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

Saturday, 25 March 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is a companion novel to Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It follows characters which appear in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but covers events that happen both before and after the events in the earlier book. The two books can be read in any order, although the existence of one of the characters in A Closed and Common Orbit is a spoiler for one of the events in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Otherwise, there is very little overlap.

Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who's determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for - and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

The environment and ensemble cast in A Closed and Common Orbit are quite different to those in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  The book consists of alternating chapters from the points of view of two characters: an AI who has just been moved to a human-looking body, after having been a ship AI; and Pepper, the human woman helping the AI. The AI sections are set in the "present", having some temporal overlap with Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  whereas Pepper's sections recount her rather horrific childhood. Sidra, the AI, has relatively mundane concerns regarding learning how to function as a person, and fitting in so as not to be discovered (an AI pretending to be human is illegal). Pepper's childhood and teen years, however, are much starker than might normally be expected and I found her half of the story more gripping and emotive.

It was not immediately apparent how the two stories tied together — aside from the obvious part where Pepper features in Sidra's story — but this became clear at the end (and a bit earlier, if you were paying attention). Even so, I was more invested in (young) Pepper for the entire book. The ending was wonderfully touching, and Sidra was involved in that, but it was mainly touching because of what we had learnt about Pepper's life. Which is not to say that Sidra's story was boring — it certainly had its exciting moments — but my interest in it was more intellectual than emotional.

If you enjoyed Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, then I expect you will also enjoy A Closed and Common Orbit. However, if you didn't like the plot structure of Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  then, despite the dual storylines, A Closed and Common Orbit might not be for you. If you enjoy sociological SF about community and the meaning of personhood, then this is definitely the book for you. I am keen to see what else Chambers writes, whether or not it is set in the same universe as her first two books.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Hachette Australia
Series: Sort of. Wayfarers universe, second publication set in that world
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold is chronologically the second book in the main Vorkosigan Saga timeline. It's a direct sequel to Shards of Honour, with which it is now mostly sold in an omnibus edition. This is my second read of Barrayar, and will be discussed like Shards of Honour was as part of the great Vorkosigan Saga Project in the near future. This review, including the blurb below, contains spoilers for Shards of Honour.

Cordelia Naismith was ready to settle down to a quiet life on her adopted planet of Barrayar. But bloody civil war was looming, and Cordelia little dreamed of the part she and her unborn son would play in it.

I mentioned this was a re-read for me. The main thing that stuck in my head was part of a climactic scene near the end (let's say related to the awesome cover art I managed to find). There was a lot of stuff I had forgotten, like an entire romantic subplot, which was fun to rediscover. I did find myself overly anticipating the climax, which coloured my reading a little.

Barrayar is a very intense read featuring Cordelia adjusting and being baffled by the more rigid Barrayaran society after giving up Betan life at the end of the previous book. She starts off hoping for a quiet life with Aral, but things don't go according to that plan at all. As well as major political events which force/allow Cordelia to kick some arse like she did in Shards of Honour, we are also privy to the relatively minor tribulations of fitting in with the much more conservative Barrayaran society. Cordelia trying to work out why certain taboos were taboos was pretty hilarious, especially since we, the readers, almost know the answers she's trying to work out.

Although my last read-through of this book was also immediately after Shards of Honour, I noticed a few new things this time around about the two books. Barrayar was written after Bujold had done additional worldbuilding through five (or six, depending on whether you count The Warrior's Apprentice) other books, and I noticed a few almost-plot-holes (worldbuilding gaps?) that Bujold was able to fill with Barrayar. Mostly involving Betan contraceptive practices and some of the events of the previous book. It was interesting to see that refinement in action, and how seamlessly it fit together.

Barrayar is an excellent read and a fitting and dramatic continuation of Cordelia's and Aral's story. I don't recommend reading it without having read Shards of Honour first, even if you've read later Miles books and know something about what happens. The two books really do form one story and very much belong in an omnibus together. I also suggest reading them at the start of the Vorkosigan Saga, although they (together) stand alone from the rest of the series reasonably well.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Baen, 1991
Series: Yes. Vorkosigan Saga. Chronologically follows on directly from Shards of Honour and is sort of the chronological book 2.
Format read: ePub as part of Cordelia's Honour omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen some time ago

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Spelling the Hours edited by Rose Lemberg

Spelling the Hours edited by Rose Lemberg, subtitle Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology, is not the kind of book I would usually go out of my way to pick up, mainly because I don't read very much poetry. I'd glad I did, though.

"When I first envisioned Spelling the Hours, I imagined a crowd of poets first researching and then writing about forgotten figures of science and technology around the world. What happened instead was much more intimate: many, if not all the poets wrote about people with whom they were already deeply familiar." - From the Introduction

The idea behind Spelling the Hours was to highlight some of the overlooked figures in science and technology. In practice, this means that it was a collection of poems about people other than straight cis men in science and tech. A lot of the poems were about women who did not get contemporaneous credit or recognition for their work. There was a lot of breadth in the topics covered from physics and astronomy to medicine and computing. Some of the names were familiar to me, like Jocelyn Bell and Lise Meitner, but most were not. I imagine that most readers will find at least some new names in this volume.

I'm not going to comment on every poem individually. One that particularly stood out to me was "Girl Hours" by Sofia Samatar, the last poem in the chapbook. It focusses on Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the "girl hours" used to perform calculations. I liked how it mimicked the structure of a scientific paper but in reverse and it was a poignant note to end the chapbook on.

They were all good poems though and I highly recommend this chapbook to fans of science and poetry and to anyone interested in hearing about some overlooked scientific names. I should add that, one of the reasons some of the names were familiar to me is because I am a scientist myself and some of these stories get around a bit more in the scientific community (I've seen an award named after Lise Meitner being presented and I heard about Jocelyn Bell pretty much when I learnt what a pulsar was). I imagine a different spread of names might be familiar (or more unfamiliar) to different people.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Stone Bird Press
Series: no
Format read: paperback
Source: gift from publisher

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Shards of Honour - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Through 2017 and 2018 Tsana and Katharine are reading The Vorkosigan Saga (in more or less chronological order), starting with Shards of Honor all the way through to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, including novellas. Tsana is re-reading, and Katharine is brand new to the series and together they’ll be discussing themes, characters, worldbuilding, and anything else that sparks their interest.

The first book up for discussion is Shards of Honour, first published in 1986. You can read Katharine's review here and Tsana's review here.

Katharine: So I have to confess, I have read one other thing by Bujold and that was “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma”… back when I was serious about reading everything and then got overwhelmed by it all.

Tsana: I read that one too, but not close to when I read most of the other books. I felt a bit meh about it, from memory. I originally read all the books that existed at the time in 2011, starting from Warrior’s Apprentice and ending with the Cordelia books we decided to start with. Let me tell you, reading Shards of Honour first instead of second last was a very different (and superior) experience. Starting from Shards of Honour (and yes, I’m going to keep writing it with a u) gave me a better appreciation for both Cordelia and Aral as characters, unlike the first time around when I couldn’t get out of the mindset of seeing them primarily as Miles’s parents and through his eyes. It was easier to relate to them this way and I’m interested to see how that will effect my re-reading of the later books.

Katharine: I want to write it with a ‘u’! American spelling looks so mispronounced. I’m glad I’m getting the superior experience — usually I’m a hard and fast ‘publication’ order reader, but Alex had some strong feelings on the subject. Coming the series brand new, I’m loving starting off with main characters who aren’t spring chickens — Aral and Cordelia are excellent at what they do, and it’s believable because of their rank and experience.

Tsana: So we’ve discussed the characters a little bit. Before we get into some of the meatier topics, let’s chat about the setting. What did you think of Sergyar? Apparently I didn’t take it in at all the first time I read it. Gentleman Jole is set on the same planet and I noticed a lot more setting when I was reading that one. Coming back to Shards of Honour and discovering that actually the weird wildlife had been there from the start was a bit of a surprise.