Thursday, 31 March 2016

Spider-Woman Vol 2: New Duds by Dennis Hopeless

Spider-Woman Vol 2: New Duds written by Dennis Hopeless and illustrated by Javier Rodriguez is the volume of Spider-Woman that falls between Spider-Verse and Secret Wars. It is also (obviously) the collection in which she gets a new, cooler costume.

One of Marvel's best-dressed super heroes gets a whole new look — and a status-quo switch to match! Taking time off from the Avengers, Jessica Drew is back in the investigating business, with reporter Ben Urich at her side. And their first case is a doozy. Someone is kidnapping the loved ones of super villains — but no one cares. No one except Spider-Woman and Ben. With more at stake than she realizes, Jess is heading for a showdown with a new nemesis: Lady Caterpillar! But along the way, which prickly Silver Age bad guy will join Team Spider-Woman? The gang's all here, and there's work to be done — Urich's notebook is full of unsolved mysteries, all across America. There's only one solution: road trip!

The previous Spider-Woman volume was not the most exciting, and despite the illustrator switch and the promise of a pregnant Spider-Woman down the line (after Secret Wars, not in this volume), I was a little apprehensive picking this up. Basically, I didn't want to be disappointed because Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman is one of my favourite superheroes. I need not have worried. Not only is the new costume more practical, but the stories are entertaining and funny, showcasing the best of what Spider-Woman can offer.

Having quit the Avengers, Jessica Drew decides she just wants to help people solo and on a smaller scale (less world-saving, basically). But when she gives this a go, it really doesn't go that well, partly because she stopped paying attention to Avengers bulletins. But once she teams up with Ben the reporter, her efforts become better directed, if not less amusing.

I really liked the first story arc which, after an intro, was basically about the girlfriends, wives and children of supervillains. I don't want to say more, because spoilers, but this is a really great storyline. It's followed by a shorter story arc in which Spider-Woman and her new team wander into a weird Western-themed town where something is not right. This shorter arc wasn't bad, but was less awesome and lead into the start of Secret Wars (which otherwise did not feature in this volume). I am pretty sure the next volume picks up after Secret Wars (yay) and I am looking forward to eventually getting my hands on it.

I highly recommend this volume to fans of Spider-Woman and female superheroes generally. Don't be put off by the fact that this is numbered Vol 2; it's actually an excellent place to start with Jessica's career change and costume change. My only complaint is that there was no Carol Danvers, but that's a minor quibble.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published:
Series: Yes! Part of an ongoing series. Vol 2 but the first volume with the new costume and storyline, comes before Secret Wars, continues after in some form. Contains issues #5–10
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Real-life bookshop

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Mythmaker by Marianne de Pierres

Mythmaker by Marianne de Pierres is the sequel to Peacemaker, which I reviewed when it was released. It took me a while to get around to reading Mythmaker and then a while to actually finish it. The former is because I don't really like Westerns, so even though I enjoyed the first book, I was hesitant to start the second. The latter is mostly because of life events disrupting my reading.

Virgin’s in a tight spot. A murder rap hangs over her head and isn’t likely to go away unless she agrees to work for an organisation called GJIC (the Global Joint Intelligence Commission).

Being blackmailed is one thing, discovering that her mother is both alive and the President of GJIC is quite another. Then there’s the escalation of Mythos sightings and the bounty on her head.

Oddly, Hamish is the only one she can rely on. Life is complicated.

As I said, I'm not a fan of Westerns, so I wasn't sure how much I would like Mythmaker. As it happens, it felt like less of a Western than the first book, so that worked out for me. On the other hand, it was also less science fictional and more (urban) fantastical than the first book, which worked for the plot and so forth, despite the SF elements being what I enjoyed most in the first book. Your mileage may vary. Also, having read this book over a rather long period of time (like, a few months), I got to have breaks from the elements I liked less, like Sixkiller, the American almost-cowboy.

My overwhelming memories/impression of Mythmaker are of violence. I'm pretty sure it was more violent than the first book and there were some scenes that were pretty intense. Not only was Virgin in something like a war-zone at one point, there was also a lot of up close and personal grisly murders. So heads up, if that's something that might bother you.

Plot-wise, there are a lot of threads in this book and while it's fair to say most of them were addressed, I didn't feel like they were all addressed satisfactorily. And the ending was certainly not what I expected, as far as resolving Virgin's story goes. I am not sure whether a sequel is planned. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that book three isn't on the cards, but well. Much was unresolved. I was kind of looking forward to seeing how things came together, but instead we got [tropes redacted for spoilers].

From the above, you could be forgiving for thinking I didn't like Mythmaker at all. That isn't the case.  I genuinely enjoyed reading it and kept picking it up, especially in the last third or so, without pressuring myself to do so. De Pierres is a good writer and it was the readability that kept me turning the pages. I also liked Virgin, despite her somewhat self-destructive character. I kind of wanted to shout at her to look after herself better. But as I said, I was glad the Sixkiller wasn't too prominent in the latter part of this book. On the other hand, I pretty much would have liked to see more of the other characters like investigative journalist/friend Caro, particularly given the ending.

If you liked Peacemaker and want to read more about the characters, then I definitely recommend reading Mythmaker. However, be prepared for the increased violence. (The shift in genre should not be a surprise if you read the first book, at least.) I wouldn't recommend new readers start from this book, since a lot of worldbuilding is set up in the first book. If a sequel ever eventuates (very uncertain), they I will be picking it up. We'll see.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Angry Robot
Series: Yes. Peacemaker book 2 of 2
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Ditmar Award Winners Announced

The Ditmar Awards have just been announced and, thanks to Twitter and numerous live-tweeters (awesome job, everyone), I was able to quickly collect the results all in one place. (But not in announcement order, which was a little more random than usual, I thought.)

Congratulations to all the winners!

Best Novel

Lament for the Afterlife, Lisa L. Hannett (ChiZine Publications)

Best Novella or Novelette
"Of Sorrow and Such", Angela Slatter (

Best Short Story
"A Hedge of Yellow Roses", Kathleen Jennings, in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications)

Best Collected Work
Cranky Ladies of History, edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely (FableCroft Publishing)

Best Artwork

Cover and internal artwork, Kathleen Jennings, for Cranky Ladies of History (FableCroft Publishing)

Best Fan Publication in Any Medium
Galactic Suburbia, Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Best Fan Writer
Grant Watson, for body of work

Best Fan Artist
Kathleen Jennings, for body of work, including Illustration Friday series

Best New Talent
Rivqa Rafael

William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review

Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)

Peter McNamara Award for lifetime achievement
Rowena Cory Daniels

Norma K. Hemming Award
The Orchid Nursery by Louise Katz (Lacuna Publishing)

A Bertram Chandler Award for "Outstanding Achievement in Australian Science Fiction"
James 'Jocko' Allen

Friday, 25 March 2016

Aurealis Award Winners Announced

For those who weren't there or weren't following on Twitter like I was, here are the winners of the 2016 Aurealis Awards (for works published in 2015). Results reproduced from the official Aurealis Awards website.

Congratulations to all the winners!

A Single Stone, Meg McKinlay (Walker Books Australia) 

The Singing Bones, Shaun Tan (Allen & Unwin)

“The Miseducation of Mara Lys”, Deborah Kalin (Cherry Crow Children, Twelfth Planet Press) 

“Bullets”, Joanne Anderton (In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep, AHWA)

“The Miseducation of Mara Lys”, Deborah Kalin (Cherry Crow Children, Twelfth Planet Press) 

“The Giant’s Lady”, Rowena Cory Daniells (Legends 2, Newcon Press) 

“Defy the Grey Kings”, Jason Fischer (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Firkin Press) 

“All the Wrong Places”, Sean Williams (Meeting Infinity, Solaris)

“By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers”, Garth Nix (Old Venus, Random House)

To Hold the Bridge, Garth Nix (Allen & Unwin) 

Bloodlines, Amanda Pillar (ed.) (Ticonderoga Publications) 

In The Skin of a Monster, Kathryn Barker (Allen & Unwin) 

Day Boy,Trent Jamieson (Text Publishing)

Day Boy,Trent Jamieson (Text Publishing) 

Illuminae, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin) 

The Watergivers [The Last Stormlord (2009), Stormlord Rising(2010), Stormlord’s Exile (2011)], Glenda Larke (HarperVoyager)


Letters to Tiptree, Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)

The Ditmar Awards are being announced Sunday evening, Brisbane time, so stand by for more news.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil is a YA book from the author of Life in Outer Space. As with the earlier book, The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl contains many spec fic themes — mostly superhero comics in this case — but is actually a contemporary YA story.

Alba loves her life just as it is. She loves living behind the bakery and waking up in a cloud of sugar and cinnamon. She loves drawing comics and watching bad TV with her friends. The only problem is shes overlooked a few teeny details. Like, the guy she thought long gone has unexpectedly reappeared. And the boy who has been her best friend since forever has suddenly gone off the rails. Even her latest comic book creation is misbehaving. Also, the world might be ending-- which is proving to be awkward. As doomsday enthusiasts flock to idyllic Eden Valley, Albas life is thrown into chaos. Whatever happens next, its the end of the world as she knows it. But when it comes to figuring out her heart, Armageddon might turn out to be the least of her problems.

The main story is that Alba and friends have just finished school. Some of them are waiting to hear their marks and/or what uni courses they got into — Alba is trying very hard not to thing about her art school interview. And in the meantime, what starts off as an ordinary small country town summer is happening in the background.

The ordinariness of the summer does not last long, though, quickly turning into a metaphor for Alba's fear of change (leaving town, growing up, etc) as rumours of the impending apocalypse gain traction. After a Channel 31 middle-of-the-night psychic predicts that Alba's home town of Eden Valley will be the only safe place when the world ends with the new year, a surprising number of people flock to Eden Valley to wait out the apocalypse. As well as the expected crazies (who even watches late night Channel 31?) some old friends also make it back into town to throw Alba's life into further disarray.

I enjoyed this book. It was a quick read — I read most of it in a day (after starting it the night before) — and a pleasant way to spend a lazy Sunday. The story is peppered with superhero references as Alba reads comics and draws her own. Each chapter is also prefaced by one of Alba's illustrations of Cinnamon Girl and friends/enemies. Even though this is very much a contemporary real-world novel, I expect it will appeal to spec fic readers, especially fans of comics.

I highly recommend The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl to fans of YA and comics. Readers who enjoyed Keil's Life in Outer Space will probably also enjoy this book. They have similar geeky but not technically spec fic sensibilities. And of course, readers who enjoy Australian settings in their YA should also give this book a shot.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2016, Peachtree Publisher (US) / 2014, Hardie Grant Egmont (Aus)
Series: no
Format read: eARC of US edition
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Tsana's March Status slowly recovering from exhaustion. My PhD defence is behind me (I am officially a doctor) and I am theoretically on holiday. I say theoretically because there are a lot of upcoming deadlines that I have to submit work stuff for and we are in the midst of the last push for Defying Doomsday (which isn't too much work right now, but it's also not none).

I have been feeling more relaxed though and have been reading more. That said, feeling relaxed also means I've been reading more longer things, so I don't think my actual review output has changed significantly. Oh well.

Oh, also, the Aurealis shortlist was announced since my last update. I have a post collecting the Aurealis, Ditmar and Norma K Hemming award shortlists here.

What have I read?

What am I currently reading?

Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar, which is set in the same world as A Stranger In Olondria, which I haven't read and turns out I probably should've before starting Winged Histories. I was very confused at first, but by the time I realised the problem was not having read the other book, I was in too deep.

I also just started reading Monstrous Little Voices, an anthology of Shakespeare retellings, although they are turning out to be less direct retellings than I expected. So far, even better than I expected.

New Booksies

I went on a bit of a buying-spree to celebrate finishing my PhD (and also to take advantage of a few sales). This is a longer list than usual...

  • Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall — bought because cheap
  • Black Widow Volume 1: The Finely Woven Thread by Nathan Edmondson — gift
  • Batgirl Vol. 1: The Batgirl of Burnside by Brenden Fletcher — gift
  • Flesh & Wires by Jackie Hatton — for review
  • The Lyre Thief by Jennifer Fallon — bought because fan
  • Black Widow Volume 2: The Tightly Tangled Web by Nathan Edmondson — bought because can
  • Spider-Woman Vol. 2: New Duds by Dennis Hopeless — as above
  • Black Widow Vol. 3: Last Days by Nathan Edmondson — as above
  • The August Birds by Octavia Cade — for review
  • Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — bought because heard good things
  • Legion by Brandon Sanderson — bought because cheap
  • Legion: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson — sequel to above
  • Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus by Mira Grant — bought because title
  • Broken Nation by Shaunta Grimes — bought because series
  • Bloodlines by Amanda Pillar — bought because friend
  • An Alphabet of Embers by Rose Lemberg — for review
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab — bought because cheap
  • The Beatriceid by Kate Elliott — bought because podcast
  • The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho — bought because cheap
  • Rae And Essa's Space Adventures by Donna Maree Hanson — bought because sequel

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is the first collection from the acclaimed and award-winning author. I have previously reviewed some short stories by the author (including the titular story of this anthology), but this was the first time I read several of them in succession. The blurb is not terribly helpful, but I shall include it for completion.

A publishing event: Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

My first overwhelming response to this anthology was of adoration for the exquisite writing and fascinating ideas in the stories. I liked all of the stories and loved quite a lot of them. It's honestly hard to choose only a few favourites, but I'll try. "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" leads the anthology and evoked in me a strong feeling of "why haven't I read more SF like this?" And also made me wish that I could write that well. "The Paper Menagerie" is heart wrenching, even upon a re-read, and will probably always be one of my favourite stories. "Mono No Aware" is a story I've heard discussed before, but I never really knew what it was about until reading it.

None of the stories in this collection are particularly cheerful, although they may have happy moments in them. Many of them have heartbreaking moments, which Liu executes beautifully. Many of the stories also contain other stories within them, not just flashbacks but also characters telling stories out of history and/or mythology, woven into the themes of the overarching narrative.

I loved this collection and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more Ken Liu to read. If I wasn't already keen to read more Liu short stories, then I would be now. I also have Grace of Kings on my TBR. I highly recommend this collection to all fans of science fiction and fantasy short stories. It does not disappoint.


THE BOOKMAKING HABITS OF SELECT SPECIES — This story, being the first in the collection, forcibly reminded me of how amazing Liu's writing is. An account of how different aliens species store and retrieve information (or what they regard as books). Gorgeous language and excellent, creative ideas; this is what science fiction should aspire to.

STATE CHANGE — People's souls are externalised into semi-random objects. If these objects are destroyed or used up (depending on the object), then they die. Imagine the anxiety if your soul was an ice cube. A very interesting "what if" concept, deftly executed. It actually reminded me a bit of "The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere" by John Chu. Not because the stories themselves are similar, but because of the way a fantastical premise is explored in a science fictional mindset.

THE PERFECT MATCH — A longer story set in a world where everyone is always online and algorithms serve us exactly what they want when they want them. The main character is taken on a bit of a tour of the underlying conspiracy from a couple of different perspectives. The inevitability of the near future world was probably the most frightening aspect of this story. That and the need for another character's paranoia.

GOOD HUNTING — Another longer story that starts with rural magic and takes us on a journey to colonial and steampunk Hong Kong. What is a demon hunter to do, when the magic fades? What about a shapeshifter who can't shift any more? The story had heartbreaking elements and an even better ending than I expected.

THE LITEROMANCER — A novella, I think. While reading the first half (ish) of this story, I was thinking that it was an absolute delight. Liu paints a strong picture of Cold War Taiwan, seen from the eyes of a young American girl whose father works there. Sure she has problems, but they're normal kid problems like bullying, and she makes some Chinese friends who help her through them. The theme of literomancy, discerning meaning from words, also features strongly throughout, which I found fascinating even if the etymologies aren't academically accurate, as the afterword tells us. But the story took a dark turn, which I won't spoil but which means I can't call it delightful overall. The harshness of the Cold War intrudes on the young main character's life and affects her deeply, even though she doesn't understand why. I still found that part of the story interesting, but also cringeworthy. An excellent story, but not an easy read towards the end.

SIMULACRUM — I think I've read this story before, but I really don't remember where. It's told in one-sided conversations with an interviewer that we never see or hear. The interview subjects are a father and the man who invented technology to record and project AI-enhanced copies of people, and his daughter, who grew to dislike the technology. It touches on some interesting points about living in the moment rather than living to record the moment, but at its heart it's a story about an estranged father and daughter and how they came to be that way.

THE REGULAR — Another novella, I think. A PI procedural as the main character tracks down a serial killer in a near-future world filled with artificial surgical enhancements. I enjoyed it. I don't have that much to say about it, though, since the main new thing it brings to the procedural table is the futuristic technology (and I should emphasise, being good SF/crime it doesn't lean on magical tech solutions or anything like that).

THE PAPER MENAGERIE — A story I have read before but didn't want to skip over. I cried the second time I read it too. The American son of a Chinese mail order bride recounts his relationship with her, including when she made magical animated origami animals for him to play with. The ending remains heart-wrenchingly sad and it’s not for nothing that this story won the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards.

AN ADVANCED READERS PICTURE BOOK OF COMPARATIVE COGNITION — This story tells many things: the way different alien species think, how the narrator met his wife and child's mother, and what happened to spare their family. It covers many different ideas including possible alien physiologists and a method of receiving messages from other parts of the galaxy. It was a good story, but it didn't grip me as much as some of the others have.

THE WAVES — Another longish story that did not end where I expected it to based on the start. It follows characters on a generation ship and throws in several familiar tropes, mixing them together in a new way. Most interestingly, the first complication, thrown at the colonists is that of immortality discovered by people still on Earth. How can they accept the new technology when the resources on the ship are so delicately balanced? The story is also punctuated by the main character telling her children and grandchildren different cultures’ creation myths, breaking up the main narrative.

MONO NO AWARE — Confusingly, this story also features a solar-sail-powered spaceship heading towards the same star as the previous story. The reasons for leaving and the name of the ship are different, however, as is the rest of the story. It is about a ship fleeing the asteroidal destruction of Earth. Told partly in the present and partly as flashbacks to before the asteroid hit, the story touches on ideas of culture — how Japanese are you if you left Japan when you were very young? What if you are the only representative of your race left? — and the meaning of heroism. Also how appallingly people cane behave when the world is about to end, and how stoically. A wonderful, bittersweet story.

ALL THE FLAVORS — Definitely a novella as far as length goes. Also a story containing several other stories. We follow a little girl living in Idaho City during the gold rush. She gets to know a group of Chinese miners and, in particular, their leader, who tells her a lot of stories. So while reading about the challenges faced my the Chinese miners in a foreign land, we also get a generous dose of Chinese mythology/history, including some of the personal history of the miners. This is another story that didn't go where I expected it to based on the start. Admittedly, this is is large part because I didn't realise how long it was (curse the Kobo for not telling me how long is left in each chapter). Unfortunately, I think knowing the length at the start would have changed my perspective of the whole story. Obviously, this is not the story's fault.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TRANS-PACIFIC TUNNEL — A beat alternate history story in which, after World War I, Japan and China do not go to war and instead, Japan builds a tunnel under the Pacific Ocean liking Shanghai, Tokyo and Seattle. Because of this and a few other factors World War II didn't happen and the world becomes a very different place. We see it through the eyes of a former tunnel Digger, originally from what we would call Taiwan, some time in the alternate 60s. I enjoyed the world-building/-changing details. I particularly liked the part where, just because the WWII human rights violations didn't happen, doesn't mean other, similar human rights violations didn't take place instead. (Korean comfort women being the most obvious example.)

THE LITIGATION MASTER AND THE MONKEY KING — A man who helps villagers out with legal disputes is dragged into something much bigger than himself. Also the Monkey King talks to him, mostly in his head, but also in his dreams. When it comes down to a choice between saving his own life and subversively helping others, the Monkey King helps him with his choice. Although the character is fictional, I gather from the author's note that some of the events are of historical significance (I don't want to go into more detail and spoil the plot). Not a cheerful story (were any of them?) but one I enjoyed reading.

THE MAN WHO ENDED HISTORY: A DOCUMENTARY — A novella rather dense on historical fact and philosophical questions. This is my overwhelming impression, having just finished reading; perhaps not an entirely fair verdict. The premise is that a method for directly observing the past using new discoveries in physics. The catch is that any spatial and temporal portion of the past can only be observed once; the act of observing destroys the echo being observed. The story is told in documentary form, following primarily the two discoverers of the technique, a husband and wife team. The historian husband decides that he wants to use the technique to look back into Pingfang in China, the site of many Japanese WWII atrocities. The story explores the ramifications of being able to view history only once, whose “trip” to the past should be prioritised and some of the politics surrounding the choice of initial destination. It was an interesting story that had be pausing to Google a few facts (for my own personal edification, not because the story was lacking). It contains a reasonable amount of information about the Chinese/Japanese part of WWII and alludes to more. It certainly wasn’t a fun read (who enjoys reading about atrocities?) but I am glad I read it. It also wasn’t perfect as a story. At some point while reading, my mind happened upon the impossibility of the premise. Not the fact that the physics is made up (that’s fine in SF) but some logistical difficulties within the framework of the fictional physics. That did throw me out of the narrative a little, but the way the documentary format jumped around after relatively short sections meant this didn’t last for long.

5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2016, Saga Press (Simon & Schuster)
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 12 March 2016

An Alphabet of Embers edited by Rose Lemberg

An Alphabet of Embers edited by Rose Lemberg is an anthology of flash fiction that was funded by a Kickstarter (that I missed) last year. The stories are 500–1400 words long, which ranges up to a little longer than what I would normally call flash, and one of the aims of the anthology was to include diverse voices. On that point, the editor has certainly succeeded. There are also some lovely illustrations by M Sereno throughout the anthology, to enhance the reading experience.

An anthology of unclassifiables – lyrical, surreal, magical, experimental pieces that straddle the border between poetry and prose.

This is an anthology filled with gorgeous writing, multicultural stories, and variety. While there is a certain "feel" to the stories in the anthology, the stories themselves covered a lot of ground in terms of setting and theme. Some of the stories are multilingual, containing phrases in other languages and the modern wonders of ebooks and Google Translate meant that I could look these up as they appeared. Said technology also showed me that I really didn't need to pause in my reading to check these phrases; the stories were not lesser without full understanding.

Having said that, there were a few stories which, for various other reasons, went over my head a little. There weren't any stories that I actively disliked, but there were a few that I don't think I personally grasped. That's more a reflection on me than the stories themselves, however. And there were several stories I liked a lot, which I will talk about in more detail shortly.

What I found interesting about this anthology, and didn't actually notice until I was close to the end, was the way in which the stories were grouped. Similar stories were grouped together in what felt like rolling waves throughout the book. When I first started reading, I thought all the stories would be somewhat surreal fantasy, but before I knew it the tone gradually shifted to more realistic stories, or more science fictional stories, or stories that were both beautiful and horrifying (not necessarily in that order). This sort of grouping could have backfired, but in this case it worked well; the stories didn't echo each other, rather they built upon each other while also pushing the anthology forward.

(Usually, for an anthology, I would write a bit about each non-flash story. However, since this is an entirely flash fiction anthology, I won't be doing that.)

My favourite stories, those that jumped out at me when I read them, or stuck with me after I moved on, were these (bulleted list for ease of reading):

  • “Mistletoe and Copper, Water and Herbs” by Mari Ness — About a woman asking a witch to help her have children, a request delivered not quite how she hoped.
  • “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Nisi Shawl — The youngest of three sisters talking about how she is the brave one, always the one to jump in first. Contains cancer.
  • “Everything Under One Roof” by Zen Cho — A story about a magical food hall and two friends who find their way there.
  • “The Swing, or How to Ricochet According to Sylvia Plath” by Nolan Liebert — Detailing the key days of a life. I found it very emotional.
  • “Dreaming Keys” by Mina Li — A woman who discovers that keys can unlock dream worlds. A story I enjoyed because it was fun.
  • “Telomerase” by Ian Muneshwar — As cancer takes the narrator, their partner loses words. Sad but powerful.
  • “The Binding of Ming-tian” by Emily Jiang — A lovely, horrible story. The description of foot binding made me cringe.
  • “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” by Vajra Chandrasekera — A story of war, aliens and featuring a clone-in-alien-body narrator. One of the most science fictional stories
  • “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar — A story about a girl with a book around her neck.

An Alphabet of Embers was a gorgeous read that I highly recommend to people who enjoy lyricism in their stories, or surrealism, or just plain like flash fiction and/or very short stories. The shortness of the stories made it easy to pick up and read a bit of this anthology in between other things. It also lead me to finish the anthology more quickly than I expected, when I wanted a break from other things. It also features a very diverse lineup of authors and hence is ideal for sampling new authors and hopefully enjoying them enough to seek out more of their work. I know there were some authors in here that I have been meaning to get around to reading for some time and now I have even more motivation to do so.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2016 (March for Kickstarter backers), Stone Bird Press
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: The publishing team

Friday, 4 March 2016

Captive by Amanda Pillar

Captive by Amanda Pillar is a novella set in the Graced universe, but at a much earlier period of story history. Although a few character names might be familiar, the two stories stand completely alone. If anything, Captive fills in some of the "historical" backstory that didn't fit into Graced, while telling its own story.
Vampires, werewolves, and the Graced are at war with their human creators, and humanity is losing. But one girl might hold the key to salvation. Held captive with her fellow humans by alpha Wolfgang and his pack of weres, Laney secretly inches ever closer to breaking were and vampire blood dependency forever.

But Laney doesn’t have long. Their numbers decimated by plague, humans are being kidnapped and reduced to livestock. And when Laney and her sister are kidnapped by a neighboring vampire clan notorious for its “farming” of humans, their only hope lies in Wolf – who doesn’t know the shocking secret Laney has gone to great lengths to conceal.

With their lives and the future of humanity in the balance, can Laney and Wolf learn to trust each other before their races cease to exist?

I enjoyed Captive quite a bit. I would go so far as to say I enjoyed the start of the novella more than I enjoyed Graced. This is probably partly because the main character is a scientist and I am biased. Where Graced was set seemingly very long after the apocalypse, so to speak, that resulted from the creation of vampires and werewolves and the subsequent wars, Captive is set much closer to that time period (but still after it).

The main(est) character, Laney, is a geneticist who had been working on "cures" for the vampire need for human blood and the werewolf need for human liver. Not, to be clear, changing their species back to human, just removing their need to farm humans. Having originally been part of a werewolf, er, farm, Laney, her sister and their fellow humans are captured by vampires in a raid. Their main goal is to survive until a way out presents itself. Unbeknownst to them, other characters are also working on rescuing them from the vampires.

I mentioned earlier that I particularly enjoyed the start of Captive. It would be more accurate to say that I enjoyed almost all of Captive but I found the ending rather abrupt. The main plot arc of escaping the vampires is resolved, but a lot of romantic (and other, spoilery) subplots are introduced near the end and I don't think this novella was long enough to give them enough space to properly develop. The time jumps at the end, to get to the second last chapter and the epilogue, didn't really help on that front. I think it would have been more enjoyable had the last portion of the book been longer. I certainly wouldn't've minded reading more of it.

Overall I liked Captive, even if I would have preferred more of it. I would recommend it to fans of Graced, but want to stress again that both stories stand alone quite well. I will certainly be reading any other novellas or novels Pillar writes set in the same world. This was almost a 4-star read, but I took off half a star for the abruptness of the ending.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2016, Momentum
Series: Same universe as Graced but with different characters and set much earlier
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley 
Disclaimer: The author is a friend but I have endeavoured to write an impartial review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Lyre Thief by Jennifer Fallon

The Lyre Thief by Jennifer Fallon is the first book in a new series, The War of the Gods, set in the same world as the Hythrun Chronicles and the Demon Child Trilogy. It is set about ten years after the events in the Demon Child Trilogy and features many characters from both older series, as well as several new characters.

Her Serene Highness, Rakaia, Princess of Fardohnya, is off to Hythria, where her eldest sister is now the High Princess, to find herself a husband, and escape the inevitable bloodbath in the harem when her brother takes the throne.

Rakaia is not interested in marrying anyone, least of all some brute of a Hythrun Warlord she's never met, but she has a plan to save herself from that, too. If she can just convince her baseborn sister, Charisee, to play along, she might actually get away with it.

But there is trouble brewing across the continent. High Prince of Hythria, Damin Wolfblade, must head north to save the peace negotiated a decade ago between the Harshini, Hythria, Fardohnya, Medalon and Karien. He must leave behind an even more dangerous conflict brewing between his wife and his powerful mother, Princess Marla.

...And in far off Medalon, someone has stolen the music.

Their quest for the tiny stolen lyre containing the essence of the God of Music will eventually touch all their lives, threaten everything they hold dear and prove to be far more personal than any of them can imagine.

I have always been a fan of Fallon's books, since I first read the Second Sons trilogy, and my enjoyment of her writing has not wavered with this new addition. If you are familiar with the Hythrun Chronicles, that's the Fallon series this book most reminded me of. Furthermore, while this first book in a new series provides a reasonable jumping-on point, I don't particularly recommend starting here. It's not completely necessary, but I do recommend reading the Demon Child series and the Hythrun Chronicles to understand more about the recurring characters' back stories. About half the main point of view characters are recurring and half are new (this is out of I think five point of view characters, one of whom I don't think was very prominent in the earlier books.

Having said all that, it's been rather a while since I read the earlier two series. I think I last reread the Hythrun chronicles six or seven years ago, so my memory of the minutiae was hazy at best. While I had no trouble following the story in The Lyre Thief, giving this, I would have enjoyed it even more, I think, if the memory of "wait, who's that again? The name seems familiar" had been fresher in my mind.

As I said, there were five point of view characters in this book. There's Rakaia and Charisee, royal and baseborn sisters, respectively, whose shenanigans after Rakaia is promised to an old Hythrun lord attract the attention of the God of Liars. There's High Princess Adrina, sister of the aforementioned two and wife of Damin Wolfblade. There's an assassin, the Demon Child (which, actually, wasn't capitalised in the book, which kind of bothered me), a Fardohnyan seneschel... All of whom get entangled in interweaving plots and schemes.

One of the things I love about Fallon's work is how she writes intrigue with several characters having independent goals and schemes which just happen to overlap in entertaining ways. Most of the time, characters are just doing their thing without particularly considering how it might be affecting other people (especially when it's other people they don't even know well).

This is a long book with many characters, but one that I found difficult to put down. Aside from forgetting details from the earlier books about recurring minor characters, I had absolutely no trouble filling the story in The Lyre Thief. Even though there were long gaps between scenes for some of the characters (one in particular, but I don't want to spoil things), Fallon made everything memorable enough that I had no trouble remembering what they were up to.

I enjoyed The Lyre Thief a lot and the only disappointing thing is that I now have to wait a while for the next book! It didn't end on a huge cliffhanger or anything (well, maybe a small one? It was more of a hook for the next book. What constitutes a cliffhanger these days?) but most of the plot lines are unresolved and I want to know what happens next to all the characters! Very much looking forward to book two (which I think is still a year away :-/ ).

I highly recommend The Lyre Thief, especially to fans of The Hythrun Chronicles and The Demon Child Trilogy. You don't have to have read those two earlier series before you read this one, but I think that it would help. For those unfamiliar with Fallon's work, she writes excellent action and political intrigue focussed fantasy. Mostly the intrigue with many intertwining threads.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2016, Harper Voyager AU
Series: The War of the Gods book 1 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased on iBooks
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge