Friday, 31 May 2013

Any Other Name by Emma Newman

Any Other Name by Emma Newman is the sequel to Between Two Thorns, which I reviewed earlier this year. Any Other Name picks up very soon after Between Two Thorns left off and depends very heavily on the first book. This review contains spoilers for Between Two Thorns but not for Any Other Name. I recommend not reading on if you haven't read book one.

You were warned.

Any Other Name opens on the day of Cathy's wedding to Will. She has been drugged by her family to prevent her doing anything crazy, like trying to run away and have a say in her own life. A lot of terrible things happen to Cathy throughout the book (but at least most of them aren't violent!) and I deeply sympathised with her predicament. Although I had hoped at the end of book one that Cathy and Will might realise they have more in common than each saw on the surface of the other, any desire I had to ship them quickly evaporated with Will's behaviour. Made worse, I think, because he often meant well and then utterly failed to do the "right" thing (scare quotes because of generalised moral ambiguity). Really, Cathy was the only Netherworld character in more than two or three scenes that I didn't end up hating for one reason or another. I enjoyed Cathy as a character and there were some promising things set up with her which I look forward to reading about in the next book.

The other major set of characters included Sam, the human who accidentally got caught up in the action in book one, Max, the arbiter, and the sorcerer. Mostly they plod along trying to solve the mass murders and associated issues from book one. There were some interesting revelations, particularly with Sam that I totally saw coming, but overall, while their story progressed the trilogy story arc, it was less exciting than what Cathy and Will were up to. (Apart from their ending.) I look forward to seeing how it all plays out — because right now it seems there are too many mysteries to be able to guess everything reliably — but I wouldn't have been disappointed if their sections had been fewer.

The last quarter or so of the book was a bit of an exercise in frustration for me. The reader knows what various factions are up to and then gets to watch as the wrong ones communicate and characters are manipulated into making matters worse. I'm not sure I was entirely in the mood for that kind of heckling-at-the-page-inducing writing, but that was for external reasons. Whether or not that's the sort of thing you like (I generally do) will mean your mileage will vary. (And if you're the kind to exclaim aloud or shake your fist at a book, maybe don't read it on public transport.)

On a non-literary note, I really love the covers for this series. Not only are they attractive (incidentally, it's the same artist as Cassandra Rose Clarke's Assassin's Curse books), but if you look closely you can see a lot of elements that pop up in the books. There's the more obvious things like the flowers and London, but if you look closely, every detail makes sense once you've read the book.

On the whole, this was a solid continuation of the series that brought more or less what I expected (after the slight shock of the opening), and not in a bad way. If you enjoyed Between Two Thorns, I definitely suggest reading Any Other Name. If you didn't, probably give this one a miss. It's also not the kind of sequel that can be read out of order. If you read this whole review without reading the first book, and you're a fantasy fan looking for something a little off the beaten track, I recommend giving this series a go.

4 / 5 stars

First published: June 2013, Angry Robot
Series: yes. Split Worlds, book 2 of 3
Format read: eARC on Kobo
Source: the publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 27 May 2013

Trader's Honour by Patty Jansen

Trader's Honour by Patty Jansen is a sort of standalone sequel to Watcher's Web. It takes place mainly on the same planet and some of the same people make appearances, but the main character is new and the main part of her story is entirely separate to the character's from Watcher's Web. Abridged blurb (for length):
Mikandra Bisumar is useless to her father: she carries the curse of infertility that plagues the Endri people of Miran. Forced to work in the hospital to pay her duty to her proud nation, she dreams of becoming a Trader, one of the people who bring great prosperity to Miran.

To her surprise Iztho Andrahar, from the city's most prestigious Trading family, has agreed to take her on. That is where her troubles begin.
Her father is so angry with her that she has to leave her home. Worse, the Andrahar Traders have been accused of smuggling. Iztho has disappeared and the business license suspended.

Mikandra has nowhere to go, except try to help Iztho's brothers prove their innocence.
Mikandra has guts, something I like in a character (to the surprise of no one, heh). Instead of continuing to sit around in what she sees as a broken society, she takes steps to change her situation. First she applies for the Trader Academy, going to another Miran Trader family when her Trader aunt won't take her as an apprentice. Then, when it looks like her dreams will fall through because her sponsor family is in trouble, instead of running back to the relative comforts of home (if an abusive father can really be called a comfort), she sets out to help her sponsor's family. Helping in this case, involves travelling to another continent, when she'd never left the city before, and trying to track down her recalcitrant sponsor. Her mission turns out to be harder than she'd assumed but she sticks it out, even after being robbed on her first day there.

I enjoyed reading about Mikandra a lot. I was a bit hesitant to read Trader's Honour because I didn't enjoy Watcher's Web — I gave up about half way through mainly because I couldn't relate to the main character's reactions to her situation — but I decided to try the sample on SmashWords and was hooked. Mikandra is a very different character in a different situation. So if you haven't enjoyed Watcher's Web but the premise of Trader's Honour sounds like something you'd enjoy, I urge you to give it a shot.

Trader's Honour deals quite a bit with notions of how societies (should) work. The Mirani have two classes of people, the nobility (which includes Mikandra) and the working classes. The noble class not only limits the prospects of its women, but also believes that it's their duty to protect and care for the lower classes. As we learn quite early on, they don't do as good a job as they could. By contrast, Barresh, the other continent, is thought to be primitive and more or less useless. But when Mikandra arrives there she finds that, yes, it is very different (there's a bit of appropriate culture-shock on her part). Over time she learns that different does not mean worse, not the way the other nobles think, and starts to see a lot of potential around her. It made me think of biases against developing countries and how some are actually the world's fastest growing economies.

When the characters from Watcher's Web started showing up I felt a bit frustrated that I didn't have as much background information on them as if I'd finished the book, but it really wasn't necessary. It merely put me on the same level as Mikandra. And if I hadn't known there was another book, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't've cared.

Trader's Honour is an enjoyable science fiction read. It's low on technobabble and explicit sciencey stuff, although the worldbuilding is fairly solid. (If you're curious, Patty wrote about the worldbuilding here.) As such, I think it might also appeal to fantasy fans who don't mind a few aeroplanes and a spot of interplanetary travel in their fiction. I highly recommend it to science fiction fans.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2013, self-published
Series: Return of the Aghyrians book 2 of 2 so far, but it's a series of stand-alones.
Format read: ePub, mostly on my Kobo
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author (SmashWords link)
Disclaimer: Although Patty is a friend I have attempted to write an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Sunday, 26 May 2013

New Booksies

I have a tendency to put off doing New Booksies posts because it feels too recent since the last post. Since I don't have a set weekly day to post them, I try to wait until I've posted at least three reviews since the last one and have a handful of books to include. (I also like to think I don't acquire books at a terribly fast pace, haha.) But then I forget about it. I just checked and this year I've been consistently posting two of these a month, which I think is apt. Should I pick consistent days to post every month? I suspect no one really cares enough for me to bother trying to stick to that. Let me know in the comments if you do have an opinion.

Onwards to what you came for!

I have four new books this time, and they're all ARCs. The main reason for this is that in my read-three-buy-one book buying scheme I stopped counting eARCs as read because doing so really wasn't stemming the flow of new books onto my shelves/e-shelves. Paper ARCs (what few I get) still count because moving them from the TBR to the Read shelf (in real life) feels like an achievement. And all types of purchased books count, of course.

From Diversion Books, Harper Voyager Aus and Disney Book Group, via NetGalley, and from Patty Jansen, because she's cool, I recieved:
  • Outcasts by Adrienne Kress — a YA book I couldn't resist because the blurb sounded so funny.
  • Happy Endings by Will Elliott — a collection of short stories. I haven't read anything by Australian author Will Elliott before, so I'm hoping this will be a good way to sample his work.
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein — a YA WWII thriller along the same lines as Code Name Verity (which I haven't read but want to, hopefully this'll be just as good as everyone says Code Name Verity is)
  • Trader's Honour by Patty Jansen — a science fiction novel in the same universe as Watcher's Web but standing alone. I was hesitant at first because I didn't finish Watcher's Web, but reading the sample on SmashWords I was hooked. Review coming tomorrow. 

 Yay, books!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear edited by Edwina Harvey and Simon Petrie

Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear is an unthemed anthology edited by Edwina Harvey and Simon Petrie. The anthology itself was shortlisted for a Ditmar award as was Joanne Anderton's story "The Bone Chime Song". Two stories were also shortlisted for Chronos Awards (the Victorian spec fic awards which will be announced at Continuum in a couple of weeks): “Five Ways to Start a War” by Sue Bursztynski and “The D_d” by Adam Browne.

Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear is quite a mixed bag as far as story content and style goes, not entirely surprising given that it's unthemed. When I was reading, it was impossible to guess what sort of story would come next.

My favourite stories were the quirkier ones. "History: Theory and Practice" by Dave Luckett and "The Travelling Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter" by Katherine Cummings both involved a serious set up leading to more than initially met the eye. "Murder at the Tip" by Anna Tambour, "Mary Had a Unicorn" by Ripley Patton and "Hard Cases" by Sean McMullen took an offbeat premise and followed it through to the obvious conclusion without flinching. I particularly liked "Mary Had a Unicorn" although I can't say I'd want to live in that world with drugs so prevalent. On the other hand, "Hard Cases" gave me a bit more vicarious glee than is probably healthy.

Two other stories I quite liked (and which don't really fall in the quirky category) were "Faet's Fire" by Thoraiya Dyer, which had beautiful writing, and "Kindling" by Kathleen Jennings, which was a pleasant wander through the lives of bar patrons. I should also mention "Bone Chime Song" by Joanne Anderton, which is excellent, but which I skipped in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear since I'd already read it.

More thoughts on each story, recorded as soon as I finished reading it, below. Overall, Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear is a diverse anthology which showcases a variety of stories and authors. I recommend it to fans of short fiction, perhaps looking for diverse reads in one single package.


"Bone Chime Song" by Joanne Anderton — previously read and reviewed, when I said "Eerie, well imagined. A complete world glimpsed through a short story."

"Five Ways to Start a War" by Sue Bursztynski — a tale of gods meddling in the lives of men and the real cause of the Trojan War. Interesting changes of perspective with each section.

"History: Theory and Practice" by Dave Luckett — Packed with a surprising amount of historical detail, an amusing story set in the Dark Ages. The protagonist is more than meets the eye. Enjoyed the reveal.

"D___d" by Adam Brown — exploration and industrialisation of hell. Sort of. Didn't quite do it for me (purely subjective reaction).

"The Travelling Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter" by Katherine Cummings — Cute science fiction story with all the right elements. Travelling scout recruiting lost planets to the galactic empire. I expected a twist, but didn't quite pick it.

"Faet's Fire" by Thoraiya Dyer — A farm, a coal seam, a girl, a boy and Faet, a bird monster. Very well written and an enjoyable read, a little dark.

"Murder at the Tip" by Anna Tambour — About the horrors that could ensue were the irritating machines in our lives sentient and granted personhood. (Ironically, this was the story my Kobo chose to misbehave on.)

"The Subjunctive Case" by Robert Porteous — a detective story about a mysterious murder and a detective who can split himself into two parallel universe investigations.

"Mary Had a Unicorn" by Ripley Patton — a story set in a world in which drugs are particularly prevalent and unicorns have been genetically engineered to search and destroy them.

"Between the Lines" by Brenda Cooper — a story about conspiracies and hope in the future. I didn't find it entirely believable and it reminded me a bit of Cold War SF. Not a bad story, though.

"The Godbreaker and Unggubudh the Mountain" by Ian McHugh — a story of power struggles between fantasy creatures and mountain gods. Fight scenes a bit protracted for a short story.

"Hard Cases" by Sean McMullen — a story about a group of people taking a hard stand against the kind of people who refuse to believe in global warming. I enjoyed it, perhaps thanks to a bit of vicarious activism. Ahem.

"Kindling" by Kathleen Jennings — a story about paths crossing and diverging. A barmaid with a knack for bringing people together. I quite liked it.

First published: 2012, Peggy Bright Books
Series: no.
Format read: ePub on all the devices
Source: A review copy provided courtesy of the editors

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Pirate's Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Pirate's Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the concluding volume of the story started in The Assassin's Curse, a book I loved when I read it last August. The Pirate's Wish does not disappoint on the pay-off that was set up in the first book.

The Pirate's Wish picks up not long after The Assassin's Curse ended.  Given that these were originally one volume, the second book can't really be read without reading the first beforehand. This review contains some spoilers for the first book. Blurb:
After setting out to break the curse that binds them together, the pirate Ananna and the assassin Naji find themselves stranded on an enchanted island in the north with nothing but a sword, their wits, and the secret to breaking the curse: complete three impossible tasks. With the help of their friend Marjani and a rather unusual ally, Ananna and Naji make their way south again, seeking what seems to be beyond their reach.

Unfortunately, Naji has enemies from the shadowy world known as the Mists, and Ananna must still face the repercussions of going up against the Pirate Confederation. Together, Naji and Ananna must break the curse, escape their enemies — and come to terms with their growing romantic attraction.

At the end of book one, we learnt what Naji must do to break the curse that binds him to Ananna. Now the two of them, plus Marjani and a new character I don't want to spoil, need to complete Naji's three impossible tasks. The story is full of action and adventure and Ananna kicking arse. Quite frankly, it's a fun read.

My biggest qualm with book one was Ananna's voice — first person pirate speak — which took me a while to get used to. I had a similar issue in The Pirate's Wish but I got used to it much more quickly. I enjoyed the dialogue, however, between all the characters. And the new characters, most notably the one that features somewhere on the cover. Ahem. The other semi-issue I had with it was that one of the impossible tasks Naji must complete had a possible unsavoury resolution and I spent some time worrying about how it was going to come to pass. It didn't go that way, but ultimately I didn't like that it could have. (Although for some reason this didn't occur to me when the tasks were given out at the end of the first book.)

Awesome female characters continue to be a strong point of the story. We learn more about Marjani and see Naji learn more leadership skills which I enjoyed. There is also a bit about the realities of piracy, which I thought was nice, instead of romanticising it too much. Not that it's really gritty or particularly dark, but the reader does confront the fact that piracy involves stealing things and killing people.

Overall, The Pirate's Wish (and The Assassin's Curse) is an enjoyable, quick read. I recommend the series to any fantasy fans that like adventure and great female protagonists. And if you haven't already, read my review of The Assassin's Curse, in which I wax lyrical about navigation. And then go read the book.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2013, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot)
Series: The Assassin's Curse, book 2 or 2
Format read: eARC on my Kobo
Source: Courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near

Fairytales for Wilde Girls is Allyse Near's début novel. It's about sixteen-year-old Isola Wilde, who lives in contemporary England and whose life is intricately interwoven with fairytales. Blurb:
There's a dead girl in a birdcage in the woods. That's not unusual. Isola Wilde sees a lot of things other people don't. But when the girl appears at Isola's window, her every word a threat, Isola needs help.

Her real-life friends – Grape, James and new boy Edgar – make her forget for a while. And her brother-princes – the mermaids, faeries and magical creatures seemingly lifted from the pages of the French fairytales Isola idolises – will protect her with all the fierce love they possess.

It may not be enough.

Isola needs to uncover the truth behind the dead girl's demise and appease her enraged spirit, before the ghost steals Isola's last breath.
Isola can see ghosts and fairies and other magical beings and often roams the woods by her house. At first she reminded me a little bit of Luna Lovegood sans Hogwarts, but as we learn more about her we see that there is more to her character than meets the eye. Magical creatures aside, in the real world Isola has to deal with a severely depressed mother and an increasingly distant father. She goes to a nun-run school and has a few ordinary human friends but her struggles to cope with her aggressive haunting make her withdraw further into herself and away from her human friends.

Fairytales for Wilde Girls is not a book to read quickly. Although it's not that long, I found it took me longer to read than another book of comparable length might have because there is so much in it I had to pay careful attention to try to catch all the nuances. Isola has a particular attachment to a book of fairytales her mother used to read from when she was younger — darker fairytales than the usual Grimm and Andersen — and throughout the text we're treated to several of the stories from that book. I've found those sorts of interludes jarring in other books, but in Fairytales for Wilde Girls they flowed and tied in with the overall story nicely. The transitions between contemporary teenage life (parties, mobile phones) and the magical world provided a change of pace that kept things fresh. This is a book I want to re-read at some point because I'm sure I'll pick up on things I missed the first time through.

Near weaves some interesting social commentary through her story. Isola's magical friends are brother-princes, including the female ones, because princes in stories are the ones who protect the princess. Quote:
Isola had never learnt to call them sisters — a sister was a wicked nun who smacked Mother's hands, and a sister in a fairytale was almost always evil. And so, Ruslana, Christobelle and Rosekin had remained brother-princes to Isola.
The fairytales Isola cherishes most tend not to be the kind where the princess needs rescuing, instead they are the kind of stories about girls who kill, and girls who are killed. They are more empowering to Isola than Disney-fied fairytales. Her Rapunzel isn't rescued, but hangs herself with her hair. Those kinds of stories. Perhaps not a book for someone looking for a happy fluffy read.

Honestly my only complaint is that I would have liked to have seen a bit more resolution between Isola and her friend Grape. Things are sorted out between them, but the denouement focussed more on Edgar rather than Grape. Not that I had a problem with Edgar, but I sort of wanted to be reassured about Grape as well. Definitely not something which marred my overall enjoyment.

Allyse Near is an author to watch. I will not be surprised if Fairytales for Wilde Girls makes next year's Aurealis shortlist. I look forward to seeing what Near writes in the future. I highly recommend Fairytales for Wilde Girls to all fans of dark fairytales and gothic fantasy. It's not a terrifying read, but it is dark and there are definitely elements of horror throughout. Readers of YA and adult fantasy alike will find much to enjoy in this book.

5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2013, Random House Australia
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Tankborn by Karen Sandler

Tankborn by Karen Sandler is a one of not that many YA dystopian novels I've read that is also proper science fiction. As well as the political aspects requisite in dystopian novels, it also deals with genetic engineering with a backdrop of planetary colonisation. I'd been meaning to read it for a while, since Shaheen recommended it, and I'm glad I finally got around to it.

Part of the blurb (last paragraph omitted because spoilers — why do publishers do that?):
Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. GENs are gestated in a tank and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.

When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds secrets and surprises; not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul's great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night. 

The most prominent aspect of Tankborn is the rigid class structure that segregates the society. Natural-born humans are ranked from the rich, land-owning high-status trueborns down to the servant class low-borns. Beneath them all are the GENs — genetically engineered people with small amounts of animal DNA included in their make-up giving them extra talents and making them less than human. As one might expect with the main characters being GENs, a lot of the social commentary revolves around non-GENs being varying degrees of horrible to the GEN main characters. However, there's definitely more to it than that.

For a start, the GENs have a different religion to trueborns. The trueborns follow a religion that is implicitly vaguely Christian (or at least monotheistic and involving worshipping a similar god), while the GEN religion involves worshipping the Infinite, who whispered to the prophets how to create GENs and whose plan for GENs involves servitude. It's a case of using religion to control the masses, hardly a new idea, but not one that I think I've come across in YA. It was done well, even as it unravelled, and Sandler didn't pull any punches.
She knew it was the Infinite's will, that a GEN's trial of servitude was the only way back to His hands.
The GEN religion is very much based around keeping GENs in their place. A further example:
But liberation for GENs on Loka [their planet] would violate the Infinite's laws. It would only be right for GENs to taste true freedom in the palm of the Infinite's hand.
And so forth.

As with any dystopia, we see the fabric of the society start to unravel, partially at the hands of our main characters. Despite this being the first book in a trilogy, I was pleased to see that it's story was self-contained, hooks for the sequel notwithstanding, as I was half expecting the main action not to be resolved. Since book one merely described the first step in the (standard YA dystopian trend of) dismantling of society, I look forward to reading how it all progresses.

I had only two small peeves with Tankborn. The first is that both the romantic couples liked each other a little too suddenly and their relationships became serious a bit more quickly than I would have expected. I can see why it fit with the plot that way, but it did make me go "Hrm."

The other thing is the technology. Tankborn is set on a colonised planet with the GENs being invented (for lack of a better word) some time after the colony had been established. (Incidentally, I hope we learn more about the colonisation process in the future books. I am deeply curious and would be disappointed if some form of Conspiracy didn't surround colonisation.) So it's a future where interstellar space travel has been perfected. But the technology they were using on the planet — aside from the GENs who had fancy artificial neural networks — consisted mainly of readers similar to iPads and smartphone-style wrist watches. Which isn't exactly bad per se, but that's kind of he level of technology we're at now. It struck me as a bit unimaginative. On the other hand, the Author's Note did mention that the story originated as a screenplay in the mid-80s, which could account for it.

All in all, Tankborn was a good read. I highly recommend it to fans of dystopias as well as fans of general science fiction. Although it's marketed as YA, I see no reason for readers of all ages not to enjoy it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2011, Tu Books
Series: Tankborn, book 1 (of 3?)
Format read: ebook on iPad
Source: US iTunes store (ebook not available outside of US, paper book only available as an import, as far as I can tell)

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

School Spirits by Rachel Hawkins

School Spirits by Rachel Hawkins is the first in a new spin-off series from the Hex Hall books (Hex Hall, Demonglass / Raising Demons and Spellbound). You definitely don't have to have read the Hex Hall books to enjoy this new series, however. The blurb:
Fifteen-year-old Izzy Brannick was trained to fight monsters. For centuries, her family has hunted magical creatures. But when Izzy’s older sister vanishes without a trace while on a job, Izzy's mom decides they need to take a break.

Izzy and her mom move to a new town, but they soon discover it’s not as normal as it appears. A series of hauntings has been plaguing the local high school, and Izzy is determined to prove her worth and investigate. But assuming the guise of an average teenager is easier said than done. For a tough girl who's always been on her own, it’s strange to suddenly make friends and maybe even have a crush.

Can Izzy trust her new friends to help find the secret behind the hauntings before more people get hurt?
I enjoyed this book a great deal. Izzy's inner monologue had me laughing out loud many times, particularly as she tries to work out how to be normal (often comparing the situations she finds herself in with a teen soap opera she bought as "research"). It had me from the first chapter, in which Izzy fights a vampire pretentious enough to wear body glitter (best Twilight jab I've read so far).

School Spirits has shades of typical new girl and new school YA, but with the twist that Izzy has never actually gone to a school before. And before moving to Ideal, Mississippi she didn't even own a TV. So fitting in and pretending to be normal is slightly more of a (hilarious) challenge for her. And although Izzy doesn't have any magic powers (other than an ability to sense magic/magical creatures) she does have a lot of skills that normal teenagers don't. Like vampire fighting and a knowledge of ghosts.

On a side note, I liked the way the love interest plot line played out. There was mercifully no love triangle and while there wasn't much mystery about which boy was in fact the love interest, it was enjoyable to watch it play out.

While most of School Spirits was light and fun reading, it took an unexpected serious turn at one point which added some depth and, dare I say, reality to the story. I can't elaborate further without spoilers but for me it was that moment that took the novel from pure fun to something a bit more serious. Also, the ending was a bit unusual and I'm dying to see how that plays out in the sequels.

All in all, I found School Spirits quite an unputdownable read. It was fun, hilarious and over too soon. I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable quick read and, of course, to fans of paranormal YA.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2013, Disney Book Group (US edition — no word yet on UK/Aus release dates)
Series: Yes. Book 1 of ? (3?). Same world as the Hex Hall trilogy, but does not have to be read after Hex Hall.
Format read: eARC
Source: the publisher, via NetGalley

Sunday, 12 May 2013

New Booksies

Time to regale you with my new bookish acquisitions once more. This time, I purchased two books and received two review copies.

From Harlequin AU and Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry via NetGalley, and Andrea K Höst I received the following review copies:
  • Ink by Amanda Sun
  • Hunting by Andrea K Höst — already reviewed
  • iD by Madeline Ashby
  • Playing Tyler by TL Costa

And I purchased
  • Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik (in paperback! Gasp!)
  • Tankborn by Karen Sandler
both prequels to review copies I'd got earlier, although both books I want to read anyway.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Hunting by Andrea K Höst

Hunting is Andrea K Höst's latest release. Unlike the earlier books of hers that I've reviewed in the past (And All the Stars, The Touchstone Trilogy), Hunting is definitely fantasy, not science fiction. The blurb was what really got me keen to read this one:
Ash Lenthard doesn’t call herself a vigilante. She’s merely prone to random acts of derring-do, and occasional exhibitions of tomfoolery. Her friends, the Huntsmen, have never stepped over the line while patrolling the streets of Luinhall.

That was before the murder of Ash’s beloved guardian, Genevieve.

Now, Ash Lenthard is out for blood and even when the hunt sends her to the palace, on a collision course with a past identity she would do anything to forget, Ash cannot, will not, back down.

I have to say, when I first started reading, I was a little bit disappointed. Not because it was bad, but because it wasn't as funny as the blurb sounded like it would be. Mostly, this is because things start on a sombre note, with Ash's aunt dying and Ash's circumstances being turned on their head. It wasn't boring, it just wasn't what I expected. But then! From about the halfway point it really picked up and I found myself laughing out loud several times. I enjoyed the second half a lot more. (If I rated them separately, I'd give the first half 4 stars and the second half 5 stars.)

Ash is a runaway who dresses as a boy. Before the opening of Hunting she was living with Genevieve, a herbalist who took her in when she was younger (she's now 20 but dresses as a 17 year old boy). When Genevieve is killed, Ash swears vengeance but isn't allowed to go at it alone, partly because others think she's an underage boy. She is taken in by a foreign noble, Thornaster, who is investigating a spate of herbalist murders, and becomes his page-like servant. A lot of the humour comes from the banter and interactions between Ash and Thornaster, and there were some very amusing moments. I also liked that Höst didn't make Thornaster a strict or cruel person, because that would have changed the overall tone of Hunting significantly.

The world Höst has built is detailed and not limited to the one city most of the action takes place in. It was a little tricky at first to keep all the places and titles straight in my head and I think the earlier parts of the book could have been improved with more backstory/descriptions. On the other hand, the full details of Ash's past don't come to light for a while, and I quite liked the circumstances in which the full story was revealed (and of course I had some idea of what was coming from hints earlier on).

An aspect I particularly liked was the way in which so many little threads all came together in the end. There were some things which I took in stride as "just" being part of the set-up or backstory which turned out to be relevant to the main story. Hard to say more on this without spoilers. Also, a small thing but the fact that the main character's mentor was female not male was gratifying. And even though Ash was a girl dressed as a boy in a male-dominated society, there were actual other good female characters in the story (and only one of them was a laundry maid) who showed us other roles women could play in the society without having to dress as a man.

There was one particular aspect of worldbuilding that I found quite fascinating and that was the matter of religion. The gods in the world of Hunting are associated with the sun and moon (the two main gods) and planets (the minor gods which aren't important). When people die, one of three things happens: their soul goes straight to heaven carried by the sun god's butterflies, their soul is taken by the moon god's moths for cleansing before later going on to heaven or the gods decide the person's soul is beyond redemption and they're damned — trapped on the mortal coil indefinitely, before eventually deteriorating into nothing. Somewhat painfully. What this means is that after you die, assuming you don't die alone where no one finds you quickly enough, everyone knows what the gods ultimately thought of you. There was one character who was a horrible person and, as part of the backstory, was damned when he died. The repercussions on the family members that survived him, who generally weren't terrible people, were not insignificant. This aspect made me think a lot about how people might change or police their behaviour if they knew there were real afterlife consequences for them. Food for thought.

Finally, there was a romantic storyline but it didn't start until a good chunk of the way in. I liked that there were several possible love-interests and that it wasn't until Ash realised she had a crush on someone that I knew which way it would go.

I ended up enjoying Hunting a lot and, as the length of this review may suggest, getting more out of it than I necessarily expected. I recommend it to fans of fantasy, particularly the kind of fantasy that is confined to one city. I'm tempted to call it "ye olde urban fantasy". I think readers of Tamora Pierce's earlier books (I haven't read her later stuff) will also enjoy it, although I admit my reasoning may start and end with the "girl dressed as a boy" element.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2013, Self-published (SmashWords link)
Series: No. Although there would be scope for another book in the same world.
Format read: ePub on iPad
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Valley of Shields by Duncan Lay

Valley of Shields by Duncan Lay is the second book his Empire of Bones trilogy. Last year, I read and reviewed the first book, Bridge of Swords.

I had forgotten, when I first picked up Valley of Shields, just one much of a cliffhanger the first book had ended on. This second volume starts pretty much the same second the previous one ended, jumping straight into the action. As such, it was a very in medias res beginning, without any recapping. It took me a little while to remember everything that had been going on nine months previously when I read the first book. I suspect this is the kind of sequel that would be perfect to read straight after the first book. So if you haven't had the chance to pick up this series, now might be a good time (and Valley of Shields doesn't end on the same sort of cliffhanger).

Cast out from his homeland, Sendatsu has used his sword-fighting talents to survive in the foreign land of the Vales. With the assistance of Rhiannon – the first human to use magic in hundreds of years – Sendatsu has helped Huw and the Velsh defeat an invading army. Better still, Sendatsu now has the key to reclaim his children.

It will mean a return to Dokuzen – a city where deceit runs deep and Sendatsu expects an unwelcome reception. How will Sendatsu and his unlikely allies, Huw and Rhiannon, know who to trust when they can barely trust each other?

And when Dokuzen comes under fierce attack, Sendatsu’s fight to survive will need to be more desperate than ever. Especially when this attack reveals who the real enemy is …

Valley of Shields again follows Sendatsu, Huw and Rhiannon but this time a lot of the action takes place in Dokuzen, the Elfaren city. This brings a lot of different political struggles to the forefront and I think there was a bit more intrigue going on (those who know me know I'm a fan of intrigue) from all sides, including the main characters.

An interesting aspect which was present in the first book but is much more important in the second is the love triangle between Sendatsu, Asami and her husband, Gaibun. The thing that made it interesting for me is that it was seen predominantly from Sendtatsu's perspective (since he's the most central character), rather than from Asami's as is common, especially in YA (not that this is YA, of course). I also appreciated that while we saw the two men trying to undermine each other, we also got to see Asami being annoyed at being treated like a prize, which made me happy. And while everyone (especially the men) made fools of themselves, it struck me as a pretty realistic state of affairs. I am looking forward to seeing how the matter is resolved in the final volume.

As fans of Lay will have come to expect, battles and training for them are again central to this book. If you're the kind of reader who doesn't like graphic violence (I wouldn't call it at all gratuitous in this case), then I'm not sure this kind of fantasy novel (what I like to call BFF — Big Fat Fantasy) is for you. But for fantasy fans, I highly recommend Duncan Lay's books. I also strongly recommend starting with the first book in this series, Bridge of Swords.

I enjoyed Valley of Shields a great deal. After a long string of not BFF books, it was nice and comforting (yes, I may have issues on that front) to get back into a nice long fantasy novel. I look forward to February, when the concluding volume is scheduled for release.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2013, Harper Voyager Australia
Series: Empire of Bones, book 2 of 3
Format read: ebook on iThings
Source: purchased from iTunes store

Monday, 6 May 2013

My First Twenty #AWW2013 Challenge Reads

The time has come when I've read my first twenty books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year. (Well, actually, I've read 21, but let's just look at the first 20 for now.)

It's been quite a mixed bag. I've been actively trying to read more horror and science fiction from Australian writers so the list is skewed a bit in those directions. In fact, looking at it now, there's only one Big Fat Fantasy (BFF) series on there, where those sorts of books used to dominate my reading. Part of that is because of intentionally branching out, part of it more annoying factors I won't go into right now. And I think there are probably more short stories than I would read if left to my own devices without challenges to motivate me.

The full list is at the bottom, with review links, in the order I read them. I've already highlighted the horror books I've read, in this post. Of the novels there was After the Darkness by Honey Brown, a contemporary novel with nothing supernatural in it but with an excellent sense of creeping dread, and Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott, a tale of two sisters and something that's not quite right in their relationships.

Of the fantasy I read, the Fallen Moon Trilogy trilogy by KJ Taylor is the aforementioned BFF. The trilogy, consisting of The Dark Griffin, The Griffin's Flight and The Griffin's War deals with griffins (shockingly) and racism, oppression and discrimination. Highly recommended and worth a read for all fantasy fans.

I also read the YA fantasy book Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski, set in a more traditional fantasy world, but with a YA protagonist. And werewolves. And the multi-award winning Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, with selkies.

On the urban/suburban fantasy front, I read Narrelle M Harris's two Melbourne vampire books, The Opposite of Life and Walking Shadows. They're an excellent read if the idea of a librarian teaming up with a geeky vampire appeals to you. I also read the YA (sub)urban fantasy Rise of the Fallen by Teagan Chilcott which treated angels and demons in a way that didn't irritate me, in a way that angel books often do.

The Australian science fiction I read will soonish be summarised in its own post (I'm only two books away from my first milestone of the), but briefly, I read a novella, Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson, a verse novel, The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (which was shortlisted for a Stella Award), and an excellent trilogy by Andrea K Höst — Stray, Lab Rat One and Caszandra — in which a Sydney girl accidentally wanders though a portal onto an alien planet.

On the short story/collected works front I read two collections in the Twelve Planets series, Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren, containing three creepy short stories and a disturbing novella, and Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer, containing four diverse and incredibly well crafted stories. There was also Ishtar edited by Amanda Pillar and KV Taylor, a collection of three horror novellas all dealing with the Assyrian/Babylonian goddess Ishtar in the past, present and future. And finally, I read a collection and an anthologyfrom FableCroft Publishing, The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton, which was wonderful and disturbing, and One Small Step edited by Tehani Wessely, a diverse collection of what Australian female spec fic writers can do.

All the reviews:
  1. After the Darkness by Honey Brown (review)
  2. Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren (review)
  3. The Dark Griffin by KJ Taylor (review)
  4. The Griffin's Flight by KJ Taylor (review)
  5. Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski (review)
  6. Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson (review)
  7. The Griffin's War by KJ Taylor (review)
  8. Walking Shadows by Narrelle M Harris (review)
  9. The Opposite of Life by Narrelle M Harris (review)
  10. The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (review)
  11. Ishtar edited by Amanda Pillar and KV Taylor (review)
  12. Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer (review)
  13. Stray by Andrea K Höst (review)
  14. Rise of the Fallen by Teagan Chilcott (review)
  15. Lab Rat One by Andrea K Höst (review)
  16. Caszandra by Andrea K Höst (review)
  17. Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott (review)
  18. The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton (review)
  19. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (review)
  20. One Small Step edited by Tehani Wessely (review)

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Eternity Cure by Julie Kagawa

The Eternity Cure by Julie Kagawa is the second book in the Blood of Eden series, which started with The Immortal Rules. The premise of the series is: when a virus threatens to wipe out humanity, vampires come out of hiding to protect their food supply and more or less set up "safe" areas where humans won't die of the plague (which causes rabid zombie-like creatures) and can provide uncontaminated blood for their vampire protectors.

I enjoyed The Immortal Rules a lot. I thought the writing was cinematic with just the right amount of action and tension. By contrast, when I first picked up The Eternity Cure I was very disappointed. The writing was much more pedestrian and lacklustre. After about 60 pages I put it down and read something else. When I came back to it, about six weeks later, with severely lowered expectations, I found I was ultimately still able to enjoy the book. There were some descriptive and action passages which I found myself skimming over to get to the dialogue which was more enjoyable to read.

The mundanely written action scenes were a particular let-down since there was so much action in the story. And a lot of twists. It was nice to be surprised by expected developments but by the end there had been so many twists and turns, it was wearying. It did keep me turning the pages because the tension rarely let up, but many of the developments had me groaning.

On to more positive things! The worldbuilding and plot were well thought out. Every time I though "hang on, that doesn't make sense" it would soon be explained how that particular element fit seamlessly into the plot/world. Although the ending sets us up for an obvious showdown in the last book, it also left me keen to find out how the worldbuilding questions will be resolved. (Will there be a cure for rabidism? Will humans be able to live independently from vampires on a large scale? Will Allison and friends indeed save the world?)

The characterisation was also well done. Allison continues to be a believable character and her angst about pretty much everyone else is justified and not angst for its own sake. The character that got the biggest rise out of me was Stick. In the first book, he was Allison's friend pre-vampirification, but then things change. When we encounter him in The Eternity Cure, his new situation makes him a massive prat and I really wanted to bash him over the head with something every time he appeared. He was so frustrating! But getting an emotional rise (on purpose) is a mark of good character writing.

Unfortunately, unlike in The Immortal Rules, there weren't any female characters other than Allison which was disappointing. Hopefully that will be remedied in the sequel.

I recommend The Eternity Cure to readers who enjoyed The Immortal Rules, with the caveat of not having overly high expectations. I think the story is worth continuing with despite some of this volume's shortcomings. I am looking forward to reading the last book and seeing how everything turns out. For readers who haven't picked up The Immortal Rules yet, I highly recommend doing so, particularly fans of vampires or dystopias who might be sick of the usual stuff.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2013, Harlequin Teen Australia
Series: Blood of Eden, book 2 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Charlotte's Army by Patty Jansen

Charlotte's Army is a novella by Patty Jansen set in the same universe as several of her other works but which stands alone. I've previously reviewed her novel Shifting Reality and short story "The Rebelliousness of Trassi Udang" from the same universe.

Since I first heard about it, I've found the premise of Charlotte's Army interesting: an army of artificial (clone-like) soldiers were all created with the same flaw. All of them are in love with Charlotte, one of the army's senior medical staff. I was interested to see how it would all play out and what caused the flaw. The fact that it wasn't Charlotte's fault was kind of gratifying since she was quite a likeable character.

Other issues explored in this novella were how human the constructed soldiers really were. The human soldiers in the story generally treated them as second class and highly expendable citizens. Where the top brass see erasing one of their minds as nothing more than recalibrating a piece of machinery, Charlotte sees it as deleting a real person. It was an interesting dynamic.

Charlotte's Army was a quick, enjoyable read. It rounds out the world I've read about in Shifting Reality nicely (although I want to stress again that it completely stands alone). I highly recommend it to science fiction fans and anyone interested in giving the genre a go.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2011, self-published
Series: Set in the ISF-Allion Universe but stands alone.
Format read: ePub on iThings
Source: Purchased from Smashwords a while ago.
Disclaimer: Although Patty is a friend I have attempted to write an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge