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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 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!

 

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!

Comfort Reads

I curled up in bed yesterday (with fairy lights on) and picked up a stack of books as a comfort read. Some are ones I’ve mentioned before – Gideon the Ninth (obviously), The Goblin Emperor, Curtsies and Conspiracies, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

But there’s also a couple of other favourites that got added to the stack. Caesar’s Women by Colleen McCullough – I absolutely adore this series. It’s told as a fictional story, but the characters are brilliantly brought to life, and I love that it’s so detailed. This one is also one of my favourite periods as McCullough points out where Cicero – beloved snob about his own glory – might have just , shall we say, amended the historical timeline a bit…

And Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s story in Made To Order, which has also been put up for free by Tor!

A Guide for Working Breeds

And Calvin & Hobbes. Who can resist?

Calvin & Hobbes dancing

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?