Book Review: The Hands of the Emperor

The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

An impulsive word can start a war.
A timely word can stop one.
A simple act of friendship can change the course of history.

Cliopher Mdang is the personal secretary of the Last Emperor of Astandalas, the Lord of Rising Stars, the Lord Magus of Zunidh, the Sun-on-Earth, the god.
He has spent more time with the Emperor of Astandalas than any other person.
He has never once touched his lord.
He has never called him by name.
He has never initiated a conversation.

One day Cliopher invites the Sun-on-Earth home to the proverbially remote Vangavaye-ve for a holiday.

The mere invitation could have seen Cliopher executed for blasphemy.
The acceptance upends the world.

Where do I even start with this?

IF YOU LOVE THE GOBLIN EMPEROR AND NEED MORE POLITICS/ROMANCE/TANGLED INTRICACIES/COURT MANNERS IN YOUR LIFE, GET THIS BOOK.

This is also highly recommended for anyone who liked The Curse of Chalion or A Memory Called Empire, or wished GRRM’s stories were a bit less sprawling and murderous and just a bit nicer.

On the surface, this is a story about a Chancellor putting his head on the line to suggest that his Emperor, the Radiant and Illustrious One, might like to take a holiday.

(The Emperor does not Do holidays. Or emotions, really. Or anything beyond huge works of magic, overseeing court functions and occasionally wrangling committees.)

And the Emperor says yes.

The slight issue with this, of course, is they then have to navigate how that all works, when you’ve got a bunch of rituals (and some small issues like; if the Emperor touches anyone, it could mean death) and strictures and prohibitions and courtly ceremonies and… he just wants to go snorkelling?

This is a story about an Emperor going on holiday, and the friendships that come from that; and how those friendships change both the people involved, and change the world.

And underneath, there are some absolutely wonderful undercurrents. It’s a story about political change and how one person, in the right place, can move mountains. It’s a story about culture and self, and how to carry it with you, and what you give up when you leave or return. It’s a story about family and friends and assumptions and bias, and what we value, and learning to value others and ourselves. It’s a story about racism and prejudice and navigating cultural differences and change alongside personal and political change. And it’s a story about friendship, and love, and how connections make the world.

In short; it’s a book that I have read and re-read, alongside The Goblin Emperor. It’s absolutely huge (969 pages in print!) but also keeps the story very tightly told; it’s just long, rather than being complicated, and it never feels boring or slow. It’s about people, and it’s so sweet and good while also taking you on a rollercoaster of emotions – and all over the Empire in terms of cultural expectations! There are a wonderful set of characters, from the main quartet around the Emperor to Cliopher’s (very large) family, to the Princes and politicians, to the scholars, to those lost and gone but not forgotten. It’s a beautifully-told story, and is absolutely on my favourites list.

There is also a sequel – The Return of Fitzroy Angursell – and it’s a wonderful sequel; I bought it straight after finishing Hands and plunged straight in, and it’s both a wonderful change of pace and an excellent continuation (plus I did almost scream when I figured the name out, and then had to go and re-read Hands with new knowledge in mind!) It is shorter, but there are more stories about the characters; The Bride of the Blue Wind follows Pali, and Stargazy Pie is set in the same universe.

Book Review: Scales and Sensibility

Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

A regency heroine with a dragon curled on her shoulder - Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie BurgisSensible, practical Elinor Tregarth really did plan to be the model poor relation when she moved into Hathergill Hall. She certainly never meant to kidnap her awful cousin Penelope’s pet dragon. She never expected to fall in love with the shameless – but surprisingly sweet – fortune hunter who came to court Penelope. And she never dreamed that she would have to enter into an outrageous magical charade to save her younger sisters’ futures…

However, even the most brilliant scholars of 1817 England still haven’t ferreted out all the lurking secrets of rediscovered dragonkind…and even the most sensible of heroines can still make a reckless wish or two when she’s pushed. Now Elinor will have to find out just how rash and resourceful she can be when she sets aside all common sense. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll even be impractical enough to win her own true love and a happily ever after…with the unpredictable and dangerous “help” of the magical creature who has adopted her.

This is billed as “a frothy Regency rom-com full of pet dragons and magical misadventures” and it absolutely, wonderfully, lives up to every aspect of that. It’s completely delightful fluff, and is the perfect book for curling on the sofa – with shoulder-dragon if you have one, or a cat if you’re not quite at the pet dragon level of society yet. I spent a very contented afternoon with a cup of tea, and got lost in a Regency world where dragons are the latest thing – but also, when you’re a penniless poor relation and depending on your rather spoiled cousin for support, a rather troublesome thing. Certainly when it comes to said cousin mistreating said dragon, and you just happen to lose your temper and storm out…

…and then bump into a dishy fortune-hunter trying to court said awful cousin. And that, of course, comes with additional problems, alongside the perfect solution – which, as expected, just causes more chaos. Add in some rather interesting visitors, a very sweet but also slightly clueless tiny dragon, a whole heap of misunderstandings and a large dash of romance… and it’s the perfect read. It’s also the first in a series, and while this one wraps up Elinor’s story, the second and third are promising to follow her sisters – and I am definitely looking forward to them!

ARC courtesy of the author, although I had already pre-ordered myself a copy based on the first chapter alone! You can follow Stephanie on Patreon, with sneak peeks of writing and a book club. This is also the author who wrote Thornbound – which, if you haven’t read, is absolutely as good!

A Basket of Reviews: Shorts & Anthologies, July 2021

A selection of short stories, anthologies and novellas wot I has been reading recently.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built – Becky Chambers (Monk & Robot Bk 1)

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend. One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honour the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of ‘what do people need?’ is answered. But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how. They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

The first in what sounds like a new series of novellas, set in an Earth where the robots gained consciousness and – left us, heading out into the wilderness. The world left behind sounds adorable, actually – craftspeople and families, and tea-monks who travel around with their kettles & cups & blends, offering a cup of tea and listening ear to anyone who needs one. (I definitely want a little pedal-powered caravan to travel in, even if it does end up hung with a whole variety of drying herbs and stuffed to the gills with tea blends.) But then the tea monk decides to go off the beaten track, and meets a robot, coming to check on humanity…

There’s a lot of talk in the novella; a lot of philosophical musing, and explanations of misunderstandings, and dialogue between two cultures that have diverged, but want to learn. It’s very sweet and very cute, and it’s going to be interesting to see where the next one goes!

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler (novella)

Kas is a junior academic on a research mission to old Earth. When a con-artist tricks her into wagering a huge sum of money she doesn’t have on the outcome of a manned robot arena battle she becomes drawn into the seedy underworld of old Earth politics and state-sponsored battledroid prize fights.

I really enjoyed this! It sounds like it was originally going to be a short story, but I’m glad he expanded it into a novella. I loved the characters, the mix of cultural backgrounds, the misunderstandings, the GIANT ROBOT FIGHTS – and it’s wrapped up in a cute romance. Who could want more?

Beyond the Dragon Gate by Yoon Ha Lee

Former Academician Anna Kim’s research into AI cost her everything. Now, years later, the military has need of her expertise in order to prevent the destruction of their AI-powered fleet.

This is a novella from Yoon Ha Lee, author of Ninefox Gambit and Phoenix Extravagant (and, disclaimer, a Rebellion author.) I loved Ninefox – once I got past the “what the hell is happening” feeling of the first three chapters – and also enjoyed Phoenix, so I picked this up on a “let’s give it a try!”

It was… ok. It feels like a proof-of-concept, almost; a short story that’s somehow novella length, and I really wanted more to happen, or to see more of the world, or… well, just something more. So – a good short, but not really worth the read.

Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory by Martha Wells

Set just after Exit Strategy, the fourth novella in the series. It’s a cute, short story from the perspective of Dr. Mensah, who is one of the key players in the first novella (and now someone who is… well, isn’t exactly friends with Murderbot, because Murderbot doesn’t have friends: friends involve Feelings and having to pause the latest downloaded drama) and who is currently trying to sort out her emotions around the events of the first few novellas. Murderbot is assisting by asking for assorted ridiculous weaponry, which… actually seems like quite a good coping mechanism! Cute and sweet, but very short, and definitely only to be read in the context of the series.

Alias Space by Kelly Robson

This is a lovely, varied collection of speculative fiction short stories by award-winning writer Kelly Robson – and the collection has the added bonus of a short passage by Robson after each story, giving more background on the story and adding interesting context to each. The stories range from sci-fi to horror to historical fiction to fantasy, and all have an interesting thread to them; there’s certainly nothing here that’s boring!

The collection starts with Two-Year Man, a world where those allowed to fight for longer are the higher-ranking (hence two-year man; a lowly janitor). But the titular janitor cleans a genetics lab, and finds unwanted babies in the trash – those thrown out because they’re wrong, or broken, or defective – and he takes them home. Intervention, later in the anthology, also deals with the theme of children – the lovely idea of childminding taken up by those who really want to, and how a creche would work with worlds spread across the solar system. How do you mix the latest child-minding science and psychology with the fact you’re raising new people, with all their foilibles and flaws? And what happens to a society that hates children, but then realises that they need them? I’d actually read this before as part of Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity’s End anthology, but it’s just as good the second (or third, or fifth) time around.

The titular story, Alias Space, is one of three loosely-connected stories. In the first, The Desperate Flesh, the manager of a retirement home for lesbians is trying to stop it being demolished by the city, but there’s the small issue of the residents’ penchant for strip tease… and in the second, Alias Space, strip tease dancers elbow themselves room in a city festival. The third, Skin City, puts a futuristic spin on the strip-tease concept; an artist breaks copyright law in an effort to get their forbidden love to talk to them! It’s a fun interlinked trio, all exploring different aspects of a common theme.

La Vitesse is the first of the fantasy stories: what if dragons started invading, and became a nuisance species? And if you’re a school bus driver, that means trying to figure out how to escape a fire-breathing terror that wants to rip your bus open… and that also means figuring out how to connect with your grumpy fourteen-year-old who’s definitely got her own opinions on how to drive a bus, and what good ice cream is. The other major fantasy story is a longer novelette, Waters of Versailles, and is set in eighteenth-century France; an inventor is enchanting the Court with new water closets, but the secret to how he does it is closely guarded – and his problems expand from how to keep his courtly patrons happy to how to keep the water-controlling nixie happy!

Plunging back into sci-fi is Two Watersheds, a scientist in VR exploring how invasive lichen can be managed while dealing with her own personal problems. A Study In Oils is probably my favourite in the book, and is a really interesting exploration of art, murder and intent; an athlete accused of murder (despite murder being semi-legal during a game…) goes to a remote village to try to escape people hurting him as a punishment; he loves creating art, and the story explores what art means to him, especially in the context of his actions and their own context of the game and society. The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill is also a very hard-hitting story about choices; a raped & murdered girl ends up being saved by an alien parasite, and has to explore the consequences of both of those. (Robson’s note on this story is particularly interesting as well!) And We Who Live In The Heart is another hard-hitting story that deals with choices and murder; humans have made habitats in huge, whale-like creatures… but they are still learning the biology, still learning how to live, and when you add human choices & relationships into the mix (and in particular, love and revenge) then it gets complicated – and interesting.

There are a number of mixed genre stories, too, which mix into the scifi. What Gentle Women Dare strays into historical fiction, with a street walker’s life, and her choice when she’s offered a devil’s bargain… So You Want To Be A Honeypot is a slightly-unfocused, very fun spy thriller, following a cohort of trainee spies as they take their first assignments and get used to life, and get used to being able to make their own choices. And the final story in the collection, A Human Stain, is a wonderful gothic horror: a governess comes to remote castle to look after a child, but there are many mysteries surrounding it… and she finds it is more terrifying – and beguiling – than she had thought…

A very mixed and very interesting collection, and well worth a read.

Reading: Classic Crime

I’ve been retreating into the world of comfort reads recently, and it’s been classic crime season! Most of these are ones I’ve read and re-read, but it’s always fun to find a few new things.

First up is Sexton Blake – a cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes – that was new to me! There’s over 4 million words and thousands of stories dating from the 1890’s to the 1970’s. Rebellion have done five collections (disclaimer, I got to read them first!) and while some are definitely Of Their Time, they’re a really good a mix of action, heroics, detective and mystery. The first is Sexton Blake & The Great War, but I think my favourite story is in Sexton Blake’s New Order – I can’t remember what it’s called (typical me) but it’s a wonderful heist that gets double- and triple- crossed!

I’ve also gone back to Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I read quite a few growing up, but I’d forgotten which – so I’ve had to read them again! They are very 1920’s in flavour (although without being too racist! I was impressed) but Wimsey is intelligent, amusing and the mysteries are all brilliantly constructed – I admit that I really enjoy the style of these, so they are nice reads. If you like Miss Marple or Tuppence, or Poirot without the arrogance, you’ll probably get on well with Wimsey. The Nine Tailors was the first one I picked up in this batch, as I remembered it vaguely; it’s a murder mystery with some really interesting characters (and a lot of bell-ringing), and even though I had read it before, I didn’t remember the end, so that made for a good read. Wimsey & his manservant, Bunter, are star of that one, and also of Strong Poison, which is the first novel to introduce Harriet Vane, Wimsey’s will-they-won’t-they romance partner. Gaudy Night focuses on Harriet, with a mystery set in the Oxford colleges, and Busman’s Honeymoon features Wimsey & Harriet trying to solve the mystery of the seemingly unexpected death of a very disliked man… and I think my favourite so far, Murder Must Advertise, is Wimsey going undercover in an advertising agency – it’s full of ridiculously wonderful characters! (I think it was Sayers’ favourite too, as she worked in an advertising agency – and the sheer joy of getting to gently rib everything about it comes through in spades.) There are 15 in the series, I think (at some point it was taken over by Jill Patterson Walsh), and the latest one I’ve picked up is Whose Body? – which is actually the first in the series, but there you go.

Speaking of Miss Marple, I was unexpectedly reminded of her short story Sanctuary, and picked up the collection Miss Marple & Mystery, which is (I think all?) her short stories. Sanctuary is one of them, and as good as I remembered – but it’s a lot of fun to read the little snippets of mystery, and a good book to dip in & out of.

Heading more into modern stories, but still with the classic crime feel; I was recommended the first in Simon Brett’s Mrs Pargeter series, A Nice Class of Corpse. It’s a mystery set in a hotel, filled with Gentlemen (and Women) In Decline – who all have their routine, their likes, their little ways… and then comes Mrs Pargeter, with her own opinions and lots of interesting skills that she learned from her dearly beloved late husband. And when there’s a suspicious death, she’s right in there to investigate… the story was amusing and interesting, and a good whodunnit – very silly, as the recommender said, but you somehow end up picking up the next one! (Which I admit I haven’t yet, but I did get distracted by Wimsey.)

Mrs Pargeter also reminded me of Robert Pimm’s Seven Hotel Stories, and the ever-resourceful Mrs N – I can highly recommend that one, as the stories are great fun and all completely ridiculous. I’ve got my fingers crossed for more of these in the future!

And I’ve also picked up an Imogen Quy Investigates mystery – A Piece of Justice by Jill Paton Walsh. It’s tending towards Morse (although, thankfully, without the insufferable arrogance) and I like the mix of cosiness and intelligence of Imogen! It’s set in Oxford, too, so it’s been amusing to figure out if I know places.

And, in a return to classics, I’ve also been reading some of Arsène Lupin. I hadn’t come across this at all (like Sexton Blake!) and picked up a collection of them, so there’s a wide mix of stories. They’re a fun mix of “this can’t be possible” and “Lupin’s pulled it off again!”, and I was definitely enjoying them until I hit the parody of Herlock Sholmes, at which point… eh. I’m sure it was amusing at the time (and it is quite funny for a bit – poor Watson is a bit of a hard-done-by-hound, so there’s some not-entirely-good-natured ribbing to be had…) but after three stories I’m finding it a little tedious. I may have to skip on to find some more of the derring-do stories!

A Bundle of Reviews: June 2021

Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but it’s passing Casiopea Tun by. She’s too busy scrubbing floors in her wealthy grandfather’s house to do anything more than dream of a life far from her dusty, small town in southern Mexico. A life she could call her own.

This dream is impossible, distant as the stars – until the day Casiopea opens a curious chest in her grandfather’s room and accidentally frees an ancient Mayan god of death. He offers her a deal: if Casiopea helps him recover his throne from his treacherous brother, he will grant her whatever she desires. Success will make her every dream come true, but failure will see her lost, for ever.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed only with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey, from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City and deep into the darkness of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

Described as “For fans of Katherine Arden, Naomi Novik and Helene Wecker” – definitely agree! It feels like a mix of The Golem & The Djinn crossed with American Gods; it’s a Mexican-inspired road trip, if your idea of a good road trip is alongside a God of Death, picking up chopped-off fingers & odd magic at random points, and bumping into your crass, oblivious cousin at every stop. I love the way that Cassandra’s character develops – and how she goes from accidental rescuer to an actual player, with her confidence growing as she does so.

A beautifully-written and enchanting story with a wonderful dose of magic and culture.

The Galaxy, And The Ground Within by Becky Chambers

When a freak technological failure halts traffic to and from the planet Gora, three strangers are thrown together unexpectedly, with seemingly nothing to do but wait. Pei is a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, torn between her duty to her people, and her duty to herself. Roveg is an exiled artist, with a deeply urgent, and longed for, family appointment to keep. Speaker has never been far from her twin but now must endure the unendurable: separation.

Under the care of Ouloo, an enterprising alien, and Tupo, her occasionally helpful child, the trio are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they might be to one another.

Together they will discover that even in the vastness of space, they’re not alone.

The final, fourth book in the Wayfarers series, which started with A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and continued with A Closed And Common Orbit. I didn’t really get into the third book, Record Of A Spaceborn Few, and I admit that I nearly didn’t pick this one up… but I’m so glad that I did!

It’s adorable. It’s got the charm and wonderful characters and odd encounters and thoughtfulness of the first, coupled with the wonderful mix of cultures and tense situations of the second. It’s sprinkled with things that make you think, and reflect, and we get to follow Pei again!! Wheee! Plus a few other odd ends are wrapped up, which is lovely – and some new ones introduced, which is also lovely, because things don’t just get resolved into nice neat bundles.

If you liked the first ones – or you like character-driven fiction where nothing really happens (which is THE POINT, Mister Smart-Ass Critic) – then you will love this one. It can be read as a stand-alone, too, so if you aren’t sure – try it and see!

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crew mates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realises that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Straight off: I loved The Martian (both book and film.) I admit I didn’t get on with Artemis – the setting was pretty cool, but Jax just felt… off, and I put it down after two chapters. And while Project Hail Mary is definitely, thankfully, trending more towards the awesomeness of The Martian, it’s still… well, not as good. It’s a good story, yes. A good read. But… eh.

A friend put into words how I was feeling: “With The Martian, you always felt like he could die at any time. With this, there’s lots of danger, but he’s not in any danger.”

There’s also a butt-load of science info-dumps, and it often feels like they’re in there more for the sheer desire to put a cool science info-dump in than because we actually need to know. Again, The Martian… but he was actually using the science in the course of the work, and using it as a tool. This feels more like science because I MUST EXPLAIN THE SCIENCE.

But it’s a good read. It’s fun, and chaotic, and I really liked the current-problem-then-flashback structure and the way things unfold. It’s a very well-told story, and I really like the unexpected travelling companion that turns up – very cute, if a heap of rock can be described as cute?

In short: worth a read if you like Very Danger Space Mission and scientific info-dumps.