Saturday, 28 April 2018

#ReadShortStories... about underwater ballrooms and bloody revolutions (76 to 80)

This batch mostly, but not solely, contains stories from The Underwater Ballroom Society, an anthology edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent that I’ve been reading (as you may have noticed if you regularly follow my blog posts). I kind of expected that I’d break them up a bit more, but things worked out this way when the stories were hard to put down.

Penhallow Amid Passing Things by Iona Datt Sharma — This story took a little bit to get into its stride, but I enjoyed it once it did. Smuggling, a brief lesbian romance, and fading magic are the elements that make up this story. The world was well constructed, for all that we only saw a small part of it. I find myself wondering whether there are other stories set there. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Mermaids, Singing by Tiffany Trent — I really enjoyed this novella. It’s set in Victorian London and follows a weredog from another world and a half-Chinese British girl from this one. The depth of world building is excellent and the story balances the weird fantasy elements with the more mundane well. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

After a Revolution by Dimas Ilaw — An angry story about resistance in the real world and the horror of various revolutions in the Phillipines. The second I’ve read from this author in a similar vein and I continue to be unsure how I should feel about the story as a story (aside from outraged at the content). Source:

A Brand New Thing by Jenny Moss — A story set in the late 1920s about a neuroatypical girl, her disapproving family, books and something magical. I really enjoyed it and was delighted by the book references and metaphors. I was also pleased with the happy ending. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Four Revelations from the Rusalka Ball by Cassandra Khaw — Not a novella; actually a fairly short story. Much shorter than I expected. But on the other hand, about the level of surreal that I’ve come to expect from Cassandra Khaw. The title pretty much says it all. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Thursday, 26 April 2018

#ReadShortStories (71 to 75)

This batch is characterised by a bit of random reading and a hankering for some flash after reading some longer things. I am continuing to read my review copy of The Underwater Ballroom Society, so I expect those longer stories (it's a novella anthology) will continue to inspire me to read shorter stories in between.

Notable in this batch, "A Series of Steaks" has become one of my favourite stories that I've read this year (it was published last year though) and I particularly enjoyed "Astrofuturist 419" as well.

A Series Of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad  — An excellent story about 3D printing forgeries of beef. It was a delightful read that made me giggle and also marvel at the level of details included. If the author wasn’t already on my list of short story writers I like, this story would have put her there. Source:

Twelve Sisters by Y S Lee — I like subverted fairytales and sequels to fairytales, as this one is. After the events in The Twelve Dancing Princesses (which I haven’t read and that made no difference to my enjoyment of this story), the youngest princess endeavours to save her oldest sister from an abusive relationship and also, as their father lies on his deathbed, to save the country from a malicious king. A great read. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Murdering Miss Deboo by Sean Williams — An story featuring the d-mat (replicator/teleport) technology that has featured in some of Williams’ other stories and novels. An interesting premise for a very short story, but I felt like it could have been a slightly smoother read. I’ve enjoyed some of his other stories more. Source:

Shovelware  by Bogi Takács — Flash. Lucid dreaming games as a quick way of generating art assets is a cool idea. The depressing Hungarian art aspect could have done with a slightly meatier exploration. Source:

Astrofuturist 419 by Nnedi Okorafor  — A “Nigerian scam” that wasn’t a scam: a Nigerian astronaut really was left stranded in space for 14 years and now his family is trying to get him home. Flash. I liked it a lot. Source:

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is a standalone novella set in the Xuya universe. I have previously read On a Red Station Drifting and some miscellaneous short stories set in this Dai Viet future (and one set in the alternate history present of the same world). You do not have to have read anything else to enjoy The Tea Master and the Detective, however.

Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appareance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.

A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow's Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow's Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow's Child with her.

As they dig deep into the victim's past, The Shadow's Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau's own murky past--and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars...

This was an excellent read. I've enjoyed all the Xuya universe stories I've read and this one was no exception. The story most closely follows The Shadow's Child, a shipmind whose entire crew died in a war which also left the ship damaged and stranded until rescue eventually came. In this story we see the crew-less (and almost family-less) shipmind interacting with humans that aren't riding inside her and with other shipminds. It was an interesting and different take on how these sorts of sentient non-humans would fit into society. Turns out the answer is partly by acting human — they project avatars into human spaces — and the shipmind equivalents of human activities such as eating are really cool.

The characters in The Tea Master and the Detective are modelled after gender-flipped Sherlock and Watson, with Long Chau, the former tutor, taking on the role of Sherlock and The Shadow's Child, a traumatised battle-scarred shipmind, playing the role of Watson. You don't have to be an avid Sherlock fan to enjoy it — I myself am relatively neutral on Sherlock and retellings. I haven't read any of the books, I've been enjoying Elementary, I liked House MD, I've seen a few movies and I've suffered through Moffat's BBC series. I, somewhat inevitably, found myself comparing the character interactions with Elementary, but I think that's partly because that's the rendition that brought the drug-addict aspect of Sherlock to my attention, which was also prominent in The Tea Master and the Detective. Or it could have been something to do with de Bodard mentioning in the afterword that Elementary is her favourite version of Sherlock.

Whether or not you've read other Xuya books, I highly recommend The Tea Master and the Detective. You also don't have to have any strong feelings about the Sherlock cannon, although I gather strong pro-Sherlock feelings may enhance your enjoyment of what is already a very strong novella. If you haven't read any of de Bodard's science fiction before, this is an excellent place to start. If you have, this is an excellent book to continue with. I am definitely going to keep reading Xuya stories.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, JABerwocky Literary Agency (Rest of World) / Subterranean Press (US/Canada)
Series: Xuya universe, but standalone
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Hugo Ballot Discussion: Short Stories

Hugo Award logo; a stylised rocket ship
I've been making good progress on my Hugo reading, especially given that the voter packet is not out yet. Of course, having been focussing on reading more short stories over the past sixish months has helped a lot there. Nevertheless, I had only read two of the shortlisted short stories before the ballot came out.

Since linking to a bunch of short story reviews is kind of annoying, I'm just going to reproduce them for you below, to augment the short story ballot. You can, by the way, see the full Hugo Ballot at the official website, if you feel so inclined. Venue links go to the page where you can read each story online. The discussion follows the shortlist and mini-reviews.

Best Short Story

“Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

A lovely story about mechanical toy people who live out their lives based on the number of “turns” they get. A metaphor for energy and disability/chronic illness that, I suppose, makes more sense than spoon theory — and in fact for that very reason I’d actually heard of this story before I got to reading it. The main character has more turns than average and the story follows her life from childhood through adulthood, partnering up, and having a child. And focuses on how many turns the people around her have or don’t have.

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)

Not a terrible story but not to my taste. (I say this in light of it’s Hugo nomination.) It had an interesting vibe and the second person narration worked well but I didn’t think the end came with sufficient pay-off (for a Hugo nomination...).

“Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

An adorable story about the world’s only sentient robot who was created in the 1950s and now lives in a museum. One day, someone recommends and anime to him and things spiral out from there. Such an adorable and fun read.

“The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (, July 19, 2017)

A story about hubris and hope in a post apocalyptic world. I found the main premise, of instructing AIs to build an obelisk on Mars, a bit odd, for all that it made sense in the context. The story didn’t completely grab me, however, which is unfortunate because I think the ending would have had more impact if I’d connected more with the protagonist.

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

A cute story about a man who inherits a magic sword from his warrior grandmother, inhabited by spirits that can train him to fight. But all he wants to do is farm potatoes. I enjoyed the subversion of the magic sword trope, the goat and the tentative queer love story.

“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

An eerie story that starts out as one type of science fiction, exploring (Native American) race through a commercialised lens... then turns into a different sort of horrific story. I enjoyed it and didn’t see the second half coming from the vantage point of the first half. Certainly an interesting read and I can see why it made the Hugo shortlist.

Brief Discussion 

It's an interesting mix of stories, half of which directly engage with disability or racism, which is great to see coming out of the Sad Puppy years. They're all strong stories, even if they're not all for me.

For me the clear winner is the story I've loved the longest: "Fandom For Robots" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad. I have a soft spot for adorable AIs. After that, the stories rank themselves rather easily, from my point of view. “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim was very good and just pips "Sun, Moon, Dust" by Ursula Vernon by being a little meatier. "Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™" by Rebecca Roanhorse is also a strong contender while "The Martian Obelisk" by Linda Nagata and "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" by Fran Wilde didn't really work for me.

Friday, 20 April 2018

#ReadShortStories (65 to 70)

It's been slower short story reading of late, for me, since I've gotten myself hooked on a few novels. This batch, among other things, finishes off my Hugo short story reading. I will do a separate post soon focussing on just that shortlist and talking about how I would vote. I also started reading the novella anthology The Underwater Ballroom Society and it's first fairytale rock opera rock star and fairyland story.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde — Not a terrible story but not to my taste. (I say this in light of it’s Hugo nomination.) It had an interesting vibe and the second person narration worked well but I didn’t think the end came with sufficient pay-off (for a Hugo nomination...). Source:

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse — An eerie story that starts out as one type of science fiction, exploring (Native American) race through a commercialised lens... then turns into a different sort of horrific story. I enjoyed it and didn’t see the second half coming from the vantage point of the first half. Certainly an interesting read and I can see why it made the Hugo shortlist. Source:

The Queen of Life by Ysabeau S Wilce — A novella about rockstars and fairyland, death and fame. I found the opening a little too slow, as it took a while to set the scene and establish sufficient backstory so that what felt like the “real” story could start. When that came, it was an interesting journey into fairyland filled with deception, glamour and a corgi steed (sort of). I enjoyed the second half of it more than the first. Source: The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon — A cute story about a man who inherits a magic sword from his warrior grandmother, inhabited by spirits that can train him to fight. But all he wants to do is farm potatoes. I enjoyed the subversion of the magic sword trope, the goat and the tentative queer love story. Source:

Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim — A lovely story about mechanical toy people who live out their lives based on the number of “turns” they get. A metaphor for energy and disability/chronic illness that, I suppose, makes more sense than spoon theory — and in fact for that very reason I’d actually heard of this story before I got to reading it. The main character has more turns than average and the story follows her life from childhood through adulthood, partnering up, and having a child. And focuses on how many turns the people around her have or don’t have. Source:

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Poppy War by R F Kuang

The Poppy War by R F Kuang is the author's debut novel and, I have just learned, the first in a trilogy. It's a fantasy book set in an Asian-inspired part of its world (compared with the multitude of fantasy books set in European-inspired parts of their worlds), and follows a teenage girl as she goes from being a poor rural shop girl to playing a prominent role in the titular war.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

This book is many things, and long enough to fit them all in. It starts out with Rin, our main character, working hard to escape a crappy life of being married off to some old guy by her foster parents. Once her hard work pays off, the book takes on the feel of a boarding school story while she trains at the prestigious military academy and butts heads with other students — and, of course, stands out for being the poor girl from a southern province. The school part of the book was probably my favourite. It sets up a lot of relationships for Rin, builds up the world and some of its history, and introduces the shamanic aspects that become so central to Rin’s story. This section and what preceded it made me love this book. 

Rin’s time at school culminates in the outbreak of war. For all that it happens around the halfway mark, I don’t think talking a bit about it is a spoiler, given the book’s title. The war heralds another change of fortune for Rin and the story shifts from boarding school yarn to a) being about a ragtag band of misfits and b) a brutal war. (And who doesn’t live ragtag bands of misfits?) The brutality of the war sort of snuck up on me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have since the signs were there. I don’t want to get spoiler-specific, but I do want to give a massive trigger/content warning for pretty much all the wartime atrocities you can think of, many of which are described in horrifying detail. I was not fully prepared, and it took me some time to process enough to keep reading and to write this review when I was done.

The thing is, because this book ends in war — especially war that isn’t fully resolved because there’s a sequel to come — it’s easy to focus on that aspect and overlook the earlier and more general aspects of the book. For example the world building was excellent. It’s clear that the main setting is based on China and the nation they are at war with is based on Japan. However, there isn’t an obvious/specific real-world analogue for everything, the geography is quite different to that of China (looking at the map, there is, for example a west coast) and of course magic plays a significant role in the story. It felt a lot less artificially “and here is what not-Japan did next” than other books I have read (The Tiger’s Daughter immediately springs to mind). Instead, for a lot of the book, it felt like the Asian version of non-specific European fantasy books, which I really appreciated. That said, I do have to note that some events towards the end of the book clearly were inspired by real-world events, which kind of undermines my point, but whatever.

The important things to take away from this review are that this is a really good book and that it contains a brutal account of war. It grapples with class divides (until these suddenly matter much less), drug use (which is also entwined with the magic system), and vengeance. Rin's conversations and internal monologue are interspersed with dry/dark humour, which I enjoyed and which made me snort out loud several times. I highly recommend this book to all fans of fantasy, especially those that enjoy the elements I mentioned above (poor girl does great things, military boarding school, asian setting, horrifying war, etc). Although it's the first in a trilogy (according to the author — it's really not made clear elsewhere), it does wrap up a lot of the story at the end. There are a few loose ends and a strong sense of "well, here's what we need to do next" but it doesn't feel unfinished. No need to fear cliff hangers or put off reading until the rest of the series is out. Personally, I'm glad of the gap so I can finish processing before moving on to the next in the series, which I will definitely be reading.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2018, Harper Voyager
Series: Apparently the first book of a trilogy, no series name as yet
Format read: eARC
Source: HarperVoyager UK on NetGalley

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng is the author's debut novel and a somewhat strange read on a few fronts. It's a gothic Victorian novel about missionaries sent to fairyland. Content warning for the book: non-coercive incest (but it's not mentioned again in this review because spoilers).

Catherine Helstone's brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon - but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

I have to admit when this book first came to my attention I wasn't sure that I would enjoy it. I'm not a huge fan of non-humorous Victorian books and I've recently been drawn more to science fiction, so I did not immediately jump on the book. Instead I picked it up when it was on sale. As it turned out, I mostly enjoyed Under the Pendulum Sun, but "weird" is certainly a primary descriptor for it.

The story follows Catherine, who convinces the mission organisation that sent her brother as a missionary to Arcadia, the land of the fae, to send her after him when he hasn't been heard from for a while. We follow Catherine as she makes the journey to Arcadia (which requires getting lost along the way — and, to my amusement, is a land discovered by Captain James Cook, who also died there — and the weirdness she finds there. I particularly liked the titular pendulum sun: the sun in Arcadia is not the ordinary Earthly sun but rather a lantern on a pendulum that swings back and forth across the land. Distance isn't measured in the time taken to complete a journey, but rather the number of revelations or childhood memories one experiences along the way. And of course, the fae are not terribly nice people, but this last assertion is hardly unique.

Seeing a dark fairyland through the lens of devout christianity, and especially from the angle of trying to convert people, was really interesting. I'm not particularly into religion, but this was an aspect that really worked for me. Overall, I mostly enjoyed this book, but I found the various quotes at the starts of chapters slowed down the pacing of the story a little bit too much for me. The quotes themselves were often interesting in how they twisted real-world ideas or developed the world, but a lot of the time I also felt like the bogged down the main story too much. I was tempted to skip them, but they did add to the book overall (and there were a few particularly important ones near the end). I found myself enjoying the main prose sections a lot more although I did wonder at times where the story was going. The answer to that became a bit less mysterious once I realised that this was actually a character-driven book rather than a plot-driven one as I had originally assumed. The story is not in the sequence of events, per se, but in the characters internal journeys over a period of time (and the external journeys are very much a manifestation of the internal).

I would highly recommend Under the Pendulum Sun to fans of fantasy who enjoy having religious ideas entwined in their fiction. As the book itself proclaims a lot (notably in the dedication), it deals with apocrypha and as well as the fraught task of trying to convert fae to Christianity. I also recommend it to fans of gothic fantasy. I still have complicated feelings about this book but I am at least interested to see what else the author comes up with. (I'm not sure how eagerly I'd jump at a sequel, though.)

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Angry Robot
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Diplomatic Immunity — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Diplomatic Immunity is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. We’ve returned to Miles and Ekaterin, joining them almost a year after their marriage (as we saw in “Winterfair Gifts”). They’re now expecting the birth (well, hatching) of their two children… however, of course, work has sprung up and Miles diverted to Quaddiespace.

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

Tsana: Well I remembered basically none of that from my first read through. I’m not sure why, but all that stuck in my head was that Miles and Ekaterin visit the Quaddies. Partway through I started worrying that I also remembered the death of a character, but, well I won’t say above the spoiler shield whether that was correct or not. Suffice to say a lot of the story came as a surprise to me.

Katharine: That must be good! I loved this one, especially comparing to Falling Free. It was interesting to see how they have expanded their part of the world and all the facilities they have now - like their own forensic investigators and such. And the story itself was rather exciting.

Tsana: I really liked the name references to some of the significant characters in Falling Free. Like how the Quaddies decided that they would only have first names, but the more popular names get numbers appended to them. So Leo Number and Silver Number and other founding quaddie characters are really popular. Also the bits of station named after Falling Free characters like Graf station and the Minchenko ballet.

Katharine: I agree - that was really quite lovely to see. And… oh, I should leave that for after the spoiler warning. Uhm. Well, so to the plot recap - so there was some trouble on the Quaddie station docks involving a security officer from the convoy's Barrayaran military escort. Miles and Ekaterin were the closest to Quaddiespace at the time, so Miles was asked to go see what the trouble was all about, and it turns out the military have assaulted one of their own for sleeping with a local and he’s now seeking asylum, and another Barrayan has been killed (or at least there was a lot of blood), and the body nowhere to be found.

Tsana: All this while in the background Miles and Ekaterin are keen to get back to Barrayar for the decanting of their babies. Miles figures that if he can get the scandal with the Quaddies sorted in two weeks they won’t be late for the decanting. But when do things go smoothly where Miles is involved? He uncovers far-reaching conspiracies wherever he goes.

Katharine: Decanting - I like that. Sounds classy! And yes, because it’s not as simple as a bit of rough-housing and a maybe-murder, no. There’s explosives and biochemical threats and all sorts. And that’s even before they discover… well. Spoiler shield time?

Tsana: Spoilers ahoy!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold is the latest of my re-reads of the Vorkosigan Saga. Chronologically this novel comes after the novella Winterfair Gifts and is one of the last few in the series (so far). Although this was a re-read for me, it turned out that I remembered very little of it from my first read through other than the fact that it features Miles and Ekaterin in Quaddie space. Now that I've actually reread it the new ebook edition cover (pictured here) makes much more sense.

A rich Komarran merchant fleet has been impounded at Graf Station, in distant Quaddiespace, after a bloody incident on the station docks involving a security officer from the convoy's Barrayaran military escort. Lord Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar and his wife, Lady Ekaterin, have other things on their minds, such as getting home in time to attend the long-awaited births of their first children. But when duty calls in the voice of Barrayar's Emperor Gregor, Miles, Gregor's youngest Imperial Auditor (a special high-level troubleshooter) has no choice but to answer.

Waiting on Graf Station are diplomatic snarls, tangled loyalties, old friends, new enemies, racial tensions, lies and deceptions, mysterious disappearances, and a lethal secret with wider consequences than even Miles anticipates: a race with time for life against death in horrifying new forms.

The downside of being a troubleshooter comes when trouble starts shooting back . . .

For all that I didn't specifically remember, this is another typical Miles adventure. He's sent in to fix a delicate and slightly odd diplomatic incident and ends up embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy that would have started a war if he hadn't gotten to it when he did. Classic Miles. We also got to have some closure on a Dendarii character from earlier in the series who hadn't already had a little epilogue.

This was another action-packed read filled with a mystery to solve and lots of conspiratorial threads that eventually all come together into a coherent whole. I suppose I wouldn't call it one of my favourite Vorkosigan books, but it's right up there and I'm not sure why the details of the story escaped my memory to so great an extent. Perhaps it's because by the time I got to reading it I had read a lot of Vorkosigan books in a row and my brain was overloaded? In any case, I definitely enjoyed rereading it and Diplomatic Immunity sits firmly in the category of elaborate Miles problem-solving adventures.

It's not impossible to read this book without having read others — a lot of the plot specifics are explained as the story goes along — but I wouldn't recommend it. It builds on a lot of ideas that were introduced in earlier books, from Miles's past, to the quaddies (in Falling Free) and geo spatiopolitical relations between Barrayar and Cetaganda. There's a lot of history behind this book, even if the specific adventure/problem is very self-contained. I still highly recommend the Vorkosigan series as a whole, just not this book as a starting point.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1999, Baen
Series: Vorkosigan saga, chronologically after Winterfair Gifts and before Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Hugo Ballot Discussion: Novellas

Since the Hugo ballot was announced over the weekend, I'm going to run a few blog posts discussing the works in the fiction categories. This is the first post in that series, in which I will talk a bit about the shortlisted novellas (and link to my earlier more detailed reviews of them). Why am I starting with novellas? Because I happen to have read the entire shortlist already.

In the meantime, if you haven't yet, you can check out the full Hugo ballot at Below I have reproduced the novella shortlist with links to my reviews of each novella. Each got a full standalone review except for "And Then There Were (N-One)" by Sarah Pinsker, in large part because I read that one in Uncanny and didn't realise it was a novella at the time.

Best Novella

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
“And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017)
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang ( Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)

This is a really strong category and, for me, ranking these novellas comes down more to personal preference than any sort of objective writing quality. Some of these just resonated more with me than others. All of them tell interesting stories from interesting and relatively uncommon points of view, and there's quite a bit of diversity on display. The struggle to rank them is real.

That said, my favourite, long after reading them all, is All Systems Red. But I wouldn't put any of the others out of the running (not even River of Teeth, which made me sad with its hippo violence). This is a category that could swing in any direction.

(What exciting times we live in that there aren't any Puppy nominees to discount. Hopefully, we're passed all that now.)

Have you read these novellas? Which was your favourite?

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Wide Brown Land by Simon Petrie

Wide Brown Land by Simon Petrie is a collection of stories set on Titan. I've previously read and reviewed Matters Relating to the Identification of the Body, which is a novella set in (and on) the same world, and a few short stories, such as those appearing in Difficult Second Album, "CREVjack" and "Fixing a Hole" (which also appear in Wide Brown Land). Most of the stories in Wide Brown Land are reprints from various venues, but four —‘Erebor’, ‘Goldilock’, ‘Phlashback’, and ‘Placenta’ — are published for the first time in this collection.

Light levels are low. It’s killingly cold. These conditions are, it transpires, connected.

The icy landscape around you—hillocks, boulders, ravines, foregrounding a hazy, rumpled horizon beneath an opaque, lowering sky—wears a patina that shades from sepia to umber, puddled with drifts of dark sand. The atmosphere, though thick, would permit only a parody of respiration: there is no succour in it. Were it not for the insulating, carefully-regulated containment of your suit, you would be dead within minutes, frozen solid within an hour.

Welcome to Titan.

Wide Brown Land is a collection of hard science fiction short stories set in the settlements and badlands of Saturn's haze-shrouded moon, Titan, where the landscape is as formidable a foe as the most determined adversary.

The stories in this collection, while having a very consistent setting, have a variety of different themes and premises. There are stories of survival, peer pressure and criminal activity. Some of the characters are trying to get by, or to make the best of a bad situation, or to solve their problems before time runs out. My favourites — which shouldn't surprise anyone — were those stories where the characters had to solve some sort of technical problem, possibly with life-or-death stakes. The final story in the collection "Placenta" was a most memorable example of one of these.

As well as more sciencey stories (for lack of a better word), there were also several tense and action-based stories. Some of these involved "pharmhands", mostly as antagonists. After several stories with pharmhands as a more nebulous threat, I was very interested to learn more about who they actually were in "Phlashback". Another very tense, but not strictly action-packed, story was "Hatchway". It was a memorable story about the very real dangers of teenage peer pressure when living in a hostile environment.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read with a good variety of stories in a meticulously realised setting. They're hard science fiction but most of the stories are character-driven to varying degrees. As usual, comments on each individual story are included below. I highly recommend this collection to fans of science fiction, especially those intrigued by human life on Titan, the most-hydrocarbon-soaked of Saturn's moons.


“Storm in a T-Suit” was an interesting story. A storm on Titan, a rescue mission, a tragic backstory and a crazy theory, all made for a thoughtful and engaging read.

“Hatchway” is a story about peer pressure as well as the pressure of Titan’s atmosphere, with chilling elements for both the protagonist and the reader.

“Broadwing” is about a crash landing and a long wait for rescue. It felt like a scene-setting piece to give us a good feel for Titan and a bit of background on flight and the landscape.

“Emptying Roesler” is about an inspector, a man in an abandoned building (yes, on Titan) and illegal activities. I feel like we’re only getting hints of what the “pharmhands” are really up to (in this story and in “Hatchway”) and I want to know more. Also, this story ended abruptly, albeit in a logical place. I would not have minded finding out what happened next to the characters.

“CREVjack”previously read. I came back to reread it after I started “Goldilock”, however, since that story felt like a sequel and I couldn’t remember the specifics of this earlier one. The ending remains emotionally difficult to read.

“Lakeside” revisits the protagonist of “Broadwing”, an adult now and dealing with different life issues. After spotting something strange from his plane, he has a bit of a run in with some criminals.

“Erebor” seems to be about it the protagonist of Matters Arising... a look at her earlier life and a mildly unlucky climbing expedition.

“Goldilock” is a direct sequel to “CREVjack”, picking up moments after that story left off. It continues in a similarly tense and action-packed vein with another very dramatic ending.

“Fixing a Hole”  — previously read.

“Phlashback” is a third story in the “CREVjack” and “Goldilock” sequence, this time picking up shortly after the previous story left off and shifting point of view characters (again). Finally we get to learn more about pharmhands and their place in the scheme of things on Titan. Another tense story.

“Placenta” is about a pregnant woman who suddenly finds herself in a life- and baby-threatening situation and must do a bit of sciencey problem-solving to survive. It also gives us a snapshot of an abandoned part of Titan, which strongly reminded me of an Abandoned Photography blog I’ve followed.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, Peggy Bright Books
Series: Sort of? Contains linked short stories. Other stories and novellas are set in the same world (eg Matters Relating to the Identification of the Body)
Format read: very early ARC
Source: the author