Friday, 30 August 2013

Student Bodies by Sean Cummings

Student Bodies by Sean Cummings is the sequel to Poltergeeks, which I reviewed last year. Although this book picks up shortly after where Poltergeeks left off, the plot arcs are fairly independent of each other and so Student Bodies can definitely be read by itself. At worst, it has spoilers for the resolution of the previous book, but the good guys always winning isn't that surprising. This review does not contain any major spoilers that aren't in the blurb.
Whoever said being a teenage witch would be easy? For fifteen-year-old Julie Richardson and the city’s resident protector from supernatural evil, the Left Hand Path doesn't give a damn if you've found true love for the first time in your life. There’s someone lurking the halls of Crescent Ridge High School with enough malice to unleash an epidemic of Soul Worms – supernatural larvae that feed on the very fabric of a victim’s humanity.

After witnessing the death of one of the most popular kids at school, Julie and über genius boyfriend Marcus are in a race against time to find out who is behind the attacks. All the evidence points to a horrifying plot at the City Weir during the Winter Solstice; the place where icy waters of the Bow River and a thunderous spillway will mean the deaths of more than a hundred of Julie’s classmates.

If she has any hope of saving their lives, she’ll need a little help from a coven of white witches and an Aboriginal mage whose snarky attitude is matched only by her magical prowess.
In many ways, Student Bodies was very similar in style to Poltergeeks. There were some various additions which set it apart, however. My favourite was the new character Twyla, a First Nations girl with comparable magical strength to Julie. She has sass, a grizzly bear and a kick-arse grandfather, all of which add to the excitement of the story.

The other big change is that now Julie is dating Marcus, formerly her best friend. And from about half-way in I became thoroughly confused by their relationship. Not the fact that they have one, that made sense, but the way they seem to relate on various topics, particularly Julie, since she's the one whose head we're in. For example, at one point she tells Marcus to stay away so that bad guys don't kill him and then angsts about it as though she'd broken up with him. It was confusing because a) she hadn't broken up with him even though b) she'd considered doing so for his safety and this was a compromise. There was another incident near the end, which I won't spoil, that was also confusing. Teenagers!

Also, on the topic of things that annoyed me, Julie and co worked out the evil witch's evil plan, which involved the good guys trying to stop her in a predictable way, and they still went ahead and did exactly what the evil witch was expecting them to do. I don't see how that was a clever strategy at all. But anyway.

On a cheerier (sort of) note, one of the issues — as well as perceptions of First Nations people — tackled in the text is bullying. One of the students at Julie's school was bullied extensively and publicly on Facebook and in real life. It doesn't exactly deal with bullying in as much depth as it could, but that's mainly because it's busy dealing with the nefarious magic rearing its head. And it certainly doesn't trivialise bullying.

Student Bodies is fast-paced and reasonably action-packed. It was a fun read and a little bit more serious than the previous book, Poltergeeks. Fans of the prequel should enjoy it and I don't think people new to the series will have difficulty picking it up. Although I didn't enjoy it as much as the first book, I'll still be keeping an eye out for any sequels that might come along.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes. Book 2 of ?. Somewhat standalone
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik is the penultimate book in the Temeraire series. I recently reviewed the previous book, Crucible of Gold. This review contains minor spoilers for the earlier books and, in my opinion, the premise of this one is a bit of a spoiler by itself, even though it's the first thing we learn on page one. If you've read the earlier books and want to be surprised, maybe skip this review (enough  to say I enjoyed it), and skip all the blurbs too. The only spoilers for Blood of Tyrants in this review involve historical events that actually happened and thus aren't really spoilers. But you've been warned. The slightly misleading blurb follows:
Shipwrecked and cast ashore in Japan with no memory of Temeraire or his own experiences as an English aviator, Laurence finds himself tangled in deadly political intrigues that threaten not only his own life but England’s already precarious position in the Far East. Age-old enmities and suspicions have turned the entire region into a powder keg ready to erupt at the slightest spark—a spark that Laurence and Temeraire may unwittingly provide, leaving Britain faced with new enemies just when they most desperately need allies instead.

For to the west, another, wider conflagration looms. Napoleon has turned on his former ally, the emperor Alexander of Russia, and is even now leading the largest army the world has ever seen to add that country to his list of conquests. It is there, outside the gates of Moscow, that a reunited Laurence and Temeraire—along with some unexpected allies and old friends—will face their ultimate challenge...and learn whether or not there are stronger ties than memory.

Blood of Tyrants was much more enjoyable than the previous book in the series. It took a different direction and I found that I did not grow tired of it nearly as easily. The beginning is very fresh and different, especially coming to it, as I did, soon after Crucible of Gold. The three parts of the novel are fairly distinct, with part one being set in Japan, part two in China and part three in Russia.

I was quite taken with the Japanese dragons Novik introduced and the way the narrative jumped between Laurence and Temeraire was particularly effective since their stories are quite disparate. It was interesting to see the way yet another culture interacts with dragons. In this case similarly to the Chinese but not identically, partly because the dragons themselves are physically different. There was also a bit of dragon-based historical animosity mentioned between Japan and China, which I would have liked to hear more about. When it came to Laurence sword-fighting with a Japanese character, I thought the way Novik described Laurence's reaction to the difference in English versus Japanese sword techniques believable. Too often I've seen authors get a little too specific about the Japanese techniques in a way that their characters are unlikely to fully process in the heat of battle.

Part two takes us back to China for what I would think of as the main plot of this novel, despite it not directly involving Napoleon at all. Their goal from the end of the previous book was to secure China's allegiance against the French empire and they are faced with some unexpected trials on the journey to achieving this. I felt that the book could easily have ended at the end of part two (perhaps with a little fleshing out, but not much would have been needed), especially given the strong resolutions of the Chinese story lines.

Because then there was the third part. In Russia. With terribly portrayed Russians. Which would not have been so bad if it weren't for the fact that every other piece of American media does the same thing, usually worse. Especially Hollywood. The evil/horrible/pick-a-negative-descriptor Russians is a trope that I am VERY MUCH OVER and would not be sad to never see again. Really. The Cold War is over. It's been over for more than two decades. Not to mention that in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, it hasn't even started. Can you tell I'm angry? Sure, I'm also biased, but that doesn't make my anger less justified. And no, this is not the worst portrayal of Russians in a piece of Western literature, but this camel's back was long ago broken beyond veterinary help. It's also not the only culture Novik hasn't done justice to (the Indigenous Australians in Tongues of Serpents spring immediately to mind) but it's the one that pissed me off personally. The negative portrayal, by the way, involves the brutal (and illogical given the events of earlier books!) treatment of Russian dragons. To the Russian army's detriment, of course. What would be the point if Laurence couldn't be set up to save them in multiple ways?

Also, the one Russian phrase used was both transliterated wrongly (in the sense that it did not follow the standard conventions) and grammatically incorrect. Whoo. (Google Translate, while still grammatically off, does a better job in terms of word choice too, which is worrying.) It's not really an important point, but still.

Ahem. So the last part aside, I quite enjoyed Blood of Tyrants. As the penultimate book, there was some expectation of it setting up the final resolution of the Napoleonic Wars for the last book. Which it did when it ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger. Without knowing exactly what will happen in the last book (I can only assume Napoleon's forces will be significantly diminished by the coming Russian winter, since real life, thus leading to a glorious victory for Laurence and the British and presumably their allies though it's hard to be sure on the last point), I still think Blood of Tyrants would have worked better ending as they leave China, putting the entire Russian part into a single volume, instead of spread across two. It would also have allowed more exposition of those events and, for example, leant more emotional impact to the burning of Moscow, which I found a little underdone.

Anyway, Blood of Tyrants was a much more enjoyable read than Crucible of Gold. Despite my reservations, I look forward to the concluding volume in the Temeraire saga, which will hopefully come out next year (but I couldn't find any announcements). For fans of the series, Blood of Tyrants is a must read. For those who were a bit hesitant to pick it up after Crucible of Gold, I strongly recommend giving Blood of Tyrants a go.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2013, Del Rey (US edition)
Series: Temeraire, book 8 of 9
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher, via NetGalley

Monday, 19 August 2013

New booksies

Hello! After a bit of a bookish acquisition gap and slow period, I suddenly find myself with enough new books to justify a post about them. Huzzah!

For review from Berkley Trade, Strange Chemistry and Angry Robot (via NetGalley) I recieved:
  • Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes — after I read about it on the Diversity in YA blog. It's a post-apocalyptic dystopian about an autistic girl
  • Skulk by Rosie Best
  • Tainted by AE Rought — the sequel to Broken
  • All Is Fair by Emma Newman — the third Split Worlds book, following Any Other Name Between Two Thorns

Then I bought on sale from the Book Depository and iTunes, respectively:
  • Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire — I've read and enjoyed her books written as Mira Grant, so the bargain price seemed like a no-brainer
  • Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas — because I've heard good things about this series, and it was 99¢ on the Aussie iTunes store (possibly still is)

 Yay, books!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Weight of Souls by Bryony Pearce

Weight of Souls by Bryony Pearce is the first book I've read by the author. It's YA urban fantasy set in London with Egyptian mythology in the form of a curse upon a half-Chinese girl, Taylor. So, y'know, a little bit off the beaten path. The blurb, abridged due to spoilers:
Sixteen year old Taylor Oh is cursed: if she is touched by the ghost of a murder victim then they pass a mark beneath her skin. She has three weeks to find their murderer and pass the mark to them – letting justice take place and sending them into the Darkness. And if she doesn’t make it in time? The Darkness will come for her…

She spends her life trying to avoid ghosts, make it through school where she’s bullied by popular Justin and his cronies, keep her one remaining friend, and persuade her father that this is real and that she’s not going crazy.

But then Justin is murdered and everything gets a whole lot worse.
I quite enjoyed Weight of Souls, especially the second half, which I think was more exciting than the first. I liked that Pearce chose to use Egyptian mythology rather than something more standard or ambiguous. It leant additional flavour to the story beyond standard urban fantasy tropes of kicking arse and taking names. In fact, I wouldn't say Taylor spent all that much time kicking arse. Sneaking around to do her job fulfil her calling, yes, but she went about it a bit haphazardly (especially while dodging ghosts) and fairly non-violently. In the course of doing what she had to, she also missed a lot of school failed to deal with her best friend very well. For the most part, it wasn't that she had to miss school per se, or that she had to keep her curse a secret from her friend. She did those things because she thought they were best, making her a flawed and believable teenager.

Near the start I found myself a bit annoyed at Taylor for going to great lengths to avoid getting a second mark on her skin (from a second ghost also wanting retribution) because it seemed to me like it wouldn't be possible, particularly after at least one ghost didn't even try to mark her. It made me feel like she was overreacting when she dodged and panicked over ghosts while already bearing a mark. However, although we never see her get a second mark, it later on seems as though her fears aren't unfounded. But I remained unsure (albeit also less annoyed at her). I would have liked to have seen a more definite ruling either way. But ultimately that was the only problem I had with the book.

Pearce weaved together two main stories: Taylor's running around after murderers and, initially in the back ground, happenings at her school. I enjoyed the school-based storyline (I don't want to spoil by saying to much like the full blurb does) although some aspects seemed a little bit far-fetched for an ordinary — as far as I could tell — state school.

The ending was satisfying, with excellent setting up both main storylines for a sequel. Although I couldn't find anything online about a second book, I have to assume the author is planning one. (For those that dislike such things, I wouldn't call it a cliff-hanger ending, not really. Weight of Souls stands alone fairly well.)

Weight of Souls was a good read. I thought the beginning was a little weak, but I was quickly hooked into the plot. I recommending it to fans of YA and urban fantasy, particularly those looking for something a bit different in the back story. I will definitely be picking up the sequel, whenever that comes out.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: I think so, based on the set-up at the end. Book one of ?
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Interview with Jo Spurrier

Today I have an interview with Jo Spurrier, author of the Children of the Black Sun trilogy. You can check out my reviews of her first two books, Winter Be My Shield and Black Sun Light My Way, both of which I absolutely loved. It was little surprise when Winter Be My Shield was shortlisted for both Aurealis and Norma K Hemming Awards.

A little bit of background on Jo, and then onwards to the interview!
Jo was born in 1980 and has a Bachelor of Science, but turned to writing because people tend to get upset when scientists make things up. Her hobbies include knitting, spinning, cooking and research. She lives in Adelaide with her husband and spends a lot of time daydreaming about snow.

You've described the cold and snowy environment in a lot of detail. Other than doing a lot of reading, did you travel anywhere to experience piles of snow?

Actually, I’d never seen snow until my husband and I went to the snowfields in Victoria, well after Winter Be My Shield was written. It was a great experience, but with temperatures around 0°C not exactly close to winter in Ricalan! I’d have loved to go to Russia or Canada to experience a sub-polar climate, but that wasn’t an option, and I based the world-building on research. I read everything I could get my hands on about cold-weather survival, winter camping and hiking, native cultures of the far north and about various explorers, pioneers and other people who ran away from civilisation to live in the woods.

The entire time I was petrified that I’d make some glaring error that would expose me as a fraud… it all came to a head when my publisher told me they were sending the book to Robin Hobb for a cover quote. Hobb had been one of my favourite authors for years, but I realised then that I actually knew very little about her, so I looked her up and saw that the grew up in Alaska! I just about had a heart attack, and when she sent me a message I replied to say that I was genuinely terrified, because if I’d got anything wrong, she was certain to pick it. She wrote back to say that I’d got the cold parts exactly right, which was an incredible relief! It doesn’t stop me from snatching up everything I find on cold-climate environments, though, and I suspect I’ll still be doing it long after Children of the Black Sun is all in print.

Q2. One of my favourite things to read about in fiction is moral ambiguity or "shades of grey" in terms of character choices. That is something which your character Rasten embodies. Where did the inspiration for him come from?

My characters first come to me with a few key aspects sketched out --- for example, to begin with I knew was that Isidro was wounded and Sierra was running away from something, but that’s all. Rasten began as an ordinary henchman, but one of the first things I knew about him was that he loved Sierra.

To begin with I couldn’t reconcile these two aspects, his love for Sierra and his obedience to Kell, but as the story came together and I had to climb inside Rasten’s head, I realised that he was far more complex than I first thought. It’s a rule for me that all my characters must make the best decisions they can and do everything in their power to achieve their goals --- I can’t let them make stupid decisions for the sake of the plot --- and the old saying that every villain is the hero of his own story was important here, too.

It took a long time to work out what made Rasten the way he is and why he makes the choices he does --- he is quite mad, but ultimately all his actions make perfect sense to him. His morality is learned from the world around him, a cruel and sadistic place where pain and power are all that matters. He’s always done whatever it takes to survive, and he realised long ago that no-one’s going to rescue him. He has no choice but to save himself, and that means using anyone or anything he can get his hands on. Once I realised this Rasten exploded onto the page and became a major character in the story. But the ultimate question for his character is whether his love for Sierra is enough to guide him out of the twisted world Kell has made for him, or if the damage he’s sustained is simply too great.

In the world you've created the living arrangements are very communal and families are polyamorous. What led you to choose that sort of culture, particularly the latter aspect? Will that be explored further in the final book?

The group-marriage concept came out of my research into the native cultures of Siberia. I chose to use it in Children of the Black Sun because I wanted to explore a society that was very unlike our own. I didn’t want a patriarchal culture, or a matriarchal one either, for that matter, and I really wanted to write about a world that doesn’t share our society’s hang-ups about sex. As I was learning how precarious life is in a sub-polar world I realised that communal living makes much more sense --- there is a reason why the cultures in the harshest environments have the strongest traditions of hospitality and the deepest incentive to form powerful personal bonds. For a traditional two-parent family living in such a harsh environment, injury or illness may well mean death, not just for the individual in question but for their dependants, too. But a family of four adults (or more commonly six or eight) offers far greater economic and physical security, for adults as well as children. The people of Ricalan aren’t necessarily polyamorous, and they’re not necessarily heterosexual, either --- what people get up to in their furs is no-one else’s business --- but it’s generally believed that if you wouldn’t have sex with a person under any circumstances then you shouldn’t marry them.

As for whether we will see more of this in book three… well, at the close of Black Sun Light My Way, Cam and Isidro, Sierra, Mira and Delphine are all scattered across two continents. If they do manage to re-unite, they’re going to have to figure out just what the future holds for them, and whether the damage that was done can be repaired, or if their only choice is to forge new bonds from the scraps that remain.

Do you have a title for the third book in the Children of the Black Sun? Can you tell us a little about your future writing plans after this series is done with?

Book three will be called North Star Guide Me Home --- it’s a story about homecoming, about fighting to reclaim a stolen motherland and build new lives from the ashes of war. However, those who’ve laid claim to the north by right of conquest will not willingly give up their prize, and they’ve had a great deal of time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the battered souls marching homewards.

Once North Star is done I’m planning to dive into research for my next series, which will draw inspiration from India and ancient Greece, with leylines and dragons and a sprinkling of science. I’m quite taken with ideas of magic-as-technology, but whenever I mention this people start talking about Steampunk. I don’t really think of it that way, and in any case I have been reliably informed that it can’t be steampunk without an element of Victorian England, which I can promise will be conspicuously absent. Either way, I can’t wait to get started!


Thank-you, Jo for taking the time to answer my questions! I'm certainly looking forward to reading North Star Guide Me Home next year and the new books that come after. Jo Spurrier is a writer to watch.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott

Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott is the author's first novel but I have previously reviewed her second (unrelated) novel, Perfections. I think the blurb (on the actual cover, rather than from Goodreads) of this one sums it up quite nicely:
When Alex Bishop meets Madigan Sargood again after twelve years apart, everything changes. His childhood sweetheart is beautiful and impulsive, but there is something wrong with her. Something dangerous. Then she commits suicide.

Now Alex can't get Madigan out if his head. Is it all in his mind, or is she communicating with him?

To save himself and those he loves, Alex must uncover the sinister reason why Madigan took her own life — and why she won't lie still in her grave.

The cover reads, "Obsession never dies..." and the story of Madigan Mine is definitely about obsession. Before I started reading I thought it would be Alex's obsession at the forefront of the  novel. There is some of that, but the novel is really about Madigan. Although she is dead at the start — the story opens with her funeral — we get to know her almost as well as Alex, through flashbacks and through Alex's descriptions. Alex quickly falls into a relationship with her after she waltzes back into his life. At first he's happy to be reunited with her after she moved away while they were at school. Their relationship progresses quickly, building on their shared history in a way that makes perfect sense.

Inevitably, things change. Alex finds himself drifting away from Madigan as she surrounds herself with models and hangers-on, gets lost in her art and Alex starts to wonder how well he really knows her. But that's all back story. In the present, Alex is dealing with Madigan's suicide and events surrounding it. And, despite not having seen or spoken with her for weeks before her death, he suddenly finds he can't get her out of his mind. The mental interjections in Madigan's voice are written in grey, which is the first time I remember seeing that in a book, and was a particularly clever way of handing it. There is more symbolism in the slightly washed-out words than there would have been in italics.

The first half or so of the book is fairly contemporary — as in, not speculative fiction — although some horror elements do come into play. (There was one scene in particular that had a fairly high ick factor for me and quite definitively sealed Madigan Mine as horror, in my mind.) In the second half, however, more speculative elements come prpominently to the forefront. Although it starts off like a contemporary novel, I don't expect people who don't like speculative fiction to enjoy it.

Madigan Mine is eerie, haunting (and haunted) and intense. Alex's journey is not an easy one for him nor for the people around him. Right up until the end I wasn't sure if he was going to survive the book. McDermott's début is an excellent start to what I hope will be a long career. I enjoyed Madigan Mine a lot (even the cringe-worthy bits) and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next (probably starting with her Twelve Planet collection, Contains Small Parts, as soon as the ebook is available). I highly recommend Madigan Mine to fans of horror and to fantasy fans who don't mind dark themes — aside from that one scene I mentioned, I didn't feel it rated all that highly on the nightmare-o-meter.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2010, Picador (Pan Macmillan AU)
Series: no
Format read: real life paper book (trade paperback)
Source: Real life Australian bookshop
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Horror Reading Challenge

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Round-up: Australian SF Reading Challenge

As some of you may be aware, this year I endeavoured upon my own Aussie Science Fiction Reading Challenge. Because (you may be shocked to learn) I wanted to encourage myself to read more Aussie SF. And because there isn't as much Aussie SF being published as, say, fantasy.

This post comes now because I've reached a milestone in my challenge, of reading ten books; the goal I was aiming for. They were quite a mixed bag too, despite the ten only containing seven different authors. Although I want to read more books by almost all of them (Lisa Jacobson being the only one I'm ambivalent about, and that only because I don't particularly expect her to write more spec fic), I would also like to broaden the pool to include more authors in the remainder of the year. Especially the ones that have been sitting on my TBR shelf, waiting patiently.

Incidentally, it's interesting to note that more than half of the books I've read for this challenge were self-published. That's six books by three authors. Another one came out through a digital-only imprint and two more from Australian small-presses. The remaining book is published by an international spec fic publisher (which I think makes it medium-sized) based in the UK. I'm not suggesting that no large Australian publishers are publishing SF (that's untrue), but it seems clear that there are many other sources of Australian science fiction other than large Aussie presses. I do have a handful of other Aus SF books on my shelf, as I said, and those are all printed by large presses. But you know what? Only two of them are originally from Australian publishers and both are now out of print! (One I have a US edition of, the other I nabbed in a second hand book shop but is still in print in the US and as an ebook from the Australian publisher. Wow, that's more depressing than I realised when I started writing this paragraph.) Ouch.

But on to happier things! A little about each book that I've read for the challenge so far this year.

Hal Spacejock: Baker's Dough by Simon Haynes (review)
Hal Spacejock is the captain of a cargo ship, haphazardly delivering cargo across the galaxy. His trusty sidekick is Clunk the robot — eminently more competent at just about everything than Hal is — and the ship itself is personified via the Navcom. In this adventure Hal and Clunk stumble into the middle of a mad rush to claim an inheritance left to a robot. The catch? Because robots are reprogrammed and have their memories wiped when they're sold to a new owner, no one is entirely sure exactly which robot is supposed to be inheriting.

Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson (review)
 Rayessa and the Space Pirates was a fun read. Rayessa is gutsy but woefully undereducated through no fault of her own. She makes do on her sucky asteroid and, as one would expect, dreams of a better life. Although this novella was published by an imprint of Harlequin, it's not really a romance story.

The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (review)
 Anyway, The Sunlit Zone was overall a good if unusual read. I would recommend it to anyone looking for something different to the usual spec fic fare. I think it's worth a read purely for the way it's written [it's a verse novel] and I imagine readers who usually shy away from speculative fiction would enjoy it as literature. It's not a long read, either, and not the kind of poetry that one has to reread a few times to digest, so I do encourage you to give it a go.

Flight 404 by Simon Petrie (review)
I enjoyed both the story and the physics in Flight 404. My long-time followers will probably be aware that scientific plausibility is very important to me. There were no gaffes, which made me happy and which is just as well since Petrie works, when not writing speculative fiction, in computational quantum chemistry. It was also nice to see non-trivial sociological issues — Charmain's gender identity — tackled in a hard science fictional setting. (I've seen Bujold do similar, but I don't think it's otherwise very common.)

The next three books form the Touchstone Trilogy by Andrea K Höst. It's definitely the kind of trilogy that needs to be read in order, so if you're looking for book suggestions, start with the first of the series.

Stray by Andrea K Höst (review)
Stray is about Cass, a Sydney teenager, who falls into a wormhole to another planet on her way home from her last HSC (High School Certificate) exam. In her school uniform and equipped only with her history notes, pencil case, an empty drink bottle, and a blank diary she'd bought as a present, she finds herself in a forest, all alone. The story is told through her diary entries.

Lab Rat One by Andrea K Höst (review)
The story continues with more of [Cass's] training with the Setari — psychic space ninjas — and more discovery's of the alien people's past. As with the first book, the plot is driven in large part by things unexpectedly happening to Cass, often as part of the larger experimentation with her still mysterious powers. It gave me the inescapable feeling that she is both terribly unlucky and very lucky to still be alive. She continues to almost die a lot.

Caszandra by Andrea K Höst (review)
  This book ups the danger levels and the stakes. The Setari (psychic space ninjas) and Cass were always trying to protect people but in the lead up to the conclusion, the urgency for definitive world-saving becomes extreme. And, unsurprisingly, Cass continues to almost die in new and exciting ways.

Charlotte's Army by Patty Jansen (review)
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.

Trader's honour by Patty Jansen (review)
 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 World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) by Ingrid Jonach (review)
When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) is about Lillie, a teenage girl in small-town USA who starts having weird and disturbing dreams in which she dies, every single night. And not just dies, is murdered by a figure in a balaclava. Her resulting unsettled demeanour gives the narrative a dream-like quality with a dark vibe that I really enjoyed. Probably my favourite thing about the first part of the book is the eeriness Jonach effectively evokes with her writing.

Incidentally, I have an interview coming with Ingrid in September, so if the above snippet and/or my review piqued your interest, stay tuned!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik is the seventh book in the Temeraire series. Yes, seventh. The series started with Temeraire (in the UK/ANZ, but published as His Majesty's Dragon in the US) and is set during the time of the Napoleonic wars, in an alternate universe where dragons exist, are intelligent and team up with humans.
Former Aerial Corps captain Will Laurence and his faithful dragon, Temeraire, have been put out to pasture in Australia—and it seems their part in the war has ended just when they are needed most. The French have invaded Spain, forged an alliance with Africa’s powerful Tswana empire, and brought revolution to Brazil. With Britain’s last desperate hope of defeating Napoleon in peril, the government that sidelined Laurence swiftly offers to reinstate him, convinced that he’s the best man to enter the fray and negotiate peace. So the pair embark for Brazil, only to meet with a string of unmitigated disasters that forces them to make an unexpected landing in the hostile territory of the Incan empire. With the success of the mission balanced on a razor’s edge, an old enemy appears and threatens to tip the scales toward ruin. Yet even in the midst of disaster, opportunity may lurk—for one bold enough to grasp it.
It's been around three years since I read the sixth book in the series, Tongues of Serpents (I had been foolishly waiting first for an Australian edition then, when I realised it wasn't coming, the US paperback, since hardcovers are silly and more expensive). As a result, I was a bit foggy on some of the characters. Particularly the one which I think we haven't seen much of since book 2 (Throne of Jade) which I read around when it came out in 2006. Honestly, a little bit more back story, particularly for the aforementioned character, Hammond, would have been nice. That said, I wasn't lost per se, there was just a lot of "who is this guy again, and why do I care?" at the start.

From memory, I think some of the Temeraire books can be read as standalones or out of order (albeit with sustained spoilers for earlier books), but the same cannot be said for Crucible of Gold. Not so much because the plot relies very heavily on previous events, but because there were a lot of slow bits, and it was only my caring about the characters that made me keep picking it up to continue reading. As it was, it almost took me two weeks to get through it (a large part of the reason blogging's been slow, sorry) and I got distracted by two other books in the meantime.

The prose, which I remember enjoying in the earlier books, did not help with the pacing. It's written in a sort of early nineteenth century style with lots of archaic words and phrases and a restraint which reflects Laurence's stiff upper-lip. (Although, actually, Laurence is rather liberal for the time period.) I found some of the action scenes were duller than they could have been (I only really found one of them exciting and that was, arguably, the least consequential).

By contrast, there were several hilarious sections, which were easily my favourites. The humour was mostly situational, often arising from the dragons' misunderstandings of human politicking. I also enjoyed the development whereby Laurence (and Granby) realised what we readers have known for some time now; that they do not own their dragons, their dragons own them. Although I did find it mildly problematic that it was Incan and Tswanan (southern African) people who had more of a sense of belonging to their dragons, compared with the European attitudes of owning dragons and commanding them like ships (and the Chinese attitude of treating them as equal). On the other hand, I did feel that once we learnt more about the former cultures, it turned out to be less troubling than it appeared on the surface. But your mileage may vary.

On an entirely different note, after reading some article about queer representation in books, I was wracking my brain, trying to remember if a gay character had appeared in earlier books (I think not?), and then, not two pages later, someone came out as gay in Crucible of Gold. I shan't reveal whom, but I will say a big fuss was not made, aside from the come-out-ee being surprised and having to come to terms with it. And of course the sheer taboo for the time period was a big factor. I will be quite interested to see if Novik does anything further with the information in the last two books.

Crucible of Gold contains tragedy, adventure, hilarity and dragons. And of course several beloved characters from earlier books. I definitely don't suggest starting from this book if you haven't read any of Novik's work before. However, I definitely recommend the Temeraire series as a whole to all readers of historic fantasy. As well as fighting the Napoleonic Wars, the series takes Temeraire and Laurence across five continents (not Antarctica and not North America), reimagined in the presence of dragons. To readers who have read the earlier books in the series, this isn't the best of the bunch, but I still recommend reading it, if only for a few significant events that take place. (And really, if you've gotten this far, don't you want to push through to the end?)

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, Del Rey
Series: Temeraire, book 7 of 9
Format read: Paper! Paperback!
Source: US edition ordered off Book Depository since only the first 6 are available in the UK/ANZ :-/

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) by Ingrid Jonach

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) by Ingrid Jonach is the author's first book for young adults (her earlier works are for younger readers) and the first book to be released by Strange Chemistry by an Australian author.

This book was awesome and a lot about it was not what I had expected. I have to say, prior to reading, the title conjured up images of a love story set on the flat world at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree... for some reason. This book is (unsurprisingly) nothing like that. And, in fact, the title doesn't really make sense until about halfway through when mysteries start to be revealed. That is part of the problem with writing this review; I want to talk about a lot of the things that come up in the second half of the book, but that means a lot of spoilers. If you don't care about spoilers (although I think you should in this case because not knowing adds to the mysterious vibe of the first half), you can read my spoilery thoughts under the jump and also by highlighting the white text.

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) is about Lillie, a teenage girl in small-town USA who starts having weird and disturbing dreams in which she dies, every single night. And not just dies, is murdered by a figure in a balaclava. Her resulting unsettled demeanour gives the narrative a dream-like quality with a dark vibe that I really enjoyed. Probably my favourite thing about the first part of the book is the eeriness Jonach effectively evokes with her writing.

A reasonable amount of the story involves Lillie's interactions with her two best friends, Jo and Sylv, and their former-friend, now-cool-girl-enemy, Melissa. Jo and Sylv were less thoroughly detailed characters than Lillie (as often happens with first person narratives) but they weren't two dimensional, both with their own issues which, although we only see the surface, hint at complexity. Sylv wants to be a model and in her day-to-day, hams up being a "slut". Of course she cops flack for it from the cool crowd, but doesn't really care what anyone thinks of the image she's projected. Jo has to deal with her father's cancer after his relative absence in her younger years and issues at school which I won't spoil. There isn't much change in the main group's relationship with Melissa throughout the book — the popular girl exists mostly to be annoying. I wondered at first if there might be some sort of reconciliation with her during the story, as I've seen in other YA books, but thinking back on my own high school experiences, that doesn't seem realistic and — more importantly — would have sidetracked the main thrust of the book.

The main thrust, of course, being Lillie's nightmares and the mysterious new boy in town, Tom. She does spend a lot of time dwelling on him, but I was glad to see her being annoyed at his "hot and cold" attitude towards her, before his mystery was revealed (which is a spoiler). I also liked that while there was another boy in the picture, he was never a serious love-interest for Lillie and Jonach avoided a pointless love-triangle (huzzah). On the other hand, I thought Lillie's feelings towards Tom jumped to "love" a little bit too quickly, but I was willing to overlook that given how much I was enjoying the book otherwise.

You might be wondering why I've tagged When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) as science fiction but haven't talked about the SF aspects at all yet. (And if you know me at all, you'll know that I can't refrain from talking about science for very long.) That's because the science fictional premise is a massive spoiler. If that doesn't bother you, I do talk about it below the jump. If you're after hard science fiction, this is not the book for you. The scientific concepts, when they do come up, are introduced in a very hand-wavey way, which works in context and serves to reduce potential errors, but hard SF it does not make.

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) is an excellent read. Even if you ignore the premise and just look at the mundane interactions between the characters, it doesn't read like a stock-standard YA yarn. The mood evoked by the writing sets it apart from many other YA novels. I recommend it to YA fans looking for something a little bit off the beaten track.

5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: the publisher, via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

More discussion below and in white, but beware of spoilers! I have also included non-white headings for you, in case you only want to be spoilt on some topics.