Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire

Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire is the second book in the ongoing InCryptid series. I recently read and reviewed the first book, Discount Armageddon, and then accidentally fell into this one, despite owning it as a paperback (of the unpleasant cheap US stinky variety — a plight that even sitting on my shelf for a few years can't fix). As with the first book, I read it in less than two days.

The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity--and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she'd rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and when her work with the cryptid community took her to Manhattan, she thought she would finally be free to pursue competition-level dance in earnest. It didn't quite work out that way...

But now, with the snake cult that was killing virgins all over Manhattan finally taken care of, Verity is ready to settle down for some serious ballroom dancing—until her on-again, off-again, semi-boyfriend Dominic De Luca, a member of the monster-hunting Covenant of St. George, informs her that the Covenant is on their way to assess the city's readiness for a cryptid purge. With everything and everyone she loves on the line, there's no way Verity can take that lying down.

Alliances will be tested, allies will be questioned, lives will be lost, and the talking mice in Verity's apartment will immortalize everything as holy writ--assuming there's anyone left standing when all is said and done. It's a midnight blue-light special, and the sale of the day is on betrayal, deceit...and carnage.

This is a direct sequel to Discount Armageddon and I advise reading it after that book, despite the relatively episodic and self-contained nature of both books. Midnight Blue-Light Special builds on the relationships established in that first book and the two of them can be seen as a two-part mini-series within the larger InCryptid universe. (I am basing that on a few assumptions since I haven't read the later books, but according to the afterword book 3 follows a different protagonist, so I think it's a fair statement.) If you enjoyed the first book, I definitely recommend picking up this sequel.

Set a few months after the events in Discount Armageddon, the new problem facing Verity and her friends is the Covenant of St George — the secret monster-killing organisation — who have sent a few more representatives to New York to see what's really going on over there. This is a problem since what's going on is a lot of peaceful supernatural beings are calling New York home and Verity is the main person standing between them and the Covenant.

I enjoyed this book for much of the same reasons as the first one: it's a fun read, populated with all sorts of female characters. As a bonus, the shift in the romantic plot line from introductory to more established and with higher stakes was more fun to read. Aside from the antagonists, there aren't many new characters introduced in this one, which mostly builds on the character relationships established in the first book. In particular, Sarah, Verity's cousin, gets to play a larger role — to the extent of appearing on the cover and having a few chapters from her point of view.

Overall, I recommend this series to fans of urban fantasy who enjoy fun and fast-paced reads filled with female characters, most of whom kick arse. I strongly suggest starting with Discount Armageddon, but I expect Midnight Blue-Light Special would be readable on it's own (but would lose a lot of emotional impact with less backstory behind it). I plan to keep reading the series, but since the next book follows a different character, this seems like a good place to take a break and read some other books for a while.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Daw
Series: InCryptid book 2 of 7 so far with more coming
Format read: Paperback, the horror
Source: An Australian online book shop, who had it for a steep discount a few years ago

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire is the first book in the author's InCryptid urban fantasy series. I've previously read many books and stories by Seanan McGuire (and her alter ego Mira Grant) but this is only my second foray into her urban fantasy novels.

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night... The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity—and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she'd rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right? It would be, if it weren't for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family's old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone's spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city...

When I was pressed for time towards the end of Hugo voting season, I decided to make my last few decisions by reading the first couple of chapters of the remaining books, this one among them. After that I had to get back to other (review) books, but when I had the chance, this was the book I wanted to pick up the most. It was the sentient, religious mice that really won me over.

The protagonist of this story is the scion of a family that used to be part of the "exterminate everything supernatural" society (aka the Covenant) until her great-grandparent defected. Now they study and protect the supernatural and stop the more aggressive members of that group from preying on humans. Verity in particular is well trained in fighting and enjoys cryptozoology and ballroom dancing. She's making a go of in New York: dancing, waitressing in a strip club (hence the cover art) and keeping the peace. The main story happens when a chap from the Covenant shows up, intent on a purge, but not responsible for a spate of recent disappearances...

This wasn't a complicated read but it was a fun one. As I said, I really liked the mice and most of the other characters also made for fun reading (basically, except for the bad guys). I felt a bit meh with regards to the romantic storyline, which was simultaneously a bit underdeveloped and predictable — the latter partly because there weren't many other male characters around. (On the other hand, yay for lots of female characters!)

I quite enjoyed this book and found it enough of a fun read that I am definitely interested in continuing with the series. I definitely recommend it to fans of urban fantasy looking for a fun read with a bit of a scientific take on different supernatural creatures. As it happens, I picked up book 2 on sale in paper (urgh) several years ago, so I already have it waiting on my shelf, huzzah. So I will be getting to that just as soon as I can bring myself to read a paper book again.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, Daw
Series: InCryptid book 1 of 7 so far with more on the way
Format read: ePub
Source: Hugo Voter Packet (in this case, from the publisher via NetGalley)

Thursday, 9 August 2018

#ReadShortStories about philosophical concepts in science fictional contexts (136 to 140)


A couple of stories from Uncanny Issue 22 in this batch, followed by three from Mother of Invention, an anthology edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts. I'm now halfway through Mother of Invention and still enjoying the stories. Huzzah.

My favourite story in this batch is the John Chu, which is not a huge surprise. I look forward to the day when he has enough stories to warrant his own collection...

Sucks (to Be You) by Katharine Duckett — A succubus tells us about her life and how much easier it is for her to feed off people’s thoughts of her in the modern world of social media. My favourite thing about this story was how textual the subtext got. I liked it. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/sucks-to-be-you/

Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us by Marina J. Lostetter — While this isn’t what I would normally think of as my kind of story, I quite liked it. It was a short story about worshipping the sun and keeping it alive before it’s time. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/discard-the-sun-for-it-has-failed-us/

Fata Morgana by Cat Sparks — Post-apocalyptic/war-torn Australia with fighting mechs wandering around, at least one of which is intelligent. In rough conditions the mech protects the old lady that was its creator and helps a poor settlement. I enjoyed it. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Quantifying Trust by John Chu — A robot engineering grad student works on her design and ponders the question of trust for AI. And meets a postdoc who may or may not be an advanced AI sent from the future. I really liked this story. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Bright Shores by Rosaleen Love — A fantastical story about robots (and one woman) living in a nuclear exclusion zone. Clearly taking cues from the Fukushima tsunami disaster, I liked the premise of the robots left behind (because they are too contaminated from dealing with radioactive material), but it lost me a bit with some of the less scientific ideas. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers is another standalone novel set in the Wayfarers universe, along with Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and A Closed And Common Orbit both of which I've previously reviewed and enjoyed. Although it continues the trend of gorgeous covers, I didn't quite enjoy this one as much as the other two Wayfarers books.

From the ground, we stand. From our ship, we live. By the stars, we hope

Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.

Tessa chose to stay home when her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.

Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn't know where to find it.

Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.

When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:

What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?

The title of this novel pretty literally describes the story. The book is about a fleet of generation ships that left Earth in search of better worlds after it had been completely ruined. Some time after that, the Exodan fleet encountered the Galactic Commons which is a conglomeration of alien with much better technology than what the Exodans left home with. So the Exodan fleet, a few generations after first contact, find themselves in a position to merge with the rest of galactic civilisation (including the humans left behind on Mars and around the Solar System), and some use the opportunity of new technology to head for planets. But some are used to the way of life on the ships and, with a few technological improvements and the gift of a sun no one else was using, continue to live life their ancestors did. This is a story about some of those people.

It's quite a philosophical premise and makes for a fairly philosophical and very character-driven story. The characters are set up to show us different aspects of life among the Fleet and how Exodan values clash and mesh with the outside world. We get a very good idea of how life works for the Exodans — the foil of a visiting alien was very useful on that front — and the problems faced with integrating with the rest of the galaxy; down to the fact that Exodans don't have a currency but rather a barter system, and speak a different language to Martians.

The reason I didn't enjoy Record of a Spaceborn Few as much as the earlier stories is mainly because there were so many characters that I kept getting some of them confused for a pretty large chunk of the book. I'm not great with remembering character names, so even though each chapter was headed by the relevant PoV character's name, I was still getting a bit lost and losing track of things for a bit more than half the book. I had it sorted in my mind by the end but the frustration had already taken place by then. (I was tempted to go back and reread the prologue again to see if it had a bigger impact, but didn't.)

The issue, for me, was that the female characters, of which there were three, had quite distinct work lives but their home lives were not that obviously connected to their work. My brain just struggled to link character at home A with character at work A. I'm not even sure that it was because I was especially tired when I was reading... I had less trouble with the male characters because they were kind of less multifaceted; one was clearly distinguished as The Foreigner, while the other was The Teenager.

By the time I got to the end of this book I was properly enjoying it but I think it's a pity that it took me so long to get to that point. All of Chambers' work has been quite character-driven but this is the first time it didn't really work for me (there were parts of A Closed and Common Orbit that I found a bit dull, but they were interspersed with the parts I was more invested in, making up for it). While I didn't dislike any of the characters, I also wasn't solidly invested in any of them — probably thanks to getting them confused earlier on. This isn't the ideal situation for a character-driven story, alas.

Anyway, if you enjoyed the earlier Wayfarers books and you have a penchant for character-driven stories, then I definitely recommend Record of a Spaceborn Few. If the premise and the concepts I mentioned interest you, then I also suggest giving this book a go. I think it would be interesting to reread Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and then this one to get the full impact of the worldbuilding of different areas across both books... but it's definitely not necessary to have read any other Chambers books before starting this one.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Hachette Australia
Series: Wayfarers book 3 of 3 so far, but they can be read in any order
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells is the third novella in the Murderbot Diaries series, which started with All Systems Red last year and was followed by Artificial Condition earlier this year. Although each novella tells a self-contained story, they're more like chapter's in Muderbot's life and the bulk of the characterisation work was done earlier on in the first book and I think there's less recapping of backstory in Rogue Protocol. All of which is to say that if you haven't read this series before, I recommend starting with book 1. In any case, this review will contain some spoilers for the earlier books.

SciFi’s favorite crabby A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

I really like the Muderbot books and this one continued the series nicely. It continued to make me laugh and progressed the story set up in the earlier books. There was danger, action and snark, and maybe a little less watching of TV shows and more having confusing emotions. As I said before, it wouldn't work as a standalone, in my opinion. But it is quite episodic, since in Rogue Protocol we have Murderbot meeting new people in a new location but also continuing the overarching story about the dodgy GrayCris Corporation.

In this story Murderbot encounters a different set of characters. Where previously we've watched its interactions with various humans and (separately) an artificial intelligence more advanced than Murderbot, this time we get a story with humans of various stripes and a less advanced AI robot. My favourite part of the story was the feelings the robot caused Murderbot to feel. I won't spoil the story by going into details, but they were many and varied.

The end of this novella seems to set up a final chapter in Murderbot's current story arc. I will be interested to see how it ends (of course) and also the direction of the recently announced novel which will follow the novellas. I highly recommend Rogue Protocol to fans of Murderbot and the whole series to fans of snark and science fiction, who are not averse to a bit of (non-gratuitous) violence.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2018, Tor.com
Series: Murderbot Diaries book 3 of 4 (though a novel set after the novella series has been announced
Format read: ePub eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a standalone YA portal fantasy book that I picked up because it was shortlisted for the new YA (not a) Hugo award. It hooked me with the first sentence and, even though I originally had other plans, I ended up inhaling it in a day. Since it's not the shortest YA book ever, that did, unfortunately, involve staying up until almost 3 am.

The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border—unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and—best of all as far as Elliot is concerned—mermaids.

Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.

It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.

Told from the first person perspective of Elliot, a sarcastic and hyperintelligent teen, In Other Lands is in part a scathing commentary on the moral and ethical ambiguity of a certain class of portal fantasy worlds. Elliot's voice is what makes this book an excellent read and so if sarcasm is not your kind of thing you'd probably best give this a miss. On the other hand, if you enjoy the deconstruction of portal fantasy tropes and don't hate humorous banter, then this is the book for you.

The one flaw I found in this book was the telegraphing hooks at the ends of some of the sections. I did not realise when I started reading, but apparently In Other Lands was originally published serially online, and I can see why tantalising hooks all over the place were conducive to that format. In the book format, however, I found some of these to be irritating semi-spoilers of what was to come in the following section. Even when one hook confirmed something I had guessed plot-wise, I was still annoyed by it. But there weren't that many that stood out for me and over the course of the book this was a relatively minor flaw.

The only thing that annoyed me about Elliot was his fixation with having/getting a romantic partner. However, this certainly fit in with how his character was portrayed from the very beginning and worked within the story, driving it forward in between external events. And it provided a counterbalance to the "Oh my god, we're child soldiers!" and "but don't you want to write a good treaty?" sides of the story. It does mean there's more sex that you might expect in a YA book, but it's all of the fade-to-black variety and certainly fits in with the world building (if you're treating teenagers like adults in the arena of war...). The fact that one of Elliot's best friends is an elf girl and that elven culture is pretty much gender-swapped traditional human culture, magnifies this aspect and also allows for some interesting discussion.

Overall I enjoyed this book a lot — as evidenced by how quickly I read it — and I would definitely read more books in the same style (although I don't expect a sequel for this one). The irreverent format provides and excellent vehicle to question some of the ideas that have been normalised in children's portal fantasy stories and bring others down to earth. I highly recommend it to fans of the genre.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Small Beer Press
Series: No (but there is a tie-in short story, apparently)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased on Apple Books

Monday, 30 July 2018

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan is the fifth and final volume in the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. It is a marvellous conclusion to that series and I highly recommend readers that began the series persist until its conclusion. I picked this book up as soon as I finished the fourth instalment, In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and I devoured it in a day. This review contains minor spoilers for the earlier books in the series.

After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent--dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.

And yet--after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard The Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia--the Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure--scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland's enemies--and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.

What was really interesting, and clear from the beginning of this book, is that this series does not only tell the story of Isabella's life and dragon studies. It also tells the story of how the world changed over the course of her life and how she was a catalyst for a surprising amount of that change. From Isabella and friends' accidental discovery of dragon bone preservation in the first book, the world has come a long way to airships made of that substance. Not to mention the other events on the world stage that were set in motion from that discovery and the theft thereof. These events more than the elder memoirist's reminiscences of the state of the world at that time (in between the main events) highlights just how much the world — and Isabella herself, who is now 40 or so — has changed.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings starts similarly to the other books in the series, with Isabella presented with a draconic lure and planning a trip to the other side of the world. The story appears to progress along a similar template to her other adventures, this time as they travel to the not-Himalayas, but the usual progression of things is turned upside down earlier than expected. I have no intention of spoiling this book, but the discoveries made in this one are of world-shaking significance and, quite frankly, I am impressed that memoirist Isabella didn't even hint at them in the earlier books. Especially since she's writing from a future where the knowledge she has discovered has become commonplace. I applaud Brennan for resisting the urge to drop any hints earlier (or if she did, I didn't notice them until Isabella of the story did).

Overall, this was an excellent conclusion to a delightful series. I would not be surprised if I ended up rereading it in a few years and it will certainly go down as one of my favourite series. The combination of worldbuilding, the narrator's voice, and the very scientific way in which dragons were studied was the perfect combination for me. I feel like there should be a subgenre describing this kind of science-minded fantasy, but alas "science fantasy" conjures up magic in space rather than dragon scientists.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings was a brilliant read and I highly recommend it to anyone who has read the preceding books in the series. I said in my last review that these books are fairly self-contained. While that is more or less true, I definitely do not recommend reading Within the Sanctuary of Wings without having read the earlier four volumes. The marvel of it depends a lot upon knowledge of the previous books and would be significantly lessened without that buildup. Read it, but read the prequels first, starting with A Natural History of Dragons.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Tor Books
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent book 5 of 5
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks/Apple Books

Saturday, 28 July 2018

#ReadShortStories about stories. Sort of. (131 to 135)


A small departure from Mother of Invention stories in this batch, mainly to mix things up a bit and partly because I was feeling behind on my Uncanny subscription. An interesting batch here, but none that jumped out at me as favourites.


A Robot Like Me by Lee Cope — An agender AI programmer makes an AI in their image. A lovely and slightly bittersweet story about gender. I liked it. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Girls Who Read Austen by Tansy Rayner Roberts — A cute story about the main character’s failure to get agreeable college roommates. Short and sweet. Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon

Restore the Heart into Love by John Chu — In a future with space flint and high tensions/war between China and Taiwan, a Taiwanese-American computer scientist works to preserve traditional Chinese text. An interesting take, but not my favourite Chu. (It was not helped by the baffling way Uncanny rendered the Chinese characters which did not play nice with Pocket and definitely affected my reading experience.) Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/restore-the-heart-into-love-2/

New Berth by Elizabeth Fitzgerald — A futuristic take on regency romance that put me in mind if Austen in tone. However, I found it a bit confusing to keep track of characters and motivations and it didn’t really work for me for that reason. I expect some readers will enjoy it more than I did. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Blessings by Naomi Novik — An short and amusing story. I liked the premise and the execution wasn’t bad, but I kind of expected it to be funnier (the premise of drunk fairies fighting over blessings for a child lends itself to humour, in my opinion). Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/blessings/

Thursday, 26 July 2018

In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan

In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan is the third book in the five-book Memoirs of Lady Trent series. I have previously reviewed all the earlier books in the series: A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, and Voyage of the Basilisk. This is a series I've been enjoying a lot and this fourth instalment does not deviate from that trend.

The thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, as the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.

Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent's expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.

As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperilled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.

I imagine it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog when I say that I found this book quite delightful, as I have the earlier instalments. This book sees Isabella and Tom sent off to Akhia to help the Scirling Army develop a dragon breeding programme. Isabella's brother, who joined the army at some point, features quite a lot in this one, and it was nice to get to know him better after having only met him in their youth in the first book (also, his presence turned out to be very convenient for several plot reasons). Since the book is set mostly Akhia, the homeland of a certain character we met in the previous book, I was suspicious of every Akhian we met, waiting for him to inevitably show up. Your mileage may vary.

One of the things I've liked most about this series is the very scientific approach to the study of dragons. I think I commented in one of my earlier reviews that they're showing a very 19th century approach to science too. The studies in this one follow the scientific method rather more rigorously than the previous books. Isabella and Tom aren't wandering around in the wilderness hoping to encounter dragons, but rather have a supply (more or less) of dragons that they are trying to study. I found it made quite compelling reading — and don't worry, there are still ill-advised jaunts out into the desert to observe dragons in their natural habitat.

I highly recommend this book to readers who have enjoyed the previous books. If the idea of scientific studies of dragons interests you, definitely give these books a go. While I wouldn't go so far as to say these books stand alone, their are more self-contained than other series often are and probably could be read out of order. That's not to say that I recommend doing so, since the story progresses quite nicely in chronological order, building on earlier events and discoveries. I intend to read the next book immediately, and only paused between books to write this review.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Tor Books
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent book 4 of 5
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased on iBooks

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen — the Vorkosigan Saga Project

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the latest and very last novel in our Vorkosigan Saga Project! This novel follows Cordelia and Oliver Jole — who has previously only been a minor side character — and takes place after Cryoburn, currently serving as the chronological end of the series.


You can read Katharine’s review of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen here, and Tsana’s review here.


Tsana: To me this book is a bittersweet ending to the series. The characters all get happy endings, but it’s not one of my favourites. There’s not enough action or comedy (either would do) for my liking.


Katharine: It certainly is a slightly odd addition as one of the more recent books. But it also such a nice balance to have Cordelia’s story at both the start and the end of the series.


Tsana:  I agree. It’s nice that Cordelia gets a happy ending and I certainly understand why Cordelia likes her new life, etc but it didn’t make for as exciting reading as most of the other Vorkosigan books. I remember the first time I read it I kept waiting for something “exciting” to happen — by the standards of the series — and so many disasters just utterly failed to come to pass.


Katharine: Especially with how much the party was built up, and then described scene by scene… and then while something did happen he was literally able to sit up and watch the fireworks later… but this is jumping ahead by quite a bit… Basically, I agree. But it was still interesting.


Tsana: I’m going to list all the things that didn’t happen as soon as the spoiler shield is up. But before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about Jole. He’s mentioned in passing in some of the other books, but this is the first one in which he’s a main character. Not that there’s anything wrong with introducing a new character in the last book. And his presence does shine a light on events that happened in parallel with a lot of Miles’s stories but which Miles was entirely unaware of.


Katharine: Which means now I want to read back in the previous books to see if there were any hints to his importance in Aral and Cordelia’s life.


Tsana: He was definitely mentioned a few times as being in places and saying a few words to Miles or whatever. But I barely remember him from The Vor Game, even though that’s the most exciting event from his early career that gets brought up a lot on Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Of course, this is partly because we saw events The Vor Game from Miles’s point of view and Jole was hanging out with Aral at the time...


Katharine: Ah yes, I’ve just re-read that bit. Miles ‘sighed in hopeless jealousy every time he ran across him’. I really like Jole - there’s something about people who are ridiculously capable.


Tsana:  Wait, which bit is that from? Why is Miles sighing and jealous of Jole?


Katharine: The bit about Jole in The Vor Game. I looked it up to see if there were any hints, and Miles’ sighing is amusing.


So Oliver Jole is Admiral, Sergyar Fleet and the other person almost in charge on Sergyar along with Cordelia, who is currently Vicereine. Aral passed away three years ago now and their jobs have kept them both incredibly busy.


Tsana: Compared with before Aral’s death, when they weren’t busy at all /sarcasm. But yes, they’ve been busy and sad enough that they haven’t hung out much except for work. Which is a bit of a departure from their lives before Aral’s death.


Katharine: Time for spoiler shield?


Tsana: Before we get into details, yes. But I think it’s relevant to mention that Cordelia, Aral and Jole were in a polyamorous relationship before Aral went and died on them.


<spoiler shield up!>

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Edge of Time by Thalia Kalkipsakis

Edge of Time by Thalia Kalkipsakis is the third and final book in the Lifespan of Starlight trilogy. It brings a long-awaited conclusion to the story that I started reading two years ago, with Lifespan of Starlight and the second book Split Infinity. After the cliffhanger at the end of the second book, two years was a long time to wait for the third book. Now that they're all out, I highly recommend reading them all in a row. Because it's an excellent series.

On the run from the government, Scout's decades-long disappearance is about to catch up with her …

When Scout returns from her longest time-jump yet, she finds that nothing has gone to plan. Her friends have been captured by the authoritarian regime, Mason is nowhere to be found, and something strange is happening each time she skips.

Then, deep in the city, a citizen is discovered whose chip exactly matches the first ever time-skipper. Who is she? How did she learn to time-skip? And could she hold the key to travelling backwards in time?

Uncovering the truth could offer Scout a chance to shape a new future – if she can let go of her past.

It took me a little while to orient myself at the start of this book after the gap in time (lol) since I read the previous book. The opening of Edge of Time is not overly burdened with reminders of the earlier books, but there were enough that I was able to get my bearings. I think I would have been sucked into the story more quickly if I had not had to wait so long before reading it. On the other hand, that's pretty much my biggest criticism of this book.

After Scout jumps into an unfamiliar future, the world is not magically a better place, alas. Instead, the dystopian future she started out in only keeps getting worse. (Poor future-Melbourne.) Also, all the plans laid by her and her friends go awry one way or another, leaving Scout dissatisfied with the world she's living in, when she has time to not be terrified of whatever the latest disaster is.

One aspect I found really interesting about the narrative structure is that there were several possibilities presented for how the book could end, but none which would simultaneously satisfy Scout and make a good ending for the series, right up until the actual ending started happening. Which was delightful. After a bit of uncertainty on my part that the ending would do the series justice, I was really pleased with how Kalkipsakis brought the book to a close.

I really enjoyed this series and I highly recommend it to fans of any combination of YA, dystopias and time travel. (Also, the covers are really pretty.) I recommend starting with the first book, Lifespan of Starlight, however, since this series is very much one continuous story (with cliffhangers) and not at all standalone chunks. It's three acts of the same story that don't work without the proceeding parts. I will be keeping an eye on any (YA) SF that Kalkipsakis writes in the future.

5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2018, Hardie Grant Egmont
Series: Lifespand of Starlight book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Friday, 20 July 2018

#ReadShortStories about feminist robots (126-130)


Not a huge amount of variety in this batch of short stories as I continue reading Mother of Invention, the anthology edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts. On the one hand, that does mean that this post is just presenting a chunk of anthology stories. On the other hand, clearly I'm enjoying Mother of Invention enough that I'm not feeling the need to seek out other stories to break up the theme.

This was a solid batch of stories that I enjoyed fairly consistently. That said, my favourite was the last in this batch, "Sexy Robot Heroes" by Sandra McDonald, which was delightful and thoughtful and a consistently interesting read. A bit surprisingly, this is also the only story in this batch by a new-to-me author. Hmm.


Junkyard Kraken by DK Mok — A roboticist builds an ocean-exploration robot after failing to get funding for it. A fun story, especially thanks to the inclusion of other AI robots, such that it can be forgiving for being a bit unrealistic. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

An Errant Holy Spark by Bogi Takács — A Jewish AI growing up, learning, and trying to talk to aliens. Written in the unique style I’ve come to expect from this author, the inner voice of the AI was very different to conventional (robot/AI) tropes. An interesting story and premise, with baffling aliens. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Goose Hair of One Thousand Miles by Stephanie Lai — A story written in the form of an annotated translation of a wuxia story. The story itself is particularly bizarre, to my eye, because of the way the robots are included and thanks to the aspects the commentary focuses on. Even so, it engages with ideas of colonialism well. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Art of Broken Things by Joanne Anderton — An eerie story based on a really interesting premise/theme. I liked the idea and the way different aspects of the story meshed together, but at the same time it creeped me out a bit (mostly in a good way). Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Sexy Robot Heroes by Sandra McDonald — I really liked this story. It featured a trans girl mechanic, a whole barge of girl mechanics, and androids bound to serve them. It was the right mix of sentimental and sensible. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies by Sam Hawke is a debut novel and the first in a new fantasy series by the Australian author. I picked it up mainly for its Australian-ness: to show support and because I’ve historically enjoyed many big fat fantasy (BFF) books written by Australian women.

Jovan wears two faces. Outwardly, he is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, Jovan is a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery.

His sister, Kalina, hides her frustrations behind a mask of calm. While other women of the city hold positions of power and responsibility, her own path is one of secrets and lies— hidden even from her own brother.

When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and a revolutionary army lays siege to the city, Jovan and Kalina’s structured world unravels. Trapped and desperate, they soon discover their civilized country also has two faces; behind the beauty and sophistication is an ugly past built on oppression and treachery…

City of Lies takes place in a capital city that sits in the middle of the country, surrounded by estates with farms and a few other cities closer to the foreign borders. The city is run by a chancellor and a council and out protagonists are the legal children (actually nephew and niece) of the Chancellor’s most trusted advisor. The story is told through their (first person) points of view in alternating chapters.

Jovan is the closest friend, advisor and protector of the Chancellor’s heir. His main ancestral job is to check the heir’s food for poison. Not because he’s a disposable food taster, but because he’s been trained to detect poison in even small amounts of food and is immune (or at least resistant to) many poisons, and always has antidotes on hand. Coincidentally, he also has something like OCD (it’s not named in the context of the fantasy world), which stops some people from taking him seriously and, to some degree, hampers his political career. It’s also just something he has to work around. From his point of view we see a lot of the inner politics and problems of the city, as he sticks pretty close to Tain, the heir.

Jovan’s sister, Kalina, is the other point of view character. Having been barred from the family profession due to ill health (in this fantasy world where men and women are treated equally), Kalina still finds ways to help her brother and Tain. Most people dismiss her because they see her as physically weak and hence consequential, but she’s smart and has hidden reserves of determination that not even her brother realised were there. Kalina is written as a very convincing example of chronic illness and the way it’s perceived and engaged with by society. She comes from a privileged family, so has the benefit of the best available medical care (in a pre-industrial society) but still has to contend with people underestimating her. Basically, not only is she a well written character but she kicks arse (but not literally) and I really enjoyed reading the story from her point of view. I highly recommend this book for the disability/chronic illness representation alone.

Of course, there’s more to City of Lies than just good characterisation. The story itself is gripping and kept me interested the whole way. It opens with poisoning throwing the young main characters (who I guessed to be in their 20s maybe?) into the spotlight and positions of power and quickly moves on to a siege of the city. As well as the practical wartime concerns of defence and food distribution, the traitor in their midst hangs over their heads, lowering their trust in everyone else.

I have to say, I was impressed with how this book didn’t drop too many hints as to the source of the treachery. I didn’t see the reveal coming, which is unusual for me these days. And the answer to the question of why the city was being attacked was meted out gradually so that we didn’t understand the whole picture until near the very end of the book. I found it an effective way to keep my interest up through this long tome. (All those short stories I’ve been reading just emphasised the length of this novel, lol.)

This was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to fans of fantasy (especially BFF) and to specific fans who are interested in seeing a society with gender equality with some disability/chronic illness representation thrown into the mix. (Note that the society is, of course, not perfect. If nothing else, there has to be a reason for the war at the heart of the plot.) I’m told there’s a sequel coming, and I look forward to reading more about these characters. On the other hand, the story in this first book is self-contained with no cliffhangers at the end. The overarching problems aren’t resolved at the end, but most of the open plot threads are tied up, making me keen, but not desperate, for the next book.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Tor (US) and August 2018, Transworld/Penguin Random House (UKANZ)
Series: Yes. Book 1 of Poison Wars series
Format read: ePub ARC
Source: (US) publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 16 July 2018

Lumberjanes: Bonus Tracks

Lumberjanes: Bonus Tracks is the collected volume of Lumberjanes one-shot special issues. I didn't really know what to expect when I picked this book up. I bought it because it (and Volume 4 of the main story) were what was available in the comic book shop. I'm glad I did grab this book, though, as it exceeded my expectations.

The Lumberjanes short stories collected for the first time in paperback!

Join April, Jo, Mal, Molly and Ripley as they explore their all-girls camp. From ghost ponies to strange plants, these Lumberjanes are ready to take on anything that comes their way as long as they have each other.

Once I overcame the slight weirdness of seeing different artists draw familiar characters in slightly different ways — exacerbated by the fact that I had just read one of the regular volumes — I really enjoyed the short stories presented here. This volume contains five stories written and illustrated by different creators. Each is a self-contained story and they don't require very much prior knowledge of the series except for the general setting. I think there were a couple of very minor references to events in Lumberjanes issues I haven't read, but the plot certainly didn't hinge on them.

It's not a terrible sampler to get an idea of whether you want to read more Lumberjanes, even if the writers are not the regulars. That said, I think readers will get a little bit more enjoyment out of Bonus Tracks if they've read a bit of Lumberjanes before, since these stories do none of the work of establishing setting or character (which makes sense, given the context). I don't want to say much about the content of the stories since they're so short it would feel like spoilers; I think the blurb says enough. However, I will note that my favourite story was the one written by Holly Black, "Faire and Square", but it was a very close race between all of them.

I highly recommend this volume to fans of Lumberjanes. As far as I can tell, it can be inserted anywhere in your Lumberjanes journey and still be enjoyable.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2018 (for the collected volume), Boom! Studios
Series: Lumberjanes, non-series one-shots
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Local comic book shop

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Lumberjanes Vol. 4: Out of Time by Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters

Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time written by Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters, and illustrated by Brooke Allen is, obviously, the fourth volume of collected Lumberjanes comics. Unlike some comic series, this one has rather gotten away from me with it's rapid release dates. This volume apparently came out in 2016 and volume ten is set to come out at the end of this year (according to Goodreads), which wow. Much comic.

Jen just wants a normal lesson with her cabin, teaching Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley the basic survival skills needed without any supernatural intervention. But when a blizzard hits camp, Jen finds herself separated from the girls and in more trouble than ever... until a mysterious taxidermist swoops in to save the day. Who is she and what is her relationship to Rosie? Join Jen as she finds a way back to her girls, and a way to save the day!

As you might have gathered from my intro, it's been a surprisingly long while since I read Lumberjanes Vol 3. That said, I'm glad I did read it because this volume builds a little bit on some of the events of that story. Not in a super crucial way, but I think readers coming into the story at this point might find themselves a little bit confused, especially about cats. And the forest.

In any case, like the volumes that went before it, Out of Time is a fun continuation of the Lumberjanes' story. For the first time we get a nice spotlight on Jen, the camp counsellor as she has her own adventure. We also get a bit of backstory about the history of the camp, which adds to the story. Oh, and a new character joins the team (temporarily?).

I enjoyed this volume and am looking forward to the many more volumes that await me (which I still have to go out and buy, alas). For fans of the Lumberjanes series, why wouldn't you keep reading with this volume? For readers new to the series, I suggest starting at Volume 1: Beware The Kitten Holly. They are quite quick to read, even for comic books, so you can get caught up (to, er, my level of behind-ness) in no time.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Boom! Studios
Series: Lumberjanes volume 4 of ongoing series
Format read: PDF (but I also own the paperback)
Source: Humble Book Bundle: Summer Reading List by BOOM! Studios for the PDF and local comic book shop for the paperback

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Fence issue 1 by CS Pacat and Johanna the Mad

Fence Issue 1 written by CS Pacat and illustrated by Johanna the Mad is the first issue in what looks to be an ongoing comic book series about fencing teenagers. I picked it up as part of a Humble Book Bundle of comics ("Summer Reading List by BOOM! Studios") and I didn't realise that this was only the first issue when I started reading. (I see now that the first collected volume isn't quite out yet, alas.)

Sixteen-year-old Nicholas Cox is an outsider to the competitive fencing world. Filled with raw talent but lacking proper training, he signs up for a competition that puts him head-to-head with fencing prodigy Seiji Katayama...and on the road to the elite all-boys school Kings Row. A chance at a real team and a place to belong awaits him—if he can make the cut!

There's not much too say about a single issue that hasn't already been summarised in the blurb, so this will be a short review. I'm not generally a sport fan, but I have previously enjoyed things like Yuri on Ice, and a few teen gymnastics shows the names of which escape me. I expect Fence will join that list if I keep reading it, which I would like to. The obvious parallel of (to be revealed but with some cues already, including the author's track record) queer characters suggests to me that this will work well for fans of Yuri on Ice.

It's hard to form a conclusive opinion in just one issue, but this one presented an interesting opening to a story I would like to see more of. As I said, the collected volume isn't out yet, but I am interested in picking it up and reading more of this story. I would particularly recommend fans of Yuri on Ice have a look at this one.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Boom! Studios
Series: Fence, issue #1 of ongoing series
Format read: PDF
Source: Humble Book Bundle: Summer Reading List by BOOM! Studios

Monday, 9 July 2018

#ReadShortStories and poems that are more varied (121-125)


This batch represents the end of Uncanny Issue Twenty-One, a short detour and the start of a new anthology: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts. I was a Kickstarter backer of Mother of Invention and I see it's full of authors that I like (starting with Seanan McGuire as you'll see below) so that should be a good read. Stay tuned for more.


Old Habits by Nalo Hopkinson — Ghosts living in a mall and replaying their deaths daily. Not a cheerful read, but I enjoyed it overall. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/old-habits/

Swallow by Hal Y. Zhang — Kind of a weird poem. Clearly I struggle with reviewing the more abstract ones. About fish and reincarnation maybe? Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/swallow/

A View from Inside the Refrigerator by Andrea Tang — I had to read this one twice to take it in properly, the second time after having reminded myself of the title, which explains it well. The poem of a fridged woman, the hero’s motive. A concept I can always get behind the dissection of. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/view-inside-refrigerator/

From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review (A Lady Trent Story) by Marie Brennan — An epistolary story told through letters to the editor. More specifically, we see a dispute play out between Isabella, the protagonist of the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, and another naturalist. I found it very amusing, but I’m not sure that it stands well outside of the context of the series, but it slots in quite nicely after the third book, Voyage if the Basilisk (with only the most minor spoilers for that book). Source: https://www.tor.com/2016/04/05/from-the-editorial-page-of-the-falchester-weekly-review-a-lady-trent-story/

Mother, Mother, Will You Play With Me? by Seanan McGuire — A story about an AI child learning through games and growing up. I enjoyed it, although it wasn’t what I expected (from the title and author I expected something creepier). I liked how many different ideas it explored, and also the ending. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Saturday, 7 July 2018

#ReadShortStories or poems from Uncanny (116 to 120)


Another exclusively Uncanny batch today. Not much left to go in Issue Twenty-One. The next batch will contain the last of it, I expect, along with something new. I have quite enjoyed the poems in this issue of Uncanny, more so than in the previous issue. Possibly because they're more narratively driven? Or more narratively driven in the style that appeals to me? Something like that.

Found Discarded: A Love Poem, Questionably Addressed. by Cassandra Khaw — Pretty much what it says on the label. I liked the allusions and conclusion of this one. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/found-discarded-love-poem-questionably-addressed/

drop some amens by Brandon O’Brien — An amusing poem about prayer-bombs falling on various people. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/drop-some-amens/

The Fairies in the Crawlspace by Beth Cato — Horrifying and wonderful. A poem about fairies and a little girl that grows up. I really liked this one. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-fairies-in-the-crawlspace/

די ירושה by Sonya Taaffe — According to Google Translate, the title means “Quite an inheritance”. A short poem, with an interesting resonance. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/די-ירושה/

The Howling Detective by Brandon O’Brien — A mysterious murder of an evil person and a lagahoo (loosely speaking something like a Trinidadian werewolf) combine in this powerful story. I quite enjoyed it and the way it engaged with a difficult subject. I got momentarily lost in the chronology, but that’s probably because I was tired when I read it. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-howling-detective/

Thursday, 5 July 2018

#ReadShortStories and a poem (111 to 115)


I've been making my way through Uncanny Issue Twenty-One, which is where all of this batch's stories are from. I'm not a fan of how the ePub issues have all the short stories, then the essays, then the poems, rather than mixing them up a bit. So I decided to do some mixing myself and threw in a poem (and some non-fiction, which I'm not reviewing) out of order. 

Unfortunately, since the new issue of Uncanny dropped a couple of days ago, being almost finished with this one isn't bringing me significantly closer to being up to date.

And Yet by A. T. Greenblatt — A haunted house as a portal to parallel universes — a pretty logical idea, really. Interestingly told in second person, which works well for it. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/and-yet/

Like a River Loves the Sky by Emma Törzs — A lovely, if somewhat sad, story about friendship, family and loss. And dogs and taxidermy. A nice read. I liked it.  Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/like-river-loves-sky/

The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth by Sarah Monette — A story about ill-will and small malicious magic. Not a bad read, though not a favourite either. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/testimony-dragons-teeth/

Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad — A bit graphics for my tastes, this is a short story about super soldiers who have drawn the short straw in life. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/pistol-grip/

Editorial comment: I am a little disappointed by how aggressively not my thing "Pistol Grip" is since otherwise Vina Jie-Min Prasad has become one of my favourite short story writers. (I'm still going to keep reading her stories, of course, but my expectations for this one were probably too high.)

The Sea Never Says It Loves You by Fran Wilde — I really liked this poem, despite not usually being much of a fan of Wilde’s writing. It’s a somewhat story-driven about how unsatisfying loving the sea is (as the title says). Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/sea-never-says-loves/



Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Prime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Prime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a near-future novella that has been sitting in my TBR for a surprisingly long time, although the release date is this month. (The reason is that the review copies were sent out close to the crowdfunding campaign for the book.)

Amelia dreams of Mars. The Mars of the movies and the imagination, an endless bastion of opportunities for a colonist with some guts. But she’s trapped in Mexico City, enduring the drudgery of an unkind metropolis, working as a rent-a-friend, selling her blood to old folks with money who hope to rejuvenate themselves with it, enacting a fractured love story. And yet there’s Mars, at the edge of the silver screen, of life. It awaits her.

This book was kind of bleak, albeit not completely devoid of hope. Set in a future Mexico City so near that, aside from the colonies on Mars, it could be tomorrow. Amelia, our main character, has a shitty life living on the poverty line and dreaming of moving to Mars.

The story is mostly about her trying to make ends meet and save up enough to buy a ticket to Mars in a very gig-based economy (at least for the not-wealthy). Her main job is working as a sort of rent-a-friend (via an app) and, among other things, listening to an old lady talk about her life as a movie starlet in pulpy science fiction movies (especially the one set on Mars).

This wasn't a terrible story but I didn't love it. It was a very mundane kind of bleak which wasn't particularly what I expected from the cover art. I also thought there'd be more experiences of Mars in it, but Amelia doesn't see it for herself during the novella. We just hear a lot of different things about how much better or worse it is there which doesn't give much of a feeling of hope. I mean, I think that was what the author was going for, but it wasn't really what I was hoping to read.

I recommend Prime Meridian to fans of near-future and mundane SF who don't mind reading something that isn't too cheerful. I wasn't a huge fan, but I will probably check out some of the author's other work in the future (for example Signal To Noise, a novel I bought on sale some time ago).

4 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018 (backer copies December 2017),  Innsmouth Free Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley