Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Tsana's April Status

I had a few unusual things going on this past month. The first would be that I wrote a blog post celebrating Women's History Month (which was March) over on Gillian Polack's blog about Emmy Noether. She was a mathematician whose theories are very important to quantum physics. If you're interested, you can check out the whole list of Women's History Month posts Gillian ran. You can also check out my most recent round-up of speculative fiction by Australian women over on the Australian Women Writers Challenge blog.

On this blog, I ran two interviews. One with Christian Schoon (author of Zenn Scarlett and Under Nameless Stars), which also includes an extract of Under Nameless Stars. And one with Glenda Larke (author of The Lascar's Dagger and lots of other lovely books). Go check them out, especially if you need convincing to read The Lascar's Dagger; it's one of my favourite books of the year.

What have I read?



What am I currently reading?


I planned to pick up Dead Americans and Other Stories by Ben Peek to read a few stories to break up novels... but I ended up being distracted by the first issue of Dimension6, new spec fic magazine being produced by Aussie press Coeur de Lion Publishing and available for free. You can download a copy here. It's only got three stories, but I'm not quite down with it yet. And then I'll get onto Dead Americans.

Novel-wise, I've almost finished reading Blade of the Old Empire by Anna Kashina, the first of a new fantasy series from Angry Robot. I'm enjoying it more than I expected to, so that's always nice. Expect to see a review very soon. After that, I'm not sure what I'll read. At the moment it's a toss up between Emilie and the Sky World (sequel to Emilie and the Hollow World) and Assured Destruction (see below).

New Booksies:

  • Crudrat by Gail Carriger — This is from a Kickstarter to make an audiobook of Gail Carriger's first SF book. So far I've only got the ebook because the audiobook is still in production (and I won't mention it next month by when, hopefully, I'll have the audio version) but I plan to enjoy it in audiobook form. Really excited to see what this will be like. I've loved Carriger's humorous steampunk books but I'm not really sure what to expect from this.
  • The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke — awesome. First in her new series. Already reviewed.
  • The Grinding House by Kaaron Warren — novella, was on sale, like Kaaron Warren.
  • Essence by Lisa Ann O'Kane — YA from Strange Chemistry. Review copy.
  • Deadly Curiosities by Gail Z Martin — another review copy. I came across a few "if you like <author I like> you should read Gail Z Martin" in a row, so when Solaris offered me a chance to review it, it seemed like a good idea.
  • Assured Destruction (The Complete Series) by Michael F Stewart — caught my eye on NetGalley. YA with tech wiz girl and identity theft shenanigans. Or something like that. Not technically SF, but the kind of book that seems close enough for me.
  • Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb — OMG I can't believe I actually got a review copy of this. I absolutely loved the original Assassin books. They were among the first serious/BFF fantasy books I read as a teen. I didn't get into the Shaman's Crossing series and didn't bother with the recent dragon series because that part of the Liveship books didn't grab me... but now Fitz is back for a third series! Yay!





Saturday, 12 April 2014

The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare by M G Buehrlen

The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare by M G Buehrlen is the first book of hers I've read and I'm pretty sure it's her début.
For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.

But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.

It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.

Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.

And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.
I have mixed feelings about this one. The very start immediately got me interested with Alex playing a prank on one of her teachers. But she does whinge a lot, especially at the start, about how she has these weird flashbacks (which, to the reader, are obviously the point of the story) and thus it's better if she has no friends. I mean, I liked Alex overall, but there were times when she thought she was doing something special (by making herself an outcast) when really she was just being a teenager.

Then she meets Porter, who plays the role of adult mentor. Of course, he drags out his explanation of WTF has been going on as long as possible and manipulates her into working for him without fully understanding what she's actually doing. It's not all bad, but he is definitely on the morally ambiguous side of things. The revelations we get towards the end are partly not that surprising, once the climax begins, and partly satisfying. A mixed bag. Oh, I will add that I found some of the earlier "here is what's going on" explanations from Porter a little too info-dumpy for my liking.

Really, I found the first half of the book a little slow. I didn't quite share Alex's connection with 1920s Chicago, and it took a while before we learnt what and why was happening. And then once it was explained, the worldbuilding — or more specifically, the way Alex's (and others') abilities worked. Nothing major, but a few little "hang on, what about..." moments which I won't go into detail on because spoilers. They were ultimately minor enough to be overlooked, though.

I quite liked Jensen, Alex's only, albeit not straightforward, friend in the present. Her family were also all great characters. The only disappointment was that other than her family (which included her parents, two grandparents and two sisters), there were no female characters that she was on good terms with. All the non-familial "nice" characters were male. And at one point, she even says (out loud, to Jensen) that all other girls are vapid. Which is so not cool.

I'm not sure whether I'll read the sequel, The Untimely Deaths of Alex Wayfare. For much of the book I was thinking probably not, but then the climax piqued my interest and there were sufficient threads left hanging to keep me interested. And there are reveals left to come that I want to know if I've guessed correctly about. So I'll probably decide when it comes out. For now, I'm pencilling it in as a maybe.

I recommend The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare to YA fans looking for something a bit different. It's not perfect, and it has slow bits, but it wasn't bad. I think other people will enjoy some aspects, like the worldbuilding, more than I did.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2014, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes. Book 1 of (I think) 2, Alex Wayfare series
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam is the latest instalment of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. While, like all the Discworld books, it is a self-contained story, I think long-time Discworld fans will get more out of it than newcomers to the series. It builds most on the goblin plot line in Snuff and — as will be obvious from the blurb — the earlier Moist von Lipwig stories, Going Postal and Making Money. None of them are required reading, especially if you're already familiar with Discworld, but I think it would help. Also, this review contains some spoilers of varying degrees for the aforementioned books and minor spoilers for some of the Watch books.
To the consternation of the patrician, Lord Vetinari, a new invention has arrived in Ankh-Morpork - a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all the elements: earth, air, fire and water. This being Ankh-Morpork, it's soon drawing astonished crowds, some of whom caught the zeitgeist early and arrive armed with notepads and very sensible rainwear.

Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work - as master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank his input is, of course, vital... but largely dependent on words, which are fortunately not very heavy and don't always need greasing. However, he does enjoy being alive, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse...

Steam is rising over Discworld, driven by Mister Simnel, the man wi' t'flat cap and sliding rule who has an interesting arrangement with the sine and cosine. Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs and some very angry dwarfs if he's going to stop it all going off the rails...
To me, what the most recent Discworld books have really been about, especially the Moist books, is progress sweeping through Ankh-Morpork. Starting from Going Postal, which was about reviving the postal service, the clacks (semaphore communication) system made a serious appearance and brought fast communication to the Disc. Although the previous Moist books have been ostensibly about Vetinari forcing Moist to reform and run various useful services (post, bank, mint and his wife runs the clacks), Raising Steam has Vetinari throwing Moist in on the ground floor of the budding rail system.

It seems obvious on the surface that the fast progress made in these books is mirroring, to an extent, the rapidity of progress in the real world. I don't know if we'll get it, but the next logical step might be a full-blown industrial revolution with Vetinari steering the ship. Progress, as they say, marches on. The evolution of Ankh-Morpork (and the Disc) is even more obvious if you look at the Watch books alongside the Moist books. The general arc of the Watch books is Vetinari getting Vimes to clean up first himself and then the Watch, turning it into a well-run machine. We see some of the after-effects of Vimes' leadership in Raising Steam when watchmen in faraway places are noted as being trained in Ankh-Morpork. Especially if we look at the past depicted in Night Watch, it is evident that Ankh-Morpork is becoming more modern and safer (for a given definition of "safe"). I hope we do get to see a few more books in this vein. Progress in the Disc is not remotely identical to Roundworld's history, despite various bits in one being analogous to bits in the other. I want to see where Pratchett takes it.

Speaking of comparisons with other Discworld novels, Raising Steam also put me in mind of Moving Pictures. Both are about new technologies being developed — and are about the technology as much as the people — and both are arguably before their times. However, where everything goes horribly wrong in Moving Pictures, it works out well in Raising Steam. I am left wondering whether it was Vetinari's oversight that made the railway a success or whether it was the fact that the railway is built on physics and careful measurements whereas Holy Wood had a much greater reliance on more esoteric elements. (And I feel like a rift in the spacetime continuum was involved, but it's been years since I read it, so I'm not sure.)

Key characters in Raising Steam other than those I've already mentioned are Simnel, the engineer who invented the steam engine train, Harry King and his wife Effie who have been previously featured in their role of running the nightsoil empire (well, mostly Harry has appeared in earlier books), and Of The Twilight The Darkness, a goblin who might have appeared in Snuff but I can't remember. Surprisingly, Drumknott, Vetinari's secretary, played a larger role than he has previously. Also, many old favourites made appearances, especially Vimes, Angua, Detritus and Cheery Littlebottom.

The Low King of the Dwarfs, who we most recently saw in Thud! (I think) is an important minor character as part of the plotline concerning grags fighting against modernity and Ankh-Morporkisation. On the one hand, the grags and their recruits struck me as having strong parallels with religious terrorists, on the other hand, the more interesting dwarf subplot was the continuing discussion of dwarfish gender. For part of the time while I was reading I found myself wishing there was a more in-depth discussion of dwarfish gender, but then I don't think that would have been very Pratchetty. (There was also a period of confusion when, in tiredness, I misread a pronoun and thought someone was gay for a while when they really weren't, but that wasn't the book's fault.)

The dwarfish expression of femininity seems to be (still) mostly confined to chain mail skirts and makeup which I don't really get (since I am female and wear neither skirts nor makeup very often). On the other hand, there was more discussion about why a dwarf's gender is secret until they want to reveal it. While my first thought was that surely genderless dwarfs meant that there was a reasonable amount of equality for them, what I didn't consider until it was pointed out in this book is that by marking all dwarfs as male by default, they were culturally erasing women, not equalising them. It was a case forcing women to pretend not to be, whether they wanted to or not. It's a far cry from Angua introducing Cheery to lipstick and heels and it might not look like feminist progress on the surface, but in this context, turns out it is. Aside from one minor twist which I picked up on before it was revealed (albeit only because I was flicking back through the book in my pronoun confusion), I didn't quite see the nuances of the dwarf-gender discussion coming. It made for a more satisfying ending than I had been expecting on that front.

Obviously, if you are a fan of Pratchett, you should definitely read Raising Steam, especially if you are otherwise up to date. If you haven't read Pratchett before: goodness, why not? But this probably isn't the book to start with. There are a lot of places to start, though, and most of them don't include the very first book. I recommend googling around. The Discworld series has evolved in style since Pratchett started writing it in the 80s (as you'd want to hope it had) so the very early books and the middle period books aren't very similar to the latter period books. A good and particularly standalone example of a latter period book would probably be Monstrous Regiment and a good place to start if you want a lead-in to Raising Steam would be Going Postal.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Doubleday
Series: Discworld, apparently book 40 (It seems like only a couple of years ago book 30 came out, but I'm pretty sure that was when they weren't counting the YA Discworld books as "proper" Discworld books. Progress marches on.)
Format read: Hardcover, oh my!
Source: A RL shop! I think it was a Dymocks.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Interview with Glenda Larke

Today I have an interview with the inimitable Glenda Larke, author of The Lascar's Dagger which I recently reviewed. It's an excellent read (I gave it five stars) and if my review didn't convince you to read it, hopefully this interview will.

In the world (well, the Va-cherished hemisphere of the world) that you've created in The Lascar's Dagger, it struck me that there's more gender equality in the clergy than the nobility. This is somewhat at odds with the real world. Can you tell us a bit about that choice?

Religion and society don’t always match up very well, even after centuries of interaction and parallel development. Looking at our modern world, the mismatch is sometimes striking. For example, in both the West and East, you often find a large segment of society is more progressive and liberal than the more religious communities and their leadership. Religious communities can be far more adamantly anti-gay, anti-contraception, anti-female than the more secular segments of society, possibly because  religions often have a vested interest in maintaining the staus quo. If they allow change, then it hints that their original God-inspired basis had errors, i.e. God was wrong.

I decided to make the religious institution more inclusive, and more progressive, especially when it came to gender equality, from the beginning. In other words, it is the culture that should change to catch up (I like being contrary!) It was an easy reversal to make, because I think that Va-Faith with their basis very strongly rooted in the natural world rather than in a single patriarchal type god had a better chance of being an equal-opportunity employer.

Where did the idea for the character of Saker, clergy spy, come from? It's not a very common combination.

I don’t know why it’s not more common! Clergy in centuries past were often heavily involved in politics. I can only imagine that Cardinal Richelieu of France, for example, who was also the French king’s principle minister and immersed in French politics and wars, must have had a widespread network of spies. In all probability, many might have been clergy.

Historically, many religions — in the interests of keeping the homogeneity of the beliefs in their flock — spied unmercifully on their own, killing, maiming, torturing and burning those who were in any way rebellious or nonconformist. The State religion of various cutures in our history has also often been defended by their own armies. When you go to war, having spies is part of the deal.

The religion of Va and oak and water shrines is an interesting mix of monotheism and nature-worship. How did that come together for you?

Going from a nature-based faith to a monotheistic one is a common progression, I just tweaked it a bit. Instead of just having bits of old beliefs (kneeling before statues, winter solstice celebrations, etc) incorporated into the new faith, I kept the dominance of the nature-base. Va (God) became a unifying force, bringing the water-based and the tree-based elements together as they had once been anyway, but the idea of Va never really captured the hearts and minds of the rural folk. Administratively, Va worship works because the Va-faith leadership has always stressed tolerance. However, as always, there are those who would change everything if they could…

After reading The Lascar's Dagger, I am very excited to get my hands on books two and three. Do you have release dates and titles for those yet?

Book 2 is slated for January 2015.  Book 3 is not written yet, but should be published a year later.

I take it we'll be seeing more of the Spice Islands in subsequent books. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

The Spice Islands and the Chenderawasi Archipelago of my story are based on the Spice Islands in our own world. They were called that by Europeans, not Asians, and are to be found in eastern Indonesia, perhaps better known to us today as the Moluccas (or Maluku in Indonesian). They were the place to go to obtain nutmeg, mace and cloves and other spices. Subsequently they suffered because of the value of those spices, even to having their populations decimated or forced into economic slavery to feed the greed of European traders.

The Chenderawasi Islands of my trilogy are visually a tropical paradise, but they are in the same precarious position as the Moluccas were in the 18th century. The difference is that the people have magic…

Four of the main characters of The Lascar’s Dagger visit Chenderawasi in Book 2. And there are pirates and a huge reveal about the nature of Chenderawasi magic...

Thanks, Glenda, for taking the time to answer my questions!

Thank you!

~

You can find out more about Glenda on her website or her blog (which often has lovely nature photographs), or by following her on Twitter. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Aurealis Award winners announced!

The Aurealis Awards ceremony was held this evening (5/4) in Canberra. Thanks to some savvy live-tweeting from people at the ceremony (especially Alan Baxter), I was able to follow along with the ceremony from far, far away. Isn't the internet great? And it means I can post the winners while the attendees are still drinking the night away ;-)

There were three ties among the winners this year, which just goes to show how high the quality of the work was. And particular congratulations to Allyse Near, who took home not one but two awards: Best YA Novel and Best Horror Novel for Fairytales for Wilde Girls. (Which was one of my favourite books from last year, I totally called it.)

EDIT: You can also look over the tweets as they happened thanks to Sean's Storify thingy.

EDIT 2: And the official announcement is here.

The winners are bolded below and links to go to my reviews. Congratulations to all the winners and all the finalists!



BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK
Kingdom of the Lost, book 2: Cloud Road by Isobelle Carmody (Penguin Group Australia)
Refuge by Jackie French (Harper Collins)
Song for a scarlet runner by Julie Hunt (Allen & Unwin)
The four seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray (Allen & Unwin)
Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (Hachette Australia)
Ice Breaker: The Hidden 1 by Lian Tanner (Allen & Unwin)

BEST ILLUSTRATED BOOK OR GRAPHIC NOVEL
Savage Bitch by Steve Carter and Antoinette Rydyr (Scar Studios)
Mr Unpronounceable Adventures by Tim Molloy (Milk Shadow Books)
Burger Force by Jackie Ryan (self-published)
Peaceful Tomorrows Volume Two by Shane W Smith (Zetabella Publishing)
The Deep Vol. 2: The Vanishing Island by Tom Taylor and James Brouwer (Gestalt Publishing)

BEST YOUNG ADULT NOVEL
The Big Dry by Tony Davies (Harper Collins)
Hunting by Andrea Host (self-published)
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner (Allen & Unwin)
Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near (Random House Australia)

The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn (University of Queensland Press)


BEST YOUNG ADULT SHORT FICTION
“Mah Song” by Joanne Anderton (The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories, FableCroft Publishing)
“By Bone-light” by Juliet Marillier (Prickle Moon, Ticonderoga Publications)
“Morning Star” by D.K. Mok (One Small Step, an anthology of discoveries, FableCroft Publishing)
“The Year of Ancient Ghosts” by Kim Wilkins (The Year of Ancient Ghosts, Ticonderoga Publications)


BEST COLLECTION
The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton (FableCroft Publishing)
Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer (Twelfth Planet Press)
Caution: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott (Twelfth Planet Press)
The Bride Price by Cat Sparks (Ticonderoga Publications)
The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins (Ticonderoga Publications)

BEST ANTHOLOGY
The Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2012 by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene (Eds), (Ticonderoga Publications)
One Small Step, An Anthology Of Discoveries by Tehani Wessely (Ed) (FableCroft Publishing)

Dreaming Of Djinn by Liz Grzyb (Ed) (Ticonderoga Publications)
The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year: Volume Seven by Jonathan Strahan (Ed) (Night Shade Books)
Focus 2012: Highlights Of Australian Short Fiction by Tehani Wessely (Ed) (FableCroft Publishing)

BEST HORROR SHORT FICTION
“Fencelines” by Joanne Anderton (The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories, FableCroft Publishing)
“The Sleepover” by Terry Dowling (Exotic Gothic 5, PS Publishing)
“The Home for Broken Dolls” by Kirstyn McDermott (Caution: Contains Small Parts, Twelfth Planet Press)
“The Human Moth” by Kaaron Warren (The Grimscribe’s Puppets, Miskatonic Press)
“The Year of Ancient Ghosts” by Kim Wilkins (The Year of Ancient Ghosts, Ticonderoga Publications)

BEST HORROR NOVEL
The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot Books)
The First Bird by Greig Beck (Momentum)
Path of Night by Dirk Flinthart (FableCroft Publishing)
Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near (Random House Australia)

BEST FANTASY SHORT FICTION
“The Last Stormdancer” by Jay Kristoff (Thomas Dunne Books)
“The Touch of the Taniwha” by Tracie McBride (Fish, Dagan Books)
“Cold, Cold War” by Ian McHugh (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Scott H Andrews)
“Short Circuit” by Kirstie Olley (Oomph: a little super goes a long way, Crossed Genres)
“The Year of Ancient Ghosts” by Kim Wilkins (The Year of Ancient Ghosts, Ticonderoga Publications)

BEST FANTASY NOVEL
Lexicon by Max Barry (Hachette Australia)
A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan (self-published)
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner (Allen & Unwin)
Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix (Jill Grinberg Literary Management)
Ink Black Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts (FableCroft Publishing)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION SHORT FICTION
“The Last Tiger” by Joanne Anderton (Daily Science Fiction)
“Mah Song” by Joanne Anderton (The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories, FableCroft Publishing)
“Seven Days in Paris” by Thoraiya Dyer (Asymmetry, Twelfth Planet Press)
“Version 4.3.0.1” by Lucy Stone (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #57)
“Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren (The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium Press)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
Lexicon by Max Barry (Hachette)
Trucksong by Andrew Macrae (Twelfth Planet Press)
A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson (Transit Lounge)
True Path by Graham Storrs (Momentum)
Rupetta by Nike Sulway (Tartarus Press)

And the final two not-quite Aurealis Awards....

Peter McNamara Convenors' Award For Excellence
Jonathan Strahan

Kris Hembury Encouragement Award
Tristan Savage

Monday, 31 March 2014

Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Adaptation by Malinda Lo is the first book in the author's YA science fiction series. I have previously reviewed Ash, which was a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Adaptation is set in the almost-present in the US.
Flocks of birds are hurling themselves at aeroplanes across America. Thousands of people die. Millions are stranded. Everyone knows the world will never be the same.

On Reese's long drive home, along a stretch of empty highway at night, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won't tell them what happened.

For Reese, though, this is just the start. She can't remember anything from the time between her accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: she's different now. Torn between longtime crush David and new girl Amber, the real question is: who can she trust?
I had mixed feelings about this book. Some of the time it was a mix of irritation and meh, but ultimately I enjoyed the read, I just didn't love it. I'll say up front that I do intend to read the sequel when it becomes accessible.

The first thing that irritated me was the airport scene at the start. After — as the blurb says — flocks of birds hurl themselves into aeroplanes, all the flights in the US are grounded and no one in the airport the main characters are stuck at behaves like sensible travellers would in that situation. It wasn't particularly relevant to the plot but it annoyed me. Especially when Reese's friend tells her they're worried airports are going to run out of food because they can't fly more in. WTF? She's at Phoenix Airport, a reasonable-sized city. Also, food is generally shipped to airports in trucks, especially when they're in cities (I mean, maybe super-remote ones, OK, but that is not the case here). Anyway, as I said, it wasn't relevant to the plot, but it pissed me off, not least because of the amount of time I've spent in airports of late.

Most of the book leaves the the science fictional aspect on the back-burner and focuses on Reese recovering from the car accident and Reece's budding relationship with Amber. I found this part of the book enjoyable but a little bland, apart from the hints of weird stuff having happened post-accident. The action picks up again as Reece and friends start investigating why her and David's accident treatment is so top secret.

There was a particular trope used during the climax — I won't say what because spoilers, but it wasn't a YA-specific trope — which I am sick of seeing and which almost pushed the book down half a star. But Lo subverts it quite satisfyingly, which salvaged the ending nicely.

There wasn't a love triangle in this book — although Reece had two love interests — and I liked the very accepting way everyone treated Reece's relationship with Amber. It was nice to see a homosexual relationship not being treated as a big deal, which I think is exactly what Lo was going for. I have to say, though, I felt ambivalent about Amber as a character.

Ultimately, it was a pleasant read, though not a remarkable one. I liked it, but I did love it. I recommend it to YA fans, especially those looking for a bisexual main character, which doesn't come up in many books (I can only think of one other series off the top of my head). I hope the science fiction element is stronger in the sequel, as that was the aspect I found most interesting.

4 / 5 stars

First published: April 2014, Hodder Children's Books in the UK/ANZ and 2012, Little, Brown Books in the US
Series: Yes. Adaptation series, book one of two so far.
Format read: eARC of UK/ANZ version (mind you, it retains US spelling, of course, apart from the blurb)
Source: (ANZ) publisher via NetGalley

Friday, 28 March 2014

Interview with Christian Schoon (+ extract + giveaway)


Today I have an interview with Christian Schoon, author of Zenn Scarlett and the newly-released Under Nameless Stars. As part of the blog tour organised by Strange Chemistry (the publisher, aka the YA imprint of Angry Robot), I also have an extract of Under Nameless Stars to share and you can enter to win copies of the books (ebook or physical, whichever is your preference, open worldwide) and a Name Your Own Star Gift Package. Interview is first, and scroll down for the extract and the competition.

Enjoy!

Interview


Zenn Scarlett is set on Mars, while for Under Nameless Stars Zenn spends most of her time in space. Why Mars and was it always your intention to split the story into two books with very distinct settings?

First off, thanks for letting me drop in and hang around here on the blog. A little daunting, of course. You: Spacer Guild-certified astrophysicist. Me: author pretending to know something about space/ exoplanets/Alcubierre quantum bubbles as generated by a living biological system. But I’m hoping you’ll be gentle… So, the original book was a long, single arc. I wrote it without spending any time worrying about word count (I suspected I’d need to address the length issue eventually, but I let the initial manuscript be as long as it wanted to be.)

When it came time to put the beast onto the market, it was clear that it needed to be broken into two books. The logical dotted line to cut along in order to separate the two novels, as you’ve noted, wasn’t hard to spot: Mars… Not Mars. Why Mars? It’s had its ruddy finger tapping me on the shoulder ever since reading Edgar Rice Burroughs in grade school. Also, I’d always loved an old, under-appreciated classic sci-fi flick called Robinson Crusoe on Mars, directed by Byron Haskin (who also directed Disney’s original Treasure Island, a book that worked its way into Under Nameless Stars in the character of my chimpish Loepith, Charlie; he has more than a bit of the shipwrecked Ben Gunn about him. Thanks, Mr. Stevenson.) And, many of the alien life forms being treated at the Ciscan Cloister exovet clinic on Mars are big. Really big. Too big to get around in Earther gravity. The lower gravity on Mars gave a little added plot-motive to have such a facility located there (plus, a number of the big critters are aquatic, which also helps).

Zenn is a novice exoveterinarian, a profession that I don't think I've read about before. Where did the inspiration for this come from?

I hadn’t run into any other exovets in sci fi either, though there were a few exobiologists. As for Zenn, after leaving LA where I’d written film studio ad copy and scripts for teen/tween TV shows, my wife and I moved to the Midwest (where I had other family members), bought a farm, and started hosting various animals in various barns, sheds and pastures. Ended up volunteering with equine and wildlife rescue groups. Have had everything from mountain lions and black bears to draft horses and ferrets on the farm and, in connection with that activity, have met and gotten to know a number of small and large-animal veterinarians. One of these, our personal vet, impressed me with her utter fearlessness working with exotics like 17-foot Burmese pythons, cobras, rattlesnakes and water moccasins (her husband’s a herpetologist). Mix in my life-long fascination with space travel, evolution, exobiology and sci fi adventure tales, and, as if by magic: a 17-year-old novice exoveterinarian studying at a science-based cloister on a future, borderline-dystopian Mars.

Zenn deals with all sorts of unusual alien-animals — and aliens! — in the series. How much biological research did you have to do to be able to write about them?

Actually, I’m glad to say that the above mentioned interaction with animals and their caretakers/vets supplied me with a working knowledge of the basic biology needed in writing the books. That and a stint as a writer for a med school paper during college years. Plus, I’ve just always been interested in biology, wild animals, anthropology and evolution and have read a gazillion books on these and related topics. And, finally, I just fill in the gaps by making up the stuff I don’t already know and try to make it all sound credible.  Take an alien like the Cepheian ambassador. She’s basically a sort of crustacean suspended beneath a shell-like envelope full of methane and other nasty smelling, internally generated, lighter-than-air gases. Because Cepheians inhabit the sparsely populated upper atmosphere of a gas giant planet, females of her species rarely encounter a male member of the species. So, her male “consorts” are permanently attached to her and float in small, fluid-filled translucent globes girdling her body. Totally outlandish? Yeah, but there are abyssal fish here on Earth that have evolved exactly this solution to the problem of finding a mate in the vast and mostly empty undersea realm they inhabit. So, while the aliens and alien animals in both books are often bizarre, I generally try to somehow blend the out-there sci fi/speculative elements with something familiar to give my Earther readers some solid footing to stand on.

Are we going to see any more stories set in this world? What are you currently working on / what can we expect to see from you next?

I’ve roughed out the outline of Zenn’s next adventure. It involves the world where the Kirans have built their palaces and villages on the backs of humongous drifting sunkillers. But that book is having a cage fight right now with a few other projects I’ve got in the works, all involving sci fi worlds or Earth-bound monsters.

Finally, you have two very awesome covers for these books. Is there a story behind them? Did you get to have any input?

The cover art for both books got a lot of love from readers. I’d like to say they were both my idea, but… nope. As a debut author, I had very little input. I made some suggestions for the first book. These were ignored. And that turned out for the best. For Under Nameless Stars, I made suggestions based on the image for book one, and one of those suggestions was accepted, but since it grew out of the first cover, I can’t claim it as mine. I’m just glad the art-elves at Strange Chemistry are as talented as they are.

Thank-you for taking the time to answer my questions!

It was great to have a chance to share some author/book/science fictional stuff with your readers. Zenn very much appreciates. Cheers!


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For a chance to win a copy (ebook or physical – your choice!) of both Zenn Scarlett and Under Nameless Stars PLUS a Name Your Own Star Gift Package*, answer the following question:

15. Dr. Mai Scarlett’s lab tech assistant’s name was
  1. Vremya
  2. Sophie
  3. Svetlana
  4. Cher

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* As an astrophysicist I have to include the disclaimer that naming your own star gives you an entry in a database (and a certificate and other stuff) and will not affect any official IAU (International Astronomical Union) designations. Here's some more info from the gift pack given away in a competition for the first Zenn Scarlett book.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke

The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke is the author's most recent release, and the start of a new trilogy. Glenda Larke has long been on my auto-buy list, so it comes as no surprise that this book was excellent. The blurb is short and sweet but only gives a small hint of what's inside. (Oh, and the handle and guard of the knife on the cover are totally not as described in the book.)
A theft in a faraway land — with repercussions that reach around the world...
The world thinks of Saker Rampion as a priest, a gentle man preaching peace. The truth is, he's a spy for the head of his faith, posted in the court of King Edwayn.

It's a time of fear — as a mysterious and monstrous disease sweeps the country — but also opportunity — lucrative trade is opening up overseas, and what's grown on the Spice Islands is rumored to cure the demonic plague.

However when the king uses his own daughter as a pawn in trade deals, Saker cannot help but get involved. And for his trouble, he may just end up excommunicated, or even dead...
I enjoyed The Lascar's Dagger a lot. It reminded me that, proportionally, I don't read as many complex BFF (big fat fantasy) books as I used to. (This is partially because since becoming a book blogger the increase in my book consumption has been in other genres and partially because I've already read the backlists of the authors I like who write that type of book. Now it's a matter of waiting for them to write more books.) And that I missed them.

The main character is Saker, a clergy spy and not a lascar, which I was expecting. The title is well chosen though, since the lascar's dagger is, in fact, on the page more frequently than the lascar. I was expecting more of this book to be set in the Spice Islands but I think that's coming in the sequel. Most of The Lascar's Dagger was set in the two more "Western" countries. That said, the title is well chosen since the somewhat magic dagger is quite vital as a driver of the plot. And although it wasn't entirely apparent, at first, how all the characters' paths were going to cross, it all came together quite nicely.

The Lascar's Dagger subverts many tropes and expectations. The most obvious one is that the clergy — well, the (western) religious order generally — has more gender equality than general society, especially the nobility. Men and women can both go study at university and the head of the religious order, the Pontifect, is female. That last fact isn't revealed until chapter four, when we meet her in person, despite Saker thinking about "the Pontifect" earlier. I admit I was quite pleased when I found out. It was also nicely juxtaposed later when an unpalatable character said something about women being inferior (some people laughed, some probably agreed).

The most awesome character, in my opinion, was Sorrel. I was delighted when her fate became entwined with Princess Mathilda's and I am very much looking forward to following her story in the second book. Mathilda was also a very interesting character. She reminded me of Marla from the Hythrun Chronicles by Jennifer Fallon, in that both the characters are smart, young noble women forced into marriage at a young age and powerless to control their own lives. Unlikely Marla, however, Mathilda doesn't have a wily adviser helping her out and her plans do not always work out how she wants them to. Where stories about intelligent and scheming girls (and boys) are fun to read, what Larke has created here is more realistic and just as enjoyable (albeit occasionally frustrating). I can imagine people not warming to Mathilda, especially since some of her actions are questionable, but I thought she was a great character.

Larke has written an excellent book that I highly recommend to all fantasy fans, especially those who like their fantasy serious, long, and with complex characters and motivations. I am very keen to read the next book in the series and I hope it's not too long a wait. For readers who have not read any Glenda Larke books before, this is a good a place to start as any book one.

5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2014, Orbit Books
Series: Yes. The Forsaken Lands book 1 of 3
Format read: eBook
Source: Purchased from iBooks
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres

Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres is the Australian author's latest science fiction / science fantasy novel. It's due out at the end of April, but if it sounds familiar, that might be because the author released a comic by the same name (and following the same story) in 2011. I haven't (yet) read the comic, other than the free sample consisting of only a few pages, and you definitely don't need to before picking up the novel. Closer to the release date, I will be running an interview with Marianne, so keep an eye out for that.
When an imaginary animal from her troubled teenage years reappears, Virgin takes it to mean one of two things: a breakdown (hers!) or a warning. Dead bodies start piling up around her, so she decides on the latter. Something terrible is about to happen in the park and Virgin and her new partner, U.S. Marshall Nate Sixkiller, are standing in its path...

Virgin Jackson is the senior ranger in Birrimun Park - the world's last natural landscape, overshadowed though it is by a sprawling coastal megacity. She maintains public safety and order in the park, but her bosses have brought out a hotshot cowboy to help her catch some drug runners who are affecting tourism. She senses the company is holding something back from her, and she's not keen on working with an outsider like Nate Sixkiller.
I was just staring at the cover while contemplating what to write, and wow the more you look, the more you see extra details in the image. There's the obvious bird, which I noticed right away, but there's also a person in her shirt, two people, even. I am liking this cover more and more.

Anyway, the actual book. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It had me turning the pages all the way through without wanting to put it down (except for when I had to). Virgin is a compelling character, despite making some poor decisions throughout the book. She spends most of the book under the weather in one way or another — attempts on her life, sleep deprivation, miscellaneous wounds — and has plenty of reason to be distrustful of almost everyone who tries to help her, so there are reasonable reasons for what I saw as lapses of judgement.

The setting is a future Perth with hover cars, very segregated neighbourhoods and more guns than one would expect to see in Australia. Virgin works as a ranger in a large park which is mostly a natural reserve but with a Western (as in cowboys) theme and some imported cacti. All in the name of tourism more than preservation. I've never been to Perth, but I can see how the seeds for this future world exist in the current world. It's not the future I would imagine, but unfortunately, globalisation and the spread of US culture does not make it implausible. (Although I don't get why Westerns are still a thing. Mind you, thinking about it, I suppose it's no weirder than Victoriana.) There were a lot of guns relative to present times, though, which was a bit, well, un-Australian. Mind you, it did fit with the Western theme of Virgin's park and Nate Sixkiller.

Speaking of Sixkiller, I felt fairly meh towards him. Cowboys just don't do it for me. That said, I liked how he and Virgin saved each other at various times and how de Pierres did not take the obvious plot-route with him. I liked Heart, Virgin's sort-of-boyfriend much more, even though I was suspicious of him for most of the book. I quite liked the fact that Sixkiller wasn't thrown with Virgin as a default love interest, since the "new person shows up and becomes love interest" trope is really very common in every piece of fiction in all forms of media. It's nice to see something different.

Although Peacemaker is set in the future it's not pure science fiction (or, by any stretch of the imagination, hard science fiction). As well as future tech, there's a good dose of mythology in the brought to life sense. It was pivotal to the book in general, but one aspect — trying to track down the origin of an artefact — felt a bit McGuffin-y to me, existing mainly to move the characters around (to places where important things happened). That's not a strong complaint though.

When I finished, I was left wanting to know if we would get more books (stand-by for my upcoming interview) and wanting to know more about some aspects of the world. Particularly the aspects which are most likely to be covered in any sequels, should they exist, so de Pierres has done her job well.

Peacemaker was an enjoyable read and I highly recommend it to fans of near-future SF, urban fantasy set in the future and future-Westerns. I'll definitely be picking up any sequels that happen, and I plan to read the comic book when I get around to it.

4 / 5 stars


First published: April 2014, Angry Robot
Series: I hope so...
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier is the first book I've read by the author. It's about three Mexican teenagers trying to find a better life in the US and it's an interesting take on werewolf mythology. It's got a long blurb, but not as spoilery as it could be.
Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases – like for Natividad’s father and older brother – Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.

But before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

In the snowy forests of Vermont they are discovered by Ezekiel Korte, despite his youth the strongest black dog at Dimilioc and the appointed pack executioner. Intrigued by Natividad he takes them to Dimilioc instead of killing them.

Now they must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. Alejandro must prove he can learn loyalty and control even without his sister’s Pure magic. Natividad’s twin Miguel must prove that an ordinary human can be more than a burden to be protected. And even at Dimilioc a Pure girl like Natividad cannot remain unclaimed to cause fighting and distraction. If she is to stay she must choose a black dog mate.

But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.
So there was a lot to like about Black Dog. Culturally diverse characters, interesting mythology, pretty good writing. My favourite aspect was the magic/mythology worldbuilding. The Black Dog take on werewolves was different to anything I'd seen before. There were, mostly tangential to the plot, traditional werewolves that change with the moon. But the black dogs central to the story were born that way and their "shadows" — the entity/curse of the black dog inside them — were uncorrupted and controllable (although control wasn't guaranteed). The power politics between black dogs were interesting and added to the texture of the story.

To go along with the black dogs there were also "Pure" women and girls, of which the main character, Natividad, was one. In some respects, the Pure are witches, with their power tied to the black dog curse. Black dogs benefit in various ways from having one of the Pure around; the Pure make them "more civilised" by exerting a magical calming influence. It's also desirable for black dogs to take Pure women as wives. What I didn't like about the concept of Pure magic (y'know, apart from the name which I found problematic in itself) is that it set Pure women up to be used by black dogs. Even if, like the Dimilioc wolves, the black dogs revere the Pure, it still irked me because although Natividad was powerful, by aligning herself with the Dimilioc wolves she lost a lot of autonomy. To be fair, so did her black dog brother, but that was portrayed differently (he willingly aligned with them to protect his siblings, she didn't have much of a choice).

On that note, when Natividad and brothers arrive at Dimilioc, it's basically accepted that she will have to pair off with one of the black dogs. Because she's only fifteen, she doesn't have to choose a mate until she's sixteen (and then that mate will have to constantly defend his position from the other black dogs, even though she chose him). Almost immediately, Ezekiel stakes a claim in Natividad and basically threatens to kill any other (male) black dog that tries to win her over. So I thought that was pretty uncool. It also squicked me out that Natividad a) liked him and b) kept being glad that there was an eligible black dog close to her age. Point b, in particular, I didn't like because as far as I gathered Ezekiel is twenty-one (or maybe twenty) which, at fifteen, is not such a small gap. Also, aside from being badarse but nice and not as creepy as he could have been, I wasn't sure what his appeal was supposed to be.

The bad guy was adequately evil and I liked how the recent history that was scattered throughout the story — involving a war between werewolves and vampires — was tangentially relevant to the action portion of the plot. As I've already said, this book had top worldbuilding.

I would recommend Black Dog to readers who want to see interesting werewolves and particularly to anyone looking for cultural diversity in their lead characters. For all that I've discussed some of its faults above, none of them were deal breakers for me and the book's strong points carried it through. I'm actually very torn about the star rating since the writing and worldbuilding put it very close to being a "four" book. Nevertheless...

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2014, Strange Chemistry
Series: I don't think so? It felt very self-contained.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley