Friday, 19 September 2014

Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson

Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson is the first book in the Dragon Wine series. It's a secondary world fantasy with dragons (as you may gather from the series title) and more astronomy that we usually see in a fantasy book. I've previously reviewed a couple of Donna's books, Rayessa and the Space Pirates, and Bespelled. What strikes me most about Donna as a writer is how flexible she can be. These three books have very little in common stylistically or even thematically, yet she pulls them off.
Dragon wine could save them. Or bring about their destruction.

Since the moon shattered, the once peaceful and plentiful world has become a desolate wasteland. Factions fight for ownership of the remaining resources as pieces of the broken moon rain down, bringing chaos, destruction and death.

The most precious of these resources is dragon wine – a life-giving drink made from the essence of dragons. But the making of the wine is perilous and so is undertaken by prisoners. Perhaps even more dangerous than the wine production is the Inspector, the sadistic ruler of the prison vineyard who plans to use the precious drink to rule the world.

There are only two people that stand in his way. Brill, a young royal rebel who seeks to bring about revolution, and Salinda, the prison's best vintner and possessor of a powerful and ancient gift that she is only beginning to understand. To stop the Inspector, Salinda must learn to harness her power so that she and Brill can escape, and stop the dragon wine from falling into the wrong hands.
The blurb is a bit deceptive in that it only covers about half the book. And I mean that in the most literal sense; part two breaks from the first set of characters to follow a new group of characters. It could almost have been published as two separate books and the structure really highlights how this is only the first book in the series. Having said that, the first section ended in a fairly conclusive way that didn't leave me so desperate to get back to those characters that I couldn't pay attention to the new characters. If anything, I'd argue that the first part was a bit more conclusive than the second, which ended on a minor cliffhanger.

But enough about structure. The most obvious thing to note about the content of this book that's not necessarily obvious is that it's dark fantasy. Dark as in brutal or "grimdark". There is rape and there is violence. Most of the worst rape happens off the page, but there's enough on the page that if you don't want to read about rape (or molestation or brutal beatings), then probably give this series a miss. The characters can be more or less divided into main characters and other "good guys" and "horrible men that don't think women are real people". And, I suppose, miscellaneous bystanders who are afraid of witchcraft.

I really enjoyed the story but there were times when the brutality got a bit much for me. Mainly this was towards the end of part one where Salinda, our first main character, is being brutally tortured. It's not that it's not relevant to the plot, but it wasn't fun to read (nor, I think, should it have been). Then, in part two, I was probably a bit over-invested in a new main character, Laidan, not being raped and it was a nail-biter for a while there. (I won't spoil which way it went.)

Anyway, the main thrust of Shatterwing is setting up the world and the overarching plot for the series. The worldbuilding is quite nice, with two moons in the sky, one of which broke up hundreds of years ago (called the "Shatterwing" because it's shattered and looks like a wing). There's some historical background that remains mysterious for the time being and I look forward to learning more about that in subsequent books. There's also the matter of the dragon wine, which has magical properties, and which is apparently the main thing keeping the human population alive. How did this come to be? I'm not sure, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

Shatterwing is not for everyone and I wouldn't recommend it to people who wish to avoid reading about violence. However, I would recommend it to fans of dark and grim fantasy. The world may have dragons that eat people, but the real monsters here are other people.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, Momentum Books
Series: Dragon Wine book 1 of ? (possibly 4?)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Disclaimer: Author is a friend but I've endeavoured to write an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 15 September 2014

Tsana's September Status

Since I last posted one of these updates I went to LonCon 3, travelled around England and Wales, and come home to an unpleasant infestation of builders. I would like to talk more about the first two things, but the last is making it difficult for me to string two thoughts together. Nevertheless, I'll give it a shot.

LonCon3 was pretty great. I met new friends and old — including old online friends for the first time — sat on a couple of panels, went to some panels, the Hugo Awards. I also hung out in the Dealers Room at the Twelfth Planet Press table which was more fun than it might sound. We also supported the 2020 bid for a New Zealand WorldCon and went to the NZ bid party. We also went to the Ticonderoga party and took another opportunity to spend time with Aussie fans. Both parties were good, but I wasn't a fan of way parties were run out of tents in the fan village.

And, of course, I bought a pile of books. Also won some and a few were freebies. The Feist below is hubby's signed limited edition copy which he won. He also won a set of signed and numbered George RR Martin quote posters, so a good haul in all.

This is my pile of books. (Plus Kaleidoscope, which I took to get signed.)

We had fun dragging the books around the rest of England and then Wales afterwards. In each hotel I took all the books out and made a little pile. In one B&B we stayed in they were haphazardly split into two piles because of space. I had left Sex Criminals in between two normal-sized books and the cleaning lady pushed it further in so that the spin wasn't visible.  I'm imagining her clutching at her pearls when she saw it.

The second most geeky thing we did was visit the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. I highly recommend it for fans, although it did remind me that I didn't like Eleven very much (and we went after watching the first Capaldi episode, so it felt a bit backwards). The museum was pretty good and so were the effects in Experience. The gift shop also tried our restraint. We walked away with posters and I bought more books there, but they were presents, so they don't count. Actually, I was pretty excited that they had some books with Leela, my mum's favourite companion.

On a completely different note, my round-up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which I wrote in a sleep-deprived haze and have little memory of.

What Have I Read?

What Am I Currently Reading?

Again, too many books. I blame the builders.

The novel I'm reading is Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson. Dark fantasy, first of a series, expect to see a review soon.

I'm also reading Terry Pratchett's essay collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, which is a mix of essays written for various reasons. It's a very compelling read. I'm not sure Pratchett is capable of writing anything uninteresting. It's not quite out yet, but look out for my review probably in a couple of weeks, close to the release date.

And finally, I also started reading Help Fund My Robot Army!!! and Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects. Which is also amusing. I've put it a bit on the back-burner for now because it was supposed to be my insomnia book, but because of the form it's too choppy to successfully lull me adequately. Pratchett is better.

New Booksies

I'm running out of steam and awakeness, so these aren't getting comments this month. Rest assured I am excited about all of them. Non-review books all came from LonCon3.
  • Zac & Mia by AJ Betts (review, US edition)
  • A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett (review, US edition)
  • Secret Lives of Books by Rosaleen Love
  • Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein
  • Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart
  • Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L Hannet
  • Midnight and Moonshine by Lisa L Hannet and Angela Slatter
  • The Girl with No Hands by Angela Slatter
  • Death at the Blue Elephant by Janeen Webb
  • Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
  • The Hunt for Pierre Jnr by David M Henley
  • The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill
  • Magician's End by Raymond E Feist (can't find the correct cover)
  • Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gillian Polack (doesn't have a proper cover yet)
  • Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson (review)
  • The Three-body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu (review)

Friday, 12 September 2014

Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro

Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro is a collection of short stories that I listened to in audiobook form after the author ran a Kickstarter campaign to record it. I have previously reviewed Asaro's novel, The Radiant Seas, which is set in the same universe as the stories in Aurora in Four Voices.

I didn't love all of the stories in this collection, although I didn't hate any of them either. My least favourite was definitely "Ave de Paso", in which the main characters didn't particularly grab me and which also had a bit of a squick factor towards the end. I liked many things about "Aurora in Four Voices" and I'd say it was probably my second favourite story. I had mixed feelings about the relationship between the two main characters since Soz is the main character of the other Asaro books I've read and her OTP the main character was not. I also enjoyed "Light and Shadows" although it was not, I think, supposed to be an overly cheery story. My favourite story was easily "City of Cries" and I was interested to learn in the outro that there is a novel sequel coming late this year. I will have to keep an eye out for that.

One thing all the stories have in common — with the exception of "Light and Shadows" which only really has the one male character in it — is strong female characters. This is something common to all of Asaro's work, I believe. People seeking hard science fiction populated by women who actually do things, would do well to check out Asaro's work. And in case you were in any doubt that her SFnal universe is indeed hard, this collection contains a short maths essay at the end. I have to admit, I found it difficult to listen to — my brain went into lecture mode and turned off — but luckily there was a simplified URL mentioned to the written and illustrated essay online. You can read it here. (And if you need further proof, some of the mathematical concepts used in her stories have been published in mathematical journals.)

As always, I've written some notes about the stories as I read them. I recommend this collection to people wanting to get an idea of Asaro's work. The stories are pretty broad in setting and, I think, a good showcase of the sort of stories she can write. I particularly recommend it to SF fans looking for more women in their fiction.


Aurora in Four Voices — Not bad, about Soz (main character in Primary Inversion and Radiant Seas and others I haven't read) and, more prominently, a man who has been trapped on a planet populated by mathematical and artistic geniuses who like to live in eternal night. He has been mistreated by, well, a mean chap and when Soz shows up she helps him escape his situation.

Ave de Paso — Meh. A pair of orphaned cousins deal with recent bereavement, the desert and magical possession by a malevolent spirit. Not terrible, but not my favourite.

The Spacetime Pool — Your classic present-day maths graduate falls into gate in the spacetime continuum and finds herself in an alternate universe where she's at the centre of an empire-changing prophesy. I wasn't fond of the whole "you must marry me and not my brother because he's a bastard" opening but since it's a novella there was plenty of room to turn it around and I enjoyed the heroine rescuing herself with the application of mathematics.

Light and Shadows — A heart broken test pilot deals with his pain by trying to go harder, faster further. When he pushes his plane beyond the specified limits he gets a bit more than he expected. An amusing story (well, not the parts where he was sad about his dead lover) about a character I'm pretty sure reappears in Skolian Empire books I've read.

City of Cries — This was my favourite story of the bunch. It's a gender-flipped hard-boiled PI story in an SF setting. And when I say gender-flipped, I don't just mean that the ex-military PI is female (though she is) but all the trope-mandatory characters are gender flipped. I found this delightful even while unpleasant things were happening to people.

A Poetry of Angles and Dreams — not a story but an essay, which you can read here. For someone with a maths degree, it was a fairly straight-forward description of concepts. Particularly the imaginary number half of the essay starts at the most basic level and builds up to the more complex (lol, pun) concept of Riemann sheets. I suspect the second part of the essay, about Fourier transforms/analysis would be less enlightening to the lay person.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2012 Isfic Press (audiobook 2014)
Series: Stories set in the Skolian Empire universe (apparently including the ones that don't seem like they are)
Format read: Audiobook
Source: Kickstarter reward

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier

Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier is the first collection of short stories I've read by the author, although I did read her first two novels many, many years ago (more than a decade). My excuse for grabbing Prickle Moon was to read the two Ditmar-shortlisted stories and, of course, I read the other stories as well, picking through them slowly as I am wont to do with short story collections.

This collection is a mix of longer, intricate and fantastical tales and shorter tales which were no less serious (but of necessity less intricate). My favourites were "'Twixt Firelight and Water", a novella set in the same universe as the Sevenwaters books, and "Back and Beyond". I also quite liked the two Ditmar-shortlistees, "Prickle Moon" and "By Bone Light". Interestingly, although I enjoyed the latter more, I've found it's "Prickle Moon" that's lodged more firmly in my brain. I hark back to it every time hedgehogs come up (which has been more often than usual in the past month).

As always, I've included comments on each story below.

I recommend Prickle Moon to anyone with an interest in fantasy short stories. Additionally, the novellas are an excellent way to get a taste for Marillier's longer work. I'm planning not to wait quite so long before reading another of her books.


PRICKLE MOON — Took me a while to get into, not quite my type of story. But it was sad and it made me sad. Lots of hedgehogs (I think they were hedgehogs), and an older lady who cared for them.

OTHERLING — A predictable story, but not worse for it. I might not have been surprised, but I still enjoyed reading it.

LET DOWN YOUR HAIR — Not a Rapunzel story as I had expected. But definitely a Fairytale. A quick read that left much unanswered.

POPPY SEEDS — An alternate take on the three-brother-quest school of Fairytales. I mean, it's still a Fairytale, but not quite a retelling of one I've encountered before. (The youngest brother still wins at life and morals, though.)

IN COED CELYDDON — An Arthurian tale, but not the kind you might expect. Arthur at age fourteen, dreaming of the future. (Also, Welsh Arthur, which is my favourite rendition.)

JUGGLING SILVER — A very short story about a younger brother who can't talk and a long winter for a small village.

’TWIXT FIRELIGHT AND WATER (A TALE OF SEVENWATERS) — A novella. I read the first two Sevenwaters books something like 15 years ago, so my memory was pretty foggy and mainly extended to a vague recollection of setting. This did not affect my enjoyment of the story. Although it refers to events that happened in the books (I think), it was quite self-contained. A half-human gets in the wrong side of his fae mother and a half-Irish young woman journeys to visit her ancestral home. A good meaty (fairy) tale to sink your teeth into.

GIFT OF HOPE — A girl moves to a country estate, finds a secret diary and brightens someone's life.

LETTERS FROM ROBERT — Young lady near Freemantle receives letters from her sweetheart as he travels the world as part of a ship's crew.

JACK’S DAY — Distinctly not speculative, a story of a war widow remembering her husband and being grateful for her present.

FAR HORIZONS — A baby boomer romance novelist is convinced to spend some of her book money on herself.

TOUGH LOVE 3001 — An odd tale. A creative writing teacher has been headhunted to work in the future, mostly with aliens. Her class is strange but reminiscent of literary snobs everywhere.

WRAITH, LEVEL ONE — After a twelve-year-old boy dies with his family in a cat crash, he find heaven a bit boring. Luckily, there's a mission waiting for him.

BACK AND BEYOND — An old lady goes back to the children's library where she found much joy in stories growing up.

THE ANGEL OF DEATH — A volunteer for the RSPCA helps to clear out a puppy farm and encounters a dog no one else can see. Some horrific imagery in this story (of the puppy farm), but it was a good read.

BY BONE-LIGHT — Context: I read this story second because of its Ditmar shortlisting. Very different to Prickle Moon, yet with similar fairytale overtones. Lissa, living in the approximate present, has been very isolated from the world by her stepmother. She and her stepsisters are forced to work all day to make things to sell online (dolls in Lissa’s case) and it is Lissa that gets all the unpleasant tasks. She’s too scared to call the welfare people thanks to the stepmother’s gaslighting. Then a quest one dark night changes Lissa’s life. An enjoyable read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Ticonderoga
Series: No.
Format read: ePub on iThings
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Guardian by Jo Anderton

Guardian by Jo Anderton is the third book in the Veiled Worlds Trilogy. I have to admit, when I read book two, Suited, I didn't realise there was going to be a sequel (although in retrospect, I probably should have). And then the publisher of the first two books didn't pick up the third, so it was a longer wait than usual for this concluding volume. Luckily FableCroft did pick up Guardian, so we can all enjoy the ending to the story started in Debris. I have to warn you, though: if you haven't read the first two books everything about Guardian, including the blurb, is made of spoilers.
The grand city of Movoc-under-Keeper lies in ruins. The sinister puppet men have revealed their true nature, and their plan to tear down the veil between worlds. To have a chance of defeating them, Tanyana must do the impossible, and return to the world where they were created, on the other side of the veil. Her journey will force her into a terrible choice, and test just how much she is willing to sacrifice for the fate of two worlds.
Guardian was an unusual book, more so, I think, than the first two which at least shared a common setting. I'd seen a lot of people compare the Veiled Worlds series to anime aesthetics but I didn't really see the resemblance until Guardian. A large part of the story takes place in a different world with little in common with the world of Movoc-under-Keeper. In some ways that world is more similar to our own — mostly in the way that people don't control pions with their minds to build stuff — but it's a pretty extreme post-apocalyptic type of a world.

While Tanyana is there, we learn a lot about how the two worlds are connected, what the Keeper, the Other and the Veil are (although the latter takes a bit longer to become clear) and the connection between worlds. At the end of Suited there was a cataclysmic disruption that did not leave all the characters we've come to know intact. The ramifications of that are explored further here and, most notably, we find out what was going on with "Halves" having a special connection to the Keeper.

I have to say, I had somewhat mixed feelings about one character who was badly injured and then sort of magically fixed. On the one hand, she agreed to what happened (the being fixed part, not the badly injured part), but on the other, I couldn't help but feel the fix took away a lot of her agency and, crucially, affected her personhood and identity. I would have liked to have seen the consequences of that expired more fully rather than just touched upon in a sort of epilogue.

What makes Guardian hard to review is that it's so different from the first two books in setting. I would like to, at some point, reread all three books in succession to get the full impact of the flow of the story. And in case it isn't already obvious, Guardian is not the point at which to pick up the series. It's definitely the kind of trilogy where you should try to read the first two books first.

I quite enjoyed Guardian and indeed the entire Veiled Worlds trilogy. I highly recommend it to fans of technological fantasy or just fantasy which differs from the mainstream. The worldbuilding is very original and one of the real strengths of the series. The magic is very structured; leading some to call the series science fiction. In that light, fans of slipstream and genre-bending fiction should find much to like here.

4 / 5 stars

First published: June 2014, FableCroft
Series: Yes! Veiled World book 3 of 3
Format read: Paper
Source: Well, I pre-ordered an ecopy but then picked up the paperback from the TPP stall at WorldCon and (uncharacteristically) ended up reading that while travelling instead of the ebook
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 1 September 2014

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld hooked me when I read the extract in NetGalley's Buzz Books compilation. The second chapter was excellent (the first was more of a prologue) and when the extract left me hanging (as, I suppose, all good extracts should), I absolutely had to get a hold of it. Luckily, I was able to get a review copy and devour it in a few days. Blurb from Simon & Schuster's website because it's better than the goodreads one:
Believing is dangerous.

Darcy Patel is afraid to believe all the hype. But it’s really happening—her teen novel is getting published. Instead of heading to college she’s living in New York City, where she's welcomed into the dazzling world of YA publishing. That means book tours, parties with her favorite authors, and finding a place to live that won't leave her penniless. It means sleepless nights rewriting her first draft, and struggling to find the perfect ending . . . all while dealing with the intoxicating, terrifying experience of falling in love—with another writer.

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the thrilling story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world, including one ghost with whom she shares a surprising personal connection. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling—she has counsel from an extremely hot fellow spirit guide, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and warning her that . . .

Believing is dangerous.
As the blurb suggests, Afterworlds is really two novels in one. Darcy is a teen writer who got an incredible book deal for the YA novel she wrote in her last year of high school during NaNoWriMo (although, actually, I'm pretty sure NaNoWriMo is never referred to directly, but she wrote it all in November, so one makes assumptions). Because of the book deal (and the giant pile of money that came with it), she puts off going to college and instead moves to New York to do revisions and write the sequel she's under contract for. Her story is about writing and about growing up.

Every alternating chapter is a chapter from Darcy's novel. Darcy's novel is a paranormal YA with pscyhopomps and mythology borrowed from Hinduism. It's pretty dark, mostly dealing with death, ghosts and the afterworld. I think if the two novels in one were taken apart, then the fictional (-er) story could stand alone but Darcy's story probably couldn't. But putting two stories together like this allows Westerfeld to explore the process of writing and various issues that can arise. Darcy's story would not have worked without having the chapters she and the other writers were discussing there for us to read.

In exploring the process of writing, a lot of different issues arise. On the more mundane side of things, Darcy finds herself thrown into the world of adults straight out of high school and with little preparation. She worries about fitting in, being seen as a real writer and whether her book was a fluke. At the same time, she meets other writers mete out advice, support and offer friendship. And discussion about books, her book and the process of writing. Some of the issues they discuss are whether it's OK for Darcy to appropriate bits of her parents' religion (when she herself is an atheist) and base a character more on a Bollywood actor than the religious figure, and the dilemma of having made her protagonist white while she herself is Indian. Darcy also runs into the interesting problem of having the people she meets assume she's older than she is (for a long time, she doesn't tell anyone she's only 18) and treating her as such, especially by making assumptions about her already been to college. Stuff like that, which only contributes to Darcy's imposter syndrome.

The other thing the double story allows Westerfeld to do is explore the mind of the writer which leads to certain choices in their books (something, I think, which is particularly applicable to a writer's first book). The version of Darcy's novel that we are privy to is the final version that eventually gets published. But part of following Darcy's story is her rewrites and the dilemmas she has along the way. The opening chapter seems to have been the only constant thing as we hear second hand accounts of overly "Disney" scenes that Darcy removes and her endless search for a new ending. The latter was particularly interesting; we hear a lot about the endings she doesn't choose but we don't find out what ending she did write until we actually got to the end of the book and read the last chapter. It also allows for some discussion of what publishers want from authors and books and why.

There were also several answers to the much maligned question of "where do you get your ideas?" We learn fairly early on where Darcy got some of the key ideas for her novel and as the story progresses, we also learn about where the other writer-characters get various types of ideas from, where it's OK to borrow ideas from and from where one shouldn't borrow ideas. (And there's a really hilarious bit at the end when Darcy finds out something about the story she thought she was writing <spoiler redacted>.) And, of course, some of the authors may or may not bear some resemblance to certain real-life people...

Because this book deals so much with the nature of writing, I suspect writers and other book-world people will probably enjoy it more than the average reader who doesn't spend much time contemplating where books come from. I know that aspect definitely enhanced my enjoyment. I thought the two storylines fed off each other quite nicely. When one was moving a bit slowly, something exciting was happening in the other and vice versa. I've spent most of this review talking about Darcy the writer and not about Lizzie the fictional (-er) character, who plays just as important a role and has as much page time and character development. Lizzie's story is compelling and, in terms of YA tropes, reasonably uncommon — and it is her exciting first chapter (officially chapter 2) that hooked me — but it's not overly remarkable. What makes Afterworlds remarkable is the nested nature of Lizzie's narrative. By itself it would have been a quick fun read (although I should note that Afterworlds is roughly the length of two shortish YA books, so it's not that pared down), but with the other story it's a fascinating deconstruction of the YA genre and the writing process.

I highly recommend this book to writers and people interested in the book industry. Fans of YA, especially fans with writing aspirations will, I think, find much to enjoy here. I suspect readers with no interest in the writing process or readers looking for only one of contemporary YA (slash new adult for Darcy's story) or dark paranormal YA will be disappointed. This is not a straightforward book.

5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Sex Criminals Volume 1 by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals Volume 1, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky is the trade collection of the first five issues of the ongoing comic book series. As you may gather from the title, it is not a comic book for children. I picked it up because of Tansy spruiking it on Galactic Suburbia podcast (and then again in person at WorldCon).
Suzie’s just a regular gal with an irregular gift: when she has sex, she stops time. One day she meets Jon and it turns out he has the same ability. And sooner or later they get around to using their gifts to do what we’d ALL do: rob a couple banks. A bawdy and brazen sex comedy for comics begins here!
The difficult thing about reviewing comic books is that the plot moves relatively slowly over an issue and even a collected volume, so it's hard to say much without spoiling the entire plot. So I'm going to keep this short.

Both characters, Suzie (our main narrator) and Jon, recount how they tried to deal with their time stopping sex power when they were teens. Now as adults, they have finally found someone else who shares that power and that doesn't leave them alone after/during sex (other people freeze when time freezes). They get a bit carried away with this information.

There is much humour and it's definitely worth looking closely at the backgrounds of the panels (especially the ones set in the sex shop), so as not to miss any jokes. The plot really takes a turn when the two discover that they are not the only two special snowflakes in the world... Issue #4, I believe, is called "Sex Police" to give you a hint. Also, the antagonist is called (by Suzie and Jon) Kegelface, which shod tell you something about the humour.

So. Sex Criminals is pretty funny and entertaining. I am much looking forward to the next volume (apparently the next two issues are out already, but I've decided comics work better on bookshelves if they're trades). I recommend it to, well, anyone who thinks sex-based time stopping magic sounds amusing. It's a good read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: April 2014, Image Comics
Series: Yes, Sex Criminals ongoing, Volume 1, containing issues #1–5
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Purchased from Forbidden Planet stall at LonCon3

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios is a crowd-funded anthology that does what it says in the tag line.

It's an incredibly strong anthology, filled with thoughtful and creative stories. The stories cover a wide range of diverse characters, with diveristy stemming from race, gender, chronic/mental illness and disability. I was pleasantly surprised to see several stories deal with characters who fit into more than one of those labels. I also found it awesome that most of the stories weren't about being black/queer/sick/etc but had those aspects as background to the main plot, generally a fantastical one (since it is an SFF anthology).

It's really hard to pick favourites in this collection. Although I didn't love the stories equally, there weren't any duds. (The one I talk about disliking below was because of a theme I'm sick of, not because there was anything wrong with the story per se.) Really, I liked all of them. However, some that stood out to me more than the others were: "Cookie Cutter Superhero" by Tansy Rayner Roberts, which was just awesome and needs a novel set in its universe; "Signature" by Faith Mudge, which was clever, amusing and ultimately happy-making; "Careful Magic" by Karen Healey about a magical school and a girl dealing with being an outsider for her eccentricities; and "Double Time" by John Chu, which was about ice-skating and having a pushy parent.

Most of the stories, I found, were reasonably upbeat but the anthology was punctuated with a few sadder stories. For example "The Legend Trap" by Sean Williams and "Krishna Blue" by Shveta Thakrar both have ambiguous and not entirely happy endings. 

It's hard not to comment on all the stories now, but I've already done that below as I usually do with anthologies and collections. Kaleidoscope is an excellent anthology and I strongly recommend it to everyone. If you haven't already picked up a copy, do so!


Cookie Cutter Superhero | Tansy Rayner Roberts — A very strong start to the anthology. A girl with one hand is chosen to join a superhero team. It touches on the lack of female super heroes and deals with the main character’s fear that if the superhero machine “fixes” her, then what does that do to her sense of identity? What would then happen to her when she stopped being a superhero (because they have a limited tenure) and went back to being normal? 

The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon | Ken Liu — A portmanteau of two teenage girls in love and a Chinese Fairytale, with a twist on the take of the Fairytale's ending (I think, I'll have to google it later)

The Legend Trap | Sean Williams — Set in the Twinmaker universe and an odd story. It deals with the idea of d-mat teleportation sending people to a parallel universe and some of the consequences of that. I say odd mainly because of the ambiguous ending.

End of Service | Gabriela Lee — A story about the daughter of an overseas worker from the Philippines, struggling to come to terms with her mother's work choices. And of course with a speculative twist.

Chupacabra's Song | Jim C. Hines — A girl discovers chupacabras, magic and cruelty.

The Day the God Died | Alena McNamara — A short story about a character dealing with some heavy issues and a series of encounters with a dying old god.

Signature | Faith Mudge — I loved this story! It was clever and lovely and funny. Bookshops, supernatural contracts and an especially diverse cast.

The Lovely Duckling | Tim Susman — A story told in transcripts and other documents. A trans character works to escape her oppressive father in a world where people can also be shape-shifters. It had several pretty great elements, including the ending.

Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell | E.C. Myers — A drug that lets teenagers see into the future while they are kidding someone. Or a possible future, anyway. A girl on psych meds has a different reaction to it than her peers do and fixates on leaning more.

Vanilla | Dirk Flinthart — Alien refugees have come to live on Earth in this story about an Australian girl with Somalian parents whose two best friends are aliens.

Careful Magic | Karen Healey — A girl with powerful magic and possibly OCD gets caught up in some of her magic-school classmates' shenanigans. A high-stakes magical story.

Walkdog | Sofia Samatar — A progressively sad story told in the form of a school-girl's essay. (Crappy grammar and all.) It's hard to comment on without spoiling, but the essay is ostensibly about the urban legend of Walkdog, the dog who walks you.

Celebration | Sean Eads — A gay teen is sent to gay camp (you know, the deprogramming kind) but when he gets there it's not quite the kind of brainwashing he expected.

The Truth About Owls | Amal El-Mohtar — A girl from Lebanon moves to Glasgow and discovers the joy of owls, Welsh and the truth about the power she feels inside herself. (Sort of.)

Krishna Blue | Shveta Thakrar — This was a weird story and one of the most horrifying. The story itself is wide open to interpretation, so I don't want to blatantly say what it's about other than a girl who doesn't fit in.

Every Little Thing | Holly Kench — A witch who also happen to be chronically ill, her supportive friend and her crush. About the importance of having friends that understand your needs/problems.

Happy Go Lucky | Garth Nix — Honestly, this story didn't really do it for me. It wasn't terrible, but it reminded me of far too many YA dystopian novels, with the usual variation on a theme. The "privileged youth hits hard times in dystopia" is a formula I've run out of patience for. (But I'm torn as to whether the diverse elements' complete irrelevance to the plot is a good or bad thing.)

Ordinary Things | Vylar Kaftan — Probably the least YA story with a 19 year old protagonist. Girl dealing with the end of a serious relationship and seeking safety in ritual.

Double Time | John Chu — An elite figure skating teen in a world where it's possible to jump back in time by up to four minutes to watch your practice or even skate with yourself. It was bittersweet.

Welcome | William Alexander — I think this was the shortest story, and certainly the most fantastical in the collection. The moon and earth are connected by a magical bridge, which smugglers cross at night. A whimsical (if not entirely cheerful) end to the anthology.

5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Twelfth Planet Press (official Australian launch is October, though, for technical reasons)
Series: No...
Format read: Bit of paper, mostly ebook
Source: Kickstarter rewards

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb is the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool Trilogy (because that's a helpful name given it's the third trilogy about those two). It tells the next story about the characters first introduced in the Farseer Trilogy with Assassin's Apprentice and continued in the Tawny Man trilogy.
Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.

But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…

On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.

Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Suddenly Fitz's violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe.
Robin Hobb remains an excellent writer but there are several caveats that I feel need to be issued to potential readers. First of all, this is not the book/series from which to pick up the story for the first time. Readers who haven't read the first two series will a) be spoiled for many key events and b) will not have the same investment in the characters. On the other hand, I read the Tawny Man trilogy when it first came out in 2001–2003, more than a decade ago, and, although my memory of some events was hazy coming into Fool's Assassin, I had no trouble picking the story up again. (Although I did spend a large portion of the start thinking "Fitz was how young then?!" in mild alarm. I haven't seen it with YA-ified marketing, though. I wonder why?)

Fool's Assassin begins similarly to Assassin's Apprentice in that events are conveyed chronologically and it is some time before we reach the "present" of the main story. Alternatively, you could just think of it as a story told with several jumps forward in time in the first third. It does mean that while the story is eventually told in alternating (first person) points of view, it takes a while for the second character to join Fitz in the narration.

It is very difficult for me to talk abou the plot at all without spoilers. The blurb above, for example, entirely fails to convey the actual thrust of the story and merely summarises the first chapter, which takes places something like fifteen years before the end of the book. There is a very crucial event that happens in the first third of the book which changes everything, including what the book is actually about. However, I think that talking about it in any detail is a spoiler so I will put my discussion under a spoiler tag (hover to read). Not talking about it at all would mean ignoring the main thrust of the story and also precluding a rant I really want to get out. But please don't read it if you want to enjoy the story as it was intended. Knowing a particular outcome would greatly reduce some of the tension surrounding it (more so than usual, I think).

<caution, here there be spoilers>
At the start of Fool's Assassin, Fitz is married to Molly and living in Withywoods, the manor house his father Chivalry and step-mother Patience had earlier retired to. The big spoiler is that, after her children by Burrich have grown and flown the coop and after she has gone through menopause, Molly and Fitz have another baby. And not just any baby; a strange, tiny, pale baby. When she's old enough, she becomes the second viewpoint character. Bee, as she is called, is a compelling character to read and, although she is smart for her years, it was interesting to get a child's view on something we already knew from Fitz's point of view.

On the other hand, it quickly becomes apparent why Bee is such an unusual child and yet no one else realises. Partly this is because no one else can see into her mind to know everything that happens to her like the audience does... But in large part it is because of mistranslated and possibly androgynous pronouns that are applied to a particular explanation. Even so, the child is biologically unusual and also very pale, HMM WHO DOES THAT REMIND US OF? I cannot believe how blind everyone was, including characters who should have known better or should have at least asked the right questions.

On that note, I also found the title a little deceptive. A certain character named in it did not actually appear until the very end. I felt lied to.
</the spoilers be ended>

If you read the spoilers you will have seen a bit of a (spoilerific) rant. Despite that, Fool's Assassin is an excellent read. Really, the above was the only thing that bothered me about it. On the other hand, I don't recommend Fool's Assassin as an entry point into the series. If you haven't read the earlier books, go start with Assassin's Apprentice (and make sure you read at least five chapters, because I remember being a little bored with the first four before the story picked up). I think the Tawny Man trilogy is also important reading for putting the story being told here into context. There was a horrible cliffhanger at the end, which I'm annoyed at, but I will definitely be reading the next book in the series when it's available. I have to know what happens to the cliff-hung characters!

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Del Rey (US which is the cover displayed, the UKANZ edition is Harper Voyager and prettier in real life than small online)
Series: Book 1 of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, which itself is the third trilogy featuring Fitz and the... fifth series set in the same world
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart

Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart is a short novella set in the New Ceres universe. It's actually only the second New Ceres story I've read — the first was in The Bride Price by Cat Sparks — although the New Ceres Nights anthology is waiting on my eTBR.
The New Ceres planetary charter forbids the use of all modern technology. Law confines the people to the ways of 18th Century Earth. But beneath the surface, rebellion and revolution simmer constantly.

Proctor George Gordon, a hidden protector of New Ceres, knows all too well how easily these can bubble over, but nothing can prepare him for interstellar warfare in his own technologically challenged backyard.

What odd coincidence brings him to the Sunrise Isles to be confronted by ninja and warrior nuns? Who is the strange but compelling amnesiac girl he finds in the convent, and what do the offworld nations want with her? And how can he really be sure who to trust?
This novella is action-heavy with some really cool fight scenes. The main character, George Gordon, has a fancy future-tech sword that can cut through almost anything and the proliferation of samurai and ninjas in the story gives him ample opportunity to demonstrate it's features.

But of course, the sword  and the fighting aren't the whole story. Gordon is called out on a job which proves to be a little mysterious both to him and to the reader. Also there are fighting nuns. (I thought that should be mentioned.)

I enjoyed Angel Rising and, although it was short, it was a pleasant way to pass an otherwise boring (and, frankly, chilly) train ride. It showed me a very different corner of the New Ceres world to the Cat Sparks story and I am curious to see what other authors have done with it.

Whether you're curious about the New Ceres world or just want to read a good story with space ninjas, samurai and nuns, I can highly recommend Angel Rising. It's certainly moved New Ceres Nights up in my TBR queue.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2008, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: New Ceres universe (stand alone)
Format read: Paper!
Source: TPP stall at WorldCon (LonCon3)
Disclaimer: While I have endevoured to give an impartial review, I can't claim a neutral relationship with Twelfth Planet Press in general
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge