Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Unmagical Boy Story by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Unmagical Boy Story by Tansy Rayner Roberts is the second novella in the Belladonna University series. It chronologically follows Fake Geek Girl and precedes The Bromancers, although I read and both of those novellas first. They're all relatively self-contained and reading them out of order only really leads to mild character development spoilers and spoilers regarding the introduction of new characters.

One magical university, divided between the Colleges of the Real and Unreal. One pub. One indie band. A lot of drunk witches on a Friday night. One shattered friendship, due to be repaired. One Practical Mythology paper which really has to be finished by Monday... Oh, and trolls. Let’s see who survives Friday night drinks!

This is a fluffy story about a grumpy post-grad which touches on some deeper issues. Viola Vale come from a rich upper-class family who are, and consort with, important decision-makers in the magical world. And of course they look down on non-magical people. The story is about Viola coming to terms with one of her best friends (also from an upper-crusty family) having been in a magical accident that stripped him of his power. It's a story of learning understanding and acceptance and Viola's journey is quite pronounced. She goes from wanting to fix her, now unmagical friend, Chauv, to accepting him as the person he now is.

The other, slightly less significant, story of acceptance is Viola's slow-building tolerance for Chauv's new friends, flatmates and girlfriend, who are basically the Fake Geek Girl gang. She goes from generalised distain for people she sees as beneath her to grudging acceptance (but not of the music), and something approaching respect for Sage and Hebe.

All it all, this was a fun, short and relaxing read with enough depth to properly address the more serious issues that it raised. I enjoyed it and I recommend it to all fans of Roberts' writing and to fans of humorous or lighthearted fantasy and geek culture. I look forward to more instalments in the series.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, self-published via Patreon
Series: Belladonna University, novella 2 (after Fake Geek Girl, before The Bromancers)
Format read: ePub
Source: The author's Patreon
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Penric's Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold is the third Penric novella that I’ve read, after Penric's Demon and Penric and the Shaman. I haven’t read any of the novels set in the same world. I mistakenly thought Penric’s Mission was chronologically third in the Penric series and then was very confused when it was set about ten years after the previous Penric novella I’d read. Turns out it was the third to be published, not the third chronologically. Whoops! Bujold’s non-chronological writing strikes again!

Learned Penric, a sorcerer and divine of the Bastard’s Order, travels across the sea to sunlit Cedonia on his first covert diplomatic mission, to attempt to secure the services of a disaffected Cedonian general for the Duke of Adria. However, nothing is as it seems: Penric is betrayed and thrown into a dungeon, and worse follows for the general and his kin. Penric’s narrow escapes and adventures — including his interest in a young widow — are told with Bujold’s remarkable energy, wit and humor. Once again, Bujold has created unforgettable characters and a wondrous, often dangerous world of intrigue and sorcery. Third novella in the Penric and Desdemona series.

Aside from my confusion as to what number book I was reading, I mostly enjoyed Penric’s Mission. I didn’t love it, though, and it’s probably my least favourite Penric book so far. It felt like it was bridging two parts of Penric’s life, but without much knowledge of the earlier part, I suspect some of the significance was lost on me. Last time I encountered Penric, he was still new. Now, ten years later, not only does he better know what he’s doing, but he’s coming from a bunch of history unfamiliar to me. We get some reminiscences which do explain how Penric got to where he was at the start of the story, but they come later in the story. I felt like more context at the start would have been helpful (and maybe would have existed if I read a chronologically earlier book first).

Penric’s Mission follows Penric while he’s been instructed to recruit a general who had been corresponding with the duke Penric is currently working for. But as soon as Penric arrives in the city, he’s arrested and, it turns out, the general has been arrested too. The questions of who betrayed Penric and why are less pressing than his immediate survival. By the time we find out the answers, they don’t seem that relevant anymore. I didn’t feel there was a very satisfying answer to “why is any of this happening?” especially since we learned Penric’s motivations so late in the story.

None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy the book, just that it could have been more enjoyable. I still fully intend to keep reading Penric stories and I especially hope we can fill in some more of the ten years that got skipped between this novella and the last.

I actually don’t think this novella is a terrible place to start reading Penric, for all that I said above. A new reader coming to it wouldn’t have much less information than I did and is likely to be less frustrated by time jumps they know nothing about. The story does not rely on any prior knowledge to work as a stand-alone. The only reason I’d particularly suggest starting with the earlier books is because I liked them more, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending Penric’s Mission to fans of fantasy who are looking for a shorter read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, self-published (my edition: November 2017, Subterranean Press)
Series: Penric and Desdemona, #3 in publication order of 6ish so far
Format read: eARC (PDF)
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 2 November 2017

100 Short Story Challenge: Stories 31 to 40

If you've been following me on twitter and/or my #ReadShortStories tweeting, you might have noticed that I have a tendency to do these things in bursts. I am the kind of person who finds it much harder to do something every single day — even if it's something small — than to do more of it in a catch-up (or work ahead) lump.

Anyway, here are stories 31 to 40. A mixed bag from a variety of sources. My favourite stories in this batch were "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer — highly recommended for fans of Murderbot and last batch's "Fandom for Robots" — "Foxfire, Foxfire" — a fantasy/mythology mecha war story — and "God Product" and "An Abundance of Fish" — both excellent flash stories.


  1. Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer — Another delightful robot story, this time one who only wants cat pictures and, to a lesser extent, to help people. I can see why it won the Hugo and Locus Awards and got shortlisted for a Nebula. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_01_15/
  2. Application for the Delegation of First Contact: Questionnaire, Part B by Kathrin Köhler — A mildly amusing construct which raises some very valid points but did not really grip me due to the non-standard form of the story. Source: http://thebooksmugglers.com/2015/05/application-for-the-delegation-of-first-contact-questionnaire-part-b-by-kathrin-kohler.html
  3. The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter by Sam J. Miller — An interesting story. It took me a little while to get into because the opening was hard to follow in between the narrator’s interjections, but I’m glad I pushed through because it went to a lot of unexpected places (I don’t want to spoil the plot though). It made me think a lot about the construction of stories and narratives, and how several different ideas can fit together. Source: https://www.tor.com/2017/10/18/the-future-of-hunger-in-the-age-of-programmable-matter/
  4. Foxfire, Foxfire by Yoon Ha Lee — A very enjoyable story set in an alternate reality Korea during a war fought with something like human-piloted mechs amid a supernatural backdrop. The main character is a gumiho (nine-tailed fox) who is close to eating enough humans to remain human. Her last kill does not turn out to be as straightforward as she planned. Source: http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/foxfire-foxfire/
  5. The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor by Catherynne M Valente — Another very short story is the “nevertheless, she persisted” series on tor.com. It didn’t especially do it for me and seemed a bit too much of a shaggy dog story (I can see how that was by design, but meh). Source: https://www.tor.com/2017/03/08/the-ordinary-woman-and-the-unquiet-emperor-catherynne-valente/
  6. God Product by Alyssa Wong — Excellent, arresting flash, the best so far in Tor.com's “nevertheless, she persisted” series. Source: https://www.tor.com/2017/03/08/god-product-alyssa-wong/
  7. An Abundance of Fish by S. Qiouyi Lu — which was lovely and heartbreaking and contained fish. A story of love and loss. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/an-abundance-of-fish/
  8. Astronaut by Maria Dahvana Headley — which was very short and very touching and realer than I initially realised. Another in Tor.com's “nevertheless, she persisted” series. Source: https://www.tor.com/2017/03/08/astronaut-maria-dahvana-headley/
  9. Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar — was well-written but didn’t really do it for me. Another in Tor.com's “nevertheless, she persisted” series. Source: https://www.tor.com/2017/03/08/anabasis-amal-el-mohtar/
  10. Heart of Straw by Seanan McGuire — a Halloween story about trick of treating and the magic of the night. It was both less and more creepy than I expected, but very heartfelt, either way. Source: Seanan McGuire's Patreon.


I really should read more stories from the paper anthologies on my shelves (since that was part of my original aim), but reading electronically is so much easier...


Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Mirror Dance - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Mirror Dance is the latest novel we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Brothers in Arms and before Memory and contains a major spoiler for Brothers in Arms (don’t read on if you don’t want to be spoiled!). In Mirror Dance the story is split between Miles’s point of view and that of his brother, Mark. This is the first time there have been multiple points of view in a Vorkosigan Saga book.


You can read Tsana’s review of Mirror Dance here and Katharine’s review here.





Tsana: Well. That was one of the least funny and light-hearted installments in the Vorkosigan Saga so far. Still a compelling read, but it did nothing to cheer me up while I was reading (I made the mistake of marathoning a depressing TV show at the same time, so that was a bleak few days)...


Katharine: That’s almost putting it lightly. My personal review of the book was brief, because there’s not a lot to be said without spoilers (at least for a previous book) and it was just too full on. It’s important to mention that it dealt with it all so well - we’ll get into it more as we go, of course, but for how triggering it could be for anyone who’s suffered any type of trauma, I thought the way the characters reacted and handled it was incredibly positive.


Tsana: Ultimately it was a heavy book that dealt with some heavy topics. But those themes were kind of unavoidable given Mark’s past. This is really the book where we, not only get to know Mark, but also get to see him grow and start to come into his own. But Mark had a traumatic childhood and young adulthood, so there’s no escaping negative stuff. Throwing Mark into the mix with Miles and the kinds of dangerous shenanigans he usually gets up to and disaster is bound to strike. Although this is hardly the first time the Vorkosigan stories have gone to dark places.


Katharine: All very true. So basically, it’s been two years since Mark has had anything to do with Miles—


Tsana: OK, sorry but I’m going to interrupt here. It really bothered me how it says it’s two years later but it’s really more like three or four. Mark was 18 in Brothers in Arms and now he’s 22. Miles was 24 and now he’s 28. Minor continuity errors are annoying when you’re paying closer attention than usual because you’re going to be dissecting the story later. (But really, Bujold does a pretty good job, especially since these two books were published five years apart.)


Katharine: I have to admit I just flicked through as I was sure it was four years, however there’s countless references (mostly at the start) stating two. Which makes a little more sense as to how far Mark has come so far (ie, not very) but ...that’s about it.


So really, it’s been about four years since Mark has had anything to do with Miles, the Dendarii - anyone. Miles has been splitting his life between being his Vor self and as Admiral Naismith, and it’s now that Mark makes a grab for getting his revenge on Jackson’s Whole. To do this, he’s going to pretend to be Miles once again, take the Dendarii, and hopefully free a whole lot of kids and burn their business to the ground.


Tsana: Yes, Mark seems to have flittered around not doing much and living off Miles’s money (that he gave him at the end of Brothers in Arms) until now, when he decides to mount a clone rescue. Amusingly, an idea first put into his head by Miles, not long before they parted ways. At this stage, it looks like Mark wants to be a better Miles — a better hero. Freeing clone kids is more heroic than undermining the Cetagandans, right?


Katharine: Especially with the mentions of how Miles had the chance to do exactly what Mark wants to, and decided to pass it up… it looks like Mark is going to fight the good fight. He manages it for a while - calls the ship to come get him, fobs off the reasons as to where Quinn is, manages to win Bel to his way of thinking (not hard, as Bel says how glad it is they’re finally righting this), and then…


Tsana: Well Bel isn’t fooled for very long. There was a moment when Mark worries that Bel’s onto him and then relaxes when Bel continues on as normal, but that was totally the moment when Bel became sure that Mark was Mark rather than Miles. I think Mark’s biggest mistake in dealing with Miles’s people is underestimating how much Miles cares about him. Those closest to Miles have presumably spent the past two-to-four years hearing him worry about his brother so when Mark, disguised as Miles, refers to himself as the “clone”, it’s a huge red flag. But Bel, as you said, goes along with it because they believe in the mission. But Mark isn’t Miles and his plans don’t go anywhere near as smoothly… Especially not once Miles is on their tail.


Katharine: Bel quickly takes control once Mark’s decision making and tactical experience is shown to be pretty subpar when it comes to mounting an attack and directing units of people. Mark has somehow forgotten what it was like to be a clone in that very facility, and is shocked when the clones don’t sing their praises and escape with them gleefully. They fight back, they manage to run and hide back with their captors, and the delays cost them the valuable time they were counting on to get out safely. They get pinned down, thankfully just around the time Miles has figured out what the hell has happened (when the Dendarii haven’t waited for him, and he’s had to make his own way following them, almost a week behind), meaning Big Brother Miles is here to save the day.


Tsana: Not that Mark wants him to save the day, exactly. But Mark wasn’t prepared for the pressures and requisite snap-decision making in combat, so he does want someone else to take over and fix it (so long as he still gets credit for the rescue).


Miles jumps into the fray but with fewer resources than usual. He has borrowed armour, because Mark stole his, and doesn’t have his control helmet to get a proper overview of the situation. It… doesn’t end well.


Should we have already put up spoiler shields?


Katharine: Probably. Beep beep boop!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang is the companion novella to The Red Threads of Fortune, with the two novellas having been released simultaneously. I happened to read The Red Threads of Fortune first, not for any particularly informed reason — I think I happened to have seen more marketing for that one when I made my preorder. This review will contain a lot of comparisons between the two novellas but I will try to avoid spoiling the other.

Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While his sister received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What's more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother's Protectorate.

A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother's twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?

Black Tides of Heaven follows Akeha, the twin of Mokoya, who was the protagonist in Red Threads of Heaven. As well as following the other twin, it is also set much earlier in time, following the twins (always from Akeha's point of view) from childhood until their thirties. While Red Threads had a lot of physical/geographical world building that drew me into the world and made me want to learn more, Black Tides had a lot more social world building. We got a more thorough explanation of the attitudes towards and treatment of gender, which was only hinted at and encountered obliquely in 
Red Threads.

The social treatment of gender was very interesting, actually. Children, when born, are treated gender neutrally until they choose their gender when they feel ready. At that point it is usual, but not compulsory, to visit doctors to have the chosen gender biologically assigned. My impression was that it was something like puberty being delayed until desired, but aspects of magic were involved.

The story itself was presented in widely spaced chunks of time, showing us significant events at different stages of Akeha's life. As the "spare" twin (next to his sister, the Prophet), he has a very different set of issues and worries in life. We also learn about some events that are important backstory in Red Threads but from Akeha's point of view. I'm a bit torn as to which is the "best" reading order for these two novellas. Black Tides is the stronger volume, in my opinion, and packs more of an emotional punch. Being set earlier in time, it's also a logical choice for reading first. However, I didn't feel that reading them in the reverse order ruined the story or anything like that. They work when read in either order.

I recommend The Black Tides of Heaven to anyone who enjoyed Red Threads of Fortune and to fans of fantasy more generally. Especially to anyone looking for fantasy books that explore gender in interesting ways. I gather that there will be another pair of novellas in this world coming out next year, and I am planning to pick those up when they do.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2017, Tor.com
Series: Tensorate, book 1 of two book ones
Format read: ePub eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Bromancers by Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Bromancers by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a novella set in the Fake Geek Girl universe. I had previously read (or, well, listened to) the short story “Fake Geek Girl” on her Sheep Might Fly podcast and chose to read The Bromancers because I was in the mood for something light. I didn't realise that there was another short story chronologically before The Bromancers, "Unmagical Boy Story", but The Bromancers made perfect sense without it, albeit I was probably lacking some background on a few of the characters in The Bromancers.

Our favourite witchy rock band, Fake Geek Girl, are road-tripping to a magical music festival in a wi-fi free zone on the same weekend that the season finale of their favourite TV show drops. Can they avoid spoilers? Can Hebe, Holly, Juniper & Sage camp in tents for three days without murdering each other? Can coffee really fix EVERYTHING including missing band members, messy relationship drama and obsessive fan shenanigans?

Friendship is magic, but if you pile too much friendship on top of too much magic over one weekend, the results are bound to be explosive.

The Bromancers follows the band members of Fake Geek Girl and their friends as they go camping at a music festival. There are shenanigans, hijinks, a bit of danger and a portion of relationship drama. The title comes from a TV show the friends are highly invested in, the season finale of which just happens to coincide with the no-wifi music festival. There's a lot of cute fan-related bonding thrown into the mix.

Each chapter of The Bromancers follows a different character as they worry about the things important to them, allowing us to learn more about them. This method of storytelling also allows the reader to see various characters from the points of view of other characters, which makes for interesting juxtaposition. Overall, I would call this a cosy contemporary fantasy story.


I recommend The Bromancers to fans of Tansy Rayner Roberts’ work, especially her more light hearted fiction. I suggest reading the short story “Fake Geek Girl” (or listening to it for free on the Sheep Might Fly podcast) for a bit of context before The Bromancers, but it’s not essential. I am planning to read the short story I accidentally skipped, “Unmagical Boy Story”, soon.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2017, Self-Published
Series: Belladonna U, story 3
Format read: ePub
Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts' Patreon
Disclaimer: Although Tansy is a friend, I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

100 Short Story Challenge: Stories 21 to 30

After reading a glut of short stories thanks to Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho, I slowed down a bit in my challenge and have only just pushed up my story talley to the next multiple of ten. Most of these listed below are still from Spirits Abroad (for which you can read the full and more detailed review here), but the list is bulked out with a few other stories too. I would like to particularly draw your attention to "Fandom for Robots" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, which was positively delightful.


  1. The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life by Zen Cho — Sort of a sequel/companion story to the previous, focussing on Prudence’s best friend Angela. Unlike Prudence, Angela is very sensitive to magic and close proximity to a dragon caused some of her issues to physically manifest. Another amusing story. I would be more than happy to read a novel set in this time period of this world. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  2. The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote by Zen Cho — the story of finding a hole in the forest and dealing with a forest spirit, told by an earth spirit. Not my favourite story in this collection. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  3. Liyana by Zen Cho — a depressing but really fascinating story. A class of folklore idea that I don’t think I’ve come across before. But also, more than metaphorically about women’s sacrifice for the family. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  4. The Four Generations of Chang E by Zen Cho — A story about being the child of immigrants and fitting in or not. Also aliens on the moon. And from the authors notes, some mythological subtext that went over my head. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  5. The Many Deaths is Hang Jebat by Zen Cho — was a bit confusing and I was a bit lost as to where it was going until I read the author’s notes and saw that it was based on mythology I had no knowledge of. The summary in the author’s notes made yet a bit clearer and I can now see what the author was trying to do, but the story doesn’t work that well on its own. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  6. From A to Z in the Book of Changes by Seanan McGuire — More a collection of flash pieces or drabbles inspired by words (one for each letter of the alphabet) than a traditional short story. They are sort of tied together at the end and range from mildly amusing to creepy. Source: Seanan McGuire’s Patreon
  7. The Fish Bowl by Zen Cho — a dawning horror story about the pressure to do well in school and a concerning bargain with a magic fish. Harrowing. I quite liked the story, but I wanted a bit more from the end than we got, I think. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  8. Balik Kampung by Zen Cho — a story about a ghost returning to earth for the Hungry Ghost Festival and, in the course of events, finding out how she died. A good story to end the collection on. Some humour, some sadness. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  9. Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light! by Kameron Hurley — a very short story about persistence for the greater good in the face of certain death and monsters. Source: Nevertheless , She Persisted series on Tor.com https://www.tor.com/2017/03/08/our-faces-radiant-sisters-our-faces-full-of-light-kameron-hurley/
  10. Fandom for Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad — An adorable story about the world’s only sentient robot who was created in the 1950s and now lives in a museum. One day, someone recommends and anime to him and things spiral out from there. Such an adorable and fun read. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/fandom-for-robots/ 

My plan for the next few shorts is to read more random stories freely available online (having already added a bunch to Pocket).

Monday, 23 October 2017

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold is the latest instalment in my chronological read-through of the Vorkosigan Saga. It follows on chronologically from Brothers in Arms, dealing with the ramifications of some of the events in that earlier book. As a result, this review contains major spoilers for Brothers in Arms (and so does the blurb). You have been warned.

Mark Vorkosigan is the cloned "twin" of Lord Miles Vorkosigan, born six years after Miles and raised by a psychopathic madman for nefarious political purposes. That's old news, however, conveyed in the prequel Brothers in Arms. Now, in Mirror Dance, Mark still has no identity of his own and no place to call home. One thing he does know: He must free the young clones from the sinister "orphanage" he left behind years ago, on Jackson's Whole. Pretending to be his twin, Admiral of the Dendarii Mercenaries, he just might be able to pull it off. But at what cost? And is Miles his brother's keeper?

I remembered this wasn't a very cheerful book, which at least helped me manage my expectations, even if I didn't entirely remember the order of certain events. The book tells part of the story in alternating chapters from Mark's and Miles's points of view, at times focussing in on the brother with the most pertinent/pressing storyline. We get to know Mark a lot better as he gets to know himself. Finally free of his creators and captors, no longer forced to imitate Miles, he spends some time working out what's important to him, and then working it out again and again as things go awry.

Unlike many of its prequels and sequels, Mirror Dance isn't very cheerful or funny. There were maybe two finny scenes in the whole book, and the first one came a significant portion of the way in. Do not pick this up looking for a light and fun read. This book has some horrible bits, with serious torture, much worse than anything we saw in earlier books, although partly along the lines of what was hinted at earlier with regards to Jackson's Whole and especially House Bharaputra. That's not to say that it's not a good book — it absolutely is — but it's cerebral and deals with psychological issues and, well, Mark isn't as much of a quipper as Miles is.

I definitely recommend this book to fans of the Vorkosigan Saga and Bujold generally, just be warned that it's darker and less humorous than many of the earlier books. I wouldn't choose it as a book to cheer up with. That said, it delves into some really interesting issues and is definitely worth a read. Mirror Dance is also a terrible place to start reading the Vorkosigan books and I strongly recommend reading Brothers in Arms (at least!) first.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Baen, 1994
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically after Brothers in Arms and before Memory
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles Errant omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling and Jim Kay

The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban written by JK Rowling and illustrated by Jim Kay is the third illustrated Harry Potter edition to be released yearly by Bloomsbury. I reviewed the illustrated Philosopher's Stone, but didn't write a proper review of Chamber of SecretsThis review will contain spoilers, because if you haven't read Harry Potter in the last twenty years you probably don't care (and probably aren't reading this review).

An extraordinary creative achievement by an extraordinary talent, Jim Kay’s inspired reimagining of J.K. Rowling’s classic series has captured a devoted following worldwide. This stunning new fully illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban brings more breathtaking scenes and unforgettable characters – including Sirius Black, Remus Lupin and Professor Trelawney. With paint, pencil and pixels, Kay conjures the wizarding world as we have never seen it before. Fizzing with magic and brimming with humour, this full-colour edition will captivate fans and new readers alike as Harry, now in his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, faces Dementors, death omens and – of course – danger.

I really enjoyed the illustrations (and story, of course) in this book. I wasn't as into the illustrated Chamber of Secrets because I felt like there were too many boring blank pages. This was not a problem in Prisoner of Azkaban which had a lot more minor illustrations between the bigger full- and half-page ones. For example, each chapter has a themed background that was used on the otherwise blank pages — things like forest or tablecloth or wallpaper. Nothing to distract from the text, but adding a bit more interest. There were also several illustrations that covered the bottom third of a double page spread, which were nice. And the pages on which each chapter started were illustrated in detail, with something emblematic of the events within the chapter. I really liked the detail.

Probably the most frequently illustrated character was Scabbers, who appeared several times by himself as well as part of other illustrations. Crookshanks and Sirius/the "Grim" came up a few times too. But I think my favourite illustration in the whole book was a very detailed background illustration of a Quidditch match.

I enjoyed revisiting the story of Harry Potter and experiencing the world with the new illustrations. I highly recommend the illustrated editions to fans of Harry Potter, especially those looking for a reason to reread a Harry Potter book a year. I look forward to Goblet of Fire, although I do worry about how thick and heavy it will be since Prisoner of Azkaban is already significantly heaver than Philosopher's Stone.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 1999 Bloomsbury, but 2017 for the illustrated edition
Series:b Harry Potter book 3 of 7
Format read: Hardcover
Source: Amazon, to my shame.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Brothers in Arms - The Vorkosigan Saga Project


Brothers in Arms is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Borders of Infinity (the novella), and before Mirror Dance. In this one we get to see what Earth is like in the far future when Miles and his Dendarii mercenaries stop off there for repairs.


You can read Katharine’s review of Brothers in Arms here, and Tsana’s review here.


Katharine: And so we get to see London up close and personal, pretty much from the word go. I would have loved to see more stuff, really. At the end I still only have a Futurama-style twist for the city and that’s about it. Does it still rain all the time there? It didn’t seem to!


Tsana: Yeah, they were in London for the whole book and it didn’t rain. Very unrealistic! And there can’t have been a climate apocalypse because the Thames barriers seem to be in more or less the same place as they are now. And yet we have passing mentions of Lake Los Angeles, and great dykes in New York. Very confusing!


Katharine: For the rest of it, Miles is on his ship as he splits his time down to the wire as Admiral Naismith. When we meet up with him he’s just finished his stint with the Dendarii and needs to cover their funds… something that turns into a bit of a drama.


Tsana: I was surprised at how closely Brothers in Arms followed on from Borders of Infinity. The repairs Miles is commissioning are the direct result of the prison escape in Borders of Infinity. And he’s still upset about those very recent events.


Katharine: He has to report in as his regular Miles self in order to get the approval for funds as part of the secret Denarii-are-really-working-for-Barrayar, and this means reporting to Galeni. Only Galeni is Komarran. Which means…


Tsana: It’s a complicated political situation for Miles on top of the usual complications of juggling his Vorkosigan and Naismith personae. All he wants is to get his Dendarii paid (and pay for the repairs) but because Earth isn’t a hugely important outpost for Barrayar (except for one aspect which we’ll get to later), Captain Duv Galeni, who is the senior military attaché for the Barrayaran Embassy, hasn’t ever been briefed on Miles’s two identities. And, to make things even more awkward, he greets Miles very coldly because of Miles’s father and Aral’s reputation as the Butcher of Komarr and his role in the invasion/annexation of Komarr. Which is one side of it, but since the trouble in Komarr was a while ago now, things have mostly settled down and Komarrans like Duv Galeni are allowed to enter the Imperial Service. But that calm was won through a lot of very careful balancing and politicking by Aral in his Prime Ministerial role. Since Duv Galeni is now suddenly in charge of Miles, if something bad happens to Miles then not only will he be blamed in the usual way for losing a Vor lordling, but it will be assumed that he had Komarran political motivations as well, which could restart conflict with and hence political unrest on Komarr. Phew, that wasn’t straightforward to explain!


Katharine: You did an excellent job! Galeni handles it all pretty well, considering the history of their fathers. He’s quite weary about the seemingly gold spoon life Miles has - thinking that the Dendarii are a little play thing for the little Vorling (as it sure does seem odd), but if anything he’s only a little bitter. He performs his job as dictated, and takes Miles’ instructions (that are certainly above his station) without much grumbling. That is, until the requested funds never seem to come, despite two requests, and ten days of waiting each time (due to the time the messages take to reach across space). Which I found quite interesting, really. As you’re the astrophysicist, do you want to explain to the people who it all works?


Tsana: It’s kind of interesting how the long-distance messaging works in the Vorkosigan universe. Since, in the normal course of events, radio waves and hence messages can’t travel faster than the speed of light, communicating without using wormholes world be very slow. All the planets that are mentioned in the Vorkosigan series are light years apart and so can only be reached using wormholes, which seem to be naturally occurring phenomena (not, as far as we know, in real life, however). Messages can’t be sent directly through wormholes, however, and must be sent to a ship, which jumps through the wormhole with the messages and then sends them on to the next ship/wormhole interchange until their reach their destinations. So messages can travel a bit faster than ships, because they cover the distance between wormholes at the speed of light, but they still have to wait for the ships doing the wormhole jumps, which presumably follow some sort of regular schedule.


Katharine: So, as Miles does happen to be in hiding for his life after all, he starts to suspect Galeni may be up to something. If only hiding the funds for himself, but then what could he be doing with the money? It’s not like he’s run off to their equivalent of the Bahamas… (or I guess it could be the real Bahamas considering they’re on Earth…)


Tsana: Haha, yeah. Well, Miles has a lot of pressures on him, as per usual (though not quite the usual set of pressures). The Cetagandans are angry about the events of Borders of Infinity and have put a hit on Miles. The Dendarii need to not go bankrupt and some of them manage to get into trouble while on R&R. The fact that the pay from Barrayar is late or has been stolen is an additional complication Miles really doesn’t need. He doesn’t want to suspect Duv Galeni, partly because of the political ramifications, but being suspicious in this situation is kind of necessary for his survival. On the other hand, his suspicions of Galeni don’t really fit together…


We should probably engage the spoiler shields now…


Monday, 9 October 2017

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho is a collection of short fiction by the author of Sorcerer to the Crown and several other works of fiction that I've enjoyed. I bought the book some time ago, when I read Cho's other work, but only just got around to reading it, mostly thanks to challenging myself to read more short stories. I'm a bit disappointed in myself for putting it off for so long.

"If you live near the jungle, you will realise that what is real and what is not real is not always clear. In the forest there is not a big gap between the two."

A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

The ebook edition of Campbell-nominated author Zen Cho's short story collection SPIRITS ABROAD features 15 speculative short stories, author commentary, and an ebook-only cover by artist Likhain (likhain.net).

Overall, I loved this book. Of course, I didn't love every single story, but I thought most of them were great and there were only a few stories that didn't click with me. The collection is divided into three sections: Here, There, Elsewhere, and Going Back, which is an interesting thematic grouping of stories. The "Here" stories were mostly set in Malaysia, the "There" stories were mostly set in the UK, the "Elsewhere" stories were either set in non-Earthly or non-specific locations, and the "Going Back" stories were mostly set in Malaysia but perhaps not quite. All the stories had some sort of fantasy element to them. For the most part this structure worked well. Out of fifteen stories, there were only four I didn't love, which is a pretty good hit rate. I also liked how the stories had author's notes which could be read after the story or skipped entirely and the ebook was set up with handy links to take you between story and notes and back to the next story with minimal effort.

The stories all (I think?) have some Malaysian elements to them, which Cho does not shy away from. We are treated to Manglish and mythology/folklore and a good dose of humour (although I should note that not all of the stories are funny — some are a bit depressing). There were a few stories that were linked by being about some of the same people, including two set in a contemporary version of the Sorcerer to the Crown world, which I would love to read more of.

If you've been following my short story reading challenge, you will have seen some of my comments on the individual stories in this collection. I am still including my usual story-by-story commentary, but it might feel a bit repetitive. Sorry about that.

~

Here

The First Witch of Damansara — A delightful story about a Malaysian woman living in the West who goes home to KL for her grandmother’s funeral. An excellent and very entertaining read that reminded me how much I love Cho’s writing.

First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia — This story had a bit of a slow start before the spec fic element came to the fore. It was interesting, but it was a bit sad and less inherently amusing by its nature. 

House of Aunts — a longer story about a teenage girl with a surfeit of aunts, all of them undead. Being sixteen and undead is not so bad when you have so many aunts looking after you, but not being allowed to have friends at your new school is a bit harder. An excellent story on the longer side (novelette range by Hugo definitions) that’s slightly gory (people are eaten) but otherwise a fun read. 

There

One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland — Malaysian (and other nationalities) girls at an English boarding school in the present-day countryside come up against fairies, the malicious kind. An amusing and quick read.

狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows) — A lovely story about a lion dance troupe and the ghost they’re paid to get rid of. 

七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum) — Another lion dance story which, I was delighted to learn, has some crossover characters with the previous story. It also conveyed the main character’s love for the lion very well. 

The Mystery of the Suet Swain — A story about boys being creepy and a stalker and female friendship, set at university.

Prudence and the Dragon — A hilarious story set in a present day version of the Sorcerer to the Crown London. I think the most I’ve laughed in this collection so far and there were heaps of delightful background/worldbuilding details that really made the story.

The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life — Sort of a sequel/companion story to the previous, focussing on Prudence’s best friend Angela. Unlike Prudence, Angela is very sensitive to magic and close proximity to a dragon caused some of her issues to physically manifest. Another amusing story. I would be more than happy to read a novel set in this time period of this world.

Elsewhere

The Earth Spirit’s Favourite Anecdote — the story of finding a hole in the forest and dealing with a forest spirit, told by an earth spirit. Not my favourite story in this collection.

Liyana — a depressing but really fascinating story. A class of folklore idea that I don’t think I’ve come across before. But also, more than metaphorically about women’s sacrifice for the family.

The Four Generations of Chang E — A story about being the child of immigrants and fitting in or not. Also aliens on the moon. And from the authors notes, some mythological subtext that went over my head.

Going Back

The Many Deaths is Hang Jebat — was a bit confusing and I was a bit lost as to where it was going until I read the author’s notes and saw that it was based on mythology I had no knowledge of. The summary in the author’s notes made yet a bit clearer and I can now see what the author was trying to do, but the story doesn’t work that well on its own.

The Fish Bowl — a dawning horror story about the pressure to do well in school and a concerning bargain with a magic fish. Harrowing. I quite liked the story, but I wanted a bit more from the end than we got, I think.

Balik Kampung — a story about a ghost returning to earth for the Hungry Ghost Festival and, in the course of events, finding out how she died. A good story to end the collection on. Some humour, some sadness.
~

In general, I want to read more of Cho's writing and look forward to getting my hands on the short stories not included in Spirits Abroad while I wait for the sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown to come out. I highly recommend Spirits Abroad to fans of short fiction and spec fic. There's a lot to like about this collection and I think more people should experience it.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Buku Fixi
Series: No (except two stories were set in the Sorcerer to the Crown world, I think)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Smashwords

Friday, 6 October 2017

100 Short Story Challenge: Stories 11 to 20

See? The second ten came much more quickly than the first. In large part this is because I started reading Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho and remembered how much I love her writing. I will do a proper review of the whole book when I'm done. I considered omitting my comments on her stories from this round-up post, but that seemed unhelpful so I've left them in for completion.

  1. Reading Lists by Seanan McGuire — a heartwarming tale about a library room with causality issues and the power of reading. Source: Temporally Out of Order edited by Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray
  2. Salamander Bites by Elektra Hammond — a meh story about a chef and a time-slipping oven thing. Source: Temporally Out of Order edited by Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray
  3. The First Witch of Damansara by Zen Cho — A delightful story about a Malaysian woman living in the West who goes home to KL for her grandmother’s funeral. An excellent and very entertaining read that reminded me how much I love Cho’s writing. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  4. First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia by Zen Cho — This story had a bit of a slow start before the spec fic element came to the fore. It was interesting, but it was a bit sad and less inherently amusing by its nature. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  5. House of Aunts by Zen Cho — a longer story about a teenage girl with a surfeit of aunts, all of them undead. Being sixteen and undead is not so bad when you have so many aunts looking after you, but not being allowed to have friends at your new school is a bit harder. An excellent story on the longer side (novelette range by Hugo definitions) that’s slightly gory (people are eaten) but otherwise a fun read. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  6. One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland by Zen Cho — Malaysian (and other nationalities) girls at an English boarding school in the present-day countryside come up against fairies, the malicious kind. An amusing and quick read. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  7. 狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows) by Zen Cho — A lovely story about a lion dance troupe and the ghost they’re paid to get rid of.  Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  8. 七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum) by Zen Cho — Another lion dance story which, I was delighted to learn, has some crossover characters with the previous story. It also conveyed the main character’s love for the lion very well. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  9. The Mystery of the Suet Swain by Zen Cho — A story about boys being creepy and a stalker and female friendship.  Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
  10. Prudence and the Dragon by Zen Cho — A hilarious story set in a present day version of the Sorcerer to the Crown London (I think). I think the most I’ve laughed in this collection so far and there were heaps of delightful background/worldbuilding details that really made the story. Source: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho



I expect I will be finishing the Zen Cho stories before I move on to other sources (they're just so dang good!), but I have also been making an effort to add various authors I like and so forth to Pocket for easy access later. 


As for Temporally Out of Order, which I started reading before putting it aside for Spirits Abroad, I'm not feeling especially keen to keep reading. I'm considering picking out the stories by authors I like or something, but that feels a bit unfair to the anthology as a whole (and the carefully chosen story order). I did back it on Kickstarter, so I probably should give it another try.



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang is one of a pair of debut novellas released concurrently (the other being The Black Tides of Heaven, which I intend to read soon), both of which are standalone entry points into the author's Tensorate universe. I gather there will be another two novellas coming next year, and I must admit the setup of these releases is one of the reasons I was interested in reading this series. The other, more relevant, reason was what the blurbs told me about the setting.

Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.

On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.

The first aspect of this book that really grabbed my attention was the worldbuilding. Amidst learning about the characters and situation, we are casually told about the Quarterlands which have lower gravity, which really caught my attention. Between that and the more mundane parts of the world that we actually see characters interacting with, I was intrigued. This is a story mainly about a particular situation that the characters have to deal with and, as such, I felt that it only began to scratch the surface of the world. I definitely want to know more and the worldbuilding is one of my motivations for wanting to read more stories set in this world.

The characters, without whom there wouldn’t have been an actual story, were interestingly written. Especially in the case of Mokoya and Rider, who are most central to the story, they had many layers for us to learn about as we read. That said, I found Mokoya’s developing relationship with Rider a bit sudden, however her own reaction to it and the supportive reactions of her friends went a long way towards grounding it for me. In the topic of Rider, there aren’t too many non-binary central characters around, so it was nice to see.

At first the magic in this novella reminded me of Avatar: the Last Airbender and the more technologically advanced Legend of Korra, but as Mokoya learnt a more about the Slack and how her magic was affecting it and vice versa, the similarity was reduced.

As advertised, this was an entirely standalone story. I want to read more in this world, as I’ve said, but that’s because I found the world interesting, bit because I felt the story was unfinished. There’s a lot more left to explore in the world and, I’m sure, more interesting characters to introduce us to.

I recommend The Red Threads of Heaven to fans of fantasy, especially those interested in non-Europe-inspired secondary worlds. I will definitely be picking up the companion novella, Black Tides of Heaven. I especially look forward to reading more of Yang’s colourful similes.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2017, Tor.com publishing
Series: Yes. Tensorate universe, a viable entry point
Format read: ePub
Source: pre-ordered on iBooks and then also got the ARC from the publisher via NetGalley