Monday, 28 August 2017

Contamination by Patty Jansen

Contamination by Patty Jansen is a novella in a new series of novellas. It stands alone well enough, but I can also see how it's a good set up for an ongoing episodic series. It's near-/mid-future SF, set on  a space station in orbit around Earth.

Jonathan Bartell is a young man, just out of university, when he signs up for the position of Quarantine Officer at the Orbital Launch Station.

He is part of a crop of students who flocked to study exo-biology when bacteria were discovered on Mars, and who are now all making their living flipping burgers, because the jobs are few and hard to get. He is lucky to get a job in space, no matter how mundane.

Or so he thinks...

Gaby Larsen is a doctor at the tiny hospital at the space station, and she keeps secrets, not because she wants to keep them, but because she is too scared to share them.

Because out in space, your worst enemies are your fellow travellers.

Contamination follows Jonathan, who has just gotten a job on the Orbital Launch Station as a quarantine officer. He quickly learns that not only is space less glamorous than he expected, but that his job is even less so. He doesn't immediately hit it off with other people on the station and a few innocent missteps lead to more antagonism than he planned for. But Jonathan is determined to do his job, and that leads him down a more interesting path than he bargained for.

This was a quick read and satisfyingly scratched the itch I wanted it to. It's hard SF that deals with some social issues and sticks go near-future plausible developments. (Although how near in the future we're really going to be exploring the solar system is up for debate.) It was interesting but not especially shocking as far as plot development went. That said, there were some interesting hints of other aspects of the world, which were not at all resolved and which I expect will come up again in future instalments. I should stress that the main story was completely resolved, however.

I enjoyed Contamination and I look forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out. I recommend it to fans of science fiction, especially realistic and solar system-based science fiction. Since it's a novella, it's also an ideal quick read for people looking for a short foray into a science fiction world between other reads.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017, self-published
Series: Yes, book 1 of ? which looks to be a series of standalones
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Disclaimer: Although I am friends with Patty, I have endeavoured to give an impartial review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian SF Reading Challenge

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold is a novella about Miles Vorkosigan and chronologically comes after Labyrinth, another novella. I first read it about five years ago and have now reread it as part of the ongoing Vorkosigan Saga reread you might have noticed if you're a regular reader of this blog.

Miles infiltrates a prison camp at Dagoola IV, where he plots from within to free the prisoners.

This was one of the more memorable novellas in the Vorkosigan Saga, I thought. My memories of it turned out to not be entirely reliable — it's not set on an ice moon prison, just a normal crappy but almost habitable planet. What I remembered liking most about the story was Miles being clever, but of course I couldn't remember his actual plan when I was rereading. In any case, Miles being clever is hardly something new for readers familiar with the character.

The most notable aspect of this story is that it is not really funny like most of the Vorkosigan stories are. Miles is in a crappy PoW camp, surrounded by death and brutality, and outside of the camp watching Cetagandans have total control over their lives. Even Miles can't remain indefinitely upbeat in such a situation, even when he has faith that rescue is coming. Bujold uses the opportunity to show us another side of war, which has at most only been hinted at in previous books. We saw wartime prisoners of the Barrayarans in Shards of Honour, but what we saw there wasn't nearly as bleak as the situation in The Borders of Infinity (which is not to say it couldn't have been as bad in a Barrayaran rather than Cetagandan PoW camp, just that Cordelia and Aral didn't allow it to be so).

Overall, this is a solid instalment in the Vorkosigan Saga and one that works pretty well as a standalone story. You don't have to know anything much about Miles's past to make sense of this present and there are only a few oblique references to external events, the missing of which wouldn't diminish the story, in my opinion. I recommend it to fans of Bujold and the other Vorkosigan stories and suggest that it is a reasonable sample of the same with the caveat that they are usually a bit more cheerful (albeit sometimes darkly so).

4 / 5 stars

First published: 1987 in Free Lancers, a Baen novella anthology
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically falling after Labyrinth and before Brothers in Arms
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles Errant omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Friday, 18 August 2017

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis is a fantasy novella set in an alternate magical England (Angland) and featuring a female magician. Her femininity is notable because in Angland men do the magicking while women do the politicking.

In nineteenth-century Angland, magic is reserved for gentlemen while ladies attend to the more practical business of politics. But Cassandra Harwood has never followed the rules...

Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.

Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.

But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks...and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.

To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness.

A witty and sparkling romantic fantasy novella that opens a brand-new series for adults from the author of Kat, Incorrigible, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets.

This is a romance-light romance novella. There is a romantic storyline but it was secondary to the main story of our heroine, Cassandra, which involved a dangerous run in with an elven lord and an unnatural snowstorm. The elves in this story, by the way, are more Pratchett than Tolkien, aside from having a treaty with the humans.

This was a fun story in a somewhat gender-swapped world, giving a slightly different take on a woman trying to enter a male-dominated field. I didn't really understand why, in a world ruled by women, they were still wearing skirts, however. Nevertheless the core idea of a society ruled by alternative gender roles was interesting and the tale had a distinct feminist bent to it, even within the context of the fantasy world.

Snowspelled was a delightful read and I am definitely looking forward to reading more about Cassandra, her adventures, and her friends. I recommend it to fans of historical and/or regency(-esque) fantasy and fantastical romance. The next instalment in this series is coming in 2018 and I, for one, can't wait.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2017
Series: yes. Volume one of The Harwood Spellbook, the first of a planned series
Format read: ePub
Source: ARC from author in Twitter giveaway

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Impossible Story of Olive in Love by Tonya Alexandra

The Impossible Story of Olive in Love by Tonya Alexandra is an Australian authored YA book that I came across thanks to my role in the Australian Women Writers Challenge blog. The premise grabbed me immediately — a girl who is invisible to everyone except her true love in a contemporary setting and with a blind best friend (who doesn't believe she's invisible).

I get that I’m impossible.

I get that I’m mad and rude — perhaps even a drama queen at times.

But you’d be impossible if you lived my life ... You’d be impossible if you were invisible. Shakespeare was an idiot. Love is not blind. Love is being seen.

Plagued by a gypsy curse that she’ll be invisible to all but her true love, seventeen-year-old Olive is understandably bitter. Her mother is dead; her father has taken off. Her sister, Rose, is insufferably perfect. Her one friend, Felix, is blind and thinks she’s making it all up for attention.

Olive spends her days writing articles for her gossip column and stalking her childhood friend, Jordan, whom she had to abandon when she was ten because Jordan’s parents would no longer tolerate an ‘imaginary friend’. Nobody has seen her — until she meets Tom: the poster boy for normal and the absolute opposite of Olive.

But how do you date a boy who doesn’t know you’re invisible? Worse still, what happens when Mr Right feels wrong? Has destiny screwed up? In typical Olive fashion, the course is set for destruction. And because we’re talking Olive here, the ride is funny, passionate and way, way, way, way dramatic.

This story is for anyone who’s ever felt invisible.

This story is for anyone who sees the possible in the impossible.

This story is told in first person by the very melodramatic Olive. It's reasonably fast-paced and felt very quick to read. In fact, it did not take me very long, even though I was at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki without very much spare time to read and not as much downtime as usual in the evenings. Olive tells her story in a pretty whiney and self-centred way, but it's an entertaining voice and she does get called on all of her crap at some point.

The only somewhat questionable aspect of the book was the "gypsy curse" part, but otherwise it was extremely enjoyable. The premise of invisible girl who can only be seen by her true love is quickly explored when said alleged true love shows up near the start, and Olive spends a lot of the book learning how to human, more or less. Only part of that is because of the invisibility; she also hasn't had much experience interacting with people outside of her family other than as a stalker.

Her character development was interesting, as was how the book treated romance. On the one hand, this boy is apparently her true love because the gypsy curse said so, but on the other hand, Olive is only seventeen (the boy is twenty) which is obviously a bit too early to settle down. I really liked how that and the romance generally was resolved (especially since it could have gone in several less satisfying ways.

I highly recommend The Impossible Story of Olive in Love to fans of YA and especially speculative YA. It has a very strong teenaged voice, so it's not something I would particularly recommend to general spec fic fans who are not also fans of YA.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2017, Harlequin Teen (Aus)
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased on Kobo
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Dichronauts by Greg Egan

Dichronauts by Greg Egan is a story of exploration and, by some definitions of the word, adventure. The two protagonists are surveyors in a society that puts a high priority in knowing what land lies ahead of it, because it is a constantly migrating society. It has to migrate constantly because it is based on a geometrically very strange world.

Seth is a surveyor, along with his friend Theo, a leech-like creature running through his skull who tells Seth what lies to his left and right. Theo, in turn, relies on Seth for mobility, and for ordinary vision looking forwards and backwards. Like everyone else in their world, they are symbionts, depending on each other to survive.

In the universe containing Seth's world, light cannot travel in all directions: there is a “dark cone” to the north and south. Seth can only face to the east (or the west, if he tips his head backwards). If he starts to turn to the north or south, his body stretches out across the landscape, and to rotate as far as north-north-east is every bit as impossible as accelerating to the speed of light.

Every living thing in Seth’s world is in a state of perpetual migration as they follow the sun’s shifting orbit and the narrow habitable zone it creates. Cities are being constantly disassembled at one edge and rebuilt at the other, with surveyors mapping safe routes ahead.

But when Seth and Theo join an expedition to the edge of the habitable zone, they discover a terrifying threat: a fissure in the surface of the world, so deep and wide that no one can perceive its limits. As the habitable zone continues to move, the migration will soon be blocked by this unbridgeable void, and the expedition has only one option to save its city from annihilation: descend into the unknown.

There are so many ideas that shape this world into being different from ours, that when I first started reading it seemed like any one of these premises would have been enough for a perfectly interesting story. However, having finished the book, I can see how all the weirdness, for lack of a better word, is interlinked. No one key premise would have worked rigorously without the other elements holding it together. The geometry of the world requires the migration and begets the alien configuration of the beings we follow in the story. The not-human beings can only see in two directions (forwards and backwards, though they don't refer to them like that) and have a symbiotic relationship with intelligent leech like beings. The Walkers have holes in their heads and the Siders live inside these holes and, through supersonic "pinging" can see sideways and share that information with their Walkers. The Walkers and Siders can also silently communicate, and Siders can speak in the Walker language and also among themselves in their own higher-pitched language that Walkers can't hear. And I've barley scraped the surface of the geometry aspect.

The story follows the investigation of a looming crisis. The river our protagonists' city follows is going to run out as the city continues migrating. Seth and Theo are sent to survey a new region and hopefully find a new river or other means for the city to sustain itself in the future. As they make various discoveries, the situation escalates and they learn more about their world than they bargained for.

This book was a little baffling to read, in a way not foreign to a reader who has read a few Greg Egan books before (ie me). I have a degree in pure maths and one in physics and while some of the geometric ideas were a little familiar to me, I found it difficult to picture some of what happened or predict the effects of some actions. Ultimately, I found the book enjoyable enough if I just went with the flow and didn't overthink it. When I got to the end and read the afterword on geometry (not a spoiler if you want to jump ahead to it), I discovered that I hadn't been thinking of things in quite the right way, which explained some of my confusion. I don't think that knowledge would have helped me all that much if I'd read it earlier, however, since I think a proper representation would be more or less impossible without writing out some equations.

Maths aside, I was also put in mind of Flatland (but without he weird chauvinism), for the exploration of a world with foreign geometrical properties. The main story was more a exploration and discovery yarn, albeit not an exploration of Earth or anything in our universe.

I recommend Dichronauts to fans of Greg Egan and people who are not afraid of unconventional mathematics. Readers who enjoy exploration stories and don't mind not understanding exactly how the physics of the world works should also enjoy this book.

4 / 5 stars

First published: June 2017, Nightshade Books
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Challenges: Aussie Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Labyrinth — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Labyrinth is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It runs after Ethan of Athos takes place, and we see Miles as Admiral Naismith once agian. In it, we meet Taura  for the first time - a character who becomes more important later.

You can read Katharine’s review of Labyrinth here, and Tsana’s review here.

Tsana: Well, the first thing I can say about Labyrinth is that it was not very memorable the first time I read it! For the first significant chunk of the novella I couldn’t remember what was coming up next as I was reading. Once Taura was introduced I finally put the pieces together and remembered the point of the novella (which was to introduce Taura) but up until that point it was a bit of a bland but enjoyable Miles shenanigan.

Katharine: In it, we see Miles on a mission to provide safe passage for a research scientist, who refuses to leave unless Miles can do something for him - eliminate an earlier project the scientist now regrets. Miles must enter a place run by some pretty vile and cold blooded businessmen in order to try, and he only has 24 hours to do so.

Tsana: And in the meantime, Bel Thorn and the other Dendarii have to look like they’re just at Jackson’s Whole to buy weapons. Nothing unusual to see here. Oh, our Admiral is just having a chat with the suppliers, etc.

Katharine: Once again we get to see Miles’ short stature as a positive. When buying out the regretted science project doesn’t work he reckons he’ll break in and solve it that way - so he sneaks in where others can’t fit, and slowly leads the way in... Though the plan literally seems to be 1. Break in. 2. Look around and fast-penna someone. 3. ??? 4. Profit!

Tsana: Well Miles is known for thinking on his feet. I did find it interesting though that the scientist they’re extracting on the down-low was involved in the sciencey back story of Ethan of Athos. And the fact that he’s being extracted by the Dendarii to Barrayar (via a handover on Escobar) and still no one suspect’s Miles’s true identity? That’s pretty impressive.

Katharine: I guess it’s a big universe out there - almost like we’d probably walk by Benedict Cumberbatch on the street because there’s no chance he’d be here, right? Though it is pretty closely related, and you’d think that when people die and others are foiled, they’d want answers and information.
Anyway. Miles takes a small unit in with him, but they’re quickly spotted and thrown out, leaving Miles alone. He plans to see if he can find at least the location of what they need to make it easier to break in the next time but, of course, he happens to end up exactly where he shouldn’t, and is thrown in the basement as punishment.

Tsana: I think this is the time to raise the spoiler shield.

<spoilers up>

Friday, 4 August 2017

Labyrinth by Lois McMaster Bujold

Labyrinth by Lois McMaster Bujold is a Miles Vorkosigan novella set chronologically after the events of Ethan of Athos. While I had read it before, in the Miles, Mystery & Mayhem omnibus, I didn't actually remember much about it until I got to a crucial part a substantial way into the story.

Twenty-three year old Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan challenges the criminal underground on the planet Jackson's Whole to rescue a research scientist.

This is an enjoyable read that introduces and ongoing character and in which we meet the Dendarii mercenaries again — who haven't featured on the actual page all that much yet. But there's not very much to say about it other than that. Miles is sneaky and politically diplomatic and resourceful in a pinch (or a series of pinches). We get to spend a bit more time with Bel Thorn (some of which was a little cringeworthy), meet a quaddie for the first time (more on them later), and are introduced to Taura, who features in several future books.

But I can see why I didn't find this novella very memorable. The above are kind of important in the scheme of things, but there's not much else notable about this story. Worth reading for completion but I didn't enjoy it as much as Ethan of Athos or Cetaganda, mostly because of the depth possible in the novels. I'm also glad I own it in an omnibus with the aforementioned novels, because isn't that cover hideous? I've included the cover of Borders of Infinity, a novella collection also containing Labyrinth, which actually has a scene from Labyrinth as the cover art. I like to think of those editions as the often slightly less hideous than Baen covers. At least there's no orange font.

Anyway, I recommend Labyrinth to fans of the Vorkosigan universe. I don't especially suggest it as a good place to start since a lot of background is missing and there's not much space for worldbuilding (although we do get a better idea of Jackson's Whole, after hearing about it in passing for a few books). It does stand alone, though, so it's not a bad story to pick up to fill in some time. And I did pretty much inhale it in almost one go.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 1989, Analog
Series: Vorkosigan saga, chronologically after Ethan of Athos
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles, Mystery & Mayhem omnibus
Source: purchased from Baen several years ago

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Children of Thorns, Children of Water by Aliette de Bodard

Children of Thorns, Children of Water by Aliette de Bodard is a novelette set in the same world as House of Shattered Wings. I had forgotten a lot of details since I read the novel — mostly character names — but this didn't negatively affect my reading of this story.

A prequel story set between The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. Dragons, creepy magic, cooking (!).

Once each year, the House of Hawthorn tests the Houseless: for those chosen, success means the difference between a safe life and the devastation of the streets. However, for Thuan and his friend Kim Cuc, — dragons in human shapes and envoys from the dying underwater kingdom of the Seine — the stakes are entirely different. Charged with infiltrating a House that keeps encroaching on the Seine, if they are caught, they face a painful death.

Worse, mysterious children of thorns stalk the candidates through Hawthorn’s corridors. Will Thuan and Kim Cuc survive and succeed?

In this story we follow Thuan and his friend as they attempt to infiltrate one of the Houses of the Fallen in an alternate reality Paris. During the standard examination for entry into the House (as servants), something unusual goes wrong and everyone has to evacuate a wing of the house.

From what I remember, this story has a minor spoiler for House of Shattered Wings, but definitely doesn't require reading the second novel, House of Binding Thorns (I haven't yet). That said, my reading of the story was influenced by my prior knowledge of the world building and I suspect it wouldn't stand alone as a story as well as it does part of a whole. I believe it was intended to promote interest in House of Binding Thorns, which it does reasonably well. I am definitely interested in reading the sequel now that I've been reminded of the world again (if only I wasn't already so far behind on my reading...).

I recommend Children of Thorns, Children of Water to people who enjoyed House of Shattered Wings and want a taste of what's to come (I assume) in the sequel.

4 / 5 stars

First published: April 2017, Gollancz
Series: Dominon of the fallen 1.5 (as in, falling between House of Shattered Wings and House of Binding Thorns)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley (but apparently it was offered as a pre-order reward for House of Binding Thorns)