Wednesday, 29 November 2017

100 Short Story Challenge: Stories 41 to 50

I have definitely fallen behind again. In my defence, my recent work-related travel wasn't very conducive to reading, but that's a poor excuse. Anyway, I have just under 50 stories left to read in just over a month. Can it be done? We'll see.

I’ve dipped into a few books of short stories this batch, as well as a couple of random online magazines. There’s Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, from Twelfth Planet Press, which I’ve made a bit of a dent in, and Wide Brown Land by Simon Petrie, a new collection of his Titan-set stories that will be out next year.

  1. Song in the Key of You by Sarah Pinsker — a nice story about a near future when “everyone” has personal soundtracks playing from their wrists and a girl who can’t afford the device but loves music. Source: Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein.
  2. Blood, Ash, Braids by Genevieve Valentine — A witchy fantasy story about the the Night Witches in WWII (Russian women bombing Nazis from planes). An enjoyable read about friendship, protection and magic. Source: Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein.
  3. Mosquito Boy by Felix Gilman — A concept that didn’t really grab me. The narrator tells us of the emergence/existence of mosquito boy creatures (why are there no mosquito girls?). That’s pretty much the whole story. Meh. Source: Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein.
  4. The Rainbow Flame by Shveta Thakrar — This story is about teenaged girls questioning the world and their place in it. Except it’s a world made of magic and stories and, of course, things aren’t exactly as they have been told. I found it a bit slow to start and, while it picked up and got more interesting, it’s not a favourite. Source: Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein.
  5. The Sixth Day by Silvia Anna Hivén — A strange apocalyptic world in which the edges of reality seem to be stretching out and disappearing. It was interesting and a bit disturbing. Source: Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein.
  6. Storm in a T-Suit by Simon Petrie — An interesting story. A storm on Titan, a rescue mission, a tragic backstory and a crazy theory, all made for a thoughtful and engaging read. Source: Wide Brown Land by Simon Petrie
  7. For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababuo Need Not Apply) by Chesya Burke — An outcast girl with a special, magical role to play for her Ghanan home city, which will make her die young. Source: Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein.
  8. Rib by Yukimi Ogawa — A nice story about a skeleton woman and the little boy she helps. It was a bit weird, but also heartwarming. Source:
  9. Hatchway by Simon Petrie — A story about peer pressure as well as the pressure of Titan’s atmosphere, with chilling elements for both the protagonist and the reader. Source: Wide Brown Land by Simon Petrie
  10. The Shape of the Darkness As It Overtakes Us by Dimas Ilaw — Not what I was expecting at all. This is a story about stories and the way they can sustain us in difficult times. The difficult times in particular being oppressive and violent martial rule in the Philippines. Source:

Stay tuned for more frequent story posts as I try to catch up on this challenge I've set myself...

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Last Guard by KJ Taylor

The Last Guard by KJ Taylor is the first in a new trilogy, The Southern Star, set in the same universe as The Fallen Moon trilogy, which I reviewed on this blog — The Dark Griffin, Griffin's Flight and Griffin's War. There is also a second trilogy, The Risen Sun, which falls between The Fallen Moon and  The Southern Star, which I haven't (yet) read.

Southerner Sergeant Kearney "Red" Redguard is the last of a disgraced family, and a loyal guardsman. And with a murderer stalking the streets, the city guard is his city's best defense.

But in the North, King Caedmon Taranisäii is gathering his army, and the cruel Night God prepares for the downfall of the South. A new dark griffin roams the land, warning of the war to come.

Betrayed and sent on the run, Red must fight to save his homeland. But it may already be too late...

The Last Guard features new protagonists, as far as I know, and a new story arc. It follows on from the events in the first two trilogies, but a lot of those events are now considered (recent) history. To explain context, some of the key events of the Fallen Moon trilogy were mentioned and I think the same is true of the Risen Sun trilogy, although that was, of course, harder for me to spot. I felt like there were enough hints about the earlier events that I wanted to go back and read the missing trilogy to fill in the gaps. However, no crucial information was missing from The Last Guard and the book worked by itself as a story. My verdict is: you don't have to have read the earlier books/series to enjoy The Last Guard, but there will be extra layers of significance (or more quickly apparent significance) if you have.

On to the actual story! The bulk of the book follows Red, a city guard who is very good at his job and takes pride in it. The story starts with a few strange crimes in the city that draw Red's attention and soon escalates to something a bit more extreme, as hinted in the blurb. Red is soon fighting for his life, his city and his country as everything he'd gotten used to in life comes crashing down around him.

I liked Red as a character and the few times the point of view shifted to other characters I always felt a bit impatient to get back to Red. Not that the other characters were boring or anything, but the main story very much moved with Red. I wouldn't be surprised if that balance shifted a bit in the next book, though I won't spoil why I think that. We also get to know a few of the griffin characters on both sides of the growing conflict. I found it interesting to compare the griffin-human relationships with, for example, the dragon-human relationships in other books like the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. I think the idea of griffins would appeal to fans of dragons, but they come with a different background and, of course, less mythological baggage.

I recommend this book to fans of epic fantasy and of the author's earlier griffin series (The Fallen Moon and The Risen Sun trilogies). It's certainly in a similar vein to the first series and fans of Taylor's other books will find much to enjoy in the continuing events taking place in that world. That said, this first book stands alone as an introduction to a new series without requiring the earlier books to make sense. It's not a bad place to start and if you read The Last Guard and find yourself wanting to know more about the world, you can always go back and read the earlier books without having to wait for the second Southern Star book to come out.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: December 2017, Black Phoenix Publishing Collective
Series: The Souther Star trilogy, book 1 of 3 (with the series itself being the third of three so far, following the Fallen Moon trilogy and the Risen Sun trilogy)
Format read: eARC (PDF)
Source: provided by the publisher
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a novella set in the same universe as her short story "Cookie Cutter Superhero", published in Kaleidoscope, and the novella Kid Dark Against the Machine. You don't have to have read the earlier stories to enjoy or understand Girl Reporter, but the characters from the earlier stories show up and provide minor spoilers for their backstories.

In a world of superheroes, supervillains, and a machine that can create them all, millennial vlogger and girl reporter Friday Valentina has no shortage of material to cover. Every lottery cycle, a new superhero is created and quite literally steps into the shoes of the hero before them--displacing the previous hero. While Fri may not be super-powered herself, she understands the power of legacy: her mother is none other than the infamous reporter Tina Valentina, renowned worldwide for her legendary interviews with the True Blue Aussie Beaut Superheroes and her tendency to go to extraordinary lengths to get her story.

This time, Tina Valentina may have ventured too far.

Alongside Australia's greatest superheroes--including the powerful Astra, dazzling Solar, and The Dark in his full brooding glory--Friday will go to another dimension in the hopes of finding her mother, saving the day, maybe even getting the story of a lifetime out of the adventure. (And possibly a new girlfriend, too.)

This novella was a positively delightful read. It blends Roberts' humour with social commentary on the state of superhero fiction and various contemporary issues, especially those surrounding representation. Additionally the novella is so Australian it hurts (in a good way). Despite the alternate universe setting, Roberts finds plenty of opportunity to engage with modern Australian culture and hark back to the Australian culture of the 80s and 90s. I expect there will be some references that non-Australians will miss, but the novella won't be the worse for it. And everything really important is explained anyway.

The other delightful thing about this novel is the upbeat and clever voice of Tina Valentina. I will always have a soft spot for snark, but it's also nice to have a protagonist who is pretty upbeat and excited about things, despite some cynicism. Also, Tina drops backstory into the narrative very naturally, whether it's superhero history or about her mother. Roberts has nailed alternate-dimension young Millennial, and I say this as a non-super-dimension older Millennial.

This was my favourite of all three stories in the "Cookie Cutter Superhero-Verse" so far. I hope there will be more. I love the setting and all the characters so far have been great. There hasn't been very much superhero fiction (that I'm aware of) set in Australia and the strong Aussie-ness of the setting really boosts the book into an even more exciting take on superheroes, rather than yet another superhero story set in New York.

I highly recommend Girl Reporter to all fans of superhero stories. It's fun and fresh and full of diversity. Being a novella, it's also a pretty quick read. I can't wait to read more books set in this world.

5 / 5 stars

First published: December 2017, Book Smugglers
Series: Cookie Cutter Superhero-Verse, third instalment of three so far. Stand-alone.
Format read: ePub ARC
Source: review copy provided by author
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold is the latest book in my re-read of the Vorkosigan saga. It comes chronologically after Mirror Dance and before Komarr. I had remembered this as "the Illyan book", but of course, it's still mostly another Miles book, focussing on a transitionary period in Miles's life (and also in Simon Illyan's life).

Miles hits 30... Thirty hits back.

Miles turns 30, and--though he isn't slowing down just yet--he is starting to lose interest in the game of Wall: the one where he tries to climb the wall, fails, gets up, and tries again. Having finally reached a point in his life where he can look back and realize that he has managed to prove his courage and competence, he can move on to bigger and better things.

This book follows Miles on a more internal journey than usual. Although there is some excitement in it, there is less action and fewer daring rescues. In fact Miles spends a lot of the book coming to terms with the fact that all his adventures have caught up with him, medically speaking. After having spent so long overcoming his disadvantages though sheer determination, the abrupt realisation that he can’t will his way past his latest problem is not a shock he deals with well. But, Miles being
Miles and also the protagonist, events conspire to push him in a new and interesting direction.

As I hinted in my introduction, this is also a book that features Simon Illyan quite prominently. Previously he appeared in Miles’s life mostly as a slightly distant authority figure — despite having known Miles since birth, their professional relationship was mostly very professional (avoiding mild treason notwithstanding). But now we get to learn more about Illyan’s job and it’s demands. And we see that Miles is actually one of the closest people to him. And of course, it’s useful to have Miles on your side if something goes wrong.

The other character we get to see more of in this book (not for the first time) is Ivan. He provides an amusing side plot and counter to some of Miles’s darker moments. And of course, he gets dragged into Miles’s plans.

This book is clever and, even though I remembered most of the ending, it stood up well upon rereading. It’s a thoughtful book and, while parts of it are very difficult for Miles, it wasn’t as difficult for readers, compared with its immediate prequel, Mirror Dance, for example. Because it’s such a transitionary book, I don’t think I’d recommend it as a stand-alone, but it works very well in the broader context of the series and as a marker of this turning point in Miles’s life. And, as (almost) always, it made me excited to read the next book in the series.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Baen, 1996
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically after Mirror Dance and before Komarr
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

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:
  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:
  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:
  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:
  5. The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor by Catherynne M Valente — Another very short story is the “nevertheless, she persisted” series on 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:
  6. God Product by Alyssa Wong — Excellent, arresting flash, the best so far in's “nevertheless, she persisted” series. Source:
  7. An Abundance of Fish by S. Qiouyi Lu — which was lovely and heartbreaking and contained fish. A story of love and loss. Source:
  8. Astronaut by Maria Dahvana Headley — which was very short and very touching and realer than I initially realised. Another in's “nevertheless, she persisted” series. Source:
  9. Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar — was well-written but didn’t really do it for me. Another in's “nevertheless, she persisted” series. Source:
  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...