A Basket of Reviews: February 2021

Random things that I have managed to read recently!

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

Despite increasing restrictions on the freedoms of women on Earth, Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation. It’s humanity’s last hope for survival, and Naomi, Valerie’s surrogate daughter and the ship’s botanist, has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity like this – to step out of Valerie’s shadow and really make a difference. But when things start going wrong on the ship, Naomi starts to suspect that someone on board is concealing a terrible secret – and realises time for life on Earth may be running out faster than they feared . . .

This is what Do You Dream Of Terra-Two should have been. It’s an excellent, thoughtful and far-too-close-to-the-bone look at what the future could hold for space travel, once the Earth’s climate problems have got too big to ignore: a journey to a distant Goldilocks planet that could mean a wonderful new home for humankind. Unfortunately, it could also mean that humankind’s worst traits come too, with a side dose of unfortunate political thinking; like the relegation of women to childmaking and rearing, and their exclusion from everything else. When a team of five women astronauts steal a spaceship and set off for the new planet, they start to dream of a Utopia – only to find that someone may have been thinking steps ahead of them, and their plans to ensure that Humanity’s future is better than it was on Earth could have costs that they are not willing to pay. Goldilocks is a disturbing near-future story with rich, beautifully-drawn characters and a rather terrifying message of hope.

Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard

On a string of orbitals called the Scattered Pearls Belt lives Sunless Woods—sentient spaceship, master of disguise, and master thief who chafes against the obscurity that comes with her retirement. There, too, lives Vân, a poor scholar with little confidence but plenty of heart, and whose income comes from tutoring a wealthy student.

Their lives are turned upside down when Vân finds a corpse in her student’s quarters and Sunless Woods, intrigued by Vân’s sense of justice, offers her help. Scholar and spaceship must chase the mystery around the empire’s forgotten edge: from rundown teahouses to ascetic havens, and even in the wreck of a spaceship—and all the while, they begin to fall for each other in earnest. But the secrets they’ve kept from each other are large and devastating—will they and their love survive the revelations?

I absolutely love Aliette’s short stories, and particularly the Xuya universe – so a longer novella-length story was something I jumped at! However, I have to say that this is good, but not great. The universe is beautiful, and the scenery is rich and detailed as always; I love the tiny details and the way that the characters are tied into their backgrounds by the hundred little gestures, comments, words that they choose. The plot itself is interesting, and kept me pulled along. However, I think it was the relationship between Vân and Sunless Woods that didn’t ring quite right; I can’t put my finger on it, but I didn’t manage to buy into it, even though I wanted to. That said, it’s a lovely story, and worth a read if you like the other stories in the Xuya universe.

The Sword in the Street by CM Caplan

Trial by battle is a holy rite on Hillside. Hired blades bleed their foes in savage duels, settling everything from petty grievances to the corporate laws that keep their citizens in line. Embroiled in these cutthroat political games is John Chronicle, an impoverished swordsman with no better prospects, seeking the duel that will free him from the Dregs.

Meanwhile, John’s boyfriend Edwin, an autistic university student, befriends a fellow scholar who claims to study the arcane art of thaumaturgy. When she offers to teach Edwin this subtle magic, he hopes that he can use it to bolster John’s skill with a blade. But thaumaturgy is a dangerous magic, and the forces that drive it have other plans.

The couple soon find themselves entangled in the web of intrigue surrounding the swordsmen and their sponsors, and they’re forced to question how bloody they’re willing to get to escape poverty — and they don’t come away with the same answer.

This is one that I was lucky enough to read while formatting, and it’s adorable. If you want the full review quote: “Gritty and sweet… as much about the relationships as it is about the action. It’s a sword-filled story of desperation and hope, and a man fighting for his passion – and his love.” It’s always nice when I get a book for formatting that I really enjoy – and also bloody irritating, as I forget what I’m doing when I get too into reading…

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where gods’ and mortals’ lives are intertwined.

There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

But it’s not just mortals who have secrets worth hiding and Yeine will learn how perilous the world can be when love and hate – and gods and mortals – are bound inseparably.

This is the first in the Inheritance Trilogy, and I admit to being on the fence about picking up the next. I enjoyed the book; it’s a very good story of politics, centred around Yeine, stranger and “barbarian” to a new city, who is just trying to survive the power struggle between both herself and her cousins, and between the enslaved Gods and their human masters. Her plunge into the new world keeps pulling along right to the end, and I enjoyed reading – I suppose my reservations about picking up the next are more to do that I don’t feel I need to find out what happens next! It’s almost standalone enough, and the story and characters are richly drawn and compelling. Worth a read if you like epic fantasy and political intrigue.

A Bucket of Reviews: Jan 2021

I have managed to do some reading! I don’t have the brain power for big reviews, but I can be generally enthusiastic…

A Deadly Education

The latest from Naomi Novik, and it’s heading into Harry Potter meets Hunger Games, with a lot more snark, diversity and fewer annoying cliches! (And also an author who isn’t a bigot, so that’s a huge plus.) The Scholomance is a school for magic-users, but it’s infested by monsters, and so has a bit of a downside – you graduate, or you die. El Higgins is a snarky loner with an affinity for dark magic – but she’d rather not accidentally kill all the other students, so she’s trying to get through her studies without using her power – or the ever-so-helpful spells of pure destruction that the school keeps giving her. I absolutely adored this, and have already re-read it multiple times. It’s gory, snarky, and a wonderful heap of friendships, characters, people just trying to survive, and a very strange (and murderous) school. The next one is straight on my TBR!

Of Wars, And Memory, And Starlight

A beautiful collection of shorts from Aliette de Bodard – there’s a mix of Xuya universe and The Fallen, but every story is very different. There’s the birth of a mindship, and a Queen trying to leave her life (or regain a former one?); a thief who steals memories – which I think was my favourite, just for the beautiful twist in the end – and a birthday party that goes very wrong. If you like imaginative and thoughtful science fiction/gothic fantasy, this is a lovely read – and you’d do well to pick up any of Aliette’s other books, too!

Stories of Your Life and Others

This is a collection from Ted Chiang, and includes the story that was the basis for the film Arrival (I haven’t seen it, but Otter was impressed.) The collection varies from hard sci-fi to more lyrical stories; my favourite was the first, Tower of Babylon, with a shout-out for Seventy-Two Letters (a wonderful take on making golems and the Industrial Revolution) and Story of Your Life (which is the Arrival story). The others were hit and miss; I definitely found Liking What You See an interesting concept but too long, and Hell Is The Absence of God is a brilliant concept, but a horribly depressing story! It’s a collection that is definitely worth a read, though.

Piranesi

A lovely and lyrical story from Susanna Clarke – part self-discovery, part locked-room mystery, part art critique… Piranesi (although he knows that’s not his name) lives in the House, which has endless rooms filled with statues. He fishes, and catalogues the statues, and talks to the one other person in the House – but the secrets and the mysteries just keep stacking up, and slowly he begins to remember.

A Memory Called Empire

I have raved about this before, but I love this – if you like The Goblin Emperor, this pulls all the same strings, but in space! The protagonist is a new Ambassador from an outlying space station to the Teixcalaanli Empire; she’s got the previous Ambassador’s memories to rely on, but they out-of-date, and it’s her first posting. And when she arrives, she finds that his ‘accidental’ death most likely wasn’t – and that she’s now in the middle of a political tug-of-war. I love the details of this, the political intricacies and the characters – it’s tiny touches that speak for the clash of cultures and also the longing to be part of them. Definitely looking forward to the sequel!

 

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 Brief Kate Update: November 2020

Another month… or two? Aren’t we still in March? (The weather currently is definitely March weather.) Still here, still going. What’s been going on in the past month or so?

Baking: Key Lime Pie and Pumpkin Pie, along with natas. The natas sort of exploded, but they still taste good! We’ve also been making lots of soups – borscht, leek&potato, tomato (with extra kale, yay… gotta use it up somehow!) and Otter has been learning how to make risotto. Working from home has been really good for eating more interesting meals!

Reading: A Memory Called Empire (LOVE!! – politics and Aztec empire and poetry and language and imperialism and colonialism and characters and such a good story), Aliette de Bodard’s short story collection Of Wars, And Memories, And Starlight (LOVE!! Every story is a different snippet of culture and feelings and they’re all brilliant), and I’ve just started Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley.

Sewing: I have picked up one of my Ghibli canvases again – I did a Totoro, and started one of Howl and Sophie – and have been enjoying the mindlessness of filling in space with colour. It’s quite theraputic.

Watching: Up On Poppy Hill. It’s very sweet, but also a bit weird? Like… it’s sort of half a story with another half jammed on, and it all got a bit confusing… I dunno. The visuals are the star, as always in Ghibli, and I do always feel the stories are a bit odd. I’m not sure if it’s a re-watch or not.

Listening to: Cat yowls (his FOOD BOWL IS EMPTY) and compilations from AlexRainBird Music on YouTube.

Buying: Lost Stock! You can get a random (with some customisation) selection of clothes from brands that have cancelled their orders due to Covid – and it helps factory workers. It’s been really fun as well – I’ve gotten two boxes now, and out of eight items, I’ve kept five – and two of those were things I would never have picked up in a store/charity shop, yet they work really well! It’s been fun to push my style a bit, and get new clothes when I can’t get to charity shops.

I’ve also been sorting Christmas presents, which has been great fun (and given me something to focus on!) – and we can start decorating soon! We have no idea what Bobble is going to make of a Christmas tree – hopefully he’s old enough that trying to kill baubles has lost its charm.

Work: ALL THE AMAZING BOOKS. Personal recommendations: One Day All This Will Be Yours (which features an excellent and very informative analysis of the relative running speeds of Hitlers (plural) and Allosaurus), Northern Wrath (Vikings! Mythology! Adventure! And a cute fox) and my eternal favourite Grave Secrets, because who doesn’t want a zombie as a best friend?

We also have the UK release of Black Sun – whee! I haven’t read it yet but it’s next on my list, and I am so excited! I also got to read The Witness for the Dead, which is the sequel to The Goblin Emperor, and… just yes.

Playing: Townscaper, which is a very cute build-your-own-city thing that doesn’t have a game, but is just absolutely adorable; and Dungeon Cards, which also has a phone app, and is really good when I just need to not think!

And me… I’m not great, really. I’ve upped my medication again to deal with work burn-out: hopefully the New Year will bring some changes on that front, but for the last year it’s been “just keep holding on, one more month” and I have just run out of fucks to give – which sucks, really, because I want to care, but… urgh. [Edited to add: having been thinking about this, I don’t think “care” is the right word – I do still care about all of my work! I just can’t summon the enthusiasm I know I should have for amazing books, which frankly sucks. I’m still doing the work, but it’s just that everything is a slog – when at least some of it should be fun? Depression, eh.]

I’ve got more energy thanks to the meds (Sertraline) but it’s at the cost of a slightly fuzzy brain and a disconnect to everything. My memory still isn’t great (and likely never will be), I’m tired all the time despite sleeping a lot, and I’m still just grey.

I’ve been doing a CBT course, which went as well as expected, but I feel I have to do it to be able to get any further help. I’ve now been given a worksheet on “values” because I’m obviously not doing enough nice things that tie into my core values, and that’s why I’m not feeling very good. I know all the mental health stuff is trying to help, but I really hate the underlying message of “you’re feeling bad because you aren’t helping yourself enough! Work harder! Do better things!” /rant.

But! I am trying to hold onto the good, small things. I curl on the sofa in the morning with my mug of green tea, watching the dawn out of the window with a cat on my lap. I have been playing Carcassonne with Otter, and texting Sam interesting facts about Roman mosaics. (He has been sending back pictures of his Hallowe’en skeleton, who is currently installed on the couch. I figure it’s as good a place as any.) I am cycling to work down a bumpy path criss-crossed with roots, between drifts of golden-fire leaves and grey water, with the cows ambling their way across the meadow beside me. I am planning a visit to the Ashmoleon with my family in the Spring, and taking pride in the new paint and floor in the bathroom. I am trying to keep stepping forward, one thing at a time, and taking the light where I can.

A small black cat, staring judgementally

Right now it doesn’t feel like anything matters, but I am hoarding the moments for the time when I will be able to appreciate them.

Also, does anyone else’s cat like their fur being ruffled backwards?! Every other cat I’ve known would have clawed your face off if you even tried to ruffle their carefully-smoothed coat, but Bobble loves it! He’s such a strange kitty.

(The photo is when I was three minutes late in giving him breakfast. HOW VERY DARE I.)

A Kate Update: July 2020

In this update: cosmic foxes, roses, horrible cthulu-type monsters, kites (the bird type), a farty cat, cakes, donuts and witches. These may or may not be related to each other.

Firstly, the important news! A pile of cat paws and furBobble is sleeping, farting and ordering everyone around with happy abandon. He spent six hours on Friday asleep either on my lap or next to me, so he is one spoiled cat, and is obviously demanding cuddles at every opportunity. He is also a pile of paws and will reluctantly let us touch his toe-beans, is ridiculously fast (I may have a few small scars from trying to play with him) and has the most adorable little snore.

Then on to the second important thing: you need book recommendations, you say? I know I’m biased, but maybe try Beneath The Rising, Weave the Lightning or The Human Son? Also, we’ve got audiobooks coming out! I’d also thoroughly suggest pre-ordering Shadow in the Empire of Light, The Chimera Code and The House of Styx. Wouldn’t want to run out of books, eh? (We have so many good books at work and I just want to yell about all of them… so be thankful you’ve only had a selection!)

Also in work news, I’m reading exciting things that I can’t talk about yet…. WHEEEEEE!

I got sent a late birthday present by a wonderful friend of a voucher for roses. I have spent several hours leafing through (no pun intended) the catalogue going “SO PRETTY” and “climbers? Or a bush? What sort of soil do we have again? We’re mostly shade, so…” It’s been a lot of fun and I still haven’t decided. We think an in-person trip to the centre might be needed!

The kites have been keeeeee-kee-kee-kee from the tree behind the house; there’s two of them floating over most mornings now. They had a bit of a tough time with all the wind last week (well, I say that, but it wasn’t like they were having to flap… it was just the “getting to where they wanted to go” bit that seemed to be giving them issues) but the current sunshine is doing wonders for the thermals, and they’ve just been drifting over on the hunt for kite-sized snacks.

Cupcake with a mini skull on it!

If anyone’s in Oxford, Jericho Coffee on Osney Estate have started doing coffee & donuts on Saturday mornings… and Patron Oxford are also delivering said donuts (and brownies!) to the city! (I think this is incredibly dangerous and haven’t ordered any, because they are FANTASTIC. Once a week is dangerous enough!) And if you’re not in Oxford, they do postal coffee beans. The smell coming out of the roastery is always fantastic, so I would recommend based on that alone!

Also on a cake note, I ordered some amazing cupcakes from Happy Cakes last month (ok, no wait, May…) for one of my authors who was having a crap week – obviously skulls and gravestones helped. (They are relevant, honestly, and they did help cheer her up!)

Leaping fox with blue-stars cosmic colouring

On a pretty-things note, Lynsey Luu does amazing quirky stuff and I am still trying to decide what I want to buy! I’m somewhere between a cosmic fox, the cutest otter ever, or EVERYTHING ELSE. Currently I’m defaulting to the latter. The flower pendants are beautiful, too! Sigh.

I am currently on an Agatha-Christie kick, because it seems to be what my brain needs. Having Miss Marple sweetly pronounce that the world is horrible and evil and it just reminds her of so-and-so the butcher’s son who came to a bad end… it seems to fit the current world, somehow. Incidentally, if you like Agatha Christie, try Sexton Blake – we’re publishing collections of the best stories, and they’re the same sort of mystery and derring-do: Sherlock Holmes mixed with Poirot and Indiana Jones. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them!

Witch on a bridge by PetiteCreme
By PetiteCreme @gemsheldrake

I am sort-of writing again! I was leafing through PetiteCreme‘s sketchbook (with her permission!) and spotted a witch on a bridge… and it reminded me of Necromancer’s Charm. So I hauled it out, and – SO. MANY. NOTES. I mean, I wrote three versions of the start because I couldn’t get the voice, and two documents of other notes because Thief & Seer is sort-of related and…. ARGH. But I really enjoyed reading the start again, which felt good! I’m sending it over to Otter for them to read, as they’re my current “is this any good?!” reader, and then… well, we’ll see if anything comes back?

In general Kate news: I’m on my third week into changing medication, and it’s… not really fun. I had one week of complete exhaustion as one withdrew, and then a week of complete ups and downs as the new one kicked in, and I’m currently in the fine-for-three-days-crash-for-a-day cycle that’s still underlaid by grey. I’m just trying to do as much as I can while manic, and then take the crashes as they come, and trying to ignore the weasels. Animal Crossing and re-reading books are getting me through, plus Bobble cuddles and chocolate. I know I’m in the best position possible to be going through all of this, and I’m just trying to keep stepping forward. If anyone spots the shops getting restocked with new brains, though, let me know. I might be in the market for one.

Also!  In happier news, if anyone’s near Fairford in the Cotswolds, or can get there, the 7a Coffee Shop do SERIOUSLY GOOD BROWNIES. Sam dropped some off for me and oh my goodness. SO GOOD. Collection only, but so worth it.

…I feel like I am fixated on food and books at the moment, which… is fair, I think.

And on a final food – and cat – note, I have been watching Jun’s Kitchen: the most adorable cats, and really nice-looking food!