Saturday, 20 October 2018

Competence by Gail Carriger

Competence by Gail Carriger is the third book in the Custard Protocol series. I have previously read and reviewed the first two: Prudence and Imprudence. While the previous two books followed Rue as the point of view character, this new instalment alternates between Tunstell twins Prim and Percy (though we still get to see a lot of Rue, of course).

Accidentally abandoned!

All alone in Singapore, proper Miss Primrose Tunstell must steal helium to save her airship, the Spotted Custard, in a scheme involving a lovesick werecat and a fake fish tail. When she uncovers rumors of a new kind of vampire, Prim and the Custard crew embark on a mission to Peru. There, they encounter airship pirates and strange atmospheric phenomena, and are mistaken for representatives of the Spanish Inquisition. Forced into extreme subterfuge (and some rather ridiculous outfits) Prim must also answer three of life's most challenging questions:

Can the perfect book club give a man back his soul?

Will her brother ever stop wearing his idiotic velvet fez?

And can the amount of lard in Christmas pudding save an entire species?

I have generally been a fan of Carriger's books since I first picked up Soulless eight years ago (I remember because it was at Aussiecon 4) and I have now read all the books, novellas and stories set in this universe so far. Unfortunately, this one has not become a favourite. I didn't hate it, but I felt that it dragged a bit in the middle and could have been funnier and more tightly paced. I was expecting to laugh out loud and I don't think I did for the whole book.

That said, this wasn't a bad book. I still plan to read the sequel and will probably keep reading the Parasolverse novellas. It was also interesting to see more of the world outside of Europe. As the blurb reveals, this novel starts in Singapore and (more or less) ends in Peru. We already saw some of North America in How To Marry A Werewolf and so Competence fills in a few gaps. But ultimately this was a fairly character-driven story with a strong focus on Prim's relationship progression, with the other characters' relationship as side plots. The most adventurous side plot was very much a minor side plot which was a little disappointing because it could have been a bit more exciting. I live in hope that it was also acting as a set up for a future story.

I think another reason this book didn't grab me as much as I hoped was because of Prim's reticence in pursuing a relationship with her obviously end-game love interest. Overcoming fears born of societal expectations could have been interesting but I got a bit too much of a "gay panic" vibe from Prim until she finally came around. It was particularly strange given the sheer number of queer characters in the series generally and in her life specifically. I suppose their society is at the point where gay male relationships are more accepted in certain circles than lesbian ones, but still. And to be clear, it all works out fine but I didn't enjoy the journey.

Overall, I had problems with this book but I it wasn't quite bad enough for me to give up on the author. As it is, I recommend it to fans of the Parasolverse books who have read the earlier books in the Custard Protocol series but I also recommend coming into with low expectations (and hopefully you'll be pleasantly surprised).

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Self-published (outside of North America)
Series: Custard Protocol book 3 of 4
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Before Mars by Emma Newman is the third stand-alone book in the Planetfall series. So far, all three books can be read in any order, but I have been reading them in publication order as they were released: first Planetfall, then After Atlas and now Before Mars. I have greatly enjoyed the entire series, and Before Mars is my new favourite.
After months of travel, Anna Kubrin finally arrives on Mars for her new job as a geologist and de facto artist-in-residence. Already she feels like she is losing the connection with her husband and baby at home on Earth--and she'll be on Mars for over a year. Throwing herself into her work, she tries her best to fit in with the team.

But in her new room on the base, Anna finds a mysterious note written in her own handwriting, warning her not to trust the colony psychologist. A note she can't remember writing. She unpacks her wedding ring, only to find it has been replaced by a fake.

Finding a footprint in a place the colony AI claims has never been visited by humans, Anna begins to suspect that her assignment isn't as simple as she was led to believe. Is she caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy, or is she actually losing her mind? Regardless of what horrors she might discover, or what they might do to her sanity, Anna has find the truth before her own mind destroys her.

This was a gripping story about geologist-painter Anna and her arrival on Mars. It's set roughly simultaneously to the other two books (I would have to reread the first one to double check) except mostly on Mars. The title, I think, comes from the large number of flashbacks and memories which inform Anna's character and her place in the story. I very much enjoyed the way the book alluded to a dark past before revealing the focal incident from her past surprisingly far into the book. It was brilliant.

I think the book also has slightly different impact depending on which, if any, of the other books have been read before. And how many details from the earlier books a particular reader remembers (not many, in my case, until I had been well and truely reminded). Unfortunately I can't elaborate on that further because spoilers. Suffice it to say it would be very interesting to be able to rewind time and experience them in a different order... but I suppose I will have to settle for rereading the series when it's finished.

Before Mars is an excellent read exploring a corporation-run dystopian future in which not much exploration of Mars is happening because it's not profitable. It also explores a range of mental health issues, in large part centred on the ubiquitous computer brain implants. The approach taken is also different to the other books.

Before Mars is my favourite of the Planetfall books so far, and since I hold the others in high esteem, that's really saying something. I see there's another book in the series coming next year (don't read the blurb if you haven't read the other books!) and I am very much looking forward to reading it. I highly recommend the series to fans of science fiction and/or the earlier books.

5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, Gollancz
Series: Planetfall, book 3 of 3 so far (more planned) but so far they're all standalone
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells is the fourth and semi-concluding Murderbot Diaries novella. I say semi-concluding because it ties up the story in the Murderbot Diaries so far, but we have been promised a novel in the future, so this is not the last we'll be seeing of Murderbot. I have previously reviewed all three earlier novellas: All Systems Red, Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol.

Murderbot wasn’t programmed to care. So, its decision to help the only human who ever showed it respect must be a system glitch, right?

Having traveled the width of the galaxy to unearth details of its own murderous transgressions, as well as those of the GrayCris Corporation, Murderbot is heading home to help Dr. Mensah—its former owner (protector? friend?)—submit evidence that could prevent GrayCris from destroying more colonists in its never-ending quest for profit.

But who’s going to believe a SecUnit gone rogue?

And what will become of it when it’s caught?

Another Murderbot diary, another night staying up too late reading it.

What struck me most about this concluding novella was how much it tied the earlier three novellas together. My feeling with those first three was that they were self-contained stories within the same overarching framework. They made more sense to read together, but were very episodic. In contrast, Exit Strategy binds all those stories together and concludes the overarching story started in the first book. I don't recommend reading it without having read the earlier books. I also look forward to rereading the whole series in a row, which I am currently planning to do in the lead-up to the upcoming Murderbot novel (tentatively slated for early 2020, so no rush).

Exit Strategy continues with the sarcastic tone we've come to know and love from Murderbot, and gives us the opportunity to see how far Murderbot has come since the first book and the freshly-hacked governor module. The reprise of several characters that we haven't seen since book 1 emphasised this contrast. This was a satisfying and slightly violent read and satisfactorily concluded an arc of character growth, while leaving the stage open for a follow up.

In conclusion, Exit Strategy is another excellent Murderbot read. If you've read the earlier books in the series, what are you waiting for? If you haven't, I suggest starting with All Systems Red and reading all four novellas in a row. If you're a fan of science fiction and sarcasm, you won't regret it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2018, Tor.com
Series: Murderbot Diaries book 4 of 4 (of the novella series)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased (pre-ordered) from Apple Books

Friday, 5 October 2018

80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie is the most recent (unthemed) collection of his short stories. It's mostly reprints from various venues (including some from the authors previous two collections, which felt a bit odd, but perhaps isn't given that I think they're currently out of print) and story lengths range from flash fiction up to short novella.

Amorous space squids. Sentient fridges. A derelict alien spacecraft adrift within an interstellar cloud. Speed-dating zombies. The truth behind the extinction of the dinosaurs. A potentially lethal interasteroidal freight consignment. And a planet on which biological diversification has utterly failed to take hold in eight billion years.

My favourite stories in this collection were generally the longer, meatier ones. I quite liked "All the Colours of the Tomato", which is about semi-intelligent alien fauna and painting and radiation. But my favourite story was probably "The Thirty-First Element" which was a weird hard SF story that quite appealed to me. Short reviews of these and all the other stories are below, as usual. I have generally omitted reviews for flash stories (also as per usual), since these are difficult to properly review.

I did not reread all the stories in this collection that I had previously read. I have indicated the titles of stories I did read in bold below, but have also included the mini-reviews I wrote of the other stories the first time I read them. These aren't bolded and are instead italicised.

Overall, I recommend this collection to science fiction readers who are looking for a mix of series and silly stories. Fans of Petrie's work will find much to enjoy here, even if they've read the previous collections of his work (as I had). Some of the flash stories are groan-worthy shaggy dog stories, but if you can make it past that, there's much to enjoy here.

~

Product Warning — A very amusing introduction/warning about an explosive anti-piracy measure.

Introduction by Über-Professor Arrrrarrrgghl Schlurmpftxpftpfl — mildly amusing, but a bit wordy.

Jack Makes a Sale — Flash, which I may have read before...

All the Colours of the Tomato — An interesting premise and a long story to explore it. I had to read it over a few sittings but then, once some questions were answered in interesting ways, it felt like it ended a little abruptly. Still an interesting read, though.

Working Girl — Flash

The Fridge Whisperer — Hilarious. Writer attempts to write (what seems to be The Hitchhiker's a Guide to the Galaxy) while his fridge gains sentience and wreaks havoc. Awesome.

Running Lizard — A haunting story about a series of gruesome murders, a forensic psychologist who is also a were-creature, and her brother.

You Said ‘Two of Each’, Right? — Biblically amusing flash

The Speed of Heavy — An amusing space cargo caper involving an exchange student, some crickets and some bats. I lol'd.

Talking with Taniwha — A lovely and thoughtful hard SF story about learning to communicate with very alien aliens. I love the depth of world building and consideration that went into this one.

Half The Man - amusing flash

Tremble, Quivering Mortals, At My Resplendent Tentacularity — Another amusing flash, shaggy-dog stories though they are

The Assault Goes Ever On — Weird flash.

Dark Rendezvous — A space explorer comes across a derelict ship drifting in a favourable direction for rendezvous. Where did it come from? Ominous. I particularly liked the attention to dust particle detail in the nebulous setting of the story.

Podcast — Inadvertently stranded in an escape pod, trailing the main shop through hyperspace. Limited supplies and a broken hyperspace switch with only the pod's AI for company. A very enjoyable story. One of my favourites so far [in Difficult Second Album].

Must’ve Been While You Were Kissing Me — Zombie speed-dating noir shaggy dog story.

The Day of the Carrot — An amusing tale of giant vegetables. I liked the choices of authors for the interspersed pseudo quotes.

Latency — A really solid hard SF story. A research team on another planet studying it's only life form. Solid science, interesting concepts played with.

At the Dark Matter Zoo — an amusing poem.

Suckers for Love — Alien mating romance. An ultimately disconcerting story. Squidlike.

The Thirty-First Element — An excellent story that put me in mind of classic hard SF. Not because it was, shall we say, scientifically plausible, but because it took an idea and ran with it to an extreme conclusion. In space. It was interesting and contained some mystery (although the ending did not come as a surprise) and some light horror elements.

Against the Flow — A short nonsensical story with an eye-rolling shaggy-dog ending.

Reverse-Phase Astronomy as a Predictive Tool for Observational Astronomy — A very amusing story written in the format of a scientific article.

DragonBlog — The story of a dragon-slayer told in blog style. Amusing.

Niche — Flash. Lots of moths.

November 31st is World Peace Day — One of the longest stories in this collection, this one follows a woman who gets kidnapped by time travellers after a failed job interview. The kid appears haphazardly plan to hold the world to ransom using their time machine, but they didn’t count on our protagonist being smarter than them. An entertaining read written in a lighthearted style.

Mole of Stars — short flash. Probably better if you know what a mole is (it’s a chemical term meaning 6.02 x 1023 particles), but even so, a poignant end.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2018, self-published
Series: Not really
Format read: ePub eARC
Source: Author-provided review copy

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

#ReadShortStories about all sorts of things(166 to 170)


The most significant milestone in this batch of stories is the finishing of (new-to-me) stories in 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie. This means the full review of that collection is coming soon, and that I'm now going to read a few random stories about the place before the next collection I plan to read (by Jane Yolen, if you were wondering).


The Thirty-First Element by Simon Petrie — An excellent story that put me in mind of classic hard SF. Not because it was, shall we say, scientifically plausible, but because it took an idea and ran with it to an extreme conclusion. In space. It was interesting and contained some mystery (although the ending did not come as a surprise) and some light horror elements. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Against the Flow by Simon Petrie — A short nonsensical story with an eye-rolling shaggy-dog ending. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Reverse-Phase Astronomy as a Predictive Tool for Observational Astronomy by Simon Petrie — A very amusing story written in the format of a scientific article. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

November 31st is World Peace Day by Simon Petrie — One of the longest stories in this collection, this one follows a woman who gets kidnapped by time travellers after a failed job interview. The kid appears haphazardly plan to hold the world to ransom using their time machine, but they didn’t count on our protagonist being smarter than them. An entertaining read written in a lighthearted style. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Elephants and Corpses by Kameron Hurley — An interesting premise of a body-hopping mercenary and not a bad story, objectively. I didn’t love it though, since the setting was not my cup of tea. Dark and not really the kind of dark I enjoy reading. But I expect others will find it more appealing than I did. Source: http://www.tor.com/2015/05/13/elephants-and-corpses-kameron-hurley/

Monday, 1 October 2018

Girl Running, Boy Falling by Kate Gordon

Girl Running, Boy Falling by Kate Gordon is a contemporary YA novel set in small-town Tasmania. It seems that most of the non-spec fic YA books I read are on the depressing side of things, and this is no exception! It's a quick read, but one that's both thoughtful and a bit heavy. I found it difficult to put down and inhaled it in less than a day.

Do you ever look at the sky and think that’s where we belong? Like maybe the world is the wrong way around and we’re meant to be up there, floating?

Sixteen-year-old Therese lives in a small town on a small island. Her Aunt Kath calls her Tiger. Her friends call her Resey. The boy she loves calls her Champ. She’s a lot of different things for a lot of different people.

Therese has always had her feet on the ground. She’s running through high school, but someone in her life is about to fall …

And when he does, her perfect world falls with him. For the first time in her life, Therese can’t stand being on the ground.

Girl Running, Boy Falling is a raw read about a girl and boy— who are beautifully flawed.

Girl Running, Boy Falling is written from the point of view of Tiger, who starts off the book going through usual teenage stuff, perhaps slightly amplified by her family situation and lower-than-average self-esteem. She doesn't feel like she has her life together, despite presenting as a bit of a workaholic to others, and I found her and her friends to be a mixture of relatable and frustrating.

Gordon does a good job of setting up the background for Tiger and Wally before shattering Tiger's world. While I suspected what was coming, it didn't happen quite when I expected and that increased the impact for me. And increased my sympathy for Tiger and her friends. After that I found myself connecting to Tiger more strongly and found her reactions very believable. As I have already said, I had difficulty putting the book down, all the way through.

It's very tempting to make a comparison of this book with Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, so I will, briefly. Girl Running, Boy Falling could be the new generation's Looking for Alibrandi, dealing with some similar issue but also updated with issues more relevant to teens of the twenty-teens than the nineteen-nineties when Alibrandi was published. But aside from sharing a theme or two, Girl Running, Boy Falling is it's own book that tells its own story and deals with difficult issues in its own way. It's also about teenagers at an Australian public school, which I've recently come to learn is not all that common in Australian YA, so that may be an additional point of attraction for some readers.

Overall, Girl Running, Boy Falling is excellent and I highly recommend it to fans of contemporary YA and anyone interested in the Australian setting. It's well written and gripping and I will definitely be reading more of Gordon's books at some point in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2018, Rhiza Edge
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Review copy from author
Disclaimer: Note that the author is a friend. Nevertheless, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review

Saturday, 29 September 2018

#ReadShortStories in unplanned bursts (161 to 165)


A small detour from the Simon Petrie collection I've been reading to a couple of stories published together in Glittership, and both featuring nonbinary characters. I especially enjoyed the JY Yang, though it wasn't exactly cheerful. Then it was back to the Petrie collection, which I have almost finished.


Curiosity Fruit Machine by S. Qiouyi Lu — An amusing very short story about two people in the future finding a certain present-day artefact. (Also of note is that both characters used different non-standard pronouns.) Source: http://www.glittership.com/2017/02/16/episode-33-fiction-by-s-qiouyi-lu-and-jy-yang/

The Slow Ones by JY Yang — A powerful story about the end of the world and finding comfort where you can. I found the background science a bit shaky, but it was also speculation on the part of the characters. Otherwise an excellent read. Source: http://www.glittership.com/2017/02/16/episode-33-fiction-by-s-qiouyi-lu-and-jy-yang/

Half the Man by Simon Petrie — Amusing flash Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Tremble, Quivering Mortals, At My Resplendent Tentacularity by Simon Petrie — Another amusing flash, shaggy-dog stories though it is. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

At the Dark Matter Zoo by Simon Petrie — An amusing poem Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang

The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang is another novella set in the Tensorate universe. Chronologically it comes after Black Tides of Heaven and Red Threads of Fortune, both of which I have previously reviewed, but it is sufficiently self-contained that they novellas can be read in any order.

You are reading this because I am dead.

Something terrible happened at the Rewar Teng Institute of Experimental Methods. When the Tensorate’s investigators arrived, they found a sea of blood and bones as far as the eye could see. One of the institute’s experiments got loose, and its rage left no survivors. The investigators returned to the capital with few clues and two prisoners: the terrorist leader Sanao Akeha and a companion known only as Rider.

Investigator Chuwan faces a puzzle. What really happened at the institute? What drew the Machinists there? What are her superiors trying to cover up? And why does she feel as if her strange dreams are forcing her down a narrowing path she cannot escape?

This novella was written in something approaching an epistemological form, with most of the text being diary entries or appended investigative reports and interviews. It was surprisingly effective at conveying the story, despite the impersonal nature of some of the material. As we learn more about the situation, we also get to know some of the characters and become increasingly invested in them as the story progresses (perhaps even more so if you've read The Red Threads of Fortune and remember some of the recurring characters).

Overall, I am becoming increasingly invested in the Tensorate universe, the more I read of it. While the first three novellas have all stood alone, The Descent of Monsters featured some events and developments that I would very much like to read more about. I hope the next novella builds on some of what we’ve already seen. Basically, even th the ugh it is self-contained, I really want to find out what happens next.

I highly recommend The Descent of Monsters to anyone who has enjoyed other works by JY Yang, including the other Tensorate novellas. It also makes a good entry point into the series, so don’t be put off reading it if you haven’t read any of its companions. It’s set in a very interesting fantasy world that I have found compelling to be immersed in.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July, Tor.com
Series: Tensorate book 3 of 3 (but all can be read in any order)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Friday, 21 September 2018

#ReadShortStories from an upcoming collection (156 to 160)


My short story reading slowed down a bit recently and has now picked up because I've started reading a new collection. The corollary to that is the only short stories I've read since the last set of mini reviews were from that collection. Hence, you, dear readers, are getting a preview of the first five stories of 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie. Some of them were flash, though, which means they don't get a proper review (because how one practically review something less than two pages long?).

Perhaps there'll be a bit more variety next time. I am part way through an issue of Uncanny (and even part way through a story I wasn't especially enjoying)... We'll see.


Product Warning by Simon Petrie — A very amusing introduction/warning about an explosive anti-piracy measure. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Introduction by Über-Professor Arrrrarrrgghl Schlurmpftxpftpfl by Simon Petrie — Mildly amusing, but a bit wordy. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Jack Makes a Sale by Simon Petrie — Flash, which I may have read before... Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

All the Colours of the Tomato by Simon Petrie — An interesting premise and a long story to explore it. I had to read it over a few sittings but then, once some questions were answered in interesting ways, it felt like it ended a little abruptly. Still an interesting read, though. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Working Girl by Simon Petrie — Flash Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie


Sunday, 16 September 2018

A Curse of Ash and Embers by Jo Spurrier

A Curse of Ash and Embers by Jo Spurrier is a novel in a new fantasy series by the author of the grimdark Children of the Black Sun trilogy (which started with Winter Be My Shield). That said, A Curse of Ash and Embers is being marketed as YA so at least you know it won't be quite as full of torture as the earlier series. Whether or not you consider the book to be YA is a matter of personal opinion; to me it's just a fantasy book, but I also wouldn't hesitate to give it to an interested teen.

A dead witch. A bitter curse. A battle of magic.

Some people knit socks by the fire at night. Gyssha Blackbone made monsters.

But the old witch is dead now, and somehow it's Elodie's job to clean up the mess.

When she was hired at Black Oak Cottage, Elodie had no idea she'd find herself working for a witch; and her acid-tongued new mistress, Aleida, was not expecting a housemaid to turn up on her doorstep.

Gyssha's final curse left Aleida practically dead on her feet, and now, with huge monsters roaming the woods, a demonic tree lurking in the orchard and an angry warlock demanding repayment of a debt, Aleida needs Elodie's help, whether she likes it or not.

And no matter what the old witch throws at her, to Elodie it's still better than going back home.

I really enjoyed A Curse of Ash and Embers and I can't wait to read the next book in the series. Elodie was a very believable and grounded character, who generally leaned towards doing the sensible thing. The world she lives in is a fairly standard pre-industrial European-ish fantasy world, but at the same time magic is an uncommon phenomenon and Elodie didn't really believe in it until she left home. I enjoyed watching Elodie finding her place in her new world. It was a satisfying mix of "well, someone has to cook and clean" and her trying to reconcile her own experiences of her new mistress with the stories told by the villagers she meets.

I haven't generally been very much in the mood for fantasy books recently, but once I started reading this one (which I thought was a novella for some reason — it is not) I was instantly hooked on the story. Spurrier's writing style continues to be gripping even in this narratively more straight-forward book (first person, single narrator) and I certainly would not hesitate to pick up any other books of hers.

The story put me slightly in mind of Pratchett's Witches books, but more because Elodie seemed like she would fit in as an apprentice witch in that world than any more obvious similarities in satire or style. That said, I also really liked one particular worldbuilding aspect in A Curse of Ash and Embers: that the witches wants are basically clubs studded with crystals. Unlike a traditional style (eg Harry Potter) wand, they were as well suited to bashing people as wielding magic...

As I said, A Curse of Ash and Embers was a great read and I highly recommend it to pretty much all fantasy fans. The next book is out in 2019 and I'm hoping that means it will be a relatively short wait (fingers crossed for less than a year) before we find out what happens next. I should note that A Curse of Ash and Embers does not end on a cliffhanger or anything — the story arc is fairly self-contained — but I still want to read more. Hopefully soon.

5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2018, HarperVoyager
Series: Yes. Tales of the Blackbone Witches book 1 of 3 (I think)
Format read: ePub ARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Black God's Drums by P Djèlí Clark

The Black God's Drums by P Djèlí Clark is a novella set in a steampunk alternate history New Orleans in 1884. The alternate history aspect involves a quicker end to the American Civil War after Britain and France sent reinforcements by airship, starkly altering the sociological landscape of the world.

Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper keeps another secret close to heart--Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, who speaks inside her head and grants her divine powers. And Oya has her own priorities concerning Creeper and Ann-Marie…

The most interesting thing about this novella was the setting and the worldbuilding. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into it and I would be interested in seeing the setting explored further. Since this is a novella and hence relatively short, I felt like it only scratched the surface of some aspects and that there are more stories that could be told in this setting.

I liked Creeper, the thirteen year old street girl who was quite capable of looking after herself and who also lived with the presence of a god. The other main character was also fun to read about, though we didn't see quite as much of her and mostly saw her from the perspective of Creeper. The story is written as first person narration by Creeper, which strongly overlays her interpretation of the world over the story. The dialogue is written in the accent or dialect matching the character speaking, which sometimes took me an extra second to parse, but did a lot to distinguish different characters and, to some degree, their origins.

My main disappointment with this story was that, even though it's a novella it felt very short. More like a long short story than a novella. It's not that nothing happened, but the plot was fairly limited and contained and when I neared the end it felt like it was over too quickly. I think I would have preferred a slightly meatier story that was a bit less linear. Not that the plot was bad, I have just gotten used to longer novellas, I suppose.

Overall, I recommend The Black God's Drums to readers who are intrigued by the premise of a steam punk New Orleans. It's a short read and an enjoyable one, especially if you go in with accurate expectations.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2018, Tor.com
Series: Not as far as I know
Format read: ePub
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts is an anthology exploring robots and artificial intelligences created by women and non-binary people, rather than the male inventors many older stories have focussed on. It contains stories covering a wide variety of ideas and settings within this theme and is a must-read if you are interested in exploring diverse robot/AI stories.

An ambitious anthology from award-winning Australian publishing house Twelfth Planet Press, Mother of Invention will feature diverse, challenging stories about gender as it relates to the creation of artificial intelligence and robotics.

From Pygmalion and Galatea to Frankenstein, Ex Machina and Person of Interest, the fictional landscape so often frames cisgender men as the creators of artificial life, leading to the same kinds of stories being told over and over. We want to bring some genuine revolution to the way that artificial intelligence stories are told, and how they intersect with gender identity, parenthood, sexuality, war, and the future of our species. How can we interrogate the gendered assumptions around the making of robots compared with the making of babies? Can computers learn to speak in a code beyond the (gender) binary?

If necessity is the mother of invention, what exciting AI might come to exist in the hands of a more diverse range of innovators?

This was a very interesting read and I was pleased with the breadth of stories and ideas presented in Mother of Invention. I have found some themed anthologies need to be broken up because of too much similarity in their stories, but that was not the case here. I admit I didn't quite read it straight through, but that was for other, mostly external reasons, not because I found it repetitive.

Overall, this was an excellent read. While not every story necessarily worked for me, I certainly enjoyed the majority of them. My three favourite stories were "Sexy Robot Heroes" by Sandra McDonald, "Quantifying Trust" by John Chu and "S’elfie" by Justina Robson. All three took very different approaches to the theme and, really, the only similarity between them is that they contain artificial intelligences. You can read more of my thoughts on these stories and all the others below, where I have included my mini reviews of the stories that I wrote as I read them.

I would highly recommend Mother of Invention to readers interested in exploring different ideas of robots and artificial intelligences, including as a vehicle for exploration of other themes such as gender, religion and creation. This is not I, Robot, filled with logic-puzzle stories, but rather is filled with stories of humanity and inhumanity, and a spectrum on both sides of that divide.

~

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Art of Broken Things by Joanne Anderton — An eerie story based on the really interesting premise/theme of kintsugi. 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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms by Octavia Cade — A pretty weird story. On the one hand, we have a couple of women running a brothel staffed with magic automaton boys made out of sugar and cake (who often come back with parts missing in the morning). On the other hand, there is a clockwork witch made of brass I love with baby crabs lured by sugar. A compelling read, but also a strange one.

Kill Screen by EC Myers — A teenage girl makes an AI program of her recently deceased best friend. It was a bit morbid, mostly because it dealt with the question of why the friend had killed herself, but also for other reasons (spoilers). I mostly enjoyed it, but it also made me feel uncomfortable (intentionally, I assume), especially near the end.

Living Proof by Nisi Shawl — A story about an AI reproducing. The setting was quite different — a prison — and to some degree aspects of the story put me in mind of Bitch Planet. Not the overall thrust of the narrative, however, which is more about purpose from the AI perspective. Not my favourite story, but I didn’t hate it.

S’elfie by Justina Robson — A very interesting story about a world in which everyone has an AI personal assistant and what happens when they move far beyond what we currently have with Siri etc. Told from the point of view of one of these AIs, while her human is working on something in secret, I really enjoyed the incomplete knowledge of the narration.

Knitting Day by Jen White — A lovely story about knitted robots, poor working conditions and the subversion of capitalism. I enjoyed it, despite its grim setting and whimsical approach to assembly.
The Revivalist Kaaron Warren A creepy story (of course, look at the author) about a process that imbues discarded robots with the last words of the dead. Mostly murder victims. I liked it. And note it wasn’t heavy on the horror, more creepy/eerie.

Arguing with People on the Internet by EH Mann — An interesting story about an AI set loose arguing with people on the internet to unexpected consequences. Also features an asexual protagonist and engages with the concept of motherhood from a different angle. I quite liked it.

Rini’s God by Soumya Sundar Mukherjee — This story took an unusual approach. Not only was the protagonist AI interested in theological ideas but she has a hidden purpose. Which, in the context of the story was odd since it’s hard to program someone to do something when they have free will, so I found the creator’s motivation confusing from that point of view. Also, running an orphanage of AI humanoids was either sneaky or very strange, I haven’t decided which.

Tidefall by Meryl Stenhouse — Ow, my astronomy hurts. This was absolutely not a story to read at at astronomy conference, in between talks about merging stars oh em gee. So that coloured my reading of it considerably. Questionable astronomy aside, the plot and ideas didn’t really do it for me either. What seemed like it would be a really interesting idea ended up feeling a bit bland.

The Ghost Helmet by Lev Mirov — The AIs in this story are basically ghosts of soldiers whose memories became imprinted on their helmets. Our protagonist is a coder who accidentally caused the situation and now always wears her brother’s helmet so he can talk to and help her. I would have liked the story to spend some more time on the ethics of creating the helmet ghosts (is it really a good form of immortality?) but otherwise it wasn’t a bad read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Kickstarter backers got it in July, general release September 2018
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: Kickstarter backer
Disclaimer: Although the editors, Rivqa and Tansy, are friends, I have endeavoured to write an impartial review

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas is the author's debut novel. I grabbed it because the blurb and cover grabbed me but I went in with a bit of trepidation, not knowing what to expect. As it turned out, I needed have worried. This was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to just about everyone.

1967: Four young female scientists invent a time travel machine in their remote lab in Cumbria. They become known as the pioneers: the women who led the world to a future where no knowledge is unattainable.

2016: Ruby Rebello knows that her beloved grandmother was one of the pioneers, but she refuses to talk about her past. Ruby's curiosity soon turns to fear however, when a newspaper clipping from four months in the future arrives in the post. The clipping reports the brutal murder of an unnamed elderly lady.

Could the woman be her Granny Bee?

This book is set in a world where time travel was invented in 1967 and is now, in the early twenty-first century, a normal part of life. It's a more common and established part of society than, say, space travel is, with a large British organisation overseeing the system and policing time travellers across the timeline. The story follows the inventors of time travel and some of the younger generation that come into contact with it one way or another.

A central plot element is a locked-room murder, which is discovered by one of the characters and for which both victim and perpetrator and initially mysterious. Mental illness and psychology are also central to the plot. The book examines the psychological effects of time travel and what underlying conditions they may exacerbate, as well as sensitively dealing with a traumatised character. There's also the psychology of time traveller culture, which is very interesting and disturbing and also central to the plot.

As might be expected from a book about time travel, The Psychology of Time Travel is told out of chronological order, with relatively short chapters that are only a scene or two long. While the purpose of each chapter wasn't necessarily obvious while reading it, they quickly slotted together to form a larger picture. The book is also well-written enough so as to be interesting even when I wasn't sure how a particular scene was linked to the whole. This intricate mosaic of story is what impressed me most about this book and made for an unexpectedly excellent read.

One last thing I want to mention is what the author has done with the gender distribution of characters. Basically, she's written a gender swapped reality so that all the key characters — all four time travel pioneers and all the other point of view characters — are female. I can only think of one male character that wasn't there as someone's father or husband, including most of the background characters (though there were a couple of male secretaries). I didn't realise this immediately, but it was a fun change of pace to play "spot the male character" rather than the reverse.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Psychology of Time Travel and found it to be an excellent read. I recommend it to anyone who doesn't hate time travel or women and enjoys some psychological exploration in their reads. It's particularly impressive for a debut novel and I am very interested to see what Mascarenhas brings us in the future.

5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2018, Head of Zeus
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 2 September 2018

#ReadShortStories about AIs and magic oh my (151 to 155)

This batch of short stories finishes off Mother of Invention — stay tuned for my full review of that anthology coming soon — and adds a few miscellaneous stories into the mix. I think I will mainly focus on finishing Uncanny Issue 22 next, but I'm not yet sure which direction I'll go in after that. There's more Uncanny waiting for me, including the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Issue, which I am keen to read. But I also have a lot of anthologies and collections waiting to be read, so we'll see.


Rini’s God by Soumya Sundar Mukherjee — This story took an unusual approach. Not only was the protagonist AI interested in theological ideas but she has a hidden purpose. Which, in the context of the story was odd since it’s hard to program someone to do something when they have free will, so I found the creator’s motivation confusing from that point of view. Also, running an orphanage of AI humanoids was either sneaky or very strange, I haven’t decided which. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Alchemy of Fine by Tansy Rayner Roberts — The narrative structure of this story is a bit unusual: it is told in reverse chronological order. As a result, it took me a few short chapters to get into, but I was very much enjoying it by the end. The author suggests that it would work read in reverse (so proper chronological order), and if I ever reread it I think I will do just that to see how it feels. Requires having read Fake Geek Girl at least, otherwise I don’t think it stands alone too well (since it’s basically an exploration of the characters’ back stories). Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon

Tidefall by Meryl Stenhouse — Ow, my astronomy hurts. This was absolutely not a story to read at at astronomy conference, in between talks about merging stars oh em gee. So that coloured my reading of it considerably. Questionable astronomy aside, the plot and ideas didn’t really do it for me either. What seemed like it would be a really interesting idea ended up feeling a bit bland.  Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Ghost Helmet by Lev Mirov — The AIs in this story are basically ghosts of soldiers whose memories became imprinted on their helmets. Our protagonist is a coder who accidentally caused the situation and now always wears her brother’s helmet so he can talk to and help her. I would have liked the story to spend some more time on the ethics of creating the helmet ghosts (is it really a good form of immortality?) but otherwise it wasn’t a bad read. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

What Gentle Women Dare by Kelly Robson — In a very detailed setting — Liverpool 1763 — this story follows a poor prostitute as she does her job, tries to look after her child, and incidentally encounters a corpse wearing an unusual garment. This story is mostly about how crappy life is for women in her time but the speculative element makes for a very interesting ending. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/what-gentle-women-dare/

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

How to Marry a Werewolf by Gail Carriger

How to Marry a Werewolf by Gail Carriger is a stand-alone novella set in her much loved parasol historical urban fantasy world. It’s set some time during the Custard Protocol series, but can be read independently of all the other stories, providing only minor spoilers due to being set in the future relative to Parasol Protectorate series.

Guilty of an indiscretion? Time to marry a werewolf.

WEREWOLVES

The monsters left Faith ruined in the eyes of society, so now they’re her only option. Rejected by her family, Faith crosses the Atlantic, looking for a marriage of convenience and revenge.

But things are done differently in London. Werewolves are civilized. At least they pretend to be.

AMERICANS

Backward heathens with no culture, Major Channing has never had time for any of them. But there’s something special about Faith. Channing finds himself fighting to prove himself and defend his species. But this werewolf has good reason not to trust human women.

Even if they learn to love, can either of them forgive?

I picked up this novella to read, after buying it a few months ago when it first came out, because I was in the mood for something relaxing and fun after finishing my previous book and not being in the mood to start the one I’d planned to read next. This was an excellent choice. As I have come to expect from this author, How To Marry a Werewolf was a delightful read that mixed humour and more serious moments.

The two main characters are Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings — the gamma of the London werewolf pack — and Faith, an American cast out by her family and sent to London. While Channing has appeared in many other books, we never learnt much of his back story at all, and that’s something which comes out in this book. Faith, as a completely new character, brings in some American culture (they are less accepting of immortals across the pond and her parents very much for that mould) as well as her own baggage. The suspense between the characters’ backgrounds and their slightly unconventional courtship (and the frequent appearances of Biffy and Lyall) made for a very entertaining read.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Gail Carriger’s other books. For readers unfamiliar with the series, this is a good book to get a taste of her style without any vital spoilers for any other books.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2018, self-published
Series: Yes, same world as her other books, but stands alone
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo (I think)

Sunday, 26 August 2018

#ReadShortStories to milestone quantities (146 to 150)

Wow, I've hit 150 stories in my attempt to read more short fiction and I think it's safe to say that I'll probably reach 200 by the end of the year. I've even not been neglecting novels etc as much as I did closer to the start of the year. Huzzah!

This batch is exclusively Mother of Invention stories, because I was on a bit of a roll and because it was easy to just keep reading the next story on my phone while I was commuting or waiting for things over the past week. I'm almost done with that anthology though, so there will probably be fewer AI stories once it's done.


Living Proof by Nisi Shawl — A story about an AI reproducing. The setting was quite different — a prison — and to some degree aspects of the story put me in mind of Bitch Planet. Not the overall thrust of the narrative, however, which is more about purpose from the AI perspective. Not my favourite story, but I didn’t hate it. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

S’elfie by Justina Robson — A very interesting story about a world in which everyone has an AI personal assistant and what happens when they move far beyond what we currently have with Siri etc. Told from the point of view of one of these AIs, while her human is working on something in secret, I really enjoyed the incomplete knowledge of the narration.  Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Knitting Day by Jen White — A lovely story about knitted robots, poor working conditions and the subversion of capitalism. I enjoyed it, despite its grim setting and whimsical approach to assembly. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Revivalist by Kaaron Warren — A creepy story (of course, look at the author) about a process that imbues discarded robots with the last words of the dead. Mostly murder victims. I liked it. And note it wasn’t heavy on the horror, more creepy/eerie. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Arguing with People on the Internet by E H Mann — An interesting story about an AI set loose arguing with people on the internet to unexpected consequences. Also features an asexual protagonist and engages with the concept of motherhood from a different angle. I quite liked it. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Monday, 20 August 2018

The Girl With the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

The Girl With the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis is a sequel to The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart, but the books are both quite self contained and could be read out of order, if one didn’t mind a few spoilers for the first book being contained in the second. As with the prequel, this is a book for younger readers (or middle grade) with the main character being only around 13 years old. However, it’s written in a sufficiently captivating way that I expect many older readers will also enjoy it, as I did.

Once upon a time, in a beautiful city famous for chocolate and protected by dragons, there was a girl so fearless that she dared to try to tell the greatest story of all: the truth.

Silke has always been good at spinning the truth and storytelling. So good that just years after arriving as a penniless orphan, she has found her way up to working for the most splendid chocolate makers in the city (oh, and becoming best friends with a dragon). Now her gift for weaving words has caught the eye of the royal family, who want to use her as a spy when the mysterious and dangerous fairy royal family announce they will visit the city. But Silke has her own dark, secret reasons for not trusting fairies ...

Can Silke find out the truth about the fairies while keeping her own secrets hidden?

This book follows Silke, who we met in the first book as the friend of Aventurine, the dragon who had been turned into a girl. In the first book we mainly saw her venture into the world of advertising to promote the chocolate shop with hand bills and slightly tall tails. In this book she gets her own story, which does involve the handbills but also a lot of family history and a new adventure/problem. We also see more of the crown princess who runs Drachenburg and get to know her younger sister.

The Girl With a Dragon Heart was a very enjoyable read and I highly recommend to people who enjoyed the first book or readers that enjoy cosy fantasy stories. This one had maybe a little bit more darkness than the first book (and also a bit less chocolate) but was still overall a very fun read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2018, Bloomsbury
Series: Yes. Book 2 of 2 of the Tales From the Chocolate Heart
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, 17 August 2018

#ReadShortStories of various provenances (141 to 145)


A varied batch this time, breaking up my anthology reading again. Mostly based on whim. And I'm afraid I'm too tired for much of a preamble today, so here are some story mini-reviews!


Loss of Signal by S.B. Divya — A near future space programmed powered by human minds who have been extracted from their non-functional bodies. This story raised a lot of ethical points, not all of them explicitly, and made me feel a little uneasy. The premise is interesting but I’m ultimately not sure how I feel about the story (though I definitely liked it more than I disliked it). Source: https://www.tor.com/2018/08/01/loss-of-signal-sb-divya/

Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms by Octavia Cade — A pretty weird story. On the one hand, we have a couple of women running a brothel staffed with magic automaton boys made out of sugar and cake (who often come back with parts missing in the morning). On the other hand, there is a clockwork witch made of brass I love with baby crabs lured by sugar. A compelling read, but also a strange one. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Flower of Arizona  by Seanan McGuire — A story set in the 1920s about a cryptozoologist and a circus performer. And a spate of murders. I enjoyed it and, since it seems to be the set up for more stories about these two characters, I looking forward to reading more about them. (I picked this story to try because the blurb on the author’s website had the greatest promise of Aeslin mice, and I was not disappointed.) Source: Hugo voter packet

Frozen Voice by An Owomoyela — Children living in a post-alien invasion world. Aliens who force their language on humans and technically prevent starvation etc by having killed most of the population. Also, they’re afraid of books. The writing style was quite visceral and I enjoyed being drawn into the story. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/owomoyela_07_11/

Kill Screen by EC Myers — A teenage girl makes an AI program of her recently deceased best friend. It was a bit morbid, mostly because it dealt with the question of why the friend had killed herself, but also for other reasons (spoilers). I mostly enjoyed it, but it also made me feel uncomfortable (intentionally, I assume), especially near the end. Source: Mother of Invention edited by Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts

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