Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Blood Countess by Tara Moss

Cross posted from here.

I decided to grab this book for a few reasons. In no particular order: Tara Moss is awesome (decided based mainly on her blog), I don’t mind the occasional vampire/urban fantasy/paranormal book, it was on sale (on iTunes/iBooks), and I could use it towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge (not that I’m desperately short of books for that, but excuses make the book-buying world go ‘round). Some of the reviews on iTunes and LibraryThing lead me to not expect very much of this book. Even if they hadn’t the blurb was not misleading, so I wasn’t disappointed.

You know what? I really enjoyed The Blood Countess by Tara Moss. It wasn’t super-deep (it’s about fashion and magazines in New York), and it wasn’t brooding and angst-ridden. It was fun, entertaining and amusing.

The main character, Pandora, comes to New York from some tiny hicksville town, to stay with her great aunt. She was desperate to get away from said small town partly because of the hicks and partly because it’s her dream to be a writer and work at a New York magazine. Back home, where she lived with her aunt since her parents died in her teens, she spent her time living in books because there wasn’t much else to do and because she didn’t have any friends. She was the town weird kid thanks to her ability to see and speak to ghosts (strongly discouraged by her parents when they were still alive).

She arrives in New York to be greeted by her great aunt’s mysteriously mute chauffeur, who then takes her to her great aunt’s home in a tiny suburb of Manhattan that doesn’t appear on any maps. Also, her great aunt’s building is haunted. Also, vampires, many of which are jolly (seriously, it makes a nice change from the brooding kind).

The story follows Pandora’s attempts to find a job and to start building a career in New York. Suspicious things are happening in the fashion world, mostly centred around a revolutionary new face cream, sinister models and, well, general supernatural shadiness.

To be honest, it’s not the plot that makes this book. Really, the villain of the piece is named in the title, so I don’t think it was supposed to be a surprise. What makes this book book stand out is the voice of the protagonist. In her childhood, her parents and shrink convinced her there was no such thing as ghosts and effectively trained her into keeping quiet and ignoring her “vivid dreams”. That said, once strange things start happening and she starts searching for and getting some answers, she doesn’t spend very long running around in a haze of denial like in some books I won’t mention (and she was quite quick to accept the ghosts back into her life).

More importantly, her inner monologue and her interactions with her great aunt are funny and quirky and really made the book for me. It cheered me up during a stressful week. The digs at pop culture, of varying degrees of unsubtlety also helped.

A small thing that I liked was the way Moss described Pandora’s clothes and didn’t superfluously describe every item of clothing every model who walked past was wearing. As someone not very au fait with the fashion world (shocking revelation, I know), it was nice to have clothing described in a straight forward way with a minimum of slang. I’ve read too many books which expected me to know more clothes/fashion terms than I do, including books not actually about fashion. It was an appreciated touch.

I definitely recommend this book for some light, pleasant reading. So long as you’re not expecting a deep exploration of supernatural lore and human psychology, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars

Nightsiders by Sue Isle

Cross posted from here.

Nightsiders by Sue Isle is a collection of four short stories set in the same world. It is part of Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets series, twelve collections which are showcasing the work of twelve Australian female authors. I believe it’s the only one so far to be entirely science fictional (that said, the only other I’ve read is Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts — an excellent blend of Roman mythology, the past and the future — and I’m not sure what’s planned for the rest of the series).

Nightsiders is set in Western Australia, in and around Perth. I want to say it’s post-apocalyptic, but that’s not quite true. It seems part local apocalypse, part generalised catastrophic climate change. The Australian climate has changed so that the west coast is no longer particularly habitable, with hints at the start that things are better in the east. The former city of Perth is now generally referred to as Nightside, because the people living there have turned nocturnal, seeking shelter during the heat of the day and going about their business in the marginally cooler nights.

A few words on each of the stories:

The Painted Girl

13 year old girl has been with walking with an older woman (who isn’t her mother) as long as she remembers. One day, her life abruptly changes and she learns there’s more to it than she’d realised.

The Nation of the Night

Ash, 17 year old a trans boy, goes east for an operation. The story is mostly about the stark differences between the parched west and the drowning east. He quickly learns that life is far from perfect in Melbourne, even if they still have hospitals and infrastructure. In Nightside (aka Perth), everyone helps their neighbours, in Melbourne, the infrastructure is overcrowded and they’re trying to keep out as many surplus people as they can manage.

Paper Dragons

Some of the kids in Nightside put on a play based on some old TV scripts they found in an abandoned home. Turns out it’s a soap about the trivialities of teenage life as in our time. Nightside’s entire population of old folk (who remember life before the bombings and the evacuation) turn out to watch.

The Schoolteacher’s Tale

This was my favourite story. Mostly, I think, because it filled in some of the gaps left by the other stories with teenage protagonists who didn’t know life before Nightside. The titular schoolteacher is a 70 year old woman who had been mentioned as a key figure in the lives of the characters in the previous two stories. We are exposed to some of her reminiscences of how much the world has changed and, through the story, we learn a bit of where Nightside is headed in the future.


It sort of feels strange that I can summarise each of the stories in a few sentences but barely even touch on what the stories are really about. Partly this is avoiding spoilers, and partly because there are some themes and ideas that run through all four stories which are hard to pin down to just one of them.

An idea that runs through all the stories (though features the most in the first one) is that of the Drainers. They are a group of people with a genetic mutation that gives them a tolerance for the harsh sun and helps them go a bit longer between sips of water. They come out during the day when everyone else is sleeping, and hide in caves and drains (hence the name, I suppose) at night. There are stories of them eating people or draining their blood and, because they move about when everyone else is sleeping, they’re regarded almost as reverse vampires, a notion which appealed to me.

All the children protagonists have adapted better to life in Nightside than the adults. They have good night vision (and poor day vision) and, of course, they are used to the only life they have ever known. One theme that ran heavily through the first three stories is that of abandonment. In the two middle stories, the children were abandoned by parents who went east during the evacuation. There’s a heavy implication that this happened to almost all of the children of Nightside, with some of the remaining adults acting as foster parents to many of them. It sort of felt a bit much. Of course, the children that weren’t abandoned when their parents went east wouldn’t have still been around. But really, children are pretty much top of the list of things parents take with them when leaving a war zone. Where are the parents that stayed behind with children? Where are the children whose parents were killed rather than left? I appreciate that the theme of abandonment fits in with the greater theme of Nightside being abandoned by its former inhabitants and the rest of the country, but it felt a little bit lopsided by the time I got to the end.

On a happier note, this was a collection full of strong and well drawn female characters. With the exception of Ash (trans) in the second story, all the protagonists were female. There was also a good balance of male and female secondary/background characters, which is always nice to see.

To a small degree, the setting put me in mind of Daughters of Moab by Kim Westwood, but the writing style was very different and thematically the setting and the idea of adaptation to a hostile environment were the only things the two have in common.

Overall, I found Nightsiders an interesting read.

Rating 4 / 5 stars

Debris by Jo Anderton

Cross posted from here.

I enjoyed Debris by Jo Anderton.

I read a lot of fantasy, especially by Australian writers (no surprise that they’re dominating my reading so far this year). I’ve found that Australian fantasy is less likely to stick to clichéd convention and in that respect, Debris definitely does not disappoint.

The magical system Anderton has developed is focused around pions — bearing no resemblance to the mesons beloved by particle physicists, if you were wondering — tiny, glowing particles that permeate reality and which can be manipulated by people sufficiently skilled and trained. Some people can bind pions to their will, some can’t even see them. The debris of the title is magical matter left over from pion binding; useless refuse that disrupts crucial pions if not cleared away. Overall, the world has a little bit of a steampunk feel to it, mostly because that was the level of technology the society reached before the pion revolution something like 200 years before the start of the story.

The main character, Tanyana, is a highly skilled pion binder architect before she falls — both literally and metaphorically — in the first chapter. Or was she pushed? Forced to live the life of a lowly debris collector when her former lifestyle is lost to her, Tanyana struggles to find some explanation for what happened to her. Because she is convinced something else was there, when she fell, something that pushed her but that no one else could see.

I enjoyed Tanyana as a character. She is arrogant, but I didn’t see that as a bad thing. It made her interesting. She is both realistic and self-deluded about different things (for example, she’s not trying to get her life back, rather to find answers, but on the other hand, she tries to cling to the trappings of her old life a little too long). Most of all, when everything is taken from her, she is a survivor. She finds something else to be a part of. Of course, she doesn’t enjoy it at first, but she accepts it fairly quickly.

The other characters weren’t painted nearly as brightly as Tanyana. Mostly, this is due to the first person nature of the narrative. We know exactly what’s going on in Tanyana’s head all the time, but she doesn’t spend overly much time dwelling on other people (barring special exceptions). It was very much a one-woman show, with everyone else playing second fiddle, which isn’t a bad thing, given the external events also revolve about Tanyana. The only thing, characterisation-wise, that put me off a bit was her love interest. In the scene where they first hook up, I couldn’t really understand at the time why she interested in him, beyond the fact that he provoked her. It does make sense in retrospect, and the subsequent interactions between them worked well, but at the time that first scene left me ambivalent.

The conspiracy and the action in the latter half of the book had be eagerly turning the pages, however it started a more slowly and built up the world gradually. Also, while the climax was very much the most crucial scene in the book, I found the penultimate all-hell-breaks-loose disaster more exciting, in the action-packed sense.

As I said at the start, I enjoyed this book a lot. I am looking forward to reading the sequel out in July this year.

I am also about to go off and read Grandeur, a prequel short story which you can find on Jo Anderton’s website here.

Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars

Spare Parts by Sally Rogers-Davidson

Cross posted from here.

This was actually a fairly difficult book to track down. When I first made my list of possible science fiction books by Australian women, many were out of print. This was one of them. Or so I thought at first, since it was published in 1999 and not readily available in the usual places. I actually found it on Audible in audiobook form (if you become a member, even briefly, it’s much cheaper to buy audiobooks from them, FYI). It was read by Suzi Dougherty, who has apparently also read many/most of John Marsden’s audiobooks. The Australian accent was appreciated since most audiofiction I come across, with a few British exceptions, is American.

But enough about the format.

Spare Parts is about Kelty, a 19 year old “C-grader” (in a caste system which goes down to D), whose prospects were reduced when she narrowly missed out on a place at university (because C-graders can only get in with scholarships). The book is set about a hundred years in the future in the sprawling suburbia of Melbourne, albeit a Melbourne more filled with high-rises and with even dodgier trains than at present.

When Kelty’s best friend is grievously injured in an industrial accident, Kelty decides to sell her body and join the space corps to save her friend. This is a world where the rich discard their old, decrepit (or sometimes merely slightly wrinkled) bodies and have their brains transplanted into the young bodies of people of the lower classes, for a nice fee. The people who’ve sold their bodies then get to have their brains transplanted into cyborg bodies. The catch? Cyborgs (or cybermorphs as is the politically correct term) aren’t allowed to live permanently on Earth.

When I first started reading, I thought this was a dystopian novel and was convinced that Kelty was going to discover that the evil A and B graders were killing the poor for their bodies and organs. It’s possible that I’ve read too many YA dystopias of late. To alleviate any confusion such as what I suffered, I want to make it clear that this is not really a dystopian novel. Sure, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for the poor, criminals wear tracker bracelets which electrocute them if they feel angry (so they don’t attack bystanders) but it’s not terribly different to our world. The class boundaries are just a little more emphasised so that the rich live in high-rises and ride cable cars around the city and the poor live in dodgy areas and ride the subway. The main thing which distinguishes Spare Parts from books like The Hunger Games and Divergent or even 1984 is that there is no government conspiracy keeping everyone oppressed. The poor are just poor and have to either sell their bodies and join the space corps or be smart enough for a scholarship to university to improve their situation.

Of course, I’m not saying that the characters, rich or otherwise, are necessarily all on the up and up, but if I hadn’t automatically assumed dystopia, I think I would have enjoyed the start more, instead of spending it being deeply suspicious of the society. That’s more an issue with my expectations than with the book itself, however.

I thought the way the cyborg bodies were explained and treated was well done. The space corps is composed entirely of cyborgs because ordinary human bodies aren’t resilient enough to withstand the accelerations and radiation and other dangers of space. Human brains can’t just be plonked in a cyborg body and be expected to know how to manipulate it (especially given the extra senses they have, like infrared and UV vision, for example). Rogers-Davidson deals with this by giving each cyborg an AI assistant which interfaces with their systems and helps them acclimate to the world. They can even mitigate or postpone the effects of alcohol. Kelty’s snarky AI was one of the really fun parts of the novel. (She’s so “state-of-the-art” she can even be sarcastic.)

I also enjoyed the human aspect of the novel. It was nice to see a wide range of female characters and their relationships were equally varied and well drawn particularly between the main character and others (since this was written in first person, that’s to be expected). In fact, I think there was only one prominent male character, and he was only really around in the first half of the book, which is rare to see. Another key difference between Spare Parts and many more recent YA books is the lack of a romantic plot line. Which I found endearing. Given all the changes she’s going through — changing bodies, changing socioeconomic circumstances — Kelty really has much more important things to worry about than boys. It really is nice to read about a teenager who doesn’t think important life choices have to include boys.

Rating: 5 / 5 stars

Hoodwink by Rhonda Roberts

Cross-posed from here.

The first thing I want to note is that despite Hoodwink being the second book in Rhonda Roberts’s Timestalker series, it absolutely stands alone. You don’t have to have read the first book, Gladiatrix, although it’s definitely worth reading for its own sake. If you enjoy Hoodwink, there’s no reason not to go back and read Gladiatrix afterwards. The only spoilers in book 2 for book 1 are of the “main characters are alive” variety.

That said, on to the body of the review!

Hoodwink is about Kannon Dupree, arse-kicking, time-travelling PI in training. Kannon is Australian but living in America because of events in book 1. She takes a case investigating the murder of one of the directors of Gone With the Wind, after his body is discovered in the present, 70ish years after his death.

Sent back to 1939 to pose as his personal assistant, the first thing Kannon discovers in the past is that just about everyone who’s ever met him has plausible motives for wanting the director dead. And so begins her tangled investigation, four days before his murder.

Hampered by internal politics at the NTA (the time-travelling equivalent of NASA), Kannon is only given two days to prepare. And, despite her client having suspicions as to who the murderer was, Kannon quickly realises that she has no where near enough information from the future to be of much use. What should make it easier are the repeated attempts on the director’s life and the fact that he’s already afraid someone is after him. But who is it?

Somewhere, among the mayhem of the Gone With the Wind Set (complete with Clarke Gable, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard), Kannon has to work out who has the means and opportunity to murder the director, since everyone has motive.

This is a book not short on conspiracy and arse-kicking. As in Gadiatrix, I like the fact that Kannon can look after herself (thanks to her Aikido training), and that many of the people who try to cross her (violently, at least) are rapidly dealt with. It was amusing to read the reactions of some of the men who assumed she was “just a feeble woman”, although in some cases the amusing part was their expressions when she hit them.

All the loose ends in the past are tied up nicely at the end, but not all the questions raised in the future are fully answered. I hope the next book (due out in September) picks them up again. Since there is a shorter gap between books 2 and 3 than there was between books 1 and 2, I’m also hoping there’s more plot-based connection between them. Aside from Kannon’s change in circumstances, very little of book 1 reappeared in book 2. Not that I think Hoodwink suffered for it. In fact, after I found out where one of the key characters from Gladiatrix had got to, I promptly forgot about some of the other issues raised in the first book. Which is probably a good thing, as I suspect in the longish interim between them, Roberts may have chosen to shift the background focus slightly.

The only thing I would’ve liked to see more of, is Kannon’s relationship with people in the present/future. In particular her friend that helps her out at the start and end. We don’t get to see much of why they’re friends or the connection between them. This is another thing I’m hoping is developed in future books.

Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars.

[For the record, I read the Harper Voyager Australia ebook of Hoodwink, which I purchased off the (Australian) iTunes/iBooks store.]

Eon & Eona by Alison Goodman

Cross-posted from here.

I’m going to combine the reviews for this duology, because they really are two halves of the same story and I don’t think it’s fair to review them separately. You shouldn’t read the second one without reading the first.

Eon by Alison Goodman

5 / 5 stars

(Winner of an Aurealis Award for best Fantasy Novel)

Eon is set in an oriental-inspired fantasy world where dragons are required to protect the land from monsoons and ensure bountiful harvests. Each year, a different dragon (out of twelve) “ascends”, increasing the power of the lord bound to that dragon and ushering in a new apprentice for that lord.

Eon is one of a handful of candidates vying to be the next year’s apprentice. He is supposedly a crippled eunuch, so no one particularly expects him to be chosen by the dragon. In fact, the only reason he is even under consideration is because he has an unusually strong affinity for being able to see the dragons (they are invisible to normal people most of the time). He is also secretly a girl.

This starts off as a “girl dresses up as boy because girls aren’t allowed to do anything cool” story, but quickly moves on to addressing deeper issues besides female oppression. On the one hand, being a cripple in a land where deformities are considered unclean and unlucky puts her at a further disadvantage, on the other this ends up helping her deception thanks to segregation. It also fosters a strong sense (in the reader) of “she can’t do it as well because of her leg” rather than “she is struggling because she is female” which is sort of refreshing.

Unlike the Alana books by Tamora Pierce, which more or less culminate in Alana achieving her goal of being a knight, Eon’s choosing ceremony takes place at the start of the book, and the story is of her journey afterwards, not leading up to it. (Needless to say, the ceremony doesn’t quite go according to anyone’s plans. What a surprise.) A lot of the subsequent plot revolves around political intrigue and dastardly plots, which I don’t want to give away.

Then there is the stellar cast of supporting characters. There is the master who gambols everything on a girl candidate (if she is discovered, they will both be put do death) in the hopes that she will succeed and bring them both wealth and power. He’s not the most lovable of characters, but I retrospectively found his faith in her endearing. There is Lady Dela who, we quickly learn, is a woman in a man’s body. (“Why would you want to dress as a woman?” asks Eon. “Women have no power!”) And a few other allies who help her along the way.

One thing I found refreshing about this book is that there is no love interest or romantic plot. Eon does spare a few thoughts for some of the men around her, but they are questioning thoughts, rather than wishful ones. The romantic storyline shows up in book two and, the way the world and plot are structured there is no sensible way for it to have started in the first book, so I’m glad the author didn’t force it in.

When, inevitably, people start to find out the truth about her, their reactions are interesting and broad (well, once they get past the initial shock), but I don’t want to spoil the entire spectrum here.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, and you will probably want to have the second book on hand when you finish the first.


I want to make a comment about both books together before moving on to the slightly spoilery review of book two.

These books were published by HC’s YA imprint and hence — presumably — marketed at YA. I’m not sure why. I don’t mean that I thought they were inappropriate or anything like that. In fact, I almost feel like it was the 16 year old protagonist and the lack of explicit sex that led them to be classed as YA. And, as a consequence, which led me to not read them until now. I only really read the really big YA books, or ones explicitly recommended to me, so this escaped my notice when it was release. I can’t help but feel that if it had been published by HC’s fantasy imprint (Voyager) I would have noticed when it came out and would have read it then.

I’ve read other non-YA fantasy books with YA-aged protagonists, so what makes this one YA? Marketing?

Anyway, moving on.


**** SPOILERS ****








Eona by Alison Goodman

4.5/5 stars

Picking up almost immediately where Eon left off, Eona continues the story of the girl Dragoneye caught up in court politics and a power-play by the late Emperor’s half-brother. Most of the story revolves around the resistance fighters (who want to put the rightful heir on the throne for a variety of reasons, including him not being a sadistic bastard) Eona coming to learn about her powers (or realising how much she doesn’t know) and the delightfully morally ambiguous other surviving Dragoneye who was positioned as the bad guy in book one.

Now that Eona has given up trying to hide her gender, she still has to come to terms with what being a girl means. People treat her differently (useful when they assume she can’t use the swords she’s holding), she faces different risks, and she finds that she has to “learn to be a girl”. I found it delightful that Lady Dela (the woman in a man’s body) felt even more uncomfortable in man clothes (part of their disguise) than Eona did in a dress. Mostly Eona just complained that skirts were silly. More could have been done with this, but she did rather have other things on her mind.

A small gripe I had was the amount of “as you recall from book one” writing at the start. I mean, it wasn’t particularly badly done, but having picked this book up straight away, the reminders felt a bit clunky and could have perhaps been a bit more integrated. That said, if you were unfortunate enough to have a longer gap between the two books, I doubt this would be a problem.

There was a lot more angst for Eona in this book. In the first book, she knew what she had to do (be Eon) even when she didn’t really know what she was doing. And for most of the book, people expected her to flail a bit because she was new to her situation. In this book, a lot of people are relying on her and there’s a looming issue of having to save the kingdom from natural disasters as well as from civil war. She angsts and makes some poor choices which made me want to slap her. (Luckily, one of her friends slaps her every now and then, which was a bit mollifying.) While it was at times frustrating to read, that sort of connection and caring for the characters takes some good writing, which the author pulls off. I just wish she’d been slightly less of an idiot at times, even if it was justifyable in terms of where she was coming from as a character. (If you’re wondering, this frustration is the main reason I rated this book less highly than the first one.)

The ending was nicely conclusive and tied up all the loose ends. It did end rather abruptly exactly as soon as said ends were tied up, however. I was left wanting to know what happened next as they picked up the pieces of the world-almost-ending-incident. I thought an epilogue set some time afterwards would have been nice. However, on reflection, such an epilogue would have made it harder for a particular point of ambiguity remaining ambiguous. Given how that point ought to play out, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing. (What? I don’t want to spoil ALL the things.)