Monday, 16 November 2020

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Phoenix Extravagant
by Yoon Ha Lee is a fantasy book with a setting quite different to the author’s Hexarchate books. I enjoyed those very much as well, but if you didn’t, I suggest not writing off Phoenix Extravagant.

Dragons. Art. Revolution.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.

One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.

What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight… 

Phoenix Extravagant is set in a secondary fantasy world that is based on Korea (here called Hwaguk) during the Japanese (Razanei) Occupation. The main difference being the existence of magic and magic-powered automata, and the broad acceptance of non-binary people in Hwaguk society. The protagonist, Jebi, is an artist struggling to earn money. Their friend is a collaborator and convinces them that working for the invaders is maybe not so bad if it means they get paid and out of debt. Of course, Jebi quickly gets in over their head and learns there’s more to the invaders’ automata than meets the eye.

I really enjoyed this book. It shows us an interesting mix of rebels, collaborators, traitors and invaders, and gives us the opportunity to understand the perspectives of each group. The world building is also very well done. I’m a fan of K-dramas (Korean TV series), so I had some familiarity with the time period being fantasified in Phoenix Extravagant. Lee goes beyond the standard expectations of just having a Real World Plus Magic setting, adding his own unique spin and hence giving readers a unique world to immerse themselves in. I also enjoyed how logical the magical elements were.

I hope there is another book in the series, so that we can find out what happens next to Jebi and to the nation of Hwaguk. While the ending tied up most of the loose ends in the story, there is definitely room for more, which I hope we'll get to read soon. Phoenix Extravagant was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to fantasy fans, especially those that enjoy any of: asian settings, rebellions, or dragons.

5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2020, Solaris
Series: I hope so...
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 26 October 2020

A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen

A Neon Darkness
by Lauren Shippen is another spinoff novel based on characters from the Bright Sessions podcast. I previously read and reviewed The Infinite Noise in the same world. The two books only really have the setting in common and can be read in any order. A Neon Darkness is actually a prequel to the story in the podcast, following the younger version of one character in particular.

Los Angeles, 2006. Eighteen-year-old Robert Gorham arrives in L.A. amid the desert heat and the soft buzz of neon. He came alone with one goal: he wants to see the ocean. And Robert always gets what he wants.

At a very young age, Robert discovered he had the unusual ability to make those close to him want whatever he wants. He wanted dessert instead of dinner? His mother served it. He wanted his Frisbee back? His father walked off the roof to bring it to him faster. He wanted to be alone? They both disappeared. Forever.

But things will be different in L.A. He meets a group of strange friends who could help him. Friends who can do things like produce flames without flint, conduct electricity with their hands, and see visions of the past. They call themselves Unusuals and finally, finally, Robert belongs.

When a tall figure, immune to their powers, discovers them, the first family that Robert has ever wanted is at risk of being destroyed. The only way to keep them all together is to get his powers under control.

But control is a sacrifice he might not be willing to make.

This wasn't exactly an easy book to read. Not because of the writing style — that was perfectly adequate — but because the protagonist is not a nice person. For most of this book he isn't trying to be a bad person, but he is, essentially, the villain in the future (during the time of the story in the Bright Sessions podcast). So I didn't very much enjoy spending time with him in the book, though the the other characters and the glimpses we got of the institute were more enjoyable. Actually, the other characters were all very interesting and complex, once we got to know them, and I think Shippen did a good job of portraying the diverse cast in a nuanced way, despite the constraints of writing from the first person perspective of a self-absorbed white guy.

It's very hard for me to gauge how a new reader would find this book. The start, before I realised who the protagonist was (I try to forget about blurbs by the time I come to read the book, and it's been a while since I listened to the podcast), was interesting and had me invested in the story. By the time I realised the identity of the protagonist, I was already not not exactly enjoying being inside his mind. I think that even without prior knowledge of the character, many readers would react to him similarly to me. Perhaps being invested in learning about his backstory would be more motivation to read.

If it weren't for the choice of protagonist, I would have given this book 4 stars. It's unusual for me to dock half a star for the unlikeability of the protagonist, but it felt warranted in this case. I mainly recommend this book to fans of morally grey characters, as well as fans of the Bright Sessions podcast who want to know more about Damien's backstory.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2020, Tor Teen
Series: Bright Sessions — a series of standalone stories (and a podcast or three)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Cover of Over the Woodward Wall
Over the Woodward Wall
by A. Deborah Baker is the book featured/quoted in Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, written by McGuire so that she could more easily refer to it. You absolutely do not have to have read Middlegame to read this book and, if anything, reading Over the Woodward Wall might add to your experience of reading Middlegame (but I did read them in the other order). Also, completely unlike Middlegame, Over the Woodward Wall is a children's/middle grade/pre-YA book, where as Middlegame is an adult book.

Avery is an exceptional child. Everything he does is precise, from the way he washes his face in the morning, to the way he completes his homework – without complaint, without fuss, without prompt.

Zib is also an exceptional child, because all children are, in their own way. But where everything Avery does and is can be measured, nothing Zib does can possibly be predicted, except for the fact that she can always be relied upon to be unpredictable.

They live on the same street.
They live in different worlds.

On an unplanned detour from home to school one morning, Avery and Zib find themselves climbing over a stone wall into the Up and Under – an impossible land filled with mystery, adventure and the strangest creatures.

And they must find themselves and each other if they are to also find their way out and back to their own lives.

This book is definitely not similar to Middlegame, it merely exists in the universe of that book. I cannot stress this enough. If you are looking for a similar companion novel to Middlegame, then you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a portal fantasy book featuring children from a non-specified time period finding themselves in a slightly nonsensical magical world, then this is the book for you.

I liked Over the Woodward Wall. There were a lot of interesting side characters, who added to the story. There were also some creepy villain characters that the children had to contend with. There were a variety of small lessons for children to learn over the course of their adventure, which were not heavy-handed. One thing that I was not expecting is that this ended as the start of a series. This might have been mentioned in Middlegame, but for whatever reason I had been expecting a standalone story, so that's something to keep in mind if you prefer tidy endings.

Overall, this was an interesting portal fantasy for children, especially if you hold it up against the ideas explored in Every Heart a Doorway. Over the Woodward Wall is absolutely not set in the same multiverse, and has its own unique voice more suited to the kind of book it is trying to be — one that is not juxtaposed against other ideas of portal fantasy. (That said, it put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, but that's mainly because both are portal fantasies with a road for the protagonists to follow.) I recommend this book to readers, both old and young, who find appealing the idea of two very different children thrust into a magical world together.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2020, Tor.com
Series: Apparently this might be a book 1 of a continuing series (based on Goodreads)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 12 October 2020

Burning Roses by S.L. Huang

Burning Roses by S.L. Huang is a fantasy novella that was not at all what I was expecting it to be. I would normally blame this on my intentional forgetfulness of blurbs, but in this case, I think the blurb also buries the lede. I would describe this book as an amalgamation of Asian (Chinese) fantasy and European fairytales, with a heavier dose of the latter than I expected.

When Rosa (aka Red Riding Hood) and Hou Yi the Archer join forces to stop the deadly sunbirds from ravaging the countryside, their quest will take the two women, now blessed and burdened with the hindsight of middle age, into a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality.

The story in Burning Roses follows our two protagonists, Rosa and Hou Yi, as they attempt to hunt down magical sunbirds and stop them from wreaking havoc across the country. A seemingly straightforward task, until Rosa starts questioning whether the sunbirds are sentient. As we learn throughout the story, Rosa has a dark past with talking animals

The extent to which the world was supposed to correspond to real countries was not entirely clear to me. My general impression was that most of the story was taking place in fantasy-China (or fantastical China, depending on how you want to interpret it), while Rosa has travelled all the way from fantasy-Spain to be there. Having Rosa be a traveller from foreign lands was an interesting and unexpected element. She provided a reference point for readers more familiar with European fantasy, which was the part I wasn't really expecting. In any case, the fantasy aspect of the novella was clearly the pertinent point, since the backstories of both characters have them being involved in several well-known fairytales.

I enjoyed this novella, even though it wasn't what I had expected — more fairytale than wuxia. I recommend Burning Roses to fans of fantasy stories with non-European settings, especially those that also enjoy a sprinkling of fairytales.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2020, Tor.com
Series: Don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp

Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp is a YA thriller about a group of friends, a role-playing game, and a cabin in the woods (up a mountain). It has strong geeky sensibilities (they are, after all, playing an RPG), but is technically non-SFF, though I expect there's be a lot of SFF fans who would enjoy it regardless.

FIVE friends go to a cabin.
FOUR of them are hiding secrets.
THREE years of history bind them.
TWO are doomed from the start.
ONE person wants to end this.
NO ONE IS SAFE.


Are you ready to play?

In this novel, a group of friends go on a last getaway to mend bridges and play one last RPG campaign before some of them go off to college. The story is told through alternating points of view, cycling through all five characters. Aside from being geeky, Even if We Break also has very strong disability and trans representation, dealing with characters in a variety of circumstances.

Nijkamp excels at cramming a lot of action into a short space of time, as evidenced by This Is Where It Ends, which is called "54 Minutes" in some translations. Even if We Break is no different. Although the story starts relatively up-beat (aside from the lingering issues the characters are hoping to overcome over the weekend) but quickly become tense as things turn ugly. The five characters all have distinctive voices and I found it easy to keep the different characters straight in my mind.

I recommend Even If We Break to fans of YA thrillers and to people who wished Pretty Little Liars had disability representation and good trans representation. I expect fans of RPGs and LARPs, including readers who don't usually read non-SFF, will still find much to enjoy in reading about the friends' game and the way in which this is linked to the action. I will certainly continue to pick up Nijkamp's books as they come out.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2020, Sourcebooks Fire
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

The Four Profound Weaves by RB Lemberg

The Four Profound Weaves by RB Lemberg is a novella set in the author’s Birdverse world. I have previously read at least one story, "Geometries of Belonging", which I quite enjoyed. The different stories stand alone and aside from exploring some similar themes, part of the magic system was what struck me as the main link with respect to world building.

The Surun' do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.

Among the Khana, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.

As the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.

This is a poetically written story about two people searching for themselves in different ways. I'm not sure I can explain the plot any better than the blurb does (which makes for a nice change), so I suggest reading that if you haven't yet. The story alternates between the points of view of the two protagonists, Uiziya and nen-sasaïr, and carries the reader with them across desert and city.

Uiziya's story focuses a bit more on the magic she seeks and the meaning of her aunt's magic in the greater scheme of the world. From a more simplistic understanding, we watch Uiziya's knowledge deepen through the events of the story as she is guided by misapprehensions and revelations. Nen-sasaïr, on the other hand, is guided by a more personal quest. The two team up at first only because their goals partially overlap, though their relationship grows over the course of the story.

From "Geometries of Belonging" the world building thing that stuck in my head most was the concept of magic based on deepnames, unique to the practitioner, the concept of which makes a reappearance in The Four Profound Weaves. However, as the title suggests, the main magic here, which Uiziya is — loosely speaking — chasing, involves weaving and magic carpets. Carpets which can fly, yes, but also carpets which can sing or transform people into their true bodies. The latter being related to the strong trans narrative arc for nen-sasaïr.

Overall I quite enjoyed The Four Profound Weaves. It was a gorgeously written exploration of identity with a heady dose of magic to go with it. I am keen to read more stories set in the Birdverse and other stories by Lemberg as well. I would go seek them out immediately if I wasn't so behind on other review books. I highly recommend The Four Profound Weaves to readers looking for fantasy with any of: desert settings, weaving, or trans narratives.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Tachyon Publications, September 2020
Series: Birdverse, but I think all the stories so far stand alone
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Short stories 11 to 17 are late and disorderly

This batch of stories is an unusual number because I feel bad for posting them so late. I had plans to do a proper Hugo round-up post as I did for novellas, but for various reasons that didn't happen. So here are some of the short stories and novelettes that were shortlisted for Hugo awards.

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The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker — An enjoyable mystery-ish story about a mystery writing a in cabin in the woods. Things inevitably go wrong, but it wasn’t quite the horror scenario I was expecting. I enjoyed it. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-blur-in-the-corner-of-your-eye

The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim — A long story about interesting far-future alien tech which records history. People interacting with said tech while trying to work out what happened to a failed colony planet. Also a sad love story. It was OK, but it didn’t really grab me. Source: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/the-archronology-of-love/

Omphalos by Ted Chiang — An unexpected story told in an unusual way. Almost an epistolary story, but told through prayers rather than letters. Set in a world a bit less technologically developed than ours, and following a scientist who knows exactly how long ago the world was created. And that it was created by a divine being. I enjoyed it more than I expected. Source: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Emergency Skin by NK Jemisin — An entertaining read partially depicting a society sitting somewhere between Athos (Bujold, Ethan of Athos) and the alt-right. It’s also told in an unusual way, which works very efficiently to tell the story and highlight the horrors of that particular society. We actually only get half the story, but it’s more than enough. Source: Amazon Forward Collection

As the Last I May Know by SL Huang — An intriguing premise: weapons of mass destruction can only be set off if the president first murders a little girl. I enjoyed the story and was quite taken by both the power play and the moral questions raised. Source: https://www.tor.com/2019/10/23/as-the-last-i-may-know-s-l-huang/

For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll — An amusing story about a cat fighting Satan for a poet’s soul. It was not what I expected from the title, and was certainly entertaining enough. Source: https://www.tor.com/2019/07/10/for-he-can-creep-siobhan-carroll/

Blood is Another Word for Hunger by Rivers Solomon — A very weird story. Not sure what to make of it, to be honest. I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t love it. I'm sorry that I have failed to adequately describe the weirdness of murder resulting in spontaneous births. Source: https://www.tor.com/2019/07/24/blood-is-another-word-for-hunger-rivers-solomon/


Friday, 14 August 2020

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings is a novella from an Australian author whose short fiction I have previously enjoyed. She is, perhaps, most well-known for her artwork, including book covers such as the one for Flyaway, among others.

In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure.

A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles.

In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.

Going through the tags for this review, I couldn't not include "Australian gothic". This book is a tangle of fairytales brought by settlers into the unique Australian landscape, all of them twisted and variously creepy. Flyaway is, above all, a story composed of many other stories, told as flashbacks or asides. The layers are slowly peeled back as our unreliable narrator, Bettina Scott, slowly learns more of her recent past and starts to realise what she's forgotten.

The fact that part of the story is told as Bettina's memories unfurl means that we come at the main story — for lack of a better term, I mean the story most important to Bettina — from an oblique angle. We know something strange has happened, but the pieces don't come together until very close to the end. But in the meantime, Jennings keeps the reader entertained and/or horrified with the extra stories peppered throughout the narrative.

I recommend Flyaway to readers who like weird narratives and who don't mind feeling creeped out by the bush or western Queensland. I think non-Australian readers will also find much to connect with in this book, since a lot of the fairytales are recognisably based on European folklore, despite the strong presence of the Australian landscape in the book.

4 / 5 stars

First published: July 2020, Tor.com
Series: No, I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

The Start of Rebuilding Tomorrow

[This post was cross-posted on a delay from the Defying Doomsday / Rebuilding Tomorrow blog.]

Back in 2016, we launched Defying Doomsday, an anthology of apocalypse survival fiction featuring disabled and chronically ill characters. In the lead up to that, I wrote a bit about where the idea for Defying Doomsday came from over on Diversity in YA.

Rebuilding Tomorrow is the followup anthology to Defying Doomsday. In many ways it’s a sequel — in fact, some of the stories it contains are direct sequels to some of the stories in Defying Doomsday — but it’s also a book with an intentionally different focus. Before the pandemic, back in mid-2018, when I was first thinking about Rebuilding Tomorrow, I wanted to make a book that went a step further than just surviving the apocalypse. Feeling gloomy about the in-progress climate apocalypse, I decided I wanted to make a book about getting on with life after the world has irrevocably changed.

Since it was inspired by an apocalypse, it made sense for Rebuilding Tomorrow to be a sort of sequel to Defying Doomsday. But rather than doubling down on more doom-laden apocalypse fiction, I wanted to make an anthology of stories that served as a guide for how to rebuild, after. Because life goes on, to some degree, probably. And as with Defying Doomsday, it was important to me to make Rebuilding Tomorrow an inclusive collection of stories. That meant again focussing on disabled and chronically ill characters, the world’s largest minority.

So the stories in Rebuilding Tomorrow don’t depict apocalypses in progress. They show worlds and people who have survived the worst and are now moving beyond just survival into a more sustainable future. After all, one can’t raid supermarkets forever, after the end of the world.


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Rebuilding Tomorrow is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter. Back us to help make this anthology and lock in a pre-order to be one of the first people to read it.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes written by Suzanne Walker and illustrated by Wendy Xu is the most adorable graphic novel/comic that I absolutely regret not reading sooner. I did not get around to the review copy I received of it last year, but its Hugo shortlisting (and presence in the voter packet) finally prompted me to pick it up.

Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers' bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.

One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.

Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.

I didn't actually realise, until I started reading, that this was a story about a witch who wears hearing aids and a non-binary werewolf. If I had known, I would have definitely read it sooner! Oh well, the important thing is that I've now read this adorable story and I have added all Xu's planned books to my Goodreads want list and Walker's stories to my Pocket list.

There was only one thing I didn't like about Mooncakes: the fact that this book is the entirety of the story and we won't be getting more. I really enjoyed reading about both characters and the utter charm of the art and worldbuilding (the forest spirits were so cute!) and would love to be able to spend more time with them. That said, the story was not lacking in any way. It was a complete story with a nice arc for the main characters, including cuteness and peril and a happy ending.

I highly recommend Mooncakes to anyone who likes cute graphic novels/comics, paranormal romance and the various representations I mentioned above. I enjoyed it a lot and I am going to be keeping an eye on future work by both of these creators.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2019, Oni Press
Series: Seems not :-(
Format read: PDF
Source: Publisher via NetGalley and also Hugo Voter Packet