Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Navigating the Stars by Maria V Snyder

Navigating the Stars by Maria V Snyder is the first book in the author’s first SF series (she has many fantasy books under her belt already). It was also my first experience of the author’s work and I’m pleased to say it was a very positive one. I was drawn to pick up this book because the blurb intrigued me and I am glad I took a chance on it.

Terra Cotta Warriors have been discovered on other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. And Lyra Daniels' parents are the archaeological Experts (yes with a capital E) on the Warriors and have dragged her to the various planets to study them despite the time dilation causing havoc with her social life.

When one of the many Warrior planets goes silent, and looters attack her research base, Lyra becomes involved in discovering why the Warriors were placed on these planets. And, more importantly, by who.

The first thing I want to say is that Snyder clearly did her research when it came to setting up a futuristic society. Not only does she bother to include time dilation in her interstellar travel — remarkable in and of itself since so many books take a lazy magically fast travel approach — but she also thought through the social ramifications of it. The story opens with Lyra, our protagonist, sad, angry and desperate over the fact that her parents will soon be moving to another planet for work. Since she is under 18 and has to come along, that means she will never see any of her current friends again. The way the research base kids deal with that situation struck me as very believable and it was an emotional scene to read.

The way they travel through space to distant planets is still a little bit magic, time dilation or not, but it was sufficiently well thought out that I didn’t find anything to complain about. Ditto the quantum computer that controls navigation and a host of other things. There was also a bit of maths-based problem solving that I found it quite plausible that Lyra would be capable of. In summary, this book gets my “physics done right” seal of approval. Oh, and there was also some realistic treatment of head wounds, which was refreshing to see.

Not ignoring the laws of physics wasn’t the only thing done right in this book. The story was engaging and I enjoyed Lyra’s voice and being in her head. The archaeological side of things, which Lyra was frequently involved with thanks to her parents, was also interesting and not overburdened by boring details. By the time the more mysterious elements of the plot came to the forefront, I was well and truly invested and couldn’t put the book down. (And now I am sleep-deprived.) the romance was probably the least interesting element of the plot, since Lyra’s love interest is literally the only other teenager insight, but he was a sufficiently interesting character that I didn’t get annoyed at him and actually worried for his safety (I may have forgotten that I was reading a Harlequin book at that point.)

I highly recommend this book to all fans of hard science fiction and/or YA. Snyder shows that lazy shortcuts to advance the plot (magic travel, ignoring concussions) aren’t necessary to make a story interesting and engaging. I was really pleased with the realism (yes, realism, even when strange inexplicable things were also happening) and the amount of research that clearly went into this book. I was trepidatious about how the ending would go and whether I would still want to read the sequel, but I am pleased to report that I am definitely interested in finding out what happens next (and that it didn't end on a horrible cliffhanger or anything like that). Bring on the sequel!

5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2018, Harlequin Australia
Series: Yes. Book 1 of a new series called Sentinels of the Galaxy
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman

The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman is a science fiction crime novel and the first book of the author's that I've read. Although it has intrinsic science fiction elements, it felt a more like a crime book with most of the story revolving around a series of religiously-charged rape-and-murders of women.

Two troubled homicide detectives race to find a serial killer in a town filled with surgically reformed murderers, in this captivating near-future SF thriller.

In a small religious community rocked by a spree of shocking murders, Detectives Salvi Brentt and Mitch Grenville find themselves surrounded by suspects. The Children of Christ have a tight grip on their people, and the Solme Complex neurally edit violent criminals - Subjugates - into placid servants called Serenes. In a town where purity and sin, temptation and repression live side by side, everyone has a motive. But as the bodies mount up, the frustrated detectives begin to crack under the pressure: their demons are coming to light, and who knows where that blurred line between man and monster truly lies.

This was very much a crime novel with the trappings of science fiction. Yes, some of the science fictional elements were essential parts of the plot, but the murder-solving part of the story would have worked just as well without them, with only minor tweaks. The premise of religiously-motivated murders in a small and insular religious town would have worked just as easily with an ordinary prison next door instead of a brain-washing facility. The idea of brain washing criminals to make them contributing members of society is an interesting one to explore, but I didn't feel that this book explored it in much depth. The impracticality of the system was only touched upon, ditto the morality. In the end it felt more like window-dressing than an integral part of the story.

When I was reading, I thought this book started out OK with a tolerably interesting premise an a seemingly rapid pace. But it wasn't long before I started to feel bogged down in the repetitive writing style (a lot of people spent a lot of time looking at things and each other in various ways) and not that interested in the plot. Sure, the murders needed to be solved and the culprit wasn't super obvious (there was a small pool of possibilities but it seemed like they all had roughly equal means and opportunity for much of the book), but the protagonist spent a lot of time being distracted by less likely possibilities and also her own past problems.

(Also, a thing that annoyed me quite a bit was that the author talked about AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) but then fixated on AR when it was quite clear from the story that VR was what was actually happening. And then there were the haptic VR suits which made no sense as described. The gory details of how they could even function as described were completely skipped over (and given how many other extraneous details we got, that seemed particularly egregious). The whole section with the detectives investigating in "AR" struck me as both sloppy writing and a bit gratuitous.)

As you can probably surmise from the rest of this review, I did not enjoy this book. By the end, it was a trial to finish. Even ignoring the plot and science fictional aspects I mentioned above, a stronger editorial hand would have made a big difference. I can't recommend this book, but I'm sure less picky readers who enjoy reading crime could find something to enjoy.

2.5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2018, Angry Robot
Series: Don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Merry Happy Valkyrie by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Merry Happy Valkyrie by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a Christmas-themed novella set in a strange small town in Tasmania. I'm not usually one for Christmas-themed stories or capital-R Romance but I made an exception because I wanted something lighthearted and I am a fan of Roberts' work. As it transpired, it's heavier on the fantasy than the romance, so that worked out well for me.i

Norse myth and magic collides with a small town Tasmanian Christmas in this festive romantic fantasy!

Lief Fraser has mixed feelings about returning home to Matilda, the only Australian town where it always snows at Christmas. As a TV weather presenter, it’s her job to report on the strange holiday phenomenon… but as a local, it’s her duty to preserve Matilda’s many magical secrets.

Then pretty Audrey Astor rolls into town to shoot the ultimate romantic Australian Christmas movie with her film crew. Sparks fly, secrets unravel… and soon everyone will know exactly how Mt Valkyrie got its name.

This was a fun read. Lief is a meteorologist who has been sent to cover the freak weather that frequently strikes her home town. Except she knows that the snow in northern Tasmania in December is more due to magic than any natural meteorology. (Northern hemisphere readers should remember that it is summer during December in southern Australia.) Lief's job isn't so much to cover the strange weather but to stop anyone noticing just how strange the weather really is. And there are camera crews to dodge and carefully direct.

This was a really enjoyable tale. Aside from the inherently amusing premise of trying to hide magic snow from reporters, Lief has family obligations to feel guilty about and exes too feel awkward (or not) around. The underlying premise of why there is weird snow was also really interesting, though I won't spoil it here.

I highly recommend this novella to fans of feel-good fantasy stories. I think fans of Christmas stories will also enjoy it, but I think those who feel ambivalently or negatively about Christmas will still find much to enjoy here. It's not sappy and any Christmas cheesiness is relatively minor.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: End of November 2018, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review

Thursday, 15 November 2018

#ReadShortStories with slightly more variety (181 to 185)

This batch of stories is a bit less homogeneous with a poem from Uncanny that caught my eye and an unplanned re-read (my eyes just slipped and fell). Mostly I'm still making my way through How to Fracture a Fairytale by Jane Yolen.

The Foxwife by Jane Yolen — About a man and his kitsune wife, whom he treats badly once he learns of her nature. It was OK. Didn’t feel that “fractured” though. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Smile by Beth Cato — A very short but satisfying poem about being told to smile. Source:

The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal — A reread for me, after I finished the (first) two novels set in the same world. Interesting to see how some details transferred perfectly into the prequel novels while some minor background details had to shift. I think I enjoyed this story more the second time around, probably because I’m now more invested in the characters and not coming into it cold. Source:

The Faery Flag by Jane Yolen — A young laird is led into faeryland by his dog, falls in love with a faery and... it doesn’t end badly. I guess that’s subversive but it’s not sufficiently emotive to be interesting either. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

One Old Man, with Seals by Jane Yolen — The story of an old lady living alone in a lighthouse and coming across an old man surrounded by seals. I wonder whether this story packs a more significant punch of the reader is familiar with the source material? I am not and what seemed like the punchline wasn’t very punchy. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Halloween is Not a Verb by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Halloween is Not a Verb by Tansy Rayner Roberts is the latest novella in the Fake Geek Girl universe. It seems to be set later than other other existing stories and, as is probably obvious from the title, is Halloween themed.

Young Aussie witches Hebe and Holly Hallow are bringing their friends home to meet their mums for Halloween! What terrible life choices will Sage and Jules make around the bonfire? Why is Ferd flipping out about poetry? What’s with all the butternut pumpkins?

Epic friendship and festive shenanigans with the magical students from Belladonna University.

Credit where credit’s due, Halloween is Not a Verb does include several discussions in how impractical Halloween traditions are when transposed to the Southern Hemisphere and the middle of spring. That said, it’s also a book about witches that embraces the tradition with the in-story debates focussed on the details. I, however, fall into the third category of people that Roberts lists in the book: the Halloween denialist/Americanisation-of-Australian-culture-is-ruining-everything category. In light of that, the rest of the review will focus on the actual story.

I think this is one of my favourite Fake Geek Girl stories. As usual, it involves more character development than you might expect for this type of ongoing series, making for an engaging read. There’s also more peril than usual (in my opinion, which is not to say the other stories have all been peril-free). It’s also tightly written with a lot of funny bits and a dearth of boring bits. The only negative thing I can say about it is that sometimes I wasn’t paying enough attention at the start of a chapter and got a bit lost as to whose point of view we were following now, but that generally because clear eventually. There are a lot of characters to follow though, so if you haven’t read any of the earlier stories this might not be the best place to be introduced to the series.

Overall this was another fun read from Tansy Rayner Roberts and exactly the kind of story I was in the mood for when I picked it up. I think it was one of the best Fake Geek Girl stories and while I don’t especially recommend it as a starting point, I do highly recommend the series as a whole to anyone who enjoys humorous contemporary fantasy. And if you have read some of the other Fake Geek Girl stories, you can jump right in to Halloween is Not a Verb.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2018, Self-published
Series: Fake Geek Girl story 4 of 4ish (excluding a prequel)
Format read: ePub
Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts' Patreon
Disclaimer: Although Tansy is a friend I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review

Sunday, 11 November 2018

#ReadShortStories which are still fairytale retellings (176 to 180)

For this batch of short stories I have continued to read How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen. My feelings about the stories in this collection but, well, I'll save that for the full review. In the meantime, some more story mini-reviews.

Granny Rumple by Jane Yolen — I particularly liked this story. It’s told from Yolen’s own perspective and recounts a family story that has been passed down a few generations. The story itself is about a Jewish family, including a moneylender, living in a Ukrainian ghetto and some of their interactions with goyim. It is told as an alternate-perspective basis for the story of Rumpelstiltskin with bonus racism and a small pogrom thrown in. I feel like this story, trying to explore a similar theme of different perspectives to “Happy Dens”, does so in a much more compelling manner and I found it a much more engaging and confronting read. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox, and the Dragon King by Jane Yolen — Three brothers set out to save their dying mother by retrieving a magical ring from a dragon. It wasn’t a terrible story, but it was on the long side and, ultimately, kind of unremarkable. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Brother Hart by Jane Yolen — A sad story about a pair of siblings, one of whom turns into a deer each day. I couldn’t work out which side I should be on while reading and it didn’t end happily. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Sun/Flight by Jane Yolen — I suppose this was inspired by Icarus, possibly with something else thrown in that I didn’t recognise. It didn’t really work for me. Fine, but meh. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Slipping Sideways Through Eternity by Jane Yolen — I liked this story. It’s about a modern fifteen year old who is briefly transported to 1943 by Elijah, who I gather from the story is a mythical Jewish figure. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal is the sequel to The Calculating Stars, which I read and reviewed immediately prior. The Fated Sky takes place a few years after the end of The Calculating Stars and continues to follow Elma in first person. This review will contain some spoilers for the first book, but not more than if you’ve already read "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" novelette.

Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there’s a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic—but potentially very dangerous—mission? Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? And with the Civil Rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.

This was an interesting sequel. It follows a very similar overall structure to the first book but rather than striving to get into space, the goal posts have shifted to Mars. Various social problems from the first book still exist to create barriers for Elma and some of her friends. While the extreme sexism has been loosened up by the passage of time and the obvious need for (female) computers to calculate orbits and trajectories, the racism has been ramped up a notch. This was, of course, a problem that existed in the first book and that was highlighted through Elma’s friendship with Myrtle and others. But now, with the introduction of a pro-apartheid South African character, everything feels worse. This book highlights a lot of the racial problems from the 60s and, in doing so, is not a comfortable read. Elma tried to do her best but, as we are often reminded, she is still a white woman. (And the laundry in space thing made me angry.)

I didn’t comment on the science when I reviewed the first book because there wasn’t anything that jumped out at me as being wrong or suspicious. In this second book there’s a little bit more to comment on, though nothing especially dire. I am a little sceptical about the use of human computers, although it’s probably more or less possible for what they’re doing, in a terrifying sort of way. The one aspect of that which particularly made me raise an eyebrow was using a sextant to sight on starts to get their position. Not because there’s anything wrong with the method but because I couldn’t help thinking that if they missed their launch window and had to delay the mission, they would have to retain to sight along a different set of stars. (They would also have time to do that, so it’s not exactly a huge problem, I just found it a little alarming.) the biggest issue, for me, was the washing machines, dryers and ovens they had aboard each of the ships going to Mars. The amount of energy those use! Especially back in the 60s when energy efficiency wasn’t a star rating on your white goods (I think). Wiki tells me they probably had solar power, even back then, but still! Think of the excess heat those machines produce! I suppose this is more an expression of horror than a complaint.

Anyway, The Fated Sky was another excellent read and I remain invested in this series. I am delighted that more books are on the way and I look forward to reading them when I can. (In the mean time I’m going to go back and reread the novelette that sparked this world.) It’s possible to read The Fated Sky without having read The Calculating Stars, but I think reading them in order will give a more enjoyable experience. I recommend this series to fans of science fiction, the development of space travel and the social history surrounding space flight development.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2018, Tor
Series: Yes. Lady Astronaut book 2 of 2 so far (with at least 2 more coming)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Friday, 2 November 2018

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is a book that I had heard a lot of good things about before I picked it up. I probably should have given in to my friends’ urging and read it sooner but I was a little bogged down in review books and other things. And it’s not as though I put it off for that long.

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

The Calculating Stars is set in an alternate history universe in which the space programme is accelerated and follows a woman who is married to the lead engineer of the space agency, has a PhD herself and is a pilot who wants to go into space one day. The story starts when a meteorite hits the earth and sets in motion a series on problems, starting with killing everyone in Washington DC and along most of the Northern American eastern seaboard and ending with crucial changes to the earths climate. Elma and Nathaniel are positioned closely to the people in power and play a pivotal role in the post-meteorite world, making them very interesting characters to follow.

The post-meteorite world, however, is still the 1950s with all the cultural baggage that entails. There are high barriers for women participating in the work force (even when they are already trusted to work as computers) and even higher barriers for people of colour. A lot of the story involves Elma bumping up against the glass ceiling and her friends coming up against similar or worse obstacles. The depictions of misogyny were very frustrating to read at times and when they weren’t it was only because some of the characters were darkly joking about them. The plight of the black characters was less prominent (since the story was told in first person) but more present than it could have been, which was good to see.

I enjoyed this book a lot, even after making the mistake of starting it the night before an early morning (oops). Despite a busy week without much free time I read it quickly and now I am very keen to start the sequel. The Calculating Stars doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger but it certainly ends before the whole story is told. Luckily these two books were released in close succession and I don’t have to wait for the sequel to become available. I highly recommend The Calculating Stars to all fans of science fiction and particularly of the early space programme and the role of women therein (not all of which is fictionalised in the book). I expect fans of Hidden Figures will find much to like here, although there is much less focus on the black characters.

5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Tor
Series: yes. Book 1 of 2 so far (with two more planned)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books