Sunday, 21 May 2017

Saga Vol 6 by Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Saga Vol 6 written by Brian K Vaughn and illustrated Fiona Staples is the sixth volume in the ongoing space opera comic book series, Saga. I have reviewed all of the previous volumes: Volume OneVolume TwoVolume ThreeVolume Four and Volume Five. The story picks up more or less where the previous volume left off, with a bit of a jump forward in time (I think of a few years, but I'm not entirely sure).

After a dramatic time jump, the three-time Eisner Award winner for Best Continuing Series continues to evolve, as Hazel begins the most exciting adventure of her life: kindergarten. Meanwhile, her starcrossed family learns hard lessons of their own.

To be honest, after waiting more than a year and a half since reading Vol 5, my recollection of where the plot was up to was vague at best. And yet, I found it really easy to get back into the story. I was only slightly confused about some of the details, and that was more with regards to the secondary storylines.

Overall, I quite enjoyed reading this volume. However, since it's volume six in an ongoing series, I am again lost for what to say about it. It's not a self-contained story; it's a continuation of what's come before. Obviously, this isn't going to work very well as a standalone (I don't like it's odds for the Hugo for that reason). But if you've been reading and enjoying Saga, then definitely continue reading with this volume. If you haven't read any Saga before and the idea of a cross-species war-time love story space opera appeals to you, then go start with volume one and catch up to six (or seven, which is also out). Highly recommended.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Image Comics
Series: Saga, volume 6 out of 7 so far in the ongoing series, containing issues #31–36
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: A shop. I bought it last year and I don't remember in which country.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Monstress Vol 1: Awakening by Majorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol 1: Awakening written by Majorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is the first collected volume in the ongoing comic book series. It's set in a dark steampunk magic world, and is a very female-centric story.

Set in an alternate world of art deco beauty and steampunk horror, Monstress tells the epic story of Maika Halfwolf, a teenage survivor of a cataclysmic war between humans and their hated enemies, the Arcanics. In the face of oppression and terrible danger, Maika is bother hunter and hunted, searching for answers about her mysterious past as those who seek to use her remain just one step behind… and all the while, the monster within begins to awaken… 

My first impression of Monstress was one of violence. The beginning doesn't pull any punches and was very dark and violent with torture and death up front. I found it a bit off-putting, since I wasn't prepared for it. But the further I read, the more I enjoyed it. A large part of that, I think, is the world building which was revealed gradually throughout the volume — partly told through the medium of a cat professor — and my growing interest in the mystery of Maika's past.

As we learn more of the story world, we learn that there are different races (exactly what makes some of them different confused me at first, as did the names of races versus groups within them), including a race of cats and of immortals. (And who doesn't like cats, right?) The main character is on  a mission that we don't know all the details of, she picks up a stray fox-girl and meets up with a cat. And also something monstrous lives inside her. Hence the title.

I think if I had only read one issue of Monstress I might not have kept going. I mainly did because I had the ARC and I wanted to get through it for Hugo-voting purposes. I'm glad I did because after a reluctant first half, I got into it. It reminded me a little bit of Saga, but more fantasy and less SF, and more violence and fewer penises. And fewer men. In fact, most of the cast is female, the evil, the innocent and the deeply morally questionable. There are only a few men and they're not very important. Even random guards — many of whom die — are mostly female, which is great to see.

I would recommend this volume to fans of dark fantasy and steampunk who don't mind reading about a lot of violence and (supernatural) death. It's a bit heavy and not for everyone but I'm glad I finished the volume. I wasn't sure while I was reading whether I'd be picking up the next volume, but I am interested in seeing what happens next.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Image Comics
Series: Volume 1 of ongoing series, containing issues #1–6
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss (although it was also in the Hugo packet)

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Hugo Short Story Reading

Since I am attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in August, I am eligible to vote in the Hugo awards and hence am starting to read my way through the shortlist. Happily, I've already read two of the novels, which lessens the word pile a little.

For now, I decided to start with short stories. Because they're short. Also because they're all available to read for free online (even the one originally published in an anthology) so there's no need to wait for the Hugo packet. Very convenient!

My reviews are in my reading order, which is semi-random. Publication info links go to the story itself. Final impressions of the stories as a whole are at the end.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)

A gloriously angry story about revenge. I started with this one because it was the shortest, but it packed a lot of emotional punch in a short space. A supernatural being (a siren?) was brutally attacked by a human and she did not rest in peace. A scathing commentary of the media response to rape and murder, both real and fictional. Not a warm, fuzzy read.

“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn (, March 2016)

A very different kind of story to the above. Longer, more drawn out, a gentler read. In the aftermath of war (or during a ceasefire, anyway) a nurse from one side goes to visit a soldier from the other, telepathic, side. Full of reminiscences about the war during which they were each other's prisoners at various times, the story culminates in a game of chess... and we learn how one can play chess against a telepath.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong (, March 2016)

Another powerful story about desperation and helplessness and that even magic can't fix everything. Not if it's too late, not if it's been too late for too long. The narrator tells us about the world ending as she tries to use her weather-working powers to save her sister, also a weather-worker. The story begins with powerful imagery and continues in that emotional vein.

I am sensing a theme.

“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (, September 2016)

This one is a story about the gestation and birth of cities and the people who help them through it and protect them. Another fantasy story that felt more fantasy-ish (as opposed to science fiction-y) than "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers". It was well written, but the concept didn't grab me as much as the previous stories have and I felt like it dragged a little. Also, I don't care that much about New York, which might have contributed. Not a bad story, but not one that stands out.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press, reprinted in Uncanny)

A gorgeous story. I left the author I had read before to last (which is not to say I haven't been meaning to read the other authors for some time) and it seems I also left my favourite story to last. This is a story about how cruel fairytales can be to women, who suffer punishments while their male peers are given boons. Two women with magical burdens meet and give each other comfort. It's a seemingly gentle story that nevertheless gives the finger to the patriarchy. It also contains some lovely wry turns of phrase that I would share if this were a different style of review. Instead, I urge you to go read it for free online where it has been reprinted in Uncanny.

How do they rate overall?

The story I unequivocally loved best was "Seasons of Glass and Iron", which I will be ranking first. The remaining stories all rate pretty similarly to me and are tricky to order. I may change my mind, but I think "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" will come next, then "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", "The Game We Played During the War" and finally "The City Born Great" before No Award.

You might have noticed that I omitted one shortlisted story from the above. Well it's my blog and I can ignore puppies if I want to.

Overall, this shortlist has been a rewarding read. I haven't read all that many short stories of late (slush is a bit of a drawn-out burn out) and this experience reminded me of what I love about the form as well as the variety possible within our genres.

Onward to the next category!

Monday, 15 May 2017

The Mountains of Mourning - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

The Mountains of Mourning is a novella that we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially falls, more or less, between the novels The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game. It is about Miles Vorkosigan and was published in 1986. Miles is back home on holiday after graduating from the Imperial Military Academy and is given an official task by his father the Count.

You can read Katharine’s review of The Mountains of Mourning here, and Tsana’s review here.

Katharine: So we left Miles just as he gains entry to the Imperial Military Academy and we join him again just as he’s graduated - he’s on home leave, ten days out from his first assignment… very seamlessly done! Do we get any or many flashbacks to his time in the academy? I’m glad we didn’t have to see it all but I wouldn’t have minded seeing some!

Tsana: I think there might be a bit about it in The Vor Game? I’m not entirely sure, so we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, The Mountains of Mourning had a very different tone to The Warrior’s Apprentice, although the setting did remind me a little of what Cordelia sees in Barrayar. What were your impressions of it?

Katharine: It was good - it didn’t treat the reader like an idiot. There are quite a few changes, such as his new bodyguard, and it doesn’t take pages upon pages to labouriously introduce the reader and really hammer home how weird Miles felt or still feels about it. We’re just given the new bodyguard’s name and then we learn of him as the story goes on. Excellent!

Tsana: And there are some memories on Miles’s part to remind us that Bothari existed and that Miles still thinks of him. In terms of the actual story, I think this is the one that deals most directly with ableism and the attitudes of Joe Poor Barrayaran towards Miles and other people with “mutations”.

Katharine: Yeah, the term ‘Mutie’ is a bit confronting. I wonder how Miles got by in the Academy with this hostile and antiquated view… should we raise the spoiler shield so we can jump right into specifics?


<spoilers start here>

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Announcing the D Franklin Defying Doomsday Award!

We are very excited to announce the opening of nominations for The Defying Doomsday Award recognising work in disability advocacy in SFF literature.

As well as publishing SFF fiction that supports positive storytelling for disabled characters, we want to encourage and support advocacy for greater diversity in SFF fiction. As such, the Defying Doomsday Award is a special award for disability advocacy in SFF literature.

This award is possible thanks to D Franklin, our wonderful Patron of Diversity who pledged the top pledge in our Pozible campaign!

The Defying Doomsday Award is an annual shortlist and prize. The award jury comprises Twelfth Planet Press publisher, Alisa Krasnostein, and Defying Doomsday editors, Tsana Dolichva (me) and Holly Kench. The award will grant one winner per year a cash prize of $200 in recognition of their work in disability advocacy in SFF literature. Eligible works include non-fiction or related media exploring the subject of disability in SFF literature. Works must have been published in 2016.

We are now seeking nominations for the 2016 Defying Doomsday Award. Please submit your nominations to me and Holly by filling in this form.

Submissions will be open until 31st July 2017, and the winner/s will be announced in September 2017.

Thank you all for your nominations, and a big thanks to D Franklin for making this award possible!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold is a novella set in the Vorkosigan universe. I've re-read it as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project and, chronologically, it fits between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game. It follows Miles when he is assigned one of his first duties as a Count's son and future Count, taking him into the poverty-stricken backwaters of his home county.

While being a space-faring empire, Barrayar still harbors deep-rooted prejudices and superstitions, including those against "mutants." When a Dendarii hill-woman comes before Aral Vorkosigan seeking justice for the murder of her infant baby who has been killed because of her physical defects, the Barrayaran Lord sends his son Miles to a remote mountain village to discover the truth and carry out Imperial justice and at the same time attack these long-held barbaric beliefs. And who better than Miles Vorkosigan, who has himself struggled with these prejudices all his life because of his own physical deformities.

This is probably the Miles story that deals most directly with the ableism we know Miles has faced since before he was born (well, you know it if you've read the earlier Vorkosigan books, anyway). We have already seen some of Miles personal physical limitations in The Warrior's Apprentice but the ableism from random strangers was more of a side thing. And by the time Mountains of Mourning starts, Miles's grandfather is a few years gone, although his shadow still very much hangs over Miles.

This story is partly a murder mystery and partly an exploration of just how backwards parts of Barrayar are. Miles sets out to fairly solve the murder and hopes to bring a little bit more of the present to the small community he visits. The infanticide of a baby with a cleft pallet — a trivial condition to fix in any hospital on Barrayar — is seen as tragic by Miles and the baby's mother, but a matter of course for the murderer and many other members of the community. Miles not only has to bring justice, but also show what justice even looks like in this situation.

Like all of Bujold, this was a good read, although not an especially happy one. The insight into what life is really like for the Barrayaran poor (or at least the poor in the Vorkosigan region, made worse by a Cetagandan nuclear blast) provides an interesting contrast to all the spacefaring and war which dominate a lot of the other books in the series. Being a novella, Mountains of Mourning is also not a very long read. I recommend it to fans of Miles and the Vorkosigan universe. Although it's possible to read the novella without having read any of the other books (there's nothing much which depends too heavily on prior knowledge), I expect it would be a little less interesting out of context.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1989 in Analog
Series: Vorkosigan universe, falling between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game
Format read: ePub
Source: Free from Baen several years ago

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Warrior's Apprentice - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

The Warrior’s Apprentice is the third book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Barrayar and is the first book (chronologically and in publication order) about Miles Vorkosigan, published before Barrayar was in 1986. Miles is the son of Cordelia and Aral and we join him as he tries (and fails) to gain admittance to the Imperial Military Academy and has to turn to other ideas.

You can read Tsana’s review of The Warrior’s Apprentice here, and Katharine’s review here.

Tsana: When I first read the Vorkosigan saga, this was the first book I started with. It seemed like a good place to start at the time — it introduced Miles, who everyone talked about as the main character, and it was one of the first books written and published. I didn’t read the first two Cordelia books, Shards of Honour and Barrayar, until the very end, which meant that the impact of some of the references to the past in The Warrior’s Apprentice was completely lost on me. I am very glad to be rereading the books again in this order. What were your impressions of The Warrior’s Apprentice, having picked it up for the first time?

Katharine: I honestly wonder what I would have thought of Miles for the first section of the book, without having being brought to him via his parents. From this journey I’m already protective of him because we saw the struggles his parents had… without that, I think he would have won me over when he first uses his crazy schemes to save Mayhew… but before then, I might have found him a little too… what’s the word… Fervent?

Tsana: Hah, fervent is certainly the word to describe him (and you haven’t even seen half of it yet)! But that’s understandable just from knowing about his disability and desire to prove himself in the militaristic and ableist society of Barrayar. That said, there wasn’t as much ableism in the book as there could have been. Miles spends most of it off-world where other people just think he’s a bit weird instead of making the sign of the devil against him like we see Barrayarans do. What were your impressions of this?

Katharine: I found it interesting that as soon as he drew any ire it was the first thing they went to - calling him awful things about his (lack of) height or crookedness. But overall I think the novel did a good job at introducing the reader to him - we start the novel off with him not being successful in gaining entry into the Imperial Military Academy on Barrayar because of his disability, and then for the rest of the novel we see him, more or less, in situations where it doesn’t hold him back at all.

Tsana: I remember someone somewhere (I think it might have been on Galactic Suburbia) saying that in zero-G his disabilities didn’t matter anymore. But we don’t really see that in this book. What we know about Miles’s limitations are that he has very brittle bones — he breaks both his legs in the opening scene — and that he’s short with a crooked spine. We also briefly learn that he’s allergic to some medication, but that doesn’t feature too much. While none of those things stop him doing anything other than passing the Imperial Military Academy physical exam, he’s also not put into any equalising situations, not really. Galactics (ie non-Barrayarans) might not care so much that he’s different, but he still has to prove himself in a normal fashion without any sudden advantages. The only advantage he had in his life was more time to read and study growing up due to being unable to play outside as much. The rest of his advantage is all personality and intelligence (the latter having nothing to do with his disabilities).

Katharine: And all thanks to his parents - there’s several references that show he knows what they would do or think in a situation and he seems to take their way as gospel - he uses what his mother would think in a situation to reassure Elena, for example.

Tsana: Yes, it definitely helps that his parents are good role-models. He probably wouldn’t have gotten nearly so far with his crazy schemes if not for his father’s military and political strategy rubbing off on him.

Katharine: And his mother’s ability as a warrior - he wouldn’t have got nearly as far in his schemes without being able to see women are equal from the very start - something that threw a few of his adversaries off. Should we lift the spoiler zone so we can get into the nitty gritty?

<spoilers start here>

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold is another book in the Vorkosigan saga, which I have been rereading this year. It's the second book published, the first (published and chronologically) about Miles Vorkosigan and the third chronologically in the main timeline (or the fourth if you count a very distant prequel). It was originally the first book I read of the saga and, while I enjoyed it immensely at the time, I actually found it more satisfying upon rereading after the two Cordelia books, Shards of Honour and Barrayar.

Between the seemingly impossible tasks of living up to his warrior-father's legend and surmounting his own physical limitations, Miles Vorkosigan faces some truly daunting challenges.

Shortly after his arrival on Beta Colony, Miles unexpectedly finds himself the owner of an obsolete freighter and in more debt than he ever thought possible. Propelled by his manic "forward momentum," the ever-inventive Miles creates a new identity for himself as the commander of his own mercenary fleet to obtain a lucrative cargo; a shipment of weapons destined for a dangerous warzone.

I enjoyed this book the first time I read it — I loved Miles and it made me want to read the rest of the series — but I feel like I got more out of it after rereading. The background/side plot regarding the events of Miles's parents generation was actually covered in Shards of Honour and Barrayar in much more detail and the scenes in The Warrior's Apprentice harking back to those events were much more impactful having just read about them. So while The Warrior's Apprentice seemed like a good place to start (and I don't blame people for suggesting it), I think starting with Shards of Honour is a much better idea.

Miles is only seventeen in this book, which is easy to forget, given the scale of his adventures. It all starts innocuously enough with Miles failing the physical part of the Imperial Military Academy exam. His holiday to take his mind off things and consider his future options kind of spirals out of control, however, when smuggling and a warzone become involved. Miles is clever and amusing, making this book quite engaging. Although I also enjoyed the two Cordelia books proceeding it, I loved this one even more. Cordelia is awesome but Miles is larger than life and I love reading about him.

As well as Miles, we get to properly meet Elena, Bothari's daughter, and follow the next (Mile-centric) chapter of Bothari's life, after the unfortunate events we see or learn about in the earlier two books. Miles's able-bodied age-mate cousin Ivan also makes an appearance. All of these characters know Miles well and provide a counterpoint to the various new people he encounters over the course of the story. Since most of the new people are Galactics (that is, not Barrayaran), there have significantly different cultural reactions to his appearance than the generally ableist random Barrayarans back home. It's interesting to see how this can be a kind of advantage to Miles, as opposed to the disadvantage it is back home.

The Warrior's Apprentice is an excellent read. It's an OK entry point to the Vorkosigan saga, but I recommend reading it after Shards of Honour and Barrayar to appreciate it most fully. And of course, I enjoyed it enough the first time to reread it, and enough the second time to (again) give it five stars. I am very excited to continue rereading Miles's adventures.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 1986, Baen
Series: Yes. Book 4 chronologically or 2 publication-order-ly of the Vorkosigan Saga
Format read: ePub
Source: Baen — I believe a free promotion several years ago, although I also purchased the book as part of the Young Miles omnibus

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

US cover
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein is a prequel to her much-renowed Code Name Verity. Hence it is also set in the same universe of plausible World War II events as Rose Under Fire and Black Dove, White Raven, all of which I have read and enjoyed. None of those books are required reading before picking up The Pearl Thief, but I can attest to increased sentimentality while reading The Pearl Thief after having read Code Name Verity. I teared up almost every time roses were mentioned (and they were the same roses). đŸ„€

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

UK cover
Before I started reading, I had misremembered names (and the last line of the blurb didn't help) and was expecting The Pearl Thief to be about the other protagonist in Code Name Verity, Maddie. I was not emotionally prepared for it when I realised that, of course, Julie was the Scottish one, with the French grandmother and great aunt who had been sent to boarding school in Geneva. That said, if you haven't read Code Name Verity and the shadow of the future isn't hanging over Julie for you, then The Pearl Thief is a fun, coming-of-age, historical YA novel set in the 1930s with a surprisingly bisexual protagonist. Surely worth a read just for that.

The story is told from Julie's point of view, more or less in the tone of a diary, but with pretty normal prose formatting and dialogue. Other major characters are Julie's closest brother Jamie (who readers of Code Name Verity may remember) and a couple of her Scottish Traveller friends. The latter two provide a launching point for a key aspect of historical life explored in the book, namely the discrimination faced by Travellers from otherwise perfectly nice and reasonable people. Julie is a bit of a sheltered outsider who, over the course of the book's adventures and misadventures, experiences and gains a greater appreciation for the differences between her privileged life and the lives of the nomadic Travellers she befriends.

The overarching plot links the above ideas with a few mysteries and other historical details, as well as Scottish river pearls. For the most part, the events of the book aren't too dire (it's not all sunshine and roses — oh, the roses! — but the main point of comparison is World War II) although there are some tense moments. There are also injustices which can hardly be said to be cheerful. But overall this was a fun and enjoyable read that I had difficulty putting down. I highly recommend it to fans of historical YA and of Wein's other books (especially Code Name Verity). In many ways The Pearl Thief made me want to reread Code Name Verity, but it's probably just as well that I own it as a paperback residing on another continent since I don't quite need the heartbreak right now.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017, Bloomsbury UK / Disney-Hyperion US
Series: Code Name Verity universe, first book so far chronologically, fourth to be published
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Gumtree Gargoyles by Rebecca Rosengrave

Gumtree Gargoyles by Rebecca Rosengrave was pitched to me as a fantasy novel set in Canberra. It's the author's first novel, aside from the fact that I wouldn't categorise it as a novel; length-wise it's more of a novella. Content-wise there are a lot of issues with it. If you can't be bothered reading the rest of this review, I'll save you having to scroll down to my summary paragraph and say this: I read this book so that you don't have to. You're welcome.

Most children inherit tangible gain when a parent passes. Property, memorabilia, money. The legacy of a loved one is more often than not, ancestral currency in some shape or form. This, wasn’t the case in Katie’s situation! Not that pawning the presence of a parent for cash was an aspiration, but Katie would have preferred inheriting anything other than what she actually did. In the space of a week, a mouldy old stamp collection, or indeed nothing at all, didn’t look too bad in comparison to what mental illness had bequeathed her. ​

In the wake of her father’s suicide, Katie inherited a responsibility. Her father’s sudden abdication from life bore consequences far greater than what she could have ever anticipated.

The deliberate absence of her older sister post family tragedy, meant that by default, Gargoyle Guardianship of the Australian Capital Territory fell straight into Katie’s lap. As the eldest child from the relevant family, who still resided in Canberra, Katie was the official beneficiary to a title that bore the burden of the Nation’s Capital!

Meet your new Gargoyle Guardian!

There were so many issues with this book that it's hard to know where to start. The only positives were the general premise of gargoyles guarding humanity from other supernatural beings — it wasn't well-executed, but it wasn't a bad idea — the setting, and the extra sleep the book helped me get on my recent international flight.

The thing that bothered me the most about this book was mostly confined to the opening. As the blurb suggests, the main character's father commits suicide, leaving her the hereditary family responsibility of supernatural guardianship. Then comes the confusing ableism. Katie and her siblings spend some time raging against the inadequate mental health system (fair) but then they'll turn around and say something ableist about a mentally ill person or someone who is perceived to be unusual. Violent criminals are "crazed" and the word "insanity" is thrown around in thrown around in a mental illness context, which, um, no? Especially given the press release I was sent stating "[the author] hopes to use this book to bring awareness to the failings of the current health system and how it has affected her own family in the most tragic way." Flippant ableism aside, said failings of the mental health system aren't explored in any depth in the book, so that seems like an odd goal.

The second most annoying aspect of the book, and the most persistent, was the poor writing. It's frightfully overwritten and under-edited, peppered with nonsensical sentences that were at least a source of baffled amusement. The author bludgeons the reader with every minor fact, entirely lacking in subtlety. The prologue is a boring infodump of history that could have easily been integrated into the story (although I'm not sure all the details were even necessary), which was full of "as you know, Bob"-isms as it was. We were witness to several key conversations between the protagonist and people she's known her whole life that one would expect to have happened earlier in their lives.

On the topic of the protagonist, she struck me as somewhat incompetent, even as she ultimately solved the problems put before her. It's true that in the context of the story she wasn't expecting to inherent her role. However, she seemed too ignorant of the supernatural world beyond just that. It was implied that her father used to share aspects of his work with her and her siblings, so why then does she not know much about the world she lives in? At one point her brother looks up supernatural stuff on Wikipedia! (Normal, human Wikipedia!) Katie's confidence at the end of the book that she is fully able to do her job seemed delusional, given how much she had put herself and her friends and family at risk throughout. Yes, they ultimately prevailed but there were some close calls and you'd think she'd at least want to improve on that.

Speaking of the danger she put her family and friends into, there was rather a lot of sexual assault and harassment of the teenage younger brother, which was played for laughs when it was women doing it and only sinister when it was an older man. Sigh.

Finally, a criticism of the plot: the mysterious cause of some attacks the protagonist had to investigate was blindingly obvious once she was given the first proper clue (in the form of a riddle, because of course). And yet, none of the characters worked it out despite actually living in a supernatural world, being Australian and having spoken with Australians multiple times in their lives. It was frustrating to wait way (too long) for the characters to be told the obvious cause.

Nothing about this book was satisfying aside from making notes for my impending review. If it weren't for the book being so short (and my having already watched my fill of movies on the plane) I would not have finished it. As it was, it was tempting to stop and write a DNF (did not finish) review. But that review would have been shorter and less precise since some of the above points did not come up until the latter parts of the book.

I do not recommend this book. The premise is sound, but it is not worth the effort, thanks to the subpar execution. It could've been refined down to a nice novella with a stronger editorial hand, but it wasn't.

2 / 5 stars

First published: April 2017, self-published
Series: Let's hope not. (There do seem to be some picture books set in the same world, I think? I couldn't find them on goodreads, though.)
Format read: eARC
Source: publicist
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Masquerade by Laura Lam

Masquerade by Laura Lam is the third and final book in the Micah Grey trilogy. It's been rather a while since I read the first two books, thanks mostly to the roller coaster that is the publishing industry. In any case, the final book in the trilogy is now out, so it's the perfect time to pick up these books if you have an aversion to incomplete series. If you haven't already, I suggest having a look at my reviews of the first two books, Pantomime and Shadowplay.

The gifted hide their talents, but dare they step into the light?

Micah's Chimaera powers are growing, until his dark visions overwhelm him. Drystan is forced to take him to Dr Pozzi, to save his life. But can they really trust the doctor, especially when a close friend is revealed to be his spy?

Meanwhile, violent unrest is sweeping the country, as anti-royalist factions fight to be heard. Then three chimaera are attacked, after revealing their existence with the monarchy's blessing - and the struggle becomes personal. A small sect decimated the chimaera in ancient times and nearly destroyed the world. Now they've re-emerged to spread terror once more. Micah will discover a royal secret, which draws him into the heart of the conflict. And he and his friends must risk everything to finally bring peace to their land.

Masquerade continues to follow Micah as he tries to keep living his life. Of course, being the protagonist of a fantasy book, things are never quite so simple. Micah's powers grow, unrest grows in their city and new mysteries appear. Can Micah and friends work out what's going on and why and who is involved? (Well yes; it's a book.)

I enjoyed the first two Micah Grey books a lot and was disappointed that I had to wait so long to read the last book in the series. Unfortunately, waiting so long also meant that some aspects of the story had faded from my mind by the time I picked up Masquerade. It took me a little while to get reacquainted with the world and characters and, consequently, a little while to get into the story. It's hard to say how much of my reaction to the first part of the book was as a result of this and how much is more from the book itself. Either way, I found the opening a little slow and the pacing a little off in the first part of the book. Later on, as the story approached the climax and tensions were high, this was not an issue.

Overall I enjoyed Masquerade but I can't help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if I'd read it in closer proximity with the first two books. I definitely recommend this series to anyone to whom an intersex and/or bisexual main character appeals. If you enjoyed the first two books, this concluding volume ties up pretty much all the loose ends (that I can remember). If you hated the first two books, I'm not sure why you bothered reading to the end of this review.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2017, Tor
Series: Yes, Micah Grey book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased on Google Play

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat Vol 2: Don't Stop Me-ow by Kate Leth and Brittney L Williams

Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat Vol 2: Don't Stop Me-ow written by Kate Leth and illustrated by Brittney L Williams is the direct sequel to Vol 1: Hooked on a Feline, which I reviewed last year. Volume 1 ended part-way through a story arc and Volume 2 picked up where that story left off.

In another world they might be gal pals who help each other through hard times. But when Patsy Walker and Jessica Jones meet at last in the Marvel Universe, could it be they'll end up frenemies?! Not everyone can get along all the time, which is why the world's heroes are about to be rocked by a second Civil War! But when the fallout from the battlefield hits close to home, Patsy is forced to take stock of her life and face what it really costs to be A.K.A. Hellcat! Plus, fallouts with former friends don't get any worse than Patsy and Hedy. Now Ms. Wolfe is about to torment her rival more than ever, with a little help from Patsy's evil exboyfriends! Will Hellcat get burned by her old flames?

As well as picking up mid-way through a story arc, Hellcat Volume 2 also ends part-way through a story arc, which was kind of annoying. Especially since it felt a lot more unfinished, being an incomplete villain face-off. Having a "to be continued" when it seems like only one more issue would finish off the story was very frustrating.

Another thing that was frustrating was the tangential impact of the latest comic event on Patsy's story. In this case Civil War II takes out one of Patsy's regular friends (I suppose I'll refrain from spoiling who or how) and everyone has to spend a little while reacting to that, which wasn't otherwise necessary to Patsy's story.

Negativity aside, I enjoyed this volume and I continue to enjoy reading about Hellcat. Patsy has interesting friends and interactions with them. I especially like her housemate, who gets a bit more story progression in this volume than in the previous one. There's also a section involving Jessica Jones, which was pretty great. Less interesting was the part where Patsy was revisited by ex-boyfriends/husbands, but that was at least resolved pretty satisfactorily.

The villain that appears towards the end (and doesn't get resolved in the included issues) is Black Cat, as you may have guessed from the cover art. I particularly liked how Black Cat recruited what amounts to a girl gang to do her henching and I hope we see more of them after the storyline is resolved.

Overall, if you liked the previous volume of Hellcat, I definitely recommend picking up this next instalment. Unnecessary cliffhangers aside, I'm definitely planning to pick up the next volume, although I'll probably wait until I've cleared out a bit more of my current comics backlog (I'm pretty sure the next volume is already available, if that matters to you). If you haven't read any Hellcat before, I'd recommend starting with the first volume, which properly introduces all the supporting characters as well as Patsy herself. In general, I also recommend this series to fans of female superheroes, because duh.

4 / 5 stars

First published: January 2017, Marvel
Series: Hellcat, ongoing series, trade volume 2 of 3 so far, containing issues #7–12
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: All Star Comics, Melbourne

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Final Girls by Mira Grant

Final Girls by Mira Grant is a science fiction horror novella from the Seanan McGuire pseudonym that brought us the Newsflesh and Parasitology series. It's not set in either of those universes, however, and in my opinion is a bit more firmly rooted in the horror genre than either.

What if you could fix the worst parts of yourself by confronting your worst fears?

Dr. Jennifer Webb has invented proprietary virtual reality technology that purports to heal psychological wounds by running clients through scenarios straight out of horror movies and nightmares. In a carefully controlled environment, with a medical cocktail running through their veins, sisters might develop a bond they’ve been missing their whole lives—while running from the bogeyman through a simulated forest. But…can real change come so easily?

Esther Hoffman doubts it. Esther has spent her entire journalism career debunking pseudoscience, after phony regression therapy ruined her father’s life. She’s determined to unearth the truth about Dr. Webb’s budding company. Dr. Webb’s willing to let her, of course, for reasons of her own. What better advertisement could she get than that of a convinced skeptic? But Esther’s not the only one curious about how this technology works. Enter real-world threats just as frightening as those created in the lab. Dr. Webb and Esther are at odds, but they may also be each other’s only hope of survival.

As described in the blurb, the story of Final Girls follows Esther, a reporter who is covering a radical new psychological (/psychiatric since there are drugs involved?) therapy using an advanced form of virtual reality — so advanced, it incidentally includes the ability for outsiders to look at people's dreams while they're in the system. Esther has been chosen for the job because of a past that makes her especially sceptical of the lofty claims made by Dr Webb's organisation. Dr Webb, meanwhile, just wants to convince her of the efficacy of the system, using whatever means necessary. Things fall into horror when outside forces throw carefully laid plans awry.

This isn't a lengthy read but it is a very tense and interesting one. Midway through the book I was honestly unsure whether our protagonists would survive the ordeal and was wondering how the story would end. The fact that the reader is given more information than some of the characters — who have no way of knowing what's happening outside of the virtual reality — significantly adds to the tension. About half the story takes place in a virtual world and those scenes are easily differentiated from the real world scenes through the use of a different font, making the delineations quite clear.

Final Girls was an excellent read and I recommend it to fans of science fiction and horror. Being a novella it's also a quick read but one that will not leave you disappointed. I look forward to reading more of Mira Grant's work in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: late April 2017, Subterranean Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Unbelievable Gwenpool Vol 1: Believe It by Chris Hastings

The Unbelievable Gwenpool Vol 1: Believe It by Chris Hastings is the first collected volume of Gwenpool comics. It collects issues #0–4 and is more or less an origin story for the character. I previously read and reviewed the Gwenpool holiday special, a small portion of which was reprinted in this collected edition.

Gwen Poole used to be a comic book reader just like you...until she woke up in a world where the characters she read about seemed to be real! But that can't be, right? This must all be fake, or a dream or something, right? And you know what that means...NO CONSEQUENCES!

Could Gwenpool truly be Marvel's least responsible and least role-modely character to date? She can if she tries!

Gwenpool is a great character. She started off as a bit of a joke — a Gwen Stacey version of Deadpool — but has grown into her own character. Although we don't get her full back story in this volume (there are hints that more information is coming) the basic idea is that Gwen is from our universe and has been transported into the comic book world. Her super power is knowing everyone's secrets because she read a lot of comic books back in our world. This also gives her a reason to break the fourth wall and allows her to make direct references to real-world pop culture that aren't possible in other comics.

Gwen is a rather devil-may-care character at first, but soon starts to realise that just because she's from the real world, doesn't mean everything is going to magically work out for her with no effort. Things get a bit dicey and Gwen realises she needs to actually try to survive the situation she's gotten herself into.

This is a hilarious comic and I recommend it to fans of humour and silliness. I think it will appeal to fans of Squirrel Girl and Spider-Gwen, although it is significantly more irreverent than both of those. I am looking forward to the next issue and I hope the writers keep up the current, fresh vibe (and that she manages to get some pants added to her costume, c'mon Ronnie).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016
Series: Gwenpool vol 1 of onging series
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: All-Star Comics, Melbourne

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale is a novelisation of the awesome comic book character's early high school life and emergence as a superhero. It's a YA book and is set when Doreen Green is fourteen and has just moved to New Jersey from LA.

Fourteen-year-old Doreen Green moved from sunny California to the suburbs of New Jersey. She must start at a new school, make new friends, and continue to hide her tail. Yep, Doreen has the powers of . . . a squirrel! After failing at several attempts to find her new BFF, Doreen feels lonely and trapped, liked a caged animal. Then one day Doreen uses her extraordinary powers to stop a group of troublemakers from causing mischief in the neighborhood, and her whole life changes. Everyone at school is talking about it! Doreen contemplates becoming a full-fledged Super Hero. And thus, Squirrel Girl is born! She saves cats from trees, keeps the sidewalks clean, and dissuades vandalism. All is well until a real-life Super Villain steps out of the shadows and declares Squirrel Girl his archenemy. Can Doreen balance being a teenager and a Super Hero? Or will she go . . . NUTS?

This book was awesome! I mean, Squirrel Girl is already a pretty awesome character and if I had any apprehensions going in it was that the novel character wouldn't be quite the same as the comic character. But, although novel!Doreen is younger than comic!Doreen (who is in college), the authors managed to get her voice down exactly, giving the book a very similar feel to the comics. And there are footnotes from Doreen as she reads along with us.

On top of that, some of the chapters are from other characters' points of view, like Doreen's best human friend Ana SofĂ­a (more on her shortly) and Doreen's best squirrel friend Tippy-Toe. Yes, there are chapters from Tippy-Toe's point of view. And they are in first person. And they are awesome. So awesome. And my favourite thing with Tippy-Toe is a bit of a spoiler...

Tippy-Toe picks up some ASL from watching Doreen and Ana SofĂ­a sign to each other and then is able to sign to Ana SofĂ­a in an emergency. Eeeee!

Ana SofĂ­a, meanwhile, is the first friend Doreen makes at her new school and is instrumental in keeping her spirits up when times are tough. She also plays a part in helping Squirrel Girl save the day.

Squirrel Girl is awesome and you should read this book even if you haven't read any of the recent comics. They are completely independent of the book, despite being about the same character. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes YA and/or superheroes and also doesn't hate fun. Because Squirrel Girl is awesome.

5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2017, Marvel/Scholastic
Series: Yes? No? Squirrel Girl is an ongoing character in the Marvel comics universe, anyway.
Format read: Paperback! Gasp!
Source: Purchased at local book shop

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Barrayar - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Barrayar is the second book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Shards of Honour, but was actually not published until 1991, five years and several other books later. It follows Cordelia as she grapples with having moved to Barrayar and the external events which make that even more difficult than it might have originally seemed.

Tsana: This was an interesting book to come back to. Certain events that happen later in the book are kind of burned into my brain from my first readthrough and I spent the entire first half or so (maybe it was less than that) anticipating the oncoming storm. I had forgotten how staid the opening was!

Katharine: From a new reader the first part of the book was quite nice - almost a little domestic, having the side-character’s romance as the biggest worry of our main characters… and then it starts having minor instances of things to worry about - which also made it even more realistic - they have all the intelligence and spies and such, in some books the action would just Happen Without Warning to be ‘dramatic’ whereas in this half the worry is because they know what is about to happen.

Tsana: Yep. And really, given Aral’s critical position in running the planet, it would have been really silly for there not to be any warning of things to come. But before we get to the really spoilery bits that we’re going to have to put behind a cut, let’s talk about some of the other elements, especially in the early parts of the book. When Cordelia came to Barrayar, she knew Aral was probably going to eventually become a Count but, as we saw at the end of Shards of Honour, he actually has a much larger role to play in Barrayaran politics, even before he was made Regent. I think Cordelia did a reasonable job of taking this in her stride. What do you think?

Katharine: I think she had her suspicions that neither of them were going to happily retire, and as we see in Shards of Honour she may not like it, but she also understands and is quite passionate about the fact he’s the best one for the job. Though at the same time, I was a little surprised at the instances she tells him regardless, he has to put his family first - which is interesting. Noble, of course, and good on her … just, not expected.

Tsana: I think she starts off seeing Barrayaran politics as a bit of a joke. Except also not since she was there for the war in the previous book and knows more about it than most. But the war is over, everything is fine and she can focus on being a Barrayaran Vor lady, even if there’s also suddenly this whole Regent Consort thing to deal with. Basically, no very high demands are placed on her near the start and she’s more or less left to focus on her pregnancy and impending motherhood. I think motherhood/pregnancy and the differences between Beta Colony and Barrayar are one of the key ways Bujold uses “backwards” Barrayar to shine a light on some of our real-world society’s faults, along with many other instances of misogyny/gender inequality and heteronormativity depicted in the book.

Katharine: Agreed, and yet Bujold is careful to not go over-the-top as I expect some others would do - it still feels quite accurate and believable. Although Barrayar feels quite advanced as far as weapons technology is and so on, it certainly doesn’t care about its people. I’d love to see more about Beta Colony and their tech - it all sounds fascinating! I also think it’s interesting that we see the majority of Barrayar’s way of thinking via Aral’s father, Piotr.

Tsana: Yes, and the animosity from Piotr towards Cordelia’s way of life pretty much only grows, despite all the good Cordelia manages to accomplish. Especially once baby Miles comes into the picture. I liked how certain ideas gradually become more prominent in the text. For example, we had some hints about ableism in Barrayaran culture in Shards of Honour, and in Barrayar we see Koudelka with his walking stick not coping too well with his new disability. But then we witness Cordelia sitting behind some chaps who call Koudelka “spastic” which is the first really blatant piece of ableism we are slapped with in the series. This foreshadows the ableist attitudes from Piotr and others towards baby Miles.

Katharine: At least they have the ability to seem abashed when Cordelia confronts them on it. I was actually really impressed with how charming Piotr could be when he was happy with the idea of getting a grandson, and then how instantly he turns all hackles raised and all. BUT, then, when the trouble really starts he does count his family first, and does good by Cordelia. Should we activate the spoiler shield now to get into the nitty gritty?

<spoilers start here>

Thursday, 30 March 2017

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter is a collection of short stories, almost all of them reprints. Long-term followers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Slatter's stories and I have previously read and reviewed The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings and Sourdough and Other Stories, both of which I loved. A Feast of Sorrows contains some stories from those two collections, which I haven't reviewed a second time, as well as stories new to me and stories not set in the same universe.

A Feast of Sorrows—Angela Slatter’s first U.S. collection—features twelve of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Award-winning Australian author’s finest, darkest fairy tales, and adds two new novellas to her marvelous cauldron of fiction.

Stories peopled by women and girls—fearless, frightened, brave, bold, frail, and fantastical—who take the paths less traveled by, accept (and offer) poisoned apples, and embrace transformation in all its forms. Reminiscent of Angela Carter at her best, Slatter’s work is both timeless and fresh: fascinating new reflections from the enchanted mirrors of fairy tales and folklore.

Slatter's stories are always beautifully written and those included in this collection are no exception. I think, overall, I have preferred her "mosaic novel" volumes of stories, rather than those, like A Feast of Sorrows (or Black-Winged Angels), which are more thematically than literally linked. That doesn't stop the stories themselves from being gorgeous, of course, and I also suspect I would have enjoyed this volume more if all the stories had been new to me.

That said, I was delighted to learn, when reading the Afterword containing Slatter's notes on each story, that the last three stories in A Feast of Sorrows will form the opening of another mosaic novel, to be called The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales. Certainly something I'm looking forward to.

My notes on the individual stories, written as I read them and skipping most of those I'd read before:

  • "Dresses, three" — A tale of magical dresses, their maker, her son, and their wearer.

  • "Bluebeard’s Daughter" — A brew of fairytales. A poisoned Apple, a witch with a house made out of confectionery, and a girl too clever to be easily trapped.
  • "The Jacaranda Wife" — Similar in general ideas to a selkie story, but with a woman that comes from a jacaranda tree rather than a seal.

  • "Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope" — Rumplestiltskin, more or less. Read this one before, but reread it because I couldn't remember the ending. A tale of mother-daughter bonds.

"The Tallow-Wife" — A longer story that I think is set in the Bitterwood/Sourdough universe (or Angelia, as Theodora Goss dubs it in the introduction). I enjoyed the story about a wife and mother coming to terms/realisation with some of her life choices, but I didn't find the ending very satisfying as I have many of Slatter's same-world stories.

  • "What Shines Brightest Burns Most Fiercely" — To my delight, this story follows on with some of the characters from the previous one, "The Tallow-Wife", and improves it by association/continuation. It also gives a bit more insight into side characters as one gets a deserved comeuppance.
  • "Bearskin" — Another story linked with the previous two. An unfortunate tale about an unhappy child and his questionable fate.

As I keen saying, Slatter's stories are wonderful and I cannot recommend them enough to all fantasy fans. As far as collections of short stories to start with go, this one is a good a place as any and gives a reasonable cross-section of Slatter's work. As ever, I look forward to reading of Slatter's work as soon as I can get my hands on it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Prime Books
Series: Not really, but some stories are linked to others in other volumes.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge