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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!

Review: Empire of Sand

Empire of Sand (The Books of Ambha, #1) by Tasha Suri

Empire of sand coverA NOBLEMAN’S DAUGHTER WITH MAGIC IN HER BLOOD
AN EMPIRE BUILT ON THE DREAMS OF ENSLAVED GODS

Mehr is a girl trapped between two cultures. Her father comes from the ruling classes of the empire, but her mother’s people were outcasts, Amrithi nomads who worshipped the spirits of the sands.

Caught one night performing these forbidden rites, Mehr is brought to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, who try to force her into their service by way of an arranged marriage. If she fails in their bidding, the gods themselves may awaken and seek vengeance…

You know a book is good when you have to tweet the author (who is a friend, I don’t usually tweet at random authors) going WHAT EVEN IS THIS and I HAD OTHER STUFF TO DO TODAY and YOU ARE A MONSTER.

It’s so, so readable, and I’m annoyed that it took me this long to get to on my TBR.

The setting is haunting and beautiful and I love the multiple cultural inspirations that wind together but never feel like something wholesale borrowed; the characters are believable (and this from me, who ranted about a book with no character agency and I  also really hate the cliches that usually come with this sort of plot because just URGH but this time, YES); the plot has a whole bunch of twists that are built up nicely and tug you along; the magic system is lovely and I love the learning process and just-

I love it.

cover of realm of ashIt’s a running-away-from-home and finding-yourself and realising-the-world-is-mean (actually, more like “realising the world is mean in a whole variety of ways”) and slow-falling-in-love and people-are-actually-kinda-decent and some beautiful magic and landscapes and settings and YES JUST GO READ IT OK.

Also I immediately bought the second one (Realm of Ash) and devoured it so there’s that.

I know I normally do slightly better reviews but it’s readable and lovely and annoying and it’s the type of book that’s exactly what you need for a rainy day when you have a sofa and a cup of tea. So just buy it, ok?

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

EVERY STORY OPENS A DOOR

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored and utterly out of place.

But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page reveals more impossible truths about the world, and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

I have loved Alix Harrow’s writing ever since reading one of her short stories (I’ll remember the name at 4am, don’t worry…) and grabbed the book eagerly when I saw it at FantasyCon! And it’s definitely, definitely worth the read.

It’s a story about a girl trying to find out who she is and where she comes from… and about trying to find her father and mother… and trying to find the way home… and opening and closing doors, and how stories fit into those, and how treasures fit into all of it, and why danger and adventure keeps chasing her around. The book is told between two perspectives, one of which is January’s, and both keep tugging you along to read as you want to know what happens next in both!

It’s also got some wonderful quotes about stories and writing and imagination; Lyndsie Manusos has done an excellent selection over on BookRiot, but I think my favourite is;

Worlds were never meant to be prisons, locked and suffocating and safe. Worlds were supposed to be great ramblings houses with all the windows thrown open and the wind and summer rain rushing through them, with magic passages in their closets and secret treasure chests in their attics.

So basically; if you like words and stories and adventures and beautiful writing, read this.

Review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

A century ago, scientists theorised that a habitable planet existed in a nearby solar system. Today, ten astronauts will leave a dying Earth to find it. Four are decorated veterans of the 20th century’s space-race. And six are teenagers, graduates of the exclusive Dalton Academy, who’ve been in training for this mission for most of their lives.

It will take the team twenty-three years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years spent in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no rescue possible, should something go wrong. And something always goes wrong.

I don’t usually do bad reviews, but oh my goodness this book annoyed me.

Let’s start with the good. The characters are well-done, full of teenage angst. The relationships amongst them are nicely woven; the personalities and problems, the events and small dramas, the reactions to problems and the small joys. It is a very angst-filled book, but it’s also one about growing and learning and finding your place – and being scared of the unknown, scared of the future, and learning to overcome all of that.

The writing is also good; it’s thoughtful, philosophical in places, and nicely builds on each character’s personality to let them express wider thoughts. It can be a little clumsy in places but that actually works quite well for teenagers discovering something for the first time, and working towards vocalising their place in the world.

However, I’ve got serious bones to pick with the wider world and situation. The basic premise is that four adults and six teenagers are sent on a one-way trip to a habitable planet – but for some reason, they’re only sending these ten. More people will come later… because obviously that’s somehow cost-effective? Or it’s specifically useful to only send ten people to start with? (We get hints of the wider politics going on around the mission, but we don’t actually get to find out much about it, which is rather frustrating.)

But my main picky point is: who sends six teenagers into space with only four adults? Who sends teenagers into space and doesn’t realise they might get little things like depression and anxiety, particularly after the trauma they suffer at the start of the book? And who the f*** thinks an incredibly punishing regime of work, study, more work, more study, and no time outside of that – what is essentially a pressure boiler – isn’t going to result in some kind of steam explosion? There’s a complete lack of mental health understanding, no realisation that these kids all have their own personalities and ways of working, and no understanding of personality types that might work well together – or work well on a twenty-three year trip.

I also sincerely disagree with the competitive idea that the teenage crew seems to have. If you’re sending six teenagers into space, why the heck would you not be training them to work together? Would you not let them form friendships and memories and relationships that aren’t competitive? The friendships they do have seem to be in spite of the training, not because of it!

Incidentally, also, would you not train them all on multiple specialisms? And possibly make sure the ship had backup units of all the major components? If they’re travelling for twenty-three years, things are going to wear out. Things are going to fail. You might need, y’know, a spare life support system, just in case the one you have gets hit by something. Or multiple escape modules scattered around the ship. Or more than one person with knowledge of how to use an incredibly vital drive component that needs to be used otherwise the mission will fail. Just small backup things, nothing major.

My final straw came at the ending: it’s a complete deus ex machina. I won’t spoil it, but just say that it’s incredibly frustrating to have something dangled and then NEVER FIND OUT ANYTHING MORE ABOUT IT. The rest of the book could have been two-thirds shorter and then the rest of it spent on the time after the current climax – there’s a political and social mystery that just gets completely dropped, and also some huge character decisions that are just handed to us, and then the book ends. It felt like a huge let-down to spend so much time on the characters, and almost forget that the wider world is out there – and then when we see a glimpse of it and get a hint of a wider mystery, snatch that away immediately, and present an ending.

So, my takeaway from this: good (if rather angsty) characters, but it could have been set in high school for it to be as effective. If you want a good survival story in space, read The Martian. If you want a story about relationships in space, read A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet.  if you want a survival story AND a relationship story set in space, read The Fated Sky.

That said, I’ll be keeping an eye on Temi Oh – but I’ll wait for the next novel to be convinced.