Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Opposite of Life by Narrelle M Harris

The Opposite of Life by Narrelle M Harris is the author's first published novel starring Lissa and Gary. I recently reviewed its sequel, Walking Shadows. I have to warn you, this review is coming from the position of having read the second book first and I can't avoid comparing the two.
Lissa Wilson has seen more than enough death in her family, so when people start being savagely killed whenever she has a night out in Melbourne with her beautiful new boyfriend, she’s determined to investigate and to make the killing stop. Even when she realises the murders must be the work of a vampire.

Things had been looking up for this librarian and 21st century geekgirl, but the murders make her remember why she prefers books to people. People leave you. People can die.

She finds herself teaming up with the painfully awkward Gary to get to the undead heart of the matter. But there are more challenges in store than Gary’s appalling fashion sense.

The Opposite of Life introduces Lissa and Gary and the vampires of Melbourne. It's a somewhat darker book than Walking Shadows. There's a lot more death in it — the story centres around a series of murders and Lissa has the poor fortune to discover several of the bodies. The associated trauma, of course, leads her to be somewhat less than chipper and besides that she has a lot of other emotional baggage to come to terms with. And since Lissa meets Gary for the first time part way through the book, there's less opportunity for entertaining interactions between them. I liked that in Walking Shadows they were well established as friends.

The vampire mythos in Harris's world is refreshing in not being overly romanticised. Vampires don't feel much because they're dead. Their brains also don't work as well and they get firmly entrenched in old habits. Modern technology has made it harder for them to not draw attention to themselves and so they're not generally inclined to run around killing people willy-nilly (any more).

Harris juxtaposes the numb emotions of the vampires with humans, mostly various members of Lissa's family, who don't want to feel any more and deal with it using more conventional means (drugs, alcohol, etc). It is the appeal of not feeling which is the lure to vampirism for some of the characters in this story, not just eternal life and youth, but the promise that it will hurt less to live an undead life. An interesting notion and not one that comes up too often in vampire fiction. Not that there aren't a lot of jaded vampires around, but often they're that way thanks to their longevity.

I enjoyed The Opposite of Life quite a bit and I look forward to reading more Lissa and Gary stories in the future. I enjoyed Walking Shadows a bit more, though, mainly because it was cheerier and caused more laughs. I highly recommend this series to anyone looking for less conventional vampire fiction. An excellent panacea for the reader sick of Edward Cullens and (YA-ified) Lestats.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2007, Pulp Fiction Press
Series: Lissa and Gary, book 1 of ? (two so far)
Format read: ePub on my iThings
Source:, who have recently started allowing publishers to sell DRM free ePub files as well as their existing read in the cloud thing
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Bunch of News

I don't usually do news posts (because I honestly don't have time to) but a few exciting and noteworthy things have all come to my attention at once.

Glenda Larke's Havenstar, which was first published in 1999 and then quickly went out of print when the publisher folded, was re-released as an ebook late last year — link to SmashWords. Now Havenstar is being re-released in dead tree form as well! Here's the announcement on Glenda's blog and the full story of its initial publication.

New ebook cover       New print cover

The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild releases an anthology of short stories by Australian writers (not necessarily Canberrans) every year. For the first time, they are going to release one in ebook form, with the rest to follow. The first anthology that's been ebookified is Winds of Change, coincidentally the one with one of my stories in it ("Time Capsule"). Read more here. I have it on good authority that they're currently in the process of ebookifying more of their catalogue.

The next bit of news I actually stumbled across accidentally, when Tehani of FableCroft uploaded a new cover to Goodreads. Tansy Rayner Roberts's Mocklore Chronicles are going to be re-released by FableCroft! Interestingly, this is another two books which went out of print when the publisher folded. Splashdance Silver was first published in 1998 and has just come out from FableCroft, Liquid Gold, the second book, was originally published in 1999 and will be coming soon and the third book, Ink Black Magic, will be published for the first time after that. I have a copy of Spashdance Silver, which I read, er, around ten years ago, when I was in high school. I honestly don't remember if I ever got the chance to read Liquid Gold. I have a clear memory of my friend obtaining a copy from a seconds sale (hey, it was well out of print by then) and then later losing it in storage but I can't remember if she had the chance to lend it to me in between. Anyway, Tansy included a variety of where to buy links on her announcement blog.

I think that the best thing about the ebook revolution is the opportunity to easily make out of print books available again. Especially when the reason they went out of print had nothing to do with their individual sales records.

And finally, it seems that awards season is well and truly upon us and Ditmar nominations are open. Tehani has a summary of the process on her blog. But the short version is you can nominate if you're an attending or supporting member of this year's NatCon (Conflux 9) or if you're active in fandom. Here is the official page.

It turns out that I'm actually eligible for a few Ditmars this year, much to my vague surprise. If you would like to nominate me (for example for the reviews on this blog), I've listed my eligible things below. And if you're looking for inspiration regarding what books to nominate, I've reviewed several eligible novels and collections.

Ditmars I'm eligible for:

Short Stories
Story name links to the page where you can read that story online. "Chosen" and "Red Rover" are only flash fiction (<1000 words) but "Addiction" is a bit more substantial.

Fan Writer

Tsana Dolichva, for body of work including reviews in Tsana's Reads and Reviews (ie all my 2012 reviews)

William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review

Any review from 2012... there are 119 to choose from. You can pick your favourite from my index page where I've marked the more recent 2013 reviews with * to more easily distinguish the eligible 2012 reviews.

Works I've reviewed that are eligible for Ditmars themselves:

Novellas/Novelettes (not listing the ones in the collections below separately though):
Skipping short stories because they're all contained within the collections below...

Collected works:

Although I probably skipped some things because at this stage of staring at lists my eyes are starting to glaze over.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

New Booksies

I've acquired some new books since my last New Booksies post, ergo, time for another!

From NetGalley I received Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Meade. I think this is her first foray into space opera (at least it sounds like space opera but I'm unclear as to whether there's any actual space travel involved). It will be interesting to see how it turns out. I've enjoyed her Vampire Academy and Bloodlines books a lot, but I haven't read any of her other adult books. I am interested!

I have purchased The Opposite of Life by Narrelle M Harris because I couldn't not read it immediately after reading Walking Shadows. Review forthcoming shortly.

I also purchased The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson, a science fictional story written in verse which is on the inaugural Stella Award longlist. I felt I should check it out because how often does science fiction get recognised by literary awards? And also because no one has yet reviewed as part of AWW. But what really got me was the Kobo sample. It was surprisingly engaging from the start.

Yay books!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Walking Shadows by Narrelle M Harris

Walking Shadows by Narrelle M Harris is actually the second novel featuring these characters, something I didn't realise until after I'd bought it. However, I can happily report that reading it without reading the prequel first in no way affected by enjoyment of it.

Lissa is a Melbournian librarian whose best friend, Gary, is a dorky vampire. Shenanigans ensue when the vampires of Melbourne start being killed in dramatically permanent ways. Lissa, concerned for Gary, can't help but stick her nose into matters to protect him.

I really loved this book. I was expecting to enjoy it after having read Harris' Showtime collection, in which the titular story featured Lissa and Gary, and it surpassed my expectations. Walking Shadows was full of amusing narration (in first person) and entertaining exchanges between Lissa and the  people in her life. I laughed out loud many times (and silently a few times when I was reading during a bout of insomnia and didn't want to wake up the husband). The fact that it was set in Melbourne didn't hurt, either.

I liked the vampire mythos Harris has used. In this world, vampires don't have to drink blood to survive, but they get a buzz if they do; the human blood moving through their system makes them feel a bit more alive and helps them think. Most of the time, they have difficulty with new concepts (hence living in the past) and can't think creatively. In short, they're less smart than humans and one of the reasons they might keep humans around is to help them with the thinking their less active synapses have trouble with. (Of course, that also means some of them are stuck in a killing for fun rut...)

Taken at face value, the main plot isn't the most surprising aspect of the book. However, Harris includes many layers to Lissa's life, beyond the vampiric associations. Despite the life-threatening situations, she continues to care about her job, sister, friends and pet dog. I liked that she retained a sense of perspective and cared that she was making people worry about her (unlike some main characters I won't mention).

I am definitely going to read the first Lissa and Gary book, The Opposite of Life, some time soon. It has moved dramatically up my "to buy" list. (I hope I can get it off Book.ish — does anyone know if their geo-restrictions care about IP addresses or only about credit cards? Rest assured you'll see me ranting on Twitter if I can't.)

Walking Shadows was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for highly entertaining urban fantasy. I'm tempted to say it's a light read, but that's not really true as it tackles some serious issues albeit without taking itself to seriously. I loved the characters and I particularly recommend it to people looking for somewhat non-standard vampires in an Australian setting.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2012, Clan Destine Press
Series: Yes. The second book about Gary and Lissa
Format read: ePub on my iThings
Source: Purchased from publisher's store
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Friday, 22 February 2013

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Etiquette and Espionage is the first book in Gail Carriger's newest series, the Finishing School books. As the series and title suggest, it's set mostly at a special kind of finishing school in Victorian era steampunkish Britain. It's the same world as Carriger's Parasol Protectorate books (which start with Souless and end with Timeless) but fifteen to twenty-ish years earlier. In no way do you have to have read any of Carriger's other works to enjoy this one, however. The blurb:
Sophronia Temminnick at 14 is a great trial more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners -- and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Her poor mother, desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady, enrolls the lively tomboy in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But young ladies learn to finish...everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage -- in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year's education.
It has intrigue, technology and delightfully humorous lines. Sophronia is clever and resourceful and a wonderful character to read about. I particularly liked the angle Carriger took where she's sent off to finishing school for acting too boyish and unladylike, but in the course of the book, she learns not only that her boyish interests can prove useful, but that there are also many uses for girlish things. Like full skirts to hide knives in or deceiving unsuspecting men with ladylike appearances. It's nice to not have dresses dismissed simply because they are feminine and dresses. (Of course, there's another opinion regarding dresses from a character we've grown to know and love from the Parasol Protectorate books.)

I thought the technological regression was done well. There was technology that hadn't yet reached the levels in the Parasol Protectorate books, but it was clear the direction it was heading. For example the dirigibles are much less advanced and can't yet go very quickly in Finishing School, although we know they're used for long-distance travel in Parasol Protectorate.

Because of Sophronia's age, this series is being classed as YA (whereas Parasol Protectorate involved marriage and children and hence was for adults). However, I see no reason for adult readers not to enjoy it. There is little stylistic difference between the two series, even if the characters are mostly nothing alike (apart from the few that appear in both, of course). Since Sophronia is only fourteen, on the younger side for YA, I suspect it would be a good book to use to hook in younger readers.

Etiquette and Espionage was a quick read, which was a bit disappointing because I didn't want it to end. I can't wait to read the next in the series, which I believe is due out in November. Let's hope the series continues to progress at a book every six months. I think I could live with that. In the mean time, I want a Bumbersnoot — Sophronia's adorable mechanical puppy pet.

New readers to Carriger's world will find Etiquette and Espionage a good place to start. Returning readers will find the world a little different to how they remember, but not too much. I highly recommend Carriger's work to fans of steampunk, Victorian Britain, socially accepted vampires and werewolves and witty lines.

5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Hachette
Series: Finishing School Book the First (of ?)
Format read: ebook on iThings
Source: bought from iBooks

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best of All Possible Worlds is Karen Lord's most recent novel, and the first thing of hers I've read. It was a compelling read and quite different to anything else I've read. The blurb:
A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.
Which makes it sound like there's more action and adventure than there really is. It's a slow burn type of plot. Told mostly from the point of view of Delarua, a civil servant on Cygnus Beta, the planet some of the refugee Sadiri come to settle on. There are occasional third-person interludes told from the point of view of Dllenahkh, one of the Sadiri, but really it is Delarua's story. It's told in a somewhat conversational style, with Delarua speaking to the reader at times.

The Sadiri came to Cygnus Beta to, among other things, repopulate their race, preferably by preserving as much of their genetic make-up as possible. Delarua's tasked with accompanying them as they visit various settlements around Cygnus Beta to collect genetic information and negotiate the possibility of establishing partnerships. If it wasn't for the compelling characters, I would have found it a bit boring since plot-wise there's not much to it. But the characters were very compelling and I found myself laughing out loud at some of their interactions and staying up till three AM to finish reading (mercifully on a Friday night, so it could've been worse).

The Sadiri are very reserved as a people, abhorring outward expressions of emotion, which leads to them referring to things as "appropriate" a lot and often forcing Delarua and others to guess what they really mean. There is a wide variety of Sadiri in the story which allowed us to see a scope of reserved personalities rather than just one character bearing the brunt of stereotyping. A non-Sadiri character that's worth mentioning is Lian, one of the team's security detail and Delarua's friend. Lian has chosen to live without a gender and so is never referred to by a gendered pronoun. The couple of times other characters might have learnt Lian's biological gender, they don't say, respecting Lian's privacy. The way Lord handled one of the characters having a crush on Lian and the latter's complete lack of interest in romance was well done. We never find out Lian's "real" gender because we are not supposed to and it is not part of the story. Bravo.

When exciting and dramatic things did happen to the characters, they were mostly not dwelt upon very much after the fact. The exciting moment passed and they moved on with their mission. This is the aspect that I disliked most. It's not that there weren't any ramifications to various events, but I would have liked to see a bit more made of them, a bit more highlighting of pieces of adventure, I suppose. As is, it read like Delarua was downplaying each bit of excitement, which is entirely in character but made for less exciting (and seemingly slower) reading. A little bit more action would not have hurt.

I liked that the slow pace and grand scope of their travels accurately reflected how big a planet really is. I kept wanting to picture all the towns/settlements they visited as being in one country and then wondering how there was room for so many of them, but I had to keep reminding myself that it was actually an entire planet they were travelling around. I think it's easy to reduce grand scales (planet-wide governments, multi-planet civilisations) to easily digestible chunks of terms we are more familiar with dealing with, and I commend Lord for avoiding this.

The Best of All Possible Worlds explores a lot of interesting issues. The most obvious is how an ethnic group can retain their identity when their homeland is destroyed — along with a larger percentage of their women (because the men were more likely to be off-world when the disaster happened) — and they are forced to live with and interbreed with other people who don't necessarily share key characteristics that define them. It also explores, through the team's visits to various settlements, how time and isolation can lead to the same culture developing along very different paths.

There is also some interesting hard science fictional world-building (as opposed to the social science fictional world-building I've already discussed) which came in glimpses until maybe three-quarters of the way through. I found it fascinating and I liked its understated inclusion. Without spoilers, it was the sort of thing another writer *cough*Stephen Baxter*/cough* might have spent whole chapters dwelling on until all the magic and story leaked out. But Lord says just enough to make us interested and does not belabour the point.

As I said at the start, The Best of All Possible Worlds is quite different to anything else I've read. To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer springs to mind as somewhat similar in style but also very different in story and theme and issues. I'd say if you're interested in a thoughtful exploration of the issues I've mentioned above, definitely give The Best of All Possible Worlds a go. If you're looking for something a bit different from your speculative fiction I also recommend it. If you're craving action and adventure, then probably give it a miss. I'm definitely interested in reading Lord's earlier and future novels.

4 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Del Rey (Random House) in the US (and Quercus Pan Macmillan Australia with a different cover)
Series: Don't think so.
Format read: eARC on my iThing
Source: the (US) publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 18 February 2013

Pantomime by Laura Lam

Pantomime by début novelist Laura Lam is an enchanting read. The main character is intersex, something I didn't realise until I started reading and initially I blamed my ignorance on not reading the blurb because historically Strange Chemistry blurbs have been terrible. However, as I have now discovered, this blurb wasn't terrible and did not spoil anything. Huzzah! (Well, it's not perfect, but it's a start.) In celebration of the first Strange Chemistry blurb I've read that hasn't given the entire plot away, I reproduce it for you here:
R.H. Ragona's Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.
As I was saying, the main character is intersex, having some female and some male characteristics. She was raised as Gene, a noble woman-in-training, but never felt at home in the role of noble woman. Things come to a head and she runs away, changes her name to Micah Grey and joins the circus as a boy. The bulk of story is told through two time lines: one starting from Micah's first day in the circus and one chronicling Gene's life in the days before she runs away. I liked the way Micah's past was gradually revealed through Gene's story. Some aspects were hinted at in Micah's story before we read about them in Gene's and some we read about in Gene's timeline before seeing some of the ramifications in Micah's. I thought they played off each other well and I was almost disappointed when Gene's timeline ran out (as we always knew it had to).

I have to say, Lam's choice to write in first person was a good one. Micah/Gene refer to themselves in the gender-neutral "I" leaving all the gendered pronouns up to the other characters to utter. A neat solution. Of course, there are times when Micah questions whether he is doing or feeling something as a man or as a woman, and a lot of the story focusses on him finding out who he is as a person, but it works well.

Something Pantomime got me thinking about philosophically was the nature of secrets, especially damaging personal ones. Gene was brought up knowing very well that no one could ever find out "what" she was. Only a few close family members knew and both she and her parents knew there would be dire consequences if the wrong people found out. Micah has to hide the same secret as well as the secret of his origins. Mild spoilers follow in white. Skip to the next paragraph if you wish to avoid them. As Micah grows romantically close with one of his fellow performers, he is faced with the question of how to tell her and when. Of course he puts it off and as a reader it was obvious that there would be consequences to perpetuating the lie. However, as he was angsting about how to tell her and how she would take it, I couldn't help but think that his continuing to keep the secret was not his fault. It was inevitable that the love interest would be upset that he hadn't told her sooner, but how could he have? Experience and common sense strongly suggested that things would not go well for him if he did and I don't think it was wrong of him to keep it from her for as long as possible. End spoilers.

The other notable aspect of Pantomime was the worldbuilding. It was surprisingly extensive and well thought through for a YA book. A lot of it remained in the background, apart from things like the city Micah came from and the social hierarchy. It wasn't until I was further in that I realised that there was much more to the worldbuilding than evident on the surface of the story and I started hoping for a sequel so that it could all be fully explored. I also kind of wanted to see a map of the place, not because I was confused about where places were (there's not that much travelling) but because I was curious. Luckily when I got to the end it strongly suggested that there would in fact be a sequel (and a visit to the author's website confirmed my suspicions). It finished in a fairly self-contained way so that a sequel isn't necessary to enjoy the book, but Micah's story is also definitely not over.

Pantomime was a great read. I recommend it to all fans of non-standard YA books. I think readers of adult fantasy books will also enjoy it. It felt more like a "grown up" fantasy book than a YA book (not that there's anything anti-YA in it and, well, it is a coming-of-age story) and I think it could just as easily have been marketed to the adult fantasy market, despite the protagonist's age. (Of course, YA is probably a better marketing choice.) So if you're not usually into YA but like fantasy books and the idea of running away to join the circus interests you, I strongly urge you to give Pantomime a go. I await the eventual sequel with excitement.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: book 1 of ?, Micah Grey series
Format read: eARC on the iPad
Source: the publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 16 February 2013

New Booksies

This time, I purchased some books and also received some ARCs from publishers. The purchased ones happened first so I'll start there.

I decided to spend an achievement unlocked book on Unearthly by Cynthia Hand because it was on sale as part of a first book in the series is cheaper thing on iTunes. And also because, even though I haven't had much luck with angel books, a couple friends whose opinions I trust have assured me it's really good.

A while ago I pre-ordered Gail Carriger's Etiquette and Espionage and now it's out and I'm looking forward to reading it (just as soon as I catch up on my February ARCs because real life continues to be demanding). You may remember me mentioning it in my books most looked forward to post.

Then from the publishers via NetGalley I received Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells which is a Strange Chemistry book, so it must be good (if past experience is anything to go by). (Strange Chemistry being the YA imprint of Angry Robot.) And if you look carefully, you'll see this isn't quite the finished cover...

And I got The Eternity Cure by Julie Kagawa from Harlequin Teen (AU) which is the sequel to Blood of Eden, which was one of my favourite reads of 2012. Here's hoping it lives up to expectations and continues to put an interesting spin on the vampire mythos. (And I'm not 100% sure if this is the final cover, but it's the only one I could find that wasn't definitely a place-holder.)

From Random House AU, I got The Asylum by John Harwood, a Tasmanian author. The blurb tells me it's gothic suspense so I'm hoping I'll be able to count it towards my horror reading challenge. From what I gathered he usually writes more Literary things, but I'm hoping the gothic suspense parts and the historical Britain aspect will prevent me flashing back to reading Tim Winton in high school.

And finally, I almost forgot, I've received the two most recent issues of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM) for review: issues 56 and 55. Which were published in that order due to a wormhole mix-up. I used to be an ASIM subscriber earlier on, but stopped due to Poor Student Syndrome and never got around to it again mostly because of my alarming TBR. But yay for reading more Aussie and international short fiction!

Yay, books and things!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Dance of Shadows by Yelena Black

Dance of Shadows by Yelena Black is a YA novel featuring the (imaginary) New York Ballet Academy and a demon.

Vanessa's sister Margaret, three years older than her, went to aforementioned dance academy and, shortly before she was supposed to play the lead in the school's production of The Firebird, she disappeared. The school told her parents she had run away or that she might be dead. Vanessa doesn't believe Margaret would have run away, though, nor does she believe she's dead. A ballerina like her sister, Vanessa applies to the same school Margaret disappeared from to try to find out what happened to her sister.

I had a few problems with this book. The first was that it moved a little slowly. From the start, it's fairly clear to the reader that something supernatural and probably demonic is going on. And it takes Vanessa ages to see it. I get that it's realistic to try to accept mundane explanations for what's going on, but that doesn't make for more exciting reading. I stress that it wasn't boring, I enjoyed the peek into the world of dance (it reminded me a little bit of the girls in Bunheads crossed with <insert dance school movie here>), but the plot definitely moved slowly. There were some scenes which probably should have been compressed or cut because, even looking back, I can't work out what their purpose was.

A bonus is there was no love triangle. The romantic elements were a bit confusing though. When she arrives, a freshman, Vanessa is immediately enamoured with the attractive senior lead dancer. That's fine, it makes sense for her to crush on him, especially after he sprinkles a bit of attention her way and takes her out on a date (like, the day after he breaks up with his girlfriend). But later, when it's blindingly obvious there's something weird going on with him she STILL doesn't see it and makes poor decisions which put everyone else in danger.

Vanessa isn't a particularly active heroine. She is actively trying to find her sister and at times does take the initiative, but when it came to the crunch, she was a bit too passive for my liking (that and aforesaid poor decisions). Highlight for spoiler: And then she decides to run off with the boy who's not evil but has been weird and stalkery throughout? WHY? It didn't particularly make sense.

(Side note: the magic system/style in this is practised by necrodancers, lol.)

I enjoyed the journey the narrative took us on. I'm not an avid fan of dance or ballet, but I enjoyed reading about that aspect. I suspect fans of performance schools stories would enjoy that aspect, too. The prose was fairly competently written just, as I said earlier, a bit slow. The finally thing that bothered me was that the lead into book two (of a planned trilogy) felt really tacked on. Perhaps it was planned as a trilogy from the beginning, but I think it would have worked better and more powerfully as a standalone. (Also, as a stand alone some of the more baffling elements would have, by necessity, not been present.) Would that the YA spec fic industry didn't suffer from trilogyitis.

I would recommend Dance of Shadows to YA fans interested in a slightly different setting. The speculative elements are most prominent towards the end, but when they come, you can't pretend they're not there. A warning for readers who don't like that sort of thing. (But then, why are you reading this blog?) I enjoyed reading the book, but I'm not sure I'll feel compelled to pick up the next book when it's released. Maybe if it has a really exciting blurb.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2012, Bloomsbury UK & ANZ
Dance of Shadows, book 1 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Hysteria by Megan Miranda

Hysteria by Megan Miranda was not the book I expected it to be. From the cover (the UK/Aus cover here as well as the US one which is quite different) and the blurb, I was expecting something more along the lines of a psychological drama, perhaps with horror elements. The UK/Aus blurb:
Mallory's life is falling apart.

Her boyfriend was stabbed. He bled to death in her kitchen. Mallory was the one who stabbed him. But she can't remember what happened that night. She only remembers the fear...

When Mallory's parents send her away to a boarding school, she thinks she can escape the gossip and the threats. But someone, or something, has followed her. There's the hand that touches her shoulder when she's drifting off to sleep. A voice whispering her name. And everyone knows what happened. So when a pupil is found dead, Mallory's name is on their lips.

Her past can be forgotten but it's never gone. Can Mallory live with that?
What Hysteria is really about, is a girl's journey in dealing with a traumatic event and some mild trauma-induced amnesia. There's nothing paranormal and while there were minor violent elements — we see her boyfriend's death through flashbacks — I wouldn't classify this as anything other than straight contemporary YA. (I mean, there's one weird thing, which could have been played up to increase tension and creepiness, but it wasn't. Instead Mallory just ignored it.) If I'd known to expect that up front, I probably would have enjoyed the beginning more. I kept expecting ghosts or demonic forces or something, but they didn't come. The last third or quarter of the book had a decent pay-off, but it wasn't the type of pay-off I'd expected going in. (I assumed from the start that things weren't as they seemed, but, well, they turned out to be more as they seemed than I would have liked.)

I felt the beginning was a bit dull and took a while to get to the point. I was a bit frustrated in the first half or so with Mallory spending so much time thinking about boys. I understand her dwelling on the dead boyfriend, but she also dwelt on his brother, who she'd had a crush on and on the new (ish) boy she meets after she's sent to the boarding school. The only boy she's not interested in, at some point, is the jerky one at school who is interested in her. And she doesn't try very hard to make friends at the new school, which is sort of understandable because of the earlier traumatic events, but did mean that a large chunk of the book had her focussing on the love interest school boy, who is also her only proper friend at the school.

It did redeem itself towards the end, however, when Mallory's best friend from back home shows up again (she featured in the opening also, pre-boarding school, but not as significantly) and we are treated to some nice girl bonding. It was that aspect which saved the book for me. That and the way the plot started moving forward more rapidly once the student died, although that happened sufficiently far into the book that putting it in the blurb feels strange. Then again, that also underscores how not very much happened in the first half of the book.

I wanted there to be more darkness, more ominousness, and more psychological uncertainty. On the other hand, once I realised it was about Mallory processing and coming to terms with her boyfriend's death, the whole thing did fall into place a bit better.

Ultimately, Hysteria had so much potential in premise, but in execution it fell flat in several ways. It didn't go far enough when it should have been pushing the envelope. It wasn't a terrible book overall, but it definitely could have been more interesting. I recommend it to fans of non-speculative YA.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Bloomsbury UK/ANZ
Series: nope
Format read: eARC
Source: NetGalley

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Indigo Spell by Richelle Mead

The Indigo Spell by Richelle Mead is the third instalment in her Bloodlines series. You can read my review of the second book, The Golden Lily, here. This review contains minor spoilers for the earlier books in the series.

Sydney the Alchemist in charge of the small group protecting a teenaged moroi vampire (the living and not evil kind of vampire) who happens to be the moroi queen's half sister. In the course of hiding incognito at a human school, many minor crises have popped up for Sydney to deal with. The Indigo Spell is no different. In fact, it continues to build on the events of the earlier books, adding layers of plot which will probably stick around in future books.

It's not something I noticed when I read The Golden Lily, but from the first book, Bloodlines, Mead has been adding background plot elements which have persisted in the subsequent books with more relevance than the main (fairly self-contained) action. Arguably, the main plot of The Indigo Spell is the plot line that leads to the climax but there is so much else going on — in a good way — that one could argue for another thread being the most important. The world throws a lot of mostly urgent stuff at Sydney and, in true Sydney fashion, she manage to balance all the emergencies at once.

The Indigo Spell focusses heavily on Sydney's issues with the Alchemists, secrets and magic, with some significant contributions from Adrian and Ms T the history teacher witch. But the other characters aren't forgotten about. I liked how Mead had them running up to Sydney with their problems every few chapters and, even though Sydney didn't spend much time fixing them, it let us keep up with what they were doing.

The set-up from the end of the previous book pays off well (ambiguity to avoid spoilers). One of the complaints I had about The Golden Lily (which I apparently forgot to mention in my review) was that Sydney failed to notice/work out a few obvious things until it was more convenient to the plot because she was so busy with everything else. I felt that again in The Indigo Spell, but to a lesser extent. This time it was only one thing she didn't realise until later and there were better plot reasons for it. On the other hand, another thing I was expecting her to make the connection regarding didn't happen at all but I can only assume it will come out in a future book. Or maybe I'm guessing wrong. Ambiguous paragraph is ambiguous. Sorry.

I think The Indigo Spell can be enjoyed by itself, but works better as part of the series read sequentially. I recommend it to fans of YA who have enjoyed Richelle Mead's other books or who are looking for something a little bit different from a book that also involves vampires. I eagerly await the next instalment (especially after the set-up dropped in at the end — plenty of room for new shenanigans!).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Penguin Australia
Series: Bloodlines, book 3 of ?
Format read: eARC, on Kobo
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke was an excellent read. It was very different to the author's début novel, The Assassin's Curse (my review), which I also enjoyed and which caused me to expect more of an adventure novel, possibly with steampunk elements (apparently, steampunk is where mad scientists belong, these days). The Mad Scientist's Daughter is not an adventure novel. It's set in the near future and, as the cover proclaims, it is "A tale of Love, Loss and Robots".

Cat, the titular character, is the daughter of two cyberneticists. When she's quite young, her father acquires Finn, a sophisticated android designed to look and act human. When her parents decide to homeschool her until highschool, they make Finn her tutor. Growing up with a robot, Cat does not hold the same prejudices and fears some elements of society do and isolated in a small town until she goes to college, she does not encounter them very often until she leaves. The Mad Scientist's Daughter is the story of Cat's life from childhood until her late thirties (I think). It is the story of a girl who fell in love with a robot.

The Mad Scientist's Daughter is a beautiful read. It explores the nature of sentience and humanity. Cat's father always treated Finn with respect and more or less like a person even when the law didn't require him to. This is wonderfully contrasted by a boyfriend of Cat's whose life mission seems to be getting around sentience laws by building AIs that are just dumb enough to not be granted any rights.

It was a bit of a depressing read. The tone reminded me most of The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (not just because of the title similarity) except where The Time Traveller's Wife made me angry with the extent to which the main character's entire life revolved around her husband, The Mad Scientist's Daughter did not. Cat's life is her own. It's not perfect, but it certainly doesn't completely revolve around Finn; Finn just happens to be the person she loves and is of course important to her. Also Finn is a proper science fictional robot, not just a literary construct to make Cat's life harder/more depressing as the pseudo-scientifically time-travelling husband in The Time Traveller's Wife was.

The Mad Scientist's Daughter is a literary novel. (Recall my definition of "literary" is a story with an internal journey rather than an external (going on an adventure) journey.) Despite that, it paints a bleak but not hopeless image of the future. Cat lives in a time after a series of climate disasters caused much destruction, but society has mostly recovered, even if the weather occasionally still does strange things. When I grow up, I want to write a book like this. This is the first book that has made me want to be able to write something literary.

I highly recommend The Mad Scientist's Daughter to fans of near future science fiction and/or robots. I think non-SF readers will also enjoy it as the science fictional elements are relatively minor (yes, despite the presence of the robot). It was an excellent read and I encourage everyone to give it a try (unless they can't cope with novels not filled with action and adventure).

5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Angry Robot
Series: Nope.
Format read: eARC on iPad
Source: the publisher, via NetGalley

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Griffin's War by KJ Taylor

The Griffin's War by KJ Taylor is the final book in The Fallen Moon trilogy. That said, a sequel series in the process of being released (book two is due out in April). I have previously reviewed book one: The Dark Griffin and book two: The Griffin's Flight. This review contains some spoilers for those earlier books. Blurb from the Australian edition:

A man falls. A monster rises...

The dark griffin Skandar flies in search of his chosen human, while the wild woman Skade goes with him to find her lost love. And a young griffiner believes he can destroy his father's killer for good. But his plans for bloody vengeance may come full circle...

Huddled half-sane in a cell beneath Malvern, Arenadd Taranisäii must submit to the will of the Night God who has his soul, or be returned to the grave forever.

The Griffin's War picks up quite soon after book two left off and quickly resolves the issues left open by its prequel. Then, as expected, The Griffin's War is primarily about the war that's been brewing since book one. The stage has been set with the Southern followers of Gryphus the sun god on one side and the Northern followers of the Night God on the other. Arren, the protagonist of the series, left his mortal self behind completely in book two and is now definitely Arenadd, the Dark Lord, the Shadow That Walks, chosen one of the Night God. Erian, the chosen one of Gryphus still believes he is the one in the right and that he cannot fail to destroy his opponent.

Erian was less of a prat in this book than in the previous one. This time around, I didn't feel like he hogged too much page time but we got enough glimpses into his life and adventures to see how in another story he would be the hero not the somewhat benign antagonist. He's still a bit of an idiot though. Skade also was a more welcome edition in this book than the previous when she was introduced. She not only plays a more pivotal role, but I could see now why Arenadd cares about her, while in the previous volume it was a more a case of there not being any other options for most of the book.

My favourite thing about the series as a whole continues to be the way in which the hero's and villain's roles were swapped. I've mentioned many times that I like moral shades of grey in my stories and on that front Taylor definitely doesn't disappoint. Arenadd is fighting for freedom for his enslaved and oppressed people. Erian is fighting because Arenadd killed his father, because he believes Arenadd must be evil, and because of signs from his god. But the reader, having followed Arenadd all the way from book one, understands his motivations and can watch each driving influence evolve. We know that, despite being called "the Dark Lord" Arenadd is not a power-crazed evil villain. As one of the characters says of him (identity redacted to avoid spoilers):
"He acted as if he cared about me. He wasn't... he didn't act as if he was evil. He seemed... sad and lonely."

Although the Griffin's War concludes the trilogy well, tying up all the important loose ends, I can see which direction the sequel series might take, without reading the blurbs (and having glanced at one of them, I can see I guessed right). I look forward to reading more stories set in this world in the future.

A random aside I don't think I mentioned in my earlier reviews:  I like that although the Night God is female, she is still referred to as a god, not a goddess. Never is her gender used to demean her, not even by her opponent's followers. (I mean, they think she's evil and that they will win in their righteousness, but not because she presents as a woman.)

I highly recommend the entire Fallen Moon trilogy to fans of fantasy. In particular, I think readers who usually enjoy dragon books due to the presence of dragons will enjoy this series as the griffins are treated similarly. As I mentioned in reviews of the earlier books, the series also deals with issues of racism, slavery and oppression. And as you probably gathered from this review, it explores the ways in which we define good and evil and how even when things are literally light and dark, there is still plenty of moral middle ground. I don't recommend reading the Griffin's War without having read the earlier two books. It's definitely the kind of series which build crucially on the preceding volumes.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2010, Harper Voyager Australia
Series: The Fallen Moon, book 3 of 3
Format read: Paperback, Australian edition
Source: Purchased from a real-life Aussie bookshop
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge