Friday, 16 September 2016

Blog Hiatus

As the title suggests, I have decided to take a break from blogging. This was not a decision lightly made. In fact, I've grappled with it for some time. Even as I write this, I don't actually want to take a break, but I think that I need to.

This year has been very full. I finished my PhD and finished editing an anthology. I moved countries and lived in existential visa angst for three months in between. (The first three quarters of this year year were/will be spent in 3 month blocks in different countries.) Surely that's enough?

Things are finally settling down (I hope) but I strongly feel like I need to spend some time not being plagued by guilt about the review books I'm behind on. Yes, obviously, this is just going to make me more behind, but the alternative is me not reading or reviewing, which is close to the current situation (you may have noticed my reviews have slowed to a trickle).

I also want to spend some time on my own fiction-writing without tempting distractions like review-writing. I've hardly written anything over the past few years, generally using my PhD as an excuse. But now my PhD is over, I would rather make a concerted effort to actually write regularly, instead of coming up with another excuse. So let's see how this blogging hiatus experiment goes.

Arbitrarily, I've decided this break will last until the end of the year. After that, I'm not sure what will happen, but I am hoping that by that time I will know.

See you in 2017, probably!

(And in the meantime, I have no intention of leaving Twitter.)

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hogwarts an Incomplete & Unreliable Guide by JK Rowling

Hogwarts an Incomplete & Unreliable Guide by JK Rowling is a short collection of essays about the Harry Potter universe, which I believe were mostly taken from material posted on the Pottermore website. It's one of three such short collections, each grouped according to a different loose theme. I had long been hoping that the original stuff Rowling posted on Pottermore would be collected in some sort of Harry Potter almanac (like the Discworld guides) because I couldn't be bothered reading it in website form. These books are almost the answer to that desire, aside from the part where they're split into three ebooks rather than a fancy print edition, alas. (One day…)

Pottermore Presents is a collection of J.K. Rowling’s writing: short reads originally featured on These eBooks, with writing curated by Pottermore, will take you beyond the Harry Potter stories as J.K. Rowling reveals her inspiration, intricate details of characters’ lives and surprises from the wizarding world.

Hogwarts An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide takes you on a journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You’ll venture into the Hogwarts grounds, become better acquainted with its more permanent residents, learn more about lessons and discover secrets of the castle . . . all at the turn of a page.

This was a fun read. A collection of essays about various aspects of Hogwarts. Although they're not proper stories, they still evoked the world of Harry Potter very convincingly. Nowhere was this more evident than in the brief interludes/introductions written by the Pottermore editor, between Rowling's essays. Never more than a few sentences long, they were so jarringly inferior to Rowling's writing that I cringed every time I read one.

But that was really the only bad thing about reading this booklet. It was otherwise filed with interesting information, some of it familiar, most of it fleshing out details that didn't come up in the Harry Potter series. My favourite tidbit was about what wizards used to do before they copied Muggle plumbing. Which really raised more questions than it answered, especially for a parenthetical in the Chamber of Secrets entry.

I would definitely recommend this to fans of the Harry Potter books. Don't go it expecting stories though, this is strictly background world- and character-building stuff.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2016, Pottermore
Series: Pottermore presents, one of three standalone volumes (so far) that can be read in any order
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased from Pottermore website

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Sex Criminals Vol 3: Three the Hard Way by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals Vol 3: Three the Hard Way written by Matt Fraction and illustrated Chip Zdarsky is, obviously, the third volume in the ongoing Sex Criminals comic book series. It collects issues #11–15 and pretty continues the story where Volume 2 left off. I don't particularly recommend reading this volume if you haven't already read the earlier volumes/comics. The blurb below and this review will also contain some spoilers for the earlier volumes.

So it turns out Jon and Suzie aren't alone ― other people around the world, like them, freeze time when they climax. A self-appointed group wants to regulate and control them through fear and intimidation. Jon and Suzie are falling in love and want their freak flags to fly, but if they're going to fight back they can't do it alone.

And really, isn't that a metaphor for the whole series? That we might all be alone but we're all alone together? I think so. 

Following on directly from the events in the previous issues, Volume 3 of Sex Criminals deals with John and Suzi investigating and coming to terms with other people who have their time-stopping powers. Of course, like the first group of time stoppers they met, not everyone automatically wants to be friends with them, so things get a little hairy for them.

My favourite thing about this volume was the introduction of a new asexual character, which is especially interesting and cool given the basic premise of "having orgasms stops time". The character didn't get a huge amount of page time, but I'm hoping that will change in the future, especially given the cliffhanger ending. We got a decent amount of backstory, though, and I appreciated the overall way in which the character was introduced.

I didn't hate but was less fond of the meta-commentary that popped up every so often. Issue 14 in particular broke a fourth wall a little bit too hard for my tastes. Not so much because it was bad commentary (it was funny too) but it did slow down the story and, well, even admitted to being masturbatory. So there's that.

On a more positive note, I found the characters more likeable too, especially John. We also see the relationship between Joh and Suzi growing and becoming more meaningful and less based on "oh, hey, you stop time when you orgasm too??! Let's go rob a bank!" Presumably this will be a trend that continues in subsequent comics.

Overall, I would recommend this volume to people who have read the earlier Sex Criminals issues/volumes and want to continue the story. This is definitely not a good place to start and if you hated the earlier books I don't see this one changing your mind unless you really like fourth-wall-breaking commentary or were hanging out for the sensitive introduction of an asexual character.

4 / 5 stars

First published: June 2016, Image Comics
Series: Sex Criminals volume 3 of ongoing series containing issues #11–15
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Real life comic book shop (although I've forgotten in which country)

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

The Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is the author's first novel. It grabbed my attention because I had heard good things about the author, but hadn't gotten around to trying any of his short stories.

To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.

Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris's career isn't the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.

Cheris's best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.

The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao--because she might be his next victim.

I went into this book without any particular expectations beyond "science fiction". What I got was more creative worldbuilding than I expected and a relatively character-driven narrative, although there are also a lot of battle scenes. The interstellar society — the hexarchate — is very regimented, with people split into six different factions with specific roles. The main character, Cheris, is a Kel captain, which means that she's a soldier in a moderately standard sense of the word, but with some unusual additions based on the science/magic of the civilisation (science/magic in the Clarkian sense). The method of both fighting and societal control is particularly interesting, based on calendars with other cultures/rebels that follow different calendars being heretics. I also liked that the space ships are called "moths".

The opening of The Ninefox Gambit was a little confusing at first. The opening battle scene complete with weird maths as a weapon was a little difficult to get into, but the story quickly shifted to being more about the characters than about the maths or the fighting. That said, I should note that it probably fits most definitions of military SF and that the maths is basically all fictional and you certainly don't have to understand it in the way some of the characters do. A Greg Egan book this is not.

The interaction between the two main characters, Cheris and the ghost (sort of) of the mad general Jedao, is one of the most interesting parts of the book, along with Jedao's backstory. Jedao is an insane traitor who the Kell have kept alive because he has also never lost a battle (if you ignore the one where he slaughtered both sides). Cheris, with Jedao attached to her, has to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles (pictured on the cover, how cool does it look?) from heretics without letting Jedao do anything detrimental or omnicidal. Jedao's powers? He can talk; but he's that good.

This was a surprisingly enjoyable read. The opening made me think it would be a bit impenetrable, but on the contrary, I was soon hooked and didn't want to put it down. (Also, I think I was primed for reading this book at this point in my life: it contains references to board games and Kdramas, both rabbit holes I've recently fallen into.) I recommend this book to fans of far future science fiction and military SF.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2016, Rebellion
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 3, The Machineries of Empire trilogy
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 4 September 2016

T.I.M.E Stories: Asylum

T.I.M.E Stories is not a book or a comic or even a short story. It's a board game. More specifically, it's a choose your own adventure story with pretty pictures, a couple of puzzles to solve and a selection of characters for two to four players to control. Or, if you prefer a computer game metaphor, it's a point and click adventure translated to cards and a board. In any case, I'm reviewing it here because it's primarily a story and something I expect many SFFH people will enjoy.

The T.I.M.E Agency protects humanity by preventing temporal faults and paradoxes from threatening the fabric of our universe. As temporal agents, you and your team will be sent into the bodies of beings from different worlds or realities to successfully complete the missions given to you. Failure is impossible, as you will be able to go back in time as many times as required.

T.I.M.E Stories is a narrative board game. Players will live adventures in various worlds, through the eyes and characteristics of their character. They will have to fight, search, discuss, and be clever and convincing to the characters they meet… and sometimes even the other agents.

Each player will be able to include the dose of “roleplay” they want into the character they’ll have chosen. But they will also need to optimize their actions.

Each scenario contains a new world, new characters, new rules, and new surprises.

The basic box contains the T.I.M.E Stories system and the Asylum scenario.

T.I.M.E Stories is the series and, I suppose, architecture for the game. The basic premise is that you are a team of new recruits that the T.I.M.E Agency is sending on missions to prevent temporal faults. When you are sent back in time, you basically possess a contemporaneous character (a bit creepy) and use them to explore the past and fulfil your mission. The game presents you with scenic images and narrative text that guides you through the world and presents you with choices and occasionally puzzles to solve.

Asylum is the story/scenario that comes with the base game of T.I.M.E Stories (and you need the base game to play other scenarios). It's set in 1921 Paris, in an asylum, as the name suggests. The characters you play as are all patients with different abilities and strengths depending on their personality and condition. The other characters you interact with are staff (doctors, nurses, orderlies) and other patients. You finish/win the game by going to enough places, finding clues and hence preventing the creation of a temporal fault. Because there's time travel on the one hand, and a limited amount of time in the past to get things done, you can (or, basically, need to) go back in time more than once to complete the mission. This allows you to try mutually exclusive options on subsequent run-throughs, which I enjoyed.

The theme of Asylum is, of course, inherently ableist, and I was a little apprehensive going into what I knew was a horror scenario set in a psychiatric facility in a time period when mental health care wasn't exactly great. But really it could've been worse. The horror elements weren't based in being afraid of the patients, but rather various non-human creatures and the non-patients behind the evil plot.

It took me and my husband three runs to finish the game, which took about two and a half hours. But that was with us solving the puzzles pretty quickly and your mileage may vary (there are only two puzzles though). We then went back and played through from scratch (not keeping the items you're allowed to keep between runs) to test some of the actions we didn't take the first time, but that only took about half an hour because we didn't to reread or think too much about the places we'd already visited.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of T.I.M.E Stories: Asylum and I look forward to playing other scenarios. From some of the minor details in Asylum, I gather there will be some more of the overarching story revealed in future scenarios, which I am particularly looking forward to. The only really disappointing thing, for me, was how quickly it was over. We are hoping that the future scenarios are longer or more complex, but the internet is unclear on this point (without clicking on the spoilers, anyway).

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Space Cowboys / Asmodee
Series: T.I.M.E Stories, the first scenario in an ongoing series (3 more currently out, one more about to be released)
Format read: Er, board game
Source: An online tabletop game shop