Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Saga Volume Seven by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga Volume Seven written by Brian K Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples is the seventh volume in the ongoing comic series. As with the previous volumes, it tells the next chapter in the story, collecting issues #37–42.

From the worldwide bestselling team of FIONA STAPLES and BRIAN K. VAUGHAN, “The War for Phang” is an epic, self-contained SAGA event! Finally reunited with her ever-expanding family, Hazel travels to a war-torn comet that Wreath and Landfall have been battling over for ages. New friendships are forged and others are lost forever in this action-packed volume about families, combat, and the refugee experience.

I didn't actually read the blurb above before reading this volume, and, having read it, would not have called it an "event" in the traditional comic book sense. Marvel events completely disrupt series, which was not at all the case here. "The War for Phang" was more just a more coherent story arc in a series that often has a few different threads on the go at once. So if you have comic events, best to just not think of this book as an event book.

It is nice, actually, to have a more contained story arc in Saga. There was less trying to remember what those side characters had been doing (though still a bit of that) and more coherent narration by future Hazel across the whole volume. Of course it dealt with a lot of the same issues that earlier parts of the Saga narrative have delved into: racism/interracial relations, war, death. Tying it all together with most of the story set on Phang increased the impact of some of the emotional points. Speaking of emotional points, the ending was also powerful (no spoilers).

I definitely recommend this volume to anyone who has enjoyed the previous volumes of Saga. It's not an especially good place to pick up the story since it really is a long ongoing saga. I'm looking forward to reading the next volume, which will hopefully be soon since it's already out and in my possession.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Image Comics
Series: Saga ongoing series Volume 7 of at least 9
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Some local comic book shop

Monday, 25 June 2018

Want by Cindy Pon

Want by Cindy Pon is a near-future science fiction YA book set in Taiwan that stands alone but is also the opening of a series. It's the first book by the author that I've read, though not for lack of trying; most of her other books are unavailable in Australia and Europe and it felt like I had to wait a while for Want to make it to Australia. Hopefully the planned sequel will arrive more promptly.

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits that protect them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother, who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is or destroying his own heart?

This novel is set in a near-future Taipei in a world where pollution has gotten bad enough that the rich walk around in environment suits and the poor die young. Zhou and his friends want to change the status quo and hatch an ambitious plot to do so. It involves infiltrating the world of the rich in the hope of helping the poor of Taipei. (The title comes from the idea of the divide between the "haves" and the "wants".)

I really enjoyed this book. Although I ended up reading it over a longer period of time than I usually do with YA books (for external reasons), I was consistently engaged with the story and the characters. It's told in first person from Zhou's point of view, meaning we see the most into his world, his past and his feelings. He sits somewhere in the middle among his friend group in terms of privilege and current circumstances, and we see the lives of the poor from several angles as well as the lives of the rich.

I found the story fun to read even when it was dealing with heavy concepts (aside from a few more poignant moments). I particularly found some events near the end delightful (but I won't spoil them here) and I felt that the book ended on a really strong note. Although the world's problems aren't completely resolved by the end of Want the main plot lines of the book draw neatly to a close. While I want to read the sequel because I enjoyed Want, I would also have been satisfied if no sequels had been planned.

I recommend this book to fans of YA, dystopias and near-future SF. In particular, readers looking for diverse settings in YA books will find much to like here. It's nice reading a book that's both not set in the US and acknowledges the existence of the rest of the world. I enjoyed Want and hope to read more by Pon in the future, whether it's the sequel or one of her other books (may they lose their geo-restrictions).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Simon Pulse
Series: Yes, book 1 of 2 planned so far
Format read: ebook
Source: Borrowed from the library (via Libby for Overdrive)

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Ms Marvel Vol 7: Damage Per Second by G Willow Wilson

Ms Marvel Vol 7: Damage Per Second written by G Willow Wilson is the latest collected volume of the Kamala Khan run of Ms Marvel. It follows on from Vol 6 which was (tolerably) set during the Civil War II event and which I have also reviewed. It collects issues #13–18 of the most recent numbering system run (the back of the trade says starting in 2015 but I think the issue numbering has restarted at least once since then).

Civil War II is behind her, and a brand new chapter for Kamala Khan is about to begin! But it's lonely out there for a super hero when her loved ones no longer have her back. It's time for Kamala to find out exactly who she is when she is on her own. Plus: it's election time! Kamala gets out the vote!

There are three story arcs collected in this volume. The first single-issue arc is about Ms Marvel encouraging New Jersey people to vote in the Mayoral election. I didn't mind this one, but politics centring getting people to vote is always strange from this Australian used to compulsory voting. I also put the comic down for a while after this issue and when I came back to read the rest and write this review I found it hadn't been very memorable.

The middle four-issue arc is overwhelmingly the dominant one in this collection and is the origin of the volume title. This story involves Ms Marvel gaming online in her down time and then having to deal with a computer-based villain. The story deals with the idea of there not being any privacy or secrets in the modern digital age, but there wasn't enough space to delve into this very deeply and the story is limited to issues surrounding doxing, more or less. It was interesting and memorable but I don't think it's one of my favourite Ms Marvel arcs. (I also side-eyed the computer stuff in it, but it fits in with the magic of the Marvel universe, I suppose.)

The final single-issue arc shows us Bruno's story who doesn't appear earlier in this volume after events in the previous volume. Bruno is going to school in Wakanda and we see him struggling to fit in as "the American" but also making friends and — most interestingly — dealing with his acquired disabilities. I really liked this arc and while I don't know how sustainable future Bruno stories will be if he continues being on the other side of the world from Ms Marvel, I hope we see more of him in the future.

I enjoyed this volume and I definitely recommend it to fans of Ms Marvel. I think it's probably also an OK place to pick up the story, but not the best starting point. As always I advocate starting at the start of the Kamala Khan Ms Marvel run for maximum Ms Marvel goodness.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Marvel Comics
Series: Ms Marvel vol 7, containing issues #13–18
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Local comic book shop

Thursday, 21 June 2018

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan is the second book in the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, sequel to A Natural History of Dragons, which I read very recently. In fact, I enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons so much I started reading The Tropic of Serpents as as soon as I finished the first book. In case you're wondering, I also enjoyed The Tropic of Serpents enough to grab the third book, Voyage of the Basilisk, as soon as I had finished.

Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

I was slightly surprised that The Tropic of Serpents started a couple of years after A Natural History of Dragons left off, but it makes sense given the structure of the narrative. It's more that A Natural History of Dragons ended on a life-changing note that I expected to be picked up straight-away in The Tropic of Serpents. But of course, these books are about Isabella's travels and studies of dragons, so it makes sense that it picks up the story just before her next trip. We get the important points from the intervening time filled in and get maximal dragon-centric story.

I say maximal dragons but I did find this one a little slow at times, especially near the start. It got very interesting in the middle and the end — and a lot of the political discussion near the start was essential for the end to make sense — but I found myself quite able to put the book down during the opening sections. On the other hand, I should stress I was never bored with it and generally didn't put it down for long (it was more that I had other books and stories to read too).

My favourite this about this instalment is the detail with which Brennan shows us a new civilisation as Isabella herself learns about it. The tropical swamp setting was not what I would have guessed going into the book (although maybe it would have been if I'd looked at the map more closely). Of course this is also an opportunity to tell us even more about dragons and the different varieties Isabella encounters in yet another part of the world.

It was also nice to see Natalie and the more minor female characters that appeared in this book. I was a little disappointed that Isabella didn't have very many women to talk to in A Natural History of Dragons (other than her difficult-to-understand maid) and I was glad that The Tropic of Serpents introduced another lady scientist and better yet (minor spoiler coming), one who appeared to be on the asexual spectrum, which was sort of relevant to the plot but not such that a big fuss was made over it. (And of course in pseudo-Victorian pseudo-England such words did not exist in the contexts they do now.)

Overall I enjoyed The Tropic of Serpents quite a lot. Perhaps a little less than A Natural History of Dragons, but I'm certainly enjoying the continuing story and I found the excitement of the end made up for the slowness of the start. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the first and this series to fans of dragons, lady scientists and secondary world fantasy.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Tor Books
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent book 2 of 5
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore is an anthology in conversation with Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, with stories shining a light on (mostly British) colonialism and its legacies. (I really like how this idea is conveyed through the union jacks on the cover.) If you've been following along my blog and my #ReadShortStories posts you will have seen me slowly making my way through these stories. The individual story reviews are reproduced at the end of this review, but first I will talk about the anthology as a whole.

Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories was one of the first true children's books in the English language, a timeless classic that continues to delight readers to this day. Beautiful, evocative and playful, the stories of "How the Whale Got His Throat" or "The First Letter Written" paint a magical, primal world. It is also deeply rooted in British colonialism. Kipling saw the Empire as a benign, civilizing force, and his writing can be troubling to modern readers. Not So Stories attempts to redress the balance, bringing together new and established writers of color from around the world to take the Just So Stories back; giving voices to cultures that were long deprived them.

This anthology contained an interesting mix of stories and authors of different backgrounds, including a lot of new-to-me authors. Most of the stories tackled colonial themes in one way or another and most of them took cues from Just So Stories (mind you, I haven't read the other book since I was a child and even then I'm not sure I read all of it, so my opinion on that point is unreliable). A lot of the stories engaged with difficult themes and were emotionally challenging to read, which is why I found myself breaking up the anthology with other unrelated short stories and a couple of novels.

My favourite stories, in table of contents order, were: "How the Spider Got Her Legs" by Cassandra Khaw, which did the thing where the starting situation was quite far from what we now think of as the status quo and made the story more interesting for it; "Best Beloved" by Wayne Santos, which was heartbreaking and powerful; "How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic" by Jeannette Ng, which was told on a grander scale than the other stories for all that it focussed on a specific tree; "The Cat Who Walked by Herself" by Achala Upendran, which was also heartbreaking and which ended in a way I didn't foresee from the start. As you can see, I liked a lot of the stories. Some didn't grab me as much, but that's to be expected in an anthology.

By the time I got to the end of the anthology, I did find the arrangement of the stories a little peculiar. Not only was it odd to find the only two cat-centric stories next to each other, but I also found the last few stories engaged with ideas of colonialism a lot less strongly than the earlier stories. That didn't necessarily make them bad stories, but a lot of the last part of the anthology didn't feel like it fit in with what the first part had set the book up to be. I think it would have worked better if the stories had been more intermixed and set up the expectation of varying engagement with colonial ideas earlier. As it was, I felt faintly confused reading three of the last four stories, even though they were perfectly fine stories in their own right.

Overall this anthology was filled with solid stories that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone interested in the themes and ideas it explores. The authors come from a variety of backgrounds so the anthology does not lack in diversity on that front. (It could have stood to be a bit more gender diverse, however.) I very much like the concept of Not So Stories and recommend it to all readers to whom the basic premise appeals.


How the Spider Got Her Legs by Cassandra Khaw — Probably my favourite Khaw story so far. Told in the style of Kipling/traditional children’s cosmology stories as suggested by the title. It was also a bit longer and more complicated than I might have expected with a few acts to the story rather than just one simple origin explanation of how the spider got her legs. Anyway, I rather liked it.

Queen by Joseph E. Cole — A story about slavery and human cruelty. Not exactly an enjoyable read but not a bad story either. It didn’t particularly grab me but it was still told in an evocative way (and I think I spotted several references to Just So Stories).

Best Beloved by Wayne Santos — A Singaporean guardian of the living against the dead has taken up with a British official while still finding time for her duties. Until those duties become more difficult and she learns more of what the British are up to. A powerful story of love and devastation.

The Man Who Played With the Crab by Adiwijaya Iskandar — A father and daughter come across a westerner killing animals and demanding to be taken to their sacred crab so that he can kill it. A story that’s about as positive as possible, given colonial history.

Saṃsāra by Georgina Kamsika — A story set in the present day about a mixed race teenager reconnecting with her Indian heritage as she and her mother clean out her late grandmother’s home. It feels a bit out of place among the other Not So Stories I’ve read so far, but then so does the protagonist in her life, and maybe that’s the point.

Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger by Zedeck Siew — This is more like a few stories that ended up being tied together in a way I didn’t predict from the start. It tells Malay folktales as well as giving a few different modern perspectives on the tales and on the people having perspectives. It gives an interesting cross-section of views and various cultural influences. I enjoyed it although I found the sections that were academic excerpts a little too dry.

How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic by Jeannette Ng — A story telling the history of a wishing tree in Hong Kong and, by necessity, the history of the people and the place. A sweeping story of gods and history told in the style of a bedtime story. I enjoyed it.

How the Ants Got Their Queen by Stuart Hotston — A clear metaphor for colonialism, it’s ills and aftermath. Although the story was not subtle, I still found myself enjoying it. And the direction of the ending was not overly telegraphed, which was nice. Not a cheerful story (of course), but a good read.

How the Snake Lost its Spine by Tauriq Moosa — As you can guess from the title, this is another creature-origin type story. I liked the ideas in it, but I didn’t find it to be as strong as some of the others. The writing could have been tighter where I found it a little dull in places. Not bad overall, just not one of the best.

The Cat Who Walked by Herself by Achala Upendran — This story is about how common domesticated animals, as well as Man and Woman found their place. I found this story quite upsetting in how it just kept escalating in patriarchal (not sure that’s the right word) terribleness. The ending was satisfying but didn’t erase what went before.

Strays Like Us by Zina Hutton — A story about Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess, who no longer has a place in the world, and a stray kitten. The story was fine, but I’m not sure how well it fits with the other stories in the anthology. It put me more in mind of various forgotten/unworshipped god stories more than colonialism per se.

How the Simurgh Won Her Tail by Ali Nouraei — A lovely story within a story. A grandfather visiting his sick (cancer, I think) granddaughter in hospital and telling her the titular story. It was very heartwarming, despite the depressing hospital setting and the hints of life outside the hospital.

There is Such Thing as a Whizzy-Gang by Raymond Gates — A story about a boy in Australia, his uncle that likes to (mostly) benevolently tease him and the Whizzy-Gang that attacks him. Not a bad read, but I didn’t really spot any direct engagement with colonialism.

How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off by Paul Krueger — If not for the title itself, this story would feel quite unresolved, which I have mixed feelings about. I didn’t mind the story overall, but I again didn’t find it to be quite what I expected. It’s about animals fighting (or not) for worker rights.

4 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, Abaddon Books
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 17 June 2018

#ReadShortStories (106 to 110)

This batch sees me finishing off Not So Stories — full review of the anthology coming very soon — and start in on Uncanny issue 21. I am looking forward to having a short break from themed anthologies (I do have more lined up, so it will be short) and reading a general mix of stories without obligations.

Strays Like Us by Zina Hutton — A story about Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess, who no longer has a place in the world, and a stray kitten. The story was fine, but I’m not sure how well it fits with the other stories in the anthology. It put me more in mind of various forgotten/unworshipped god stories more than colonialism per se. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

How the Simurgh Won Her Tail by Ali Nouraei — A lovely story within a story. A grandfather visiting his sick (cancer, I think) granddaughter in hospital and telling her the titular story. It was very heartwarming, despite the depressing hospital setting and the hints of life outside the hospital. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

There is Such Thing as a Whizzy-Gang by Raymond Gates — A story about a boy in Australia, his uncle that likes to (mostly) benevolently tease him and the Whizzy-Gang that attacks him. Not a bad read, but I didn’t really spot any direct engagement with colonialism. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off by Paul Krueger — If not for the title itself, this story would feel quite unresolved, which I have mixed feelings about. I didn’t mind the story overall, but I again didn’t find it to be quite what I expected. It’s about animals fighting (or not) for worker rights. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise by Sarah Pinsker — Part story, part history of the early 20 century music and art scene in New York. I didn’t love it. A lot of references went over my head and those that didn’t — meh. Source:

Friday, 15 June 2018

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee is the third and final book in The Machineries of Empire trilogy. I have previously read and reviewed Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem. This is very much an overarching story told over three volumes and, even though each book introduces new point of view characters, the story depends very much on what went before. I do not recommend reading it out of order (start with Ninefox Gambit).

When Shuos Jedao wakes up for the first time, several things go wrong. His few memories tell him that he's a seventeen-year-old cadet--but his body belongs to a man decades older. Hexarch Nirai Kujen orders Jedao to reconquer the fractured hexarchate on his behalf even though Jedao has no memory of ever being a soldier, let alone a general. Surely a knack for video games doesn't qualify you to take charge of an army?

Soon Jedao learns the situation is even worse. The Kel soldiers under his command may be compelled to obey him, but they hate him thanks to a massacre he can't remember committing. Kujen's friendliness can't hide the fact that he's a tyrant. And what's worse, Jedao and Kujen are being hunted by an enemy who knows more about Jedao and his crimes than he does himself...

There are two main point of view characters in this final book: a servitor that spends a lot of time with the Cheris/Jedao that we've come to know and love over three books and a brand new Jedao constructed by Kujen and lacking most of his memories, which went with Cheris. Somewhat unexpectedly the book jumps forward nine years from the end of Raven Stratagem, which took a bit of getting used to. We do hear from Brezan but the mystery of what's going on with Cheris doesn't last nearly as long as it did in the previous book.

I really enjoyed getting to know more about the world of servitors and seeing further into their world. After the hints in the very first book that servitors would be important (when Cheris was the only one who bothered talking to them), I found this development very satisfying. Seeing the servitors from new!Jedao's perspective was also interesting since they didn't exist when he was human and he has no other memories of them. The other interesting piece of worldbuilding we get to see in more detail in Revenant Gun is the providence of their spaceships. I always thought it was cool that they were collectively called voidmoths (scoutmoths, needlemoths, etc) but now we finally learn that "moth" isn't just an affectation. The ships are bred and then modified. While living ships aren't exactly a unique idea, Lee does something new quite interesting with them that I won't spoil.

Revenant Gun was an excellent read. Being the last in a trilogy, of course this book brings the overarching plot to a close and, ends like any good dystopian series: with the overthrow of the oppressive regime. I enjoyed the whole series and I stand by the assessment I made in my review of Raven Stratagem: the first book has the steepest learning curve by far. The calendrical warfare stuff that took place near the start-ish of Ninefox Gambit was the hardest to get my head around and nothing in the later books really compares with that confusion. If you got through the first book and didn't like that aspect, but did like the characters, then I urge you to continue with the series.

Anyway, Revenant Gun was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy and I look forward to seeing what Lee writes in the future. (And in the meantime, I still have a lot of his short stories to get to.)

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2018, Solaris
Series: Machineries of Empire book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub/paperback
Source: ARCs from publisher

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

#ReadShortStories about horrible things (101 to 105)

After a little break from short stories, in which I got sucked into a few novels, I am back at it. I'm still making my way through Not So Stories and still trying to break that book up with other stories to lighten the mood. I was less successful at lightening the mood in this batch, however, as the two random stories I chose were not exactly cheerful, alas. They're all strong stories, though.

How the Ants Got Their Queen by Stuart Hotston — A clear metaphor for colonialism, it’s ills and aftermath. Although the story was not subtle, I still found myself enjoying it. And the direction of the ending was not overly telegraphed, which was nice. Not a cheerful story (of course), but a good read. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

How the Snake Lost its Spine by Tauriq Moosa — As you can guess from the title, this is another creature-origin type story. I liked the ideas in it, but I didn’t find it to be as strong as some of the others. The writing could have been tighter where I found it a little dull in places. Not bad overall, just not one of the best. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

The No-One Girl and the Flower of the Farther Shore by E Lily Yu — An unusual story about a girl living on the fringe of society after her grandmothers’s death and the village in which she lives. Also a magical flower. I liked it but I’m not sure I fully understood it, mainly because the structure was not what I am used to. Source:

Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence by Izzy Wasserstein — I liked this story and the way it was told, somewhat obliquely. Annotations to a non-fiction book about fictional/lost places tell of a dystopian future world in which hope is not lost. Source:

The Cat Who Walked by Herself by Achala Upendran — This story is about how common domesticated animals, as well as Man and Woman found their place. I found this story quite upsetting in how it just kept escalating in patriarchal (not sure that’s the right word—hegemonic?) terribleness. The ending was satisfying but didn’t erase what went before. Source: Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

Monday, 11 June 2018

Cryoburn — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Cryoburn is the latest novel we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project and the second last in our chronological read-through. This novel follows Miles, accompanied by Roic, on Imperial Auditor business, and takes place after Flowers for Vashnoi and before Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

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

Katharine: Welp it’s going to be incredibly hard to discuss the book properly after an ending like that, but I’ll try anyway… Miles is off to Kibou-daini in his role as Imperial Auditor to do what he does best - investigate something strange by shaking things up and seeing what falls out.

Tsana: When we first encounter him, he is drugged and hallucinating and, having escaped his kidnappers, is wandering around in underground catacombs full of cryogenically frozen people/corpses. Which is super creepy, but a staple of life on Kibou-daini.

Katharine: Once he manages to get to the surface he runs into a very kind lizard-person who sneaks him into his home to rest and recuperate. Which is lucky, as Miles’ hallucinations could lead him pretty much anywhere, but in the morning he is safe, and the lizard-person is an 11 year old boy called Jin, who likes to adopt pets. And Miles is quite pet-like when he’s not hyperactively solving cases.

Tsana: It’s also fortunate that Miles is good with children because, once sober, he quickly asuages Jin’s fears around adults taking over and treats Jin respectfully rather than condescendingly like many adults apparently do. Which is an interesting insight into Miles’s personality in a few ways, I thought. On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss “good with children” because, well, Miles has kids now so he’s had the practice. But on the other hand, I think he’s pretty much always been good with children, we just haven’t had as much chance to see that in other books. The first example that jumps to mind is in Komarr when he first meets Niki (now his stepson) and is perfectly happy bonding with him about jumpships (before he has any ulterior motives to befriend the kid).

Katharine: Spoiler shields up so I can say a thing!

*klaxon klaxon klaxon*

Saturday, 9 June 2018

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan is the first book in The Memoirs of Lady Trent, which has become a surprisingly long (five book) series while I wasn't looking. I remember seeing A Natural History of Dragons around the time of it's initial release, but the blurb and cover didn't grab me so I passed it up at the time. Now that it's been shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best Series, I thought I should at least give it a go. I started reading the sample and had to click "buy" because I couldn't put it down.

Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon's presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one's life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

A Natural History of Dragons is set in a dragon-containing secondary world (with no other magic, as far as I can tell) with the country our protagonist is from based on Victorian England. I have to admit, part of the reason I delayed reading this book for so long was because historic fantasy plus dragons conjured up Temeraire by Naomi Novik in my mind (the Napoleonic era is not so distant in time from the Victorian) and I did not feel the need for another dry fantasy book with dragons. Happily, it is not a dry fantasy book, despite the diagram on the cover.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the protagonist's voice. It's written in first person in the style of a memoir from the point of view of a much older Isabella recounting events from her youth. This means that we get more snarky reflections than we would have if the book was told by the younger Isabella, as well as commentary along the lines of "I was young and stupid". It's also clear from the start that this is the first book in the series and that Isabella intends to recount additional adventures in future books, while dropping tantalising hints about them along the way. I may end up reading the next book immediately, even though that wasn't my original plan.

The approach to dragons in this book is pretty much as advertised. Isabella is very interested in the study of nature and pursues her studies of dragons very scientifically, albeit in a very nineteenth century way. We also see the ways in which being female hinders her ability to study, as well as the way in which her upper class does not. I also sort of expected it to be partly the story of her being stuck with a horrible husband after being expected to marry young, but that was not the direction the story took, avoiding that very common trope.

To my eye, Brennan presented a modified historical society well and the way in which dragons were studied and presented to the reader was quite believable and consistent — especially if you overlook the magical aspect of dragons' existence. It covers dissection, the difficulties of preservation and a journey to study dragons in their natural habitats. This was a very enjoyable read and I will definitely be reading the next book in the series, sooner or later. I recommend it to all fantasy fans, especially those who like dragons (but also don't find the prospect of reading about their dissection distressing.)

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Tor Books
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent book 1 of 5
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold is the latest book in the Vorkosigan saga that I've reread. For a while it was the last book in chronological order, but for the moment it's become second last.

Kibou-daini is a planet obsessed with cheating death. Barrayaran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan can hardly disapprove—he’s been cheating death his whole life, on the theory that turnabout is fair play. But when a Kibou-daini cryocorp—an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future—attempts to expand its franchise into the Barrayaran Empire, Emperor Gregor dispatches his top troubleshooter Miles to check it out.

On Kibou-daini, Miles discovers generational conflict over money and resources is heating up, even as refugees displaced in time skew the meaning of generation past repair. Here he finds a young boy with a passion for pets and a dangerous secret, a Snow White trapped in an icy coffin who burns to re-write her own tale, and a mysterious crone who is the very embodiment of the warning Don’t mess with the secretary. Bribery, corruption, conspiracy, kidnapping—something is rotten on Kibou-daini, and it isn’t due to power outages in the Cryocombs. And Miles is in the middle—of trouble!

From my first read, I remembered this as being quite dark read, but it's not really. Maybe it's a bit less funny than some of the other books in the series, but it's only the very end that punches you in the gut. The rest of the book, for all that it's about death and delaying death by freezing and hoping for a better future, isn't actually dark at all. Funny how an ending can make such a strong impression. I am also really glad that this isn't the last chronological book in the series any more.

I forgot how much Roic was in this book too, and after A Civil Campaign and Winterfair Gifts it was nice to see him confident in  his position and silently judging Miles (or m'lord). It's nice to see that kind of character development over several books. Same with Kareen Koudelka, but she didn't make as much of an appearance in Cryoburn or have any point of view sections so the effect is lessened. Speaking of seeing characters from others' points of view, I also enjoyed Jin's impressions of the grownups around him. I didn't have a very strong memory of him from my first read through (I only really remembered that he existed), but getting to know him again was fun. He and his family have joined the list of one-book Bujold characters that I wouldn't mind reading more about, at least in passing.

Cryoburn actually stands alone as a novel pretty well. While there's a lot of background that can inform the story, it mainly only informs Miles's past, which isn't as critical to this book as to some of the others in the series. It's not a bad place to start the series, although it's not completely representative of some of the other books. On the other hand, the series has become so diverse in styles that no single book is representative of it all. In any case, Cryoburn is not a book to miss if you're a fan of the series or science fiction generally.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2010, Baen
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, second last book chronologically, third last story in publication order
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Baen's online shop several years ago

Friday, 1 June 2018

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts is a long novella — or a short novel, according to comments in the back-matter — about people on a very long-haul space flight that they mostly spend cryogenically frozen. The title comes from the idea of staging a revolution in short snippets over long periods of time. (Very long periods of time: the story opens about 65 million Earth-years after the journey started.)

She believed in the mission with all her heart. But that was sixty million years ago.

How do you stage a mutiny when you're only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what best for you?

Sunday Ahzmundin is about to find out.

This book caught my eye because of the premise and because I’ve been in a science fiction mood for a while now. I haven’t read more than short fiction by Watts before (a long time ago when something was shortlisted for a Hugo, I think), so why not give this a try? In the end, though, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t a terrible book but, for me, it didn’t live up to the expectations set by the premise.

First off, it remains a great premise. The purpose of the long haul flight and one-way ticket to the future is to build Star Gates (not actually infringing copyright by being called that) around the galaxy for humanity to, later, be able to get around faster. The ship (actually a flying asteroid with a built in singularity generator) has to travel at sub-light speeds to set up the future FTL highway. The people on the mission know they can never go home and are brought out of stasis mainly for more complicated situations that the AI can’t be trusted to handle alone.

So far, so interesting. Where it fell down for me was in the balance between the science and the tech in the writing, and a bit in the characterisation. Near the start, I thought that the science was the most interesting aspect but we mostly got a bunch of characterisation. Near the end, when the human aspect was more interesting, there was more of a focus on the cool science (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers). Some of the meh could have been avoided by writing slightly more interesting characters. I found them all a bit bland, even the ones that were supposed to be interesting. I didn't feel very invested in the narrator, Sunday, even though she was overwhelmingly the character we got to know best. (I was also pretty surprised when a pronoun identified her as female a quarter of the way into the book, so, hmm.)

This isn't a bad book and if the blurb grabs you, you could do worse. But for me it was a disappointment because I had hoped for more. I was left with a feeling of somewhat wasted potential and I don't think I'll be bothering to seek out more Watts books. I'm glad I gave it a shot, though.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2018, Tachyon Publications
Series: Maybe? Looks like there are related short stories (thanks Goodreads), but I'm not sure how they're related.
Format read: ePub ARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley