raven’s Staunch is another take on the dystopian, with a small, loyal band struggling through the ruins of a broken England (and I loved the small touches in this) to get medical aid however they can, while trying to avoid talking about the secrets they hold.

The next couple of stories were definite favourites. Adam Roberts’ Between Nine and Eleven is amusing: I love the concept of the new weapon, and the story is a surreal and light-hearted take on the standard sci-fi space battles. Natalia Theodoridou’s Ajdenia is a beautiful, haunting story: sunlight is rationed, and a worker in a tunnel has to choose between a fleeting, brief hope of freedom, and getting that little bit of extra light – and I loved the tiny, beautiful twist at the end. And Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s To Catch a Comet made me laugh; it’s a fantastic take on the bureaucracy and paperwork that impede a scientist trying to warn the world about a comet impact.

The next couple of stories are longer. How to Grow Silence from Seed by Tricia Sullivan looks at relationships and the world around, silence and plants, what humans are doing to the planet – it’s a mix of strange and familiar. In Tade Thompson’s The Apologists, the apocalypse has happened with Earth mostly destroyed (accidentally) – and even though the handful of survivors get to recreate it, there are arguments about how to do it! Ian Whates’ Montpellier is an almost modern-day look at drugs, home and family: an envoy revisits their childhood home to try to negotiate a truce with the people living there. And in Neil Williamson’s Foreign Bodies, refugees from a broken Earth are trying to adapt to a new world, with the disjointed meld of familiar and alien that it brings.

The final couple of stories are a good round-up to the anthology. Michael Brookes’ The 10 Second War focuses on an AI fighting a war inside a computer system, with the eerie feeling that it could be Earth. In Possible Side Effects by Adam Connors, a patient is writing to a world that he left behind – and wondering if he can pick up a life that’s carried on without him. And E. J. Swift’s Front Row Seat to the End of the World -is a look at the apocalypse as it arrives on Earth, at the people waiting, and about the things that become important: family, friends, and the connections we share before it’s too late.

The anthology is a wonderfully mixed bag of stories, and well worth a read – if only to catch up on 2016’s eclectic, brilliant takes on what the future could bring!