Saturday, 28 May 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is the author's first full-length novel and the first book in a trilogy. You may recall my recent reviews of Cho's novellas, which I quite enjoyed. I started listening to Sorcerer to the Crown as an audiobook shortly after reading those. The nature of audiobooks meant that it took me a while to clock up enough driving time to get through it all.


At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.

But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large… Less

Sorcerer to the Crown follows two characters in Regency England: the Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe, and Prunella Gentleman, an orphaned young lady who starts off the story as the ward of the mistress of a magical school for girls. The school does not concern itself with teaching girls magic, however, rather it teaches them how to suppress it so that the proper magic users of the world — i.e. men — can get on with the proper magical work. The two characters' path's cross when Zacharias is strong-armed into visiting the school to give a talk.

There was much hilarity in this book. I found myself laughing out loud several times. A lot of the humour comes from manner-punk interactions, which put me in mind of Gail Carriger's books, as did Cho's novellas. This novel is actually more similar to Carriger's work since there is magic (but not werewolves in society or anything like that), more humour, and a strongly English setting.

I enjoyed reading the interactions between Prunella and Zacharias — and the other characters, but especially those two — very much. They were both excellent characters. Prunella sewed mayhem wherever she went — other than social situations in which that would be inappropriate! — while Zacharias was an interesting character to read for other reasons. He is tightly constrained by his position, by societal expectations and by the fact that he is black and has to live with never ending microaggressions. He is always painfully aware of what is appropriate and what people might think, whereas Prunella is less concerned with that, especially in magical situations. Their conflicting interplay lead to much amusement.

I really enjoyed this book. I suspect I would've enjoyed it even more if I read it with my eyes rather than my ears, but that only really affected how long it took me to get into the story at the start. That said, it mostly worked well as an audiobook. I think I would prefer to read the sequel with my eyes, but mainly so that I could get through it faster. I cannot wait until the next book is released and am a bit disappointed that I have to wait until next year! I strongly recommend this to all fans of fantasy, humorous fantasy and manner punk. I loved it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Ace
Series: Sorcerer Royal book 1 of 3
Format read: audiobook
Source: Audible

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Beatriceid by Kate Elliott is an epic poem written in the style of The Aeneid but about girls at school and a prank. It is set in the world of Elliott's Spiritwalker books, which start with Cold Magic and which I haven't read.

Before Andevai, the waking of dreaming dragons, the war for Europa, and the cruel treachery of the Wild Hunt, cousins Catherine and Beatrice Hassi Barahal were novice students at the Academy. Here, Cat and Bee learned of mathematics and politics, history and storytelling. But not all stories are told or remembered in the same way--particularly where the tale of Dido and Aeneas, and the fate of Carthage and Rome are concerned.

To the victors go the spoils--only this time, it is the gilded-tongued Bee and the quick-footed Cat who will collect the winnings.

Set before the start of Cold Magic, The Beatriceid is a brand new, standalone short story written in Iambic Pentameter that reimagines The Aeneid in a feminist, Phonecian light.

This poem was shorter than I expected it to be, with the poem itself only taking up about half the ebook pages. The rest of the book was filled with an afterword explaining the reasoning behind the poem, an essay about self-rejection, and an interview with Kate Elliot conducted by the Book Smugglers. I generally wouldn't go out of my way to buy this sort of extra content in ebook form, but I didn't mind reading it after the main event.

The poem was quite amusing, featuring school girls' retellings of the story of Dido and Aeneas — modified to fit into the alternate history of the fantasy universe — framed by a school girl prank. I quite enjoyed reading the epic poetic style employed to speak of school shenanigans. And the actual prank itself. I suspect there were also several references to the source material that went over my head, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of the poem.

I am, at this point, wondering why I haven't already read Cold Magic. From the description in the afterword, it sounds like a fantasy book I would enjoy. It was a little strange, perhaps, to read the Beatriceid without having read any other books set in the same world, but after Tansy raved about it on Galactic Suburbia, I couldn't resist. I don't think there are any issues reading it without the wider context, but I suspect people already familiar with the characters will get more out of it.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Book Smugglers Publishing
Series: Set in the Spiritwalker universe. Goodreads has it listed as book "3.5"
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased from Kobo store

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson

Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson is a novella about an ex-soldier (well, officer, I think) currently residing in Versailles and fitting the palace with plumbing. As in new-fangled toilets, and also fountains. He has some supernatural help.

Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson is a charming novella of court intrigue in 1738 Versailles as a clever former soldier makes his fortune by introducing a modern water system (and toilets) to the ladies of the palace. He does this with magical help that he may not be able to control.

I was kind of expecting this novella to be funnier than it was. The concept struck me as lending itself to a comedic tale, but this wasn't one. That's not to say it wasn't lighthearted and, at times, amusing, but going in, I had been hoping to laugh more.

That said, it was a fun and entertaining read. I certainly wasn't bored at any point. Sylvain, the protagonist, paints himself into a corner with his plumbing venture and a lot of things go wrong for him. The main story was his progress in fixing problems and pushing new limits with the plumbing.

Although it wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as I had hoped, I enjoyed this novella and will happily read any more of Robson's work that crosses my path. I recommend Waters of Versailles to fans of period fantasy and court shenanigans. Also, you can read it free on Tor.com.

4 / 5 stars

First published: June 2015, Tor.com
Series: No.
Format read: iBooks ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Forever Song by Julie Kagawa

The Forever Song by Julie Kagawa is the conclusion to the Blood of Eden trilogy. I previously reviewed the first two books, The Immortal Rules and The Eternity Cure. While I enjoyed the first book, I didn't particularly like the second, which is why it took me so long to get around to the third. In the end, I picked it up on a whim when I saw it in the library. In case you can't be bothered clicking on the links for the first two books, the worldbuilding premise of the series is that there have always been vampires, but when a plague threatened to wipe out humanity, the vampires, concerned about their blood supply, took over and more or less started farming humans. The main character, Allison, came from one city-farms, but was turned into a vampire at the start of book one. Anyway, the rest of this review, including the blurb, contains spoilers for the earlier books.

Vengeance will be hers.

Allison Sekemoto once struggled with the question: human or monster? With the death of her love, Zeke, she has her answer.

Monster.

Allie will embrace her cold vampire side to hunt down and end Sarren, the psychopathic vampire who murdered Zeke. But the trail is bloody and long, and Sarren has left many surprises for Allie and her companions - her creator Kanin, and her blood brother, Jackal. The trail is leading straight to the one place they must protect at any cost - the last vampire-free zone on Earth, Eden. And Sarren has one final, brutal shock in store for Allie.

In a ruined world where no life is sacred and former allies can turn on you in one heartbeat, Allie will face her darkest days. And if she succeeds, her triumph will be short-lived in the face of surviving forever alone.

THE FINAL HUNT IS ON.

When I started reading this book, I couldn't actually remember exactly why I'd disliked the second book. I did remember the cinematic fight scenes from the first book, though, and the general premise if not all of the details. It was actually very easy to pick this book up even with a three year gap since reading book two; the author does a good job of reorienting the reader at the start. And the fight scenes are, again, cinematic.

As is to be expected from a book three of a trilogy, the plot was mostly centred on the Allie and friends completing their saving-the-world mission. The story opens with Allie not caring about anything else after the death of her boyfriend in the previous book. She is travelling with her sire and Master vampire Kanin (who taught her how to fight and is all about honour and being nice to humans), and the significantly less honourable Jackal, and there is a nice rapport between the three of them, even when Allie is in the depths of despair and anger.

Although I think the prose could have been tighter, I enjoyed this concluding volume of this trilogy. I certainly liked it more than the second book, and I'm glad to have finally finished the series. In general, I'd recommend it to fans of vampires, post-apocalyptic tales and YA. If the premise sounds interesting to you, give it a go. If you got through book two but haven't read book three yet, I do recommend doing so.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 214, Harlequin Teen
Series: Blood of Eden book 3 of 3
Format read: Paper *gasp*
Source: Borrowed from the library

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Some comics (from FCBD 2016)

Thanks to a lovely friend who picked them up for me, I got my hands on three completely new-to-me comic book issues on Free Comic Book Day. Since the idea was to get a feel for these stories/characters and decide whether I'm interested in reading more, I'm going to post some quick reviews of them. Because why wouldn't I?

First up was DC SuperHero Girls, a comic that takes the most prominent DC female superheroes and puts them into a school together, as teenagers. This one is definitely written with a younger audience in mind, but I still enjoyed it. The biggest highlight for me was the costumes — no boobs falling out, sensible footwear, and most of them have actual pants, including Wonder Woman! The bright colours and cheerful art style was also nice and pleasant to read. The story is pretty basic and straightforward (a symptom of being for a younger audience, I suppose), but was sufficient for me to enjoy the issue. Although I'm not quite in the right demographic, I am definitely interested in buying the trade if I come across it.

Next up was Spectrum, which turned out to be almost the complete opposite of DC SuperHero Girls. This is a spin-off comic from Con Man, the Kickstarter-funded TV show by Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion. In Con Man Tudyk and Fillion play actors who once stared in a cult classic SF TV show which got cancelled but still has a lot of fans, hence the two of them going to a lot of sci-fi conventions. Since in Con Man, which I have watched, it's strongly implied that they are making fun of their lives post-Firefly, I expected the Spectrum comic, which is set in the world of the fictional TV show, to be more like Firefly. It wasn't. It was kind of space opera-y, with lots of aliens and a magical girl (OK, that bit's like Firefly). They tried to cram a lot into this zeroth issue and I found it a little hard to follow or see the point of. Basically, would not recommend based on this FCBD issue.

Finally, I got Doctor Who: Four Doctors, in large part because my mum is a massive Doctor Who fan and sampling a comic seemed like a good way to see whether she would enjoy more Doctor Who comics. This one has four short Doctor Who stories in it, one each with the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Doctors (i.e. all the ones from New Who). We had Twelve and Osgood vs giant robot; Eleven and Alice, a companion not in the TV show, vs homicidal chainsaw man and the Doctor making a too-deep-for-the-length-of-the-story point; Ten and two non-TV companions vs TARDIS ghosts; Nine, Rose and Jack Harkness vs magically appearing monuments. The last story was definitely my favourite, with the right blend of interesting ideas and familiar characters. I didn't hate the other three stories, but did feel rather meh about them. I probably won't bother going out of my way to read more Doctor Who comics; the TV show is enough for me.

Friday, 13 May 2016

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker was this year's YA Aurealis Award-winning novel, which is the main reason I picked it up. It also helped that I happened to see it at the library, otherwise it probably would've remained on my "meaning to get around to reading" list for a while longer.

What if your identical twin sister was a murderer? Does that make you a monster too? A profound, intense, heartbreaking fantasy that tackles issues of fate versus free will, and whether you can ever truly know someone.

Caught in a dreamscape, mistaken for a killer ... will Alice find a way home?

Three years ago, Alice's identical twin sister took a gun to school and killed seven innocent kids; now Alice wears the same face as a monster. She's struggling with her identity, and with life in the small Australian town where everyone was touched by the tragedy. Just as Alice thinks things can't get much worse, she encounters her sister on a deserted highway. But all is not what it seems, and Alice soon discovers that she has stepped into a different reality, a dream world, where she's trapped with the nightmares of everyone in the community. Here Alice is forced to confront the true impact of everything that happened the day her twin sister took a gun to school ... and to reveal her own secret to the boy who hates her most.

In the Skin of a Monster was not quite the book I thought it would be. From the blurb (and the opening) we learn that Alice's twin sister took a gun to school, three years ago, and killed a bunch of kids. I thought the story would be about Alice coming to terms with the fact that she looks like her sister and that other people see her sister when they look at her. That stuff was in the book, but it was the backstory, not the main plot.

The plot was about Alice being transported to a world of dreams and nightmares, literally, where she encounters dreamt up versions of people she knows or knew in the real world and has to avoid being killed by various nightmare versions. The story is told in alternating chapters from Alice's point of view and Lux's, one of the people who's always lived in the dream/nightmare world. When the story first switched to Lux's perspective, I was a bit thrown because I hadn't been expecting it and because I didn't understand where it was going. As I read more, though, things fell into place and I realised what kind of story this really was.

Barker uses the nightmare/dream world to interesting effect, showing us — through the informative filter of Alice — all the different versions of the twin with the gun that people have been dreaming about (including, for example, the two movie versions who look nothing like her).

Alice's sections are told in second person, as if she's speaking to her twin while relating the events of the story. This, combined with how the other characters talk to Alice (and the fact that no one in the dream/nightmare world knows anyones real names), has the effect of never telling the reader the name of the twin and adding to the, well, unspeakable-ness of what she did.

I enjoyed reading In the Skin of the Monster, especially once I got a proper feel for what sort of book it is. I would classify it as horror — not thriller, which is sort of what the school shooting aspect initially suggested to me — but its not so horrific as to be unsuitable for its YA audience. Also, Barker does a surprisingly good job of taking an event we might associate as more of an USian occurrence and making it work as the background for a story with a very Australian setting. I would recommend this book to fans of YA fantasy and horror. It was not difficult to read but, as you can probably guess from the subject matter, it wasn't what I would call a cheerful read. That said, it also could have been much darker than it was. I can see why it won the Aurealis Award.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Allen & Unwin
Series: No
Format read: Paperback *gasp*
Source: Local library
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Friday, 6 May 2016

Soundless by Richelle Mead

Soundless by Richelle Mead is a standalone YA novel, set in a mountainous Chinese (fantasy) village. The main labour in the village is mining and the unique premise of the story/world building is that the entire village is deaf and has been for several generations.

For as long as Fei can remember, no one in her village has been able to hear. Rocky terrain and frequent avalanches make it impossible to leave the village, so Fei and her people are at the mercy of a zipline that carries food up the treacherous cliffs from Beiguo, a mysterious faraway kingdom.

When villagers begin to lose their sight, deliveries from the zipline shrink. Many go hungry. Fei and all the people she loves are plunged into crisis, with nothing to look forward to but darkness and starvation.

Until one night, Fei is awoken by a searing noise. Sound becomes her weapon.

She sets out to uncover what’s happened to her and to fight the dangers threatening her village. A handsome miner with a revolutionary spirit accompanies Fei on her quest, bringing with him new risks and the possibility of romance. They embark on a majestic journey from the peak of their jagged mountain village to the valley of Beiguo, where a startling truth will change their lives forever…

Fei lives in an isolated and oppressed village that is forced to mine and send valuable metals down the mountain (via a pulley system) in exchange for barely enough food to survive. Due to her skill as a painter, Fei doesn't have to work in the mines and instead gets to live a life of relative luxury. However, when her sister starts to lose her sight and an accident drives her star-crossed love interest to take action, Fei finds herself taking action too. A perilous climb down the cliff side of their mountain takes the two teens on a journey that shows them the truth about the outside world and their village's circumstances. Redressing the wrongs done to their village isn't straightforward, of course.

An important thing to know about the premise of Soundless is that Fei, the main character, magically gains hearing fairly early on. Although the rest of the village remains deaf and Fei continues to sign all the time (because magic hearing does not come with magic speech recognition), it's not a book about a deaf main character. (However, as my husband pointed out when I was telling him about it, some of Fei's experiences may be similar to those of people hearing for the first time after getting cochlear implants.)

In any case, I found this a more interesting and compelling read than I initially expected. I ended up reading it in about two sittings — it's not a long read — and enjoyed the reasonably straightforward plot. I admit I wasn't sure how much of a spec fic novel it was going to turn out to be since there are minimal fantasy elements other than at the very start and end, but the ones at the end are especially fantastical.

I would recommend this to fans of YA, especially those looking for a quick read and to whom the premise appeals. I wouldn't specifically recommend it for people looking for disability in their fiction. It doesn't do a terrible job in that respect... but on the other hand there is the whole magical cure aspect for the main character. Your mileage may vary.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Razorbill
Series: Nope!
Format read: ebook
Source: Borrowed from the library (via BorrowBox)

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Fall of the Dagger by Glenda Larke

The Fall of the Dagger by Glenda Larke is the final book in the Forsaken Lands trilogy. I have previously read and reviewed the first two books, The Lascar's Dagger and The Dagger's Path. I should warn you, the very blurb for The Fall of the Dagger contains spoilers for the earlier two books, as will my review.

A king corrupted, a sorcerer on the throne, a land in peril…

Excommunicated cleric Saker returns from exile in the Spice Islands to find his homeland in chaos.

A dark sorcerer controls the ear of the King, turning him against his own son and heir, while a corrupted army gathers in the shadows.

With the illusionist Sorrel and islander Ardhi, armed with magic from Ardhi’s homeland, Saker now must stand between his city and the corruption that threatens to cripple it, before it is too late . . .

I have always enjoyed Glenda Larke's work and The Forsaken Lands trilogy has been no exception. I definitely see myself rereading it at some point, especially since I expect the trilogy will be even more enjoyable if read in quick succession, rather than with a year-long gap in between books.

Nevertheless, picking up The Fall of the Dagger a year after the previous instalment was not difficult to get back into. The three main characters, Saker, Sorrel and Ardhi, return to the Va-cherished hemisphere with some idea of how to defeat the evil sorcery that has taken over the land. Saving the world, however, is never easy and the three of them can't do it alone.

I quite liked that it actually took a lot of people working together to win the day, and not just the chosen three, so to speak. Also, I enjoyed the post-climax action. Usually, the world is saved and that's the end of it, but Larke bothered to show that it's not quite that clean and easy to resolve everything when the bad stuff has been building up for several years. And I think that's as much as I can say without spoilers, really.

I really enjoyed this series and highly recommend it to all fans of BFF (big fat fantasy) books, especially anyone looking for worlds beyond the standard medieval Europe setting. This is also not the kind of series where you can pick up the later books without having read the earlier books, so I definitely recommend starting with the multi-award-winning The Lascar's Dagger if you are new to this series. If you've already read the earlier books, why wouldn't you pick up this one? Go on— don't you want to see how it all ends?

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2016, Orbit
Series: Book 3 of 3 of The Forsaken Lands trilogy
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Google Play
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho is a novella about a Chinese-Malaysian writer set in 1920s London (mostly).

For writer Jade Yeo, the Roaring Twenties are coming in with more of a purr — until she pillories London's best-known author in a scathing review. Sebastian Hardie is tall, dark and handsome, and more intrigued than annoyed. But if Jade succumbs to temptation, she risks losing her hard-won freedom — and her best chance for love.

This novella was another delightful read from Zen Cho. It's written as diary entires, for the most part, from Jade, who is living in London, far from most of her family. The only family she has nearby is an intolerable rich aunt who Jade would rather avoid. Jade is making a living in London by writing articles for magazines and journals. The story really begins when she writes a scathing review of a well-known author's book.

As far as problems (and perils) go, Jade's seem to be mostly born out of her desire for adventure and new experiences. And mostly they are more inconvenient than insurmountable. Either way, Jade's attitude towards them and her turn of phrase make this a delightful read. I have seen Zen Cho's writing compared to Gail Carriger's and, while it is is of course not quite the same, I agree that Cho's work would appeal to fans of Carriger's.

I enjoyed The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo a lot. In fact, shortly after finishing it, I started listening to Cho's novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, and bought her short story collection, Spirits Abroad. That's how much I want to read as much of her stuff as I can. I highly recommend Cho's work to all fans of historical fantasy. In the specific case of The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, I recommend the novella to fans of historical fiction, particularly set in the 1920s. I'm not sure I'd call this a capital-R-romance, but it does have a romantic storyline and I think it would appeal to readers who also enjoy that genre. It's not spec fic — which is what I usually read — but I didn't even notice until I was tagging it after I'd finished. Make of that what you will.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, self-published
Series: Not yet
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho

The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho is a novella set in the afterlife. Or a novelette, actually, now that I've checked the author's website. Or perhaps, looking at the word count, a short novella. Either way, a not-especially-long ebook.

A tale of first love, bad theology and robot reincarnation in the Chinese afterlife.

In the tenth court of hell, spirits wealthy enough to bribe the bureaucrats of the underworld can avoid both the torments of hell and the irreversible change of reincarnation.

It's a comfortable undeath … even for Siew Tsin. She didn't choose to be married to the richest man in hell, but she's reconciled. Until her husband brings home a new bride.

Yonghua is an artificial woman crafted from terracotta. What she is may change hell for good. Who she is will transform Siew Tsin. And as they grow closer, the mystery of Yonghua's creation will draw Siew Tsin into a conspiracy where the stakes are eternal life – or a very final death. 

I actually started reading The Terracotta Bride on a whim. Of course I had been meaning to read it since I bought it, but when I found myself at a bit of a loose end as to what to read, I opened it up because it happened to appear on my bookshelf screen in iBooks. This was not a turn of events that I in any way regret. The Terracotta Bride is a delightful story that hooked me quickly. Even though it's not exactly a cheerful story, it has made me quite keen to read more of Cho's work, possibly starting with Sorcerer to the Crown, which is waiting in my audio TBR.

Siew Tsin died when she was young and did not have many skills for navigating the afterlife successfully. After her great-uncle sold her as a bride, she was more or less stuck in her husband's household. But things started to change when her husband brought home the titular terracotta bride as his third wife. I'm not sure that I can say much more without spoilers, but suffice to note that the story does not progress with any tired clichés of female rivalry.

I really enjoyed The Terracotta Bride and I am definitely interested in reading more of Cho's work because of it. I highly recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in Chinese mythology (though I should note that the main character is Malay) and afterlife fantasy generally. I will definitely be reading more of Cho's work.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2016, self-published
Series: No? Not really sure.
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased (on SmashWords, I think) close to launch (partly motivated by the introductory discount...)