Sunday, 29 December 2019

The Dragon Republic by R F Kuang

The Dragon Republic by R F Kuang is the sequel to The Poppy War, which I previously read and reviewed. Unlike the first book in the series, which I read in only a few days, I ended up reading The Dragon Republic over almost two and a half months. It’s not because I disliked the book that I kept putting it down, rather I needed breaks to read something lighter and it didn’t quite suck me in as much as the first book. I still enjoyed it.
The war is over.

The war has just begun.

Three times throughout its history, Nikan has fought for its survival in the bloody Poppy Wars. Though the third battle has just ended, shaman and warrior Rin cannot forget the atrocity she committed to save her people. Now she is on the run from her guilt, the opium addiction that holds her like a vice, and the murderous commands of the fiery Phoenix—the vengeful god who has blessed Rin with her fearsome power.

Though she does not want to live, she refuses to die until she avenges the traitorous Empress who betrayed Rin’s homeland to its enemies. Her only hope is to join forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who plots to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new republic.

But neither the Empress nor the Dragon Warlord are what they seem. The more Rin witnesses, the more she fears her love for Nikan will force her to use the Phoenix’s deadly power once more.

Because there is nothing Rin won’t sacrifice to save her country . . . and exact her vengeance.

The Dragon Republic takes place not long after the conclusion of The Poppy War and is not the sort of book I’d recommend reading without having read the prequel. That said, I didn’t really remember much about the secondary characters when I picked this one up, but I found it not to be a huge problem. The book did a good job of orienting me and reminding me who everyone was (and if worst comes to worst, there’s a list of characters in the back, although I didn’t realise this until I finished reading).

In this book, we mostly see Rin and friends preparing for and fighting skirmishes and battles. We also see a lot of character growth from Rin, who goes from who she was at the end of The Poppy War to a more competent and assured commander towards the end of the The Dragon Republic. It’s not a painless journey, however, and some frustration at Rin possibly contributed to me putting the book aside temporarily, especially in the first half.

Overall, if you enjoyed The Poppy War, I definitely recommend reading The Dragon Republic. In many ways it’s a less intense book, but it has its moments. The overarching story is left incomplete at the end and I am expecting a third book to come, rounding this series out into a trilogy. (It doesn’t end of a cliffhanger, but a lot is unresolved.) If you haven’t ready any of this series yet, definitely start with The Poppy War, but be warned it is not a gentle read, especially not as the story progresses.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2019, Harper Voyager
Series: The Poppy War book 2 of 2 so far (but I think it will be a trilogy)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Short stories after a long break (111 to 115)

It has been quite some time since I blogged any short story reviews. This is mainly because I stopped reading as much of anything, as you might have noticed from my infrequent blog posts. Part of that is due to reading submissions for Rebuilding Tomorrow, but also because of focussing on other things in my spare time ūü§∑‍♀️

Anyway, the stories below were read in July, September and December. I am hoping there will be a few more of these review posts before the end of the year, but we'll see.


The Fermi paradox Is Our Business Model by Charlie Jane Anders — Aliens come across a mostly destroyed Earth, bicker amongst themselves and make choices their bosses will probably disapprove of. I was entertained and amused. Source: Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders

The Dangerous Choice by Emma Newman — A vignette about a character from After Atlas. I suspect there’s some interesting nuance I missed because it’s been too long since I read the book. Source: Emma Newman’s newsletter

They Keep Killing Astra by Tansy Rayner Roberts — Another short story set in the Cookie Cutter Superhero universe. I still love the Australianness of the setting. This was an interesting story and addition to the cannon but I wanted more! It ended with more questions than answers. Definitely looking forward to the promised final story in this world, which I’m hoping will provide answers. Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Patreon

I Am Not the Hive Mind of Transetti Prime by Steven Fischer — A particularly poignantly written flash piece. I enjoyed it. Source:

As Good As New by Charlie Jane Anders — This was a brilliant and somewhat absurd story about the end of the world and the best way to resolve the apocalypse. I really enjoyed it and the many facets that made up the story (I don’t want to be more specific because spoilers). Source: Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee is a space fantasy book aimed at younger readers. It's the first in a series and is entirely unrelated to Yoon Ha Lee's other books, which are adult science fiction. I don't generally read much middle grade, but I picked this one up mainly because of the author. I'd say its also at the older end of the category: the protagonist is thirteen years old, but spends much of the book pretending to be sixteen, so there is a bit of a YA feel to it as well.

THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD MIN comes from a long line of fox spirits. But you'd never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mother insists that none of them use any fox-magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times.

Min feels hemmed in by the household rules and resents the endless chores, the cousins who crowd her, and the aunties who judge her. She would like nothing more than to escape Jinju, her neglected, dust-ridden, and impoverished planet. She’s counting the days until she can follow her older brother, Jun, into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds.

When word arrives that Jun is suspected of leaving his post to go in search of the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is wrong. Jun would never desert his battle cruiser, even for a mystical object rumored to have tremendous power. She decides to run away to find him and clear his name.

Min’s quest will have her meeting gamblers, pirates, and vengeful ghosts. It will involve deception, lies, and sabotage. She will be forced to use more fox-magic than ever before, and to rely on all of her cleverness and bravery. The outcome may not be what she had hoped, but it has the potential to exceed her wildest dreams.

Dragon Pearl follows Min as she sets out on an illicit adventure to find out what really happened to her brother. She sets off with almost nothing other than her fox-based shape-shifting magic and magical Charm, and finds herself very far away from her home planet. It was a fun space adventure involving morally ambiguous adults, new friends and dangerous situations. I enjoyed it a lot and I look forward to any sequels that may be forthcoming. Although the story is quite self-contained, it sets up a possible series and I definitely want to read those other stories.

As well as not being a big middle-grade reader, I also tend to steer away from space fantasy books, having been burned a few times before. To be honest, I wasn't sure how strong the fantasy element would be before I started reading, but I was assuming it would mostly be science fiction. It is set on other planets and in space, so it's science fiction if that's your definition of it. But the world building is very deeply steeped in Korean folklore and the associated magic. The story very prominently involves shapeshifting supernaturals and ghosts, and the titular pearl is a magical terraforming device. This worldbuilding worked for me very well. It felt very consistent — perhaps because it's directly based on real mythology rather than being entirely fictional. (I am trying very hard not to name the authors that previously ruined magic in space for me, can you tell?)

I highly recommend Dragon Pearl to fans of science fiction and fantasy, especially space adventures. Readers who are already fans of Korean folklore, or just want to learn more about it, will also find much to like here. I hope I will have the opportunity to give this book to my niece before she outgrows it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2019,  Rick Riordan Presents (Disney)
Series: book 1 of ? (I thought I saw the second book announced, but I am failing to find any info right now)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo store

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Keep Calm and Kill the Chef by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Keep Calm and Kill the Chef by Livia Day is the third book in the Caf√© La Femme series of cosy culinary crime novels. Chronologically, it follows on from A Trifle Dead and Drowned Vanilla, but in practice you don’t have to have read the earlier books to follow this one.

Scones, tea, and a stabbing…

When Tabitha Darling entered Cafe La Femme in a reality TV show hosted by an infamous “bad boy” Chef, she never expected to be a suspect in his murder.

When Xanthippe Carides quit working in a cafe to become a private detective, she never expected one of her first cases would be keeping Tabitha out of jail…

These two friends have a mystery to solve, and only one of them is telling the whole truth.

Keep Calm and Kill the Chef is told from two points of view and two timelines: we get Tabitha's point of view from before the murder and Xanthippe's from after the murder. Since Tabitha is a potential suspect in the eyes of some of the police (though otherwise a sympathetic character), and Xanthippe is investigating the murder, this sets up an interesting dynamic, especially since they're best friends. I also enjoyed the way in which this setup conveyed information to the reader — in pieces from both ends of the timeline.

Because the plot of this book is centred around a reality TV cooking competition show, there are more descriptions of ridiculous food (for various definitions of ridiculous) than the previous books in the series, and fewer descriptions of more realistic foods. This worked better for me personally since I have a lot of food problems and descriptions of delicious desserts I can't eat were less fun for me than descriptions of ridiculous desserts that most people won't get the opportunity to eat. What kind of ridiculous? Well let's just say the cover is only the half of it.

I don't usually read crime or mystery books, but I like this series for its light-heartedness (most of the time) and the geekiness of the characters. If you enjoy cosy crime books, particularly those set in locations less frequently seen in fiction (Hobart, in this case) and especially if you liked the earlier books in the series, I highly recommend Keep Calm and Kill the Chef.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2019, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: Cafe La Femme, book 3 of 3 (so far...)
Format read: ePub
Source: Bought as a Kickstarter add-on
Disclaimer: The author is a friend, but I have endeavoured to write an impartial review

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Chasing the Shadows by Maria V Snyder

Chasing the Shadows by Maria V Snyder is the second book in the Sentinels of the Galaxy (I assume) trilogy. I have previously read and reviewed the first book, Navigating the Stars, of this YA SF series. It is the kind of series I discourage reading out of order. Also, the blurb below contains spoilers for the first book.

Year 2522. Lyra Daniels is dead. Okay, so I only died for sixty-six seconds. But when I came back to life, I got a brand new name and a snazzy new uniform. Go me! Seriously, though, it's very important that Lyra Daniels stays dead, at least as far as my ex-friend Jarren, the murdering looter, knows.

While dying is the scariest thing that's happened to me, it morphed my worming skills. I can manipulate the Q-net like never before. But Jarren has blocked us from communicating with the rest of the galaxy and now they believe we've gone silent, like Planet Xinji (where silent really means dead).

A Protector Class spaceship is coming to our rescue, but we still have to survive almost two years before they arrive - if they arrive at all. Until then, we have to figure out how to stop an unstoppable alien threat. And it's only a matter of time before Jarren learns I'm not dead and returns to finish what he started.

There's no way I'm going to let Jarren win. Instead I'll do whatever it takes to save the people I love. But even I'm running out of ideas...

Chasing the Shadows picks up not long after Navigating the Stars left off. Our protagonist, Ara, is now training as part of the security team and the planet Yulin is still cut off from the rest of humanity and still under threat from violent raiders. Ara's job is to learn to spar and shoot, get her fitness up and, most crucially, find a way to communicate with the outside world.

What I enjoyed most about the first book is still present here — interesting worldbuilding and an interesting mystery surrounding the terracotta warriors which have been left on planets throughout the galaxy. We get to learn more about the warriors in Chasing the Shadows, which I enjoyed. That and Ara's explorations of the Q-net (magic quantum internet) were the most interesting. I was less invested in her relationship, which is well-established now and not a significant source of drama. There's nothing wrong with the relationship, per se, I just felt like the bouts of making out were slowing down the story a bit.

I wouldn't be me if I didn't comment on the physics in this, a science fiction novel. It's mostly fine. There was one bit where a basic (high school-level) explanation was not at all up to scratch but, a little confusingly, the implementation of the information was OK. So overall, only one short section annoyed me, which I'll call a win.

I enjoyed Chasing the Shadows and I'm looking forward to reading the next book when it comes out, presumably next year. There's a few fun reveals throughout the latter part of this book, which promise for a high stakes conclusion to the story. I recommend the Sentinels of the Galaxy series to fans of science fiction and YA.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2019, Harlequin YA (AU)
Series: Sentinels of the Galaxy, book 2 of (I'm guessing) 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer is a YA novel set in the world of the short story "Cat Pictures, Please", which does not require previous knowledge of that story to enjoy. This was an excellent book which I accidentally started reading and then didn't put down until 4 am, several months before its release date. Whoops.

My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. I particularly like helping people who take lots of cat pictures for me. I have a fair amount of time to allocate: I don’t have a body, so I don’t have to sleep or eat. I am not sure whether I think faster than humans think, but reading is a very different experience for me than it is for humans. To put knowledge in their brains, humans have to pull it in through their eyes or ears, whereas I can just access any knowledge that’s stored online.

Admittedly, it is easy to overlook knowledge that I technically have possession of because I’m not thinking about it in the moment. Also, having to access to knowledge doesn’t always mean understanding things.

I do not entirely understand people.

As if an endearing AI wasn't enough, this book's human protagonist also has an excellent voice, turning this book into quite a page-turner. The story mainly focusses on Steph, who moves around a lot with her mother and hence doesn't have much chance to make friends in meatspace, instead forming her closest friendships online. Starting at yet another crappy school, Steph finally does make some friends and this sets off a complicated chain of events which results in a very high-stakes climax.

It's just as well this book is written in an extremely up-beat tone, because it deals with some pretty heavy issues, mostly surrounding domestic violence and the appalling state of the US education system (near-future or not) but also with passing nods to racism. It would have been a very depressing read if it wasn't funny — and if we didn't have the AI as a bit of a wildcard to mix things up.

Catfishing on CatNet is an excellent book and I highly recommend it to all fans of science fiction — especially AI — and YA. If you want to get a feel for the book without committing to it, the short story "Cat Pictures Please" will give you a very good idea of the tone, even if it's about the AI rather than Steph. This is a completely self-contained read but there is potential for sequels or spin-offs. I would be more than happy to read more stories about any of the characters in this book.

5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2019, Tor Teen
Series: Maybe? Same world as "Cat Pictures Please" but a self-contained story with a potential hook for a sequel
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Rebuilding Tomorrow is crowdfunding now!

If you follow me on Twitter, then you might have seen me tweeting about Rebuilding Tomorrow, the new anthology that I'm editing. I and the team at Twelfth Planet Press are currently crowdfunding it on Pozible.  As well as pre-ordering the book in ebook, paperback or exclusive hardcover, you can grab an enamel pin or two, a mug, or a print of our gorgeous cover art.

So what's Rebuilding Tomorrow about, anyway?

To recap: Rebuilding Tomorrow will focus on disabled and/or chronically ill protagonists and it will still have a somewhat post-apocalyptic theme. But! Rather than focussing on survival in the immediate aftermath of an apocalypse like Defying Doomsday did, the stories in Rebuilding Tomorrow will be set a significant time after whatever apocalyptic disaster. These will be stories that show society getting back on its feet and people moving past subsistence-level existence into a new, sustainable world, even though it’s one that has been irrevocably changed by an apocalypse.

We just had a reveal of the full wraparound cover over at The BookSmugglers, so head over there to check it out in its full glory.

To pre-order your copy of Rebuilding Tomorrow, head over to the Pozible page and help us make this book!

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi is a short-ish novel of time travel, told in four parts. Originally published in Japanese, it was recently translated into English. I picked it up because the time travel aspect interested me.

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.

In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the caf√©’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer's, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.

But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . .

This is one novel but it's divided into four parts, each focussing on a different character, albeit with a lot of overlap. The story is set almost entirely in a cafe with timeless decor that has an urban legend attached to it: time travel is possible inside the cafe. Whenever customers ask about travelling back in time, however, they are quickly put off by the very restrictive rules presented to them. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is about four people who did not let the restrictive rules stop them.

This was a very gentle and character-driven read. In each section, we get to know a particular character and their motivations for wanting to time travel. And, arguably most interestingly, their reasons for accepting the limitation of the cafe's time travel capabilities. The book was written in a nuanced but not overly-dramatic tone. Although I usually prefer plot-driven and/or drama-filled stories, I found myself keen to pick this one up again each evening.

I enjoyed Before the Coffee Gets Cold and I recommend it to anyone looking for a different sort of time travel story. I've heard it has been made into a (Japanese) movie called Cafe Funiculi Funicula and I'm interested in watching it as well, though I'm not sure how easy it will be to get my eyes on.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2019, Picador (Japanese version first published in 2015)
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Hobgoblin Boots by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Hobgoblin Boots by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a short novella set in the world of the Mocklore chronicles. It stands alone and you do not have to have read any of the other books to pick this one up. I previously reviewed Ink Black Magic and I’ve also read Splashdance Silver, but more than a decade ago, long before this blog came into existence.

At the age of thirteen, half-hobgoblin Bounty Fenetre found herself on her own, which was fine by her. There was a cute chainmail number at the smithy's she had her eye on, once she figured out how to fix it so it bared her midriff. Then Ma Fortuna adopted her and she met Luc, her new foster brother.

Four years later, at the age of seventeen, Bounty is older and wiser, and really wants to Seek Her Fortune. She and Luc ambush a hero and steal his armor, because as everyone knows, the first step to becoming a hero is to look like one. The second step is to be recognized as a hero by the world at large, which surprisingly, isn't as hard as it sounds. Mocklore is a land where magic crashes and smashes through the landscape, exploding with abrasive sounds and colors, the ideal place for a clever half-hobgoblin fosterling and a charismatic hero-in-progress to make their names.

The story follows Bounty as she grows up (reaches her late teens) and goes off to seek her fortune. First with her adopted brother, then alone. She encounters a variety of fantasy world scenarios and experiences somewhat of a coming of age narrative.

This was a short and entertaining read. The author doesn’t shy away from mocking fantasy tropes, but without mocking the entire fantasy genre. It’s a little reminiscent of early Pratchett, or perhaps Douglas Adams, but also not quite. Roberts has a voice all her own.

I recommend this novella to fans of Roberts’ writing and particularly the Mocklore books. If you haven’t read any of that series, this is a reasonable introduction and sample.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2004, recent re-/self-published
Series: Mocklore universe, a standalone story
Format read: ePub
Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts' Patreon or possibly newsletter
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review

Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang

The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang is the fourth novella in the Tensorate series. It tells its own story, but it does contain sort of spoilers for some of the earlier novellas, especially The Descent of Monsters, I think (they have all blurred a little in my memory). I suspect some of the worldbuilding set up in earlier books helps a bit with getting your bearings in this novella, but it's not essential.

The Protector is dead.

For fifty years, the Protector ruled, reshaping her country in her image and driving her enemies to the corners of the map. For half a century the world turned around her as she built her armies, trained her Tensors, and grasped at the reins of fate itself. Now she is dead. Her followers will quiver, her enemies rejoice.

But in one tavern, deep in rebel territory, her greatest enemy drowns her sorrows. Lady Han raised a movement that sought the Protector's head, yet now she can only mourn her loss. She remembers how it all began, when the Protector was young, not yet crowned, and a desperate dancing girl dared to fall in love with her.

Told as a one-sided conversation in a bar, this is the kind of story that grabs you with its unique voice and is difficult to put down before it's finished. It's a shorter read than its prequels, so reading it in one sitting is quite feasible (though I took two). Once you start reading you'll be quickly treated to a first-person retelling of a life story. Our protagonist goes from peasant girl to dancing girl to the right hand of a powerful noble. Her take on her former mistress is very different to how the rest of the world saw her and, well, it's always more interesting to see how and why someone becomes something than it is to just see the end result.

This is the kind of series I want to reread all in a row one day. It's been long enough between books that I'm sure I missed some nuances. On the other hand, I had also forgotten events from earlier books, adding to some suspense/surprise when reading Ascent to Godhood. While this is a self-contained story, I feel like we are not done with the Tensorate universe yet and I am very much looking forward to reading what Yang gives us next.

I recommend this book to fans of the earlier Tensorate books, with the caveat that it's written in a different style to any of its prequels. It furthers the story of the world, however, so if you're interested in the world like I am, then I strongly recommend picking it up. If you're new to the series you can start here, but it's not the best starting point since Black Tides of Heaven and Red Threads of Fortune come chronologically earlier. That said, they do work out of order.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2019,
Series: Tensorate book 4 of 4 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The Princess Who Flew With Dragons by Stephanie Burgis

The Princess Who Flew With Dragons by Stephanie Burgis is the third book set in the same world as The Dragon With the Chocolate Heart and The Girl With the Dragon Heart. While the three books follow each other chronologically, they all feature different protagonists, so stand alone well.

Princess Sofia of Drachenheim is sick of being used for her older sister’s political gains. At twelve years old, she’s already been a hostage to invading dragons and a promised future fianc√© to a wicked fairy. Her only comfort lies in writing letters to her pen pal and best friend--Jasper, a young dragon whom she's never even met.

When Sofia's older sister sends her on a diplomatic mission to far-off Villenne, she's meant to play the part of a charming, smiling princess. But when an accident leads to her exile from the city, Sofia is free to wander as she pleases for the first time in her life. And when Jasper's food-mage sister Aventurine turns him into a human boy, Sofia thinks life can't get any better. Until… the legendary ice giants of the north attack, trying to reclaim the territory that they lost centuries ago. With the dragons and royals frozen in ice, can Sofia and Jasper save their families and kingdom?

The protagonist of this book is Princess Sofia, who was a secondary character in the second book The Girl With the Dragon Heart. The main cast from the first two books don't make much of an appearance in this one and it mainly takes place outside Drachenheim. The new setting really enriches the world, not only by adding kobolds and ice giants but by also showing what other cities look like and what they think of Drachenheim and its denizens. (The last point is something I always find fun.)

I enjoyed reading about Sofia's adventures in Villenne. Back home she'd rather stay in her room reading philosophy books than go to any official state functions. On her adventure, we got to watch Sofia go from being a girl who is always stuffing up and is perpetually burdened by the expectations of her older sister coming out of her shell. As well as visiting the university and mingling with normal people (in goblin and kobold form), she is also given the opportunity to confront her privilege in a way that wasn't possible without a literal journey. Her newfound friends were funny and entertaining to meet and I loved her relationship with Jasper, the young dragon.

If you've enjoyed the other books in this series, I definitely recommend picking up The Princess Who Flew With Dragons. I got the feeling that this might be the end of the series, but I'd be happy to read more if more books were to appear.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2019, Bloomsbury
Series: Tales from the Chocolate Heart book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Saturday, 14 September 2019

The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga

The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga is, I believe, the debut novel of both coauthors. It's a fantasy-Victorian-era/gas-lamp fantasy novel about a princess and a "resurrectionist" who (illegally) digs up bodies to sell to doctors and medical students. Also, it has a gorgeous cover, which I urge you to zoom in on if you haven't already.

With a murderer on the loose, it's up to an enlightened bodysnatcher and a rebellious princess to save the city, in this wonderfully inventive Victorian-tinged fantasy noir.

"Man of Science" Roger Weathersby scrapes out a risky living digging up corpses for medical schools. When he's framed for the murder of one of his cadavers, he's forced to trust in the superstitions he's always rejected: his former friend, princess Sibylla, offers to commute Roger's execution in a blood magic ritual which will bind him to her forever. With little choice, he finds himself indentured to Sibylla and propelled into an investigation. There's a murderer loose in the city of Caligo, and the duo must navigate science and sorcery, palace intrigue and dank boneyards to catch the butcher before the killings tear their whole country apart.

This book is set in a world where the nobility (and especially royalty) has magic, technology is roughly early-Victorian, and class and poverty divides are stark. Our low-class protagonist, Roger, wants to be a surgeon, but can't afford the tuition fees. He also becomes interested in a string of murders after stumbling over an unusual dead body and wants to solve them, getting himself framed in the process. The princess Sibylla, meanwhile, was a childhood friend-then-lover of his, but is mostly consumed by her own typical problems, like a forced betrothal to her annoying cousin. Their stories don't directly intersect until quite late in the book, which I found a little disappointing. I kept waiting for a dramatic reconnection, but it was pushed back surprisingly far.

I found the start of the book a little slow. This was exacerbated by the fact that the blurb summarises a large swath of the story and I was more than half-way through the book by the time I felt like I'd caught up with the expectations the blurb had set. Also, while Roger was trying to solve the murder mystery, it wasn't so much his cleverness that helped him with the day as luck, always a disappointing plot twist.

Overall, this book was OK. It took me a while to get into it and the resolution was interesting but not executed the way I expected. There's also a spoilery thing near the end which made me raise an eyebrow for the lack of exploration given to it and was an unpleasant note to leave on. That said, the story is self-contained but the end set up a potential sequel which could be an interesting read. I would certainly consider picking it up if it comes to exist. I recommend this book to fans of gas-lamp fantasy and Victorian-ish settings. Also, corpses.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2019, Angry Robot
Series: Not yet but maybe?
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen

The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen is a novelisation of The Bright Sessions podcast. More accurately, it’s the novelisation of one particular storyline, primarily following two of the characters. I initially thought it was going to be a sequel, but it actually goes into more depth on events from the first two (I think) seasons of the podcast.

Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”

Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb's ability is extreme empathy—he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb's life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam's feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb's feelings in a way that he can't quite understand.

Caleb's therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist—who seems to know a lot more than she lets on—and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.

In essence, this is a YA romance book, featuring two male protagonists. The speculative element is clear: one of the protagonists, Caleb, has an empathy superpower, which allows him (forces him) to sense other people’s emotions. So on the one hand, we have Caleb’s very unique view of the people around him. On the other hand, there’s Adam, who is a normal teen that happens to suffer from depression. Despite one being a it of a nerd and the other being a it of a jock, the two of them form a connection. I also want to be clear that it isn’t just through Caleb’s powers that we experience Adam’s depression. Adam has his own point of view chapters and was diagnosed long before the start of the book. It’s now just something he has to live with and, I think, a particularly good depiction of living with depression.

Since I have listened to the original podcast, I knew what was going to happen in this book. The fact that it’s a romance book cancels out the spoilery nature of being familiar with the podcast (because of how romance books work). The one thing I think might throw people who haven’t listened to the podcast is the sudden appearance of some of the other podcast characters (other than Dr Bright). They sort of fit into the story, but because Caleb and Adam weren’t directly involved in the most dramatic parts of the podcast events, they seemed very oddly tangential, despite triggering some personal issues for our protagonists. On the other hand, if you enjoy The Infinite Noise, it might be a good jumping off point for getting into The Bright Sessions podcast.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I generally recommend it to all fans of YA, particularly spec fic YA. I hope we get more novels in this universe, although I’m not sure which bits of podcast would work best. You definitely do not need to have listened to the podcast to enjoy this book and, conversely, listening to the podcast first does not in any way ruin the book.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2019, Tor Teen
Series: Sort of? The first actual book, set in the Bright Sessions (podcast) world. I hope there'll be more books.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Reticence by Gail Carriger

Reticence by Gail Carriger is the fourth and final book in the Custard Protocol series. I believe it is also the last book (or novel, more accurately) in the entire parasol universe. (A novella or two might still be forthcoming.) It ties up all the loose ends of the Custard Protocol books and also some unexpected loose ends from the Finishing School books.

Bookish and proper Percival Tunstell finds himself out of his depth when floating cities, spirited plumbing, and soggy biscuits collide in this delightful conclusion the Custard Protocol series.

Percival Tunstell loves that his sister and friends are building themselves a family of misfits aboard their airship, the Spotted Custard. Of course, he'd never admit that he belongs among them.

Percy has always been on the outside - dispassionate, aloof, and hatless.

But accidental spies, a trip to Japan, and one smart and beautiful doctor may have him renegotiating his whole philosophy on life. Except hats.

He's done with hats. Thank you very much.

This was, as per usual for Carriger’s books, a fun read. It’s structured in the romance style of having alternating points of view from the two leads who are obviously going to end up together. Any tension that exists is more from “when” and “how” rather than “if”. So we have half-ish of the story from Percy’s point of view — a well-known character from the series, though I think this is the first time we see inside his head — and half-ish of the story from the point of view of Arsenic, a new character. The book is generally cute and charming with both characters having entertaining quirks which mesh well together.

The slightly odd thing about this book is that a lot of major events happen to other characters (like Rue, who was the protagonist of the first two Custard Protocol books) and are somewhat backgrounded by the Percy- and Arsenic-centred narration. I suppose it works as an epilogue for those characters and it makes sense when considering that those events are not the main plot of this book. But it was sort of odd? And as a consequence the destination that the main plot takes place in — Japan, as noted in the blurb and as can be guessed from the cover — isn't reached until about halfway through the book. The story that takes place there was adequately entertaining, but sort of brief. There wasn't as much space for interacting with a variety of locals as there was in the earlier books (or am I thinking about the Soulless books, rather than the Custard books?)

Anyway, that aside I enjoyed Reticence and I definitely recommend it to fans of Gail Carriger. It probably stands alone a bit more than the earlier books in the series (although definitely contains spoilers for the earlier books). I recommend reading them in order, but I don't think it's absolutely essential in this case, especially if you are generally already familiar with the world. I am a bit sad that there aren't any more books to look forward to, but I see how this series has run its course. I would not be averse to reading more books set in the same universe, but aside from a novella or two I am not expecting any more.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2019, Self-published (outside of North America)
Series: Custard Protocol book 4 of 4
Format read: ePub
Source: Bought from Kobo store

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Winter's Tale by Nike Sulway and Shauna O’Meara

Winter’s Tale by Nike Sulway and illustrated by Shauna O’Meara is an illustrated children’s book; a short novel with pictures, rather than a full-blown picture book. It is currently being Kickstarted by Twelfth Planet Press, making this one of my timeliest reviews ever. This book drew my attention for two reasons: the colourful illustrations and the Tiptree Award-winning writer of the story.

A hare in the moon.

A town with streets that won't stay still.

Hidden worlds hide within these painted walls...

Existing within these hidden worlds, outside of them, and in a world all of their own, is a child called Winter. As a baby, Winter was found in a fruit box; ever since they have been searching for a home and a family.

With an elusive blue hare as a guide, a daring new friend, and a family with their own kind of magic, Winter might finally find a place to call home: a place to belong.

Winter’s Tale is the story of Winter, a founding who has passed through a few families by the time the story starts. Unsurprisingly, Winter doesn’t feel like they belong, especially when they have to move families again. Winter is also agender (my impression from the book was that they were intersex, though that is less clear), but their sense of not belonging stems more from the series of foster families than from this fact.

The whole story has a magical vibe to it and this is especially emphasised when Winter meets their fourth family and learns about the changing landscape their house is found in. Throughout the story Winter keeps catching glimpses of a blue hare, which apparently no one else can see, and this is linked with the magical surroundings and Winter’s quest/desire to find somewhere to belong.

Overall, this was a fun read with very nice illustrations throughout. I think it would appeal to the kind of children that enjoy magical (or partly magical) stories and would work well both read to or by a child. I’m not sure I have any appropriately aged children in my life (my niece is probably a little too old by now), but if I did I would certainly buy this for them.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2019, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: No
Format read: Hardcover ARC
Source: Publisher
Disclaimer: I work with Twelfth Planet Press but was not involved in the production of this book

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman was shortlisted for the inaugural YA Hugo award, to be awarded at the World Science Fiction Convention this weekend. That was the main reason I read it. Tess of the Road is a spin-off of a YA series that I was aware of, but which didn’t grab my attention (I think, based on what I now know, this was because the marketing and cover gave the wrong impression of the book). I started all the Hugo-nominated YA books but one, and Tess of the Road was the only one that interested me enough to keep reading (though I might come back to one or two of the others later).

In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.

Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl—a subspecies of dragon—who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one.

Tess is a teen in a world that expects people like her to be getting married and thinking of having babies. Because her family has fallen on hard times, she has spent the past couple of years working towards getting her twin sister a wealthy husband. Even though Tess is technically the older twin, scandalous events from her past have lead her family to pretend that honour falls on the other twin. This past and the way in which it was slowly explained throughout the book is what first grabbed my attention. What kept my attention was the world building and the interesting non-human races that feature.

As can be guessed from the title, Tess breaks free from the expectations of society and sets out on the road. She has a series of adventures, which make up the story and are tied together by a quest her (non-human) companion/childhood friend is undertaking. Throughout the book, we see Tess grow. She starts off as an alcoholic, but through walking and manual labour and a few other key events comes to confront and come to terms with her past.

As I said, I enjoyed this book, particularly the world building. It was on the long side and I felt it dragged a bit in the middle, exacerbating it’s length, however, it overall held my attention well, especially the opening chunk and the ending. The end made me think there might be a sequel, though I wasn’t sure if that would be the case until the very end. I would be interested in reading it. Also, having read this spin off, I am certainly considering going back to the original series about Seraphina, Tess’s sister, at some point. I recommend this book to fans of YA, coming of age stories and particularly the kind of YA which does not involve saving the world.

4 / 5 stars

First published: Random House, 2018
Series: Same world as the Seraphina series and the first book of a new series
Format read: eARC
Source: Hugo voter packet

Friday, 9 August 2019

Rebuilding Tomorrow and Worldcon

Things have been a little quiet around here, as you might have noticed. Chances are they are going to continue being quiet for a little while longer because I'm working on an exciting new project.

In 2016, I edited an anthology with Holly Kench called Defying Doomsday. The theme of that anthology was post/apocalyptic stories featuring disabled and chronically ill protagonists. Defying Doomsday did well, picking up several award short-listings and even winning a Ditmar for best collection. Now I am working on a follow-up anthology.

Rebuilding Tomorrow will also focus on disabled and/or chronically ill protagonists and it will still have a somewhat post-apocalyptic theme. But! Rather than focussing on survival in the immediate aftermath of an apocalypse like Defying Doomsday did, the stories in Rebuilding Tomorrow will be set a significant time after whatever apocalyptic disaster. These will be stories that show society getting back on its feet and people moving past subsistence-level existence into a new, sustainable world, even though it’s one that has been irrevocably changed by an apocalypse.

The team at Twelfth Planet Press will be running a Kickstarter for Rebuilding Tomorrow in October and the anthology itself will be out mid-2020, definitely in time to have a book party at CoNZealand, next year's World Science Fiction Convention.

And if you're planning to attend this year's Worldcon in Dublin, I will be there, spending a large portion of my time at the Twelfth Planet Press Dealer's table (booth 98). Come stop by if you're going to be in Dublin! We will of course be selling Defying Doomsday and other Twelfth Planet Press books and you can grab a nifty bookmark (as pictured on the right) or a swish Rebuilding Tomorrow ribbon for your con badge.

Will I see you there?

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Abbott Vol 1 by Saladin Ahmed

Abbott Vol 1 by Saladin Ahmed collects issues #1–5 of the ongoing Abbott comics. I read it because it was shortlisted for a Hugo Award in the Graphic Novel category. I haven't been keeping up with comics recently, so I probably would not have come across it otherwise.

While investigating police brutality and corruption in 1970s Detroit, journalist Elena Abbott uncovers supernatural forces being controlled by a secret society of the city’s elite.

In the uncertain social and political climate of 1972 Detroit, hard-nosed, chain-smoking tabloid reporter Elena Abbott investigates a series of grisly crimes that the police have ignored. Crimes she knows to be the work of dark occult forces. Forces that took her husband from her. Forces she has sworn to destroy.

Hugo Award-nominated novelist Saladin Ahmed (Star Wars: Canto Bight, Black Bolt) and artist Sami Kivelä (Beautiful Canvas) present one woman's search for the truth that destroyed her family amidst an exploration of the systemic societal constructs that haunt our country to this day.

The titular character, Abbott, is a newspaper journalist working in 70s Detroit. Not only does she have to put up with racism and sexism, but some mystic cult-type magic is killing people and targeting her. Although the idea of evil cult magic stuff isn't exactly original, I found that Abbott did some interesting things with it, making it feel a bit fresh rather than clich√©d. The setting also contributed to that.

I enjoyed Abbott even though I am not particularly in the mood for urban fantasy at the moment. The relationships in the comic were also well-developed, even though it was only five issues. I would recommend it to fans of Lois Lane, as well as fans of urban fantasy / horror type stories. I am interested in reading more if I come across the next volume.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2018, Boom! Studios
Series: Yes, start of ongoing series.
Format read: PDF
Source: Hugo Voter Packet

Friday, 26 July 2019

Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan is a standalone book set in the world of The Memoirs of Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons and sequels). Rather than taking a naturalist view of dragons, like the earlier books, this one focusses on a significant translation of the Draconian language. I said it stands alone, but it does rather contain a spoiler for Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the fifth and final of the Memoirs of Lady Trent. So beware if you haven't read that book and want to remain unspoiled. Similarly, do not continue reading this review if you don't want to be spoiled for the end of the Memoirs of Lady Trent.

As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.

TURNING DARKNESS INTO LIGHT is a delightful fantasy of manners, the heir to the award-winning Natural History of Dragons series, a perfect stepping stone into an alternate Victorian-esque fantasy landscape.

This novel is told through a collection of diary entries, letters, and the translation in progress. Most of the narrative comes from Audrey's diary entries, with various letters, musings from Kudshayn's diary-like entries (but with more formality in mind on his part), and discussions in the footnotes of the translation flesh out the rest of the story. This does come with limitations, such that if something dramatic didn't happen to Audrey we didn't necessarily hear about it. That said, most of the dramatic moments did happen to Audrey and she was in a position to write about them afterwards, but that made some of the other media a bit lacklustre. For example, the first few religion-oriented musings from Kudshayn's journal were kind of dull to me, but I found his insights more interesting as we got closer to the end of the book. This style I think makes this book just slightly less compelling than the original Memoirs of Lady Trent series, because, while those books were written pseudo-autobiographically, they were written by the protagonist long after the events recounted in them. That makes them inherently feel a bit more coherent, while Turning Darkness Into Light is written in a much more immediate style, without any snarky comments added by an older protagonist looking back on her younger self. Putting it that way, perhaps it is just a matter of taste. And I want to stress that I still definitely enjoyed Turning Darkness Into Light and found myself hooked on the story. Even though a story about translating ancient tablets might sound boring, there were a lot of intriguing hooks to keep me interesting.

One does not need to have read the Memoirs of Lady Trent to enjoy Turning Darkness Into Light, but I think the reading experience is enhanced by greater familiarity with the world. Audrey, the protagonist, is the granddaughter of Lady Trent, and various members of her illustrious family make minor appearances in this book. I expect some of those references would be quite meaningless to readers unfamiliar with the earlier books, although the overarching story would still work.

I enjoyed Turning Darkness Into Light and I'm hoping there will be more books about Audrey or at least more books set in this world. I think there's plenty left to explore, even if this particular story was well-contained in this book. I recommend this book to fans of the Memoirs of Lady Trent (of course) and anyone interested by the topic of translation of a dead language in a fantasy world containing dragons.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2019, Tor Books
Series: Stands alone, but same world as The Memoirs of Lady Trent
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Hugo Novelette Round-up

Time to talk about the Hugo novelette short list! I have previously written about the novellas and short stories and now it's time to look at the in-between length.

This is a mixed bag of stories, with some science fiction and some fantasy stories thrown in, with a variety of moods between them. My favourite two, which are currently vying for top place on my ballot are "If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again" by Zen Cho and The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander. The latter I loved when I read it, thinking it was a novella until Hugo time rolled around, and the former I hadn't come across until this shortlist came out. In fact, I hadn't read any other stories here before they appeared on this shortlist, so I came to them relatively unbiased.

After the two stories mentioned above, I enjoyed "The Thing About Ghost Stories" a lot, which maybe shouldn't surprise me since I loved "Cat Pictures Please" by the same author. I enjoyed "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections" by Tina Connolly and “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller equally, although the latter had more depth to its world building and the former had a good ending which was both obvious and unexpected. The story going on the bottom of my ballot will be "Nine Last Days on Planet Earth" by Daryl Gregory, which I did not enjoy much, for the reasons I list below.

I think my vote will be loosely in the order I mentioned the stories, with a bit of jiggling around to be decided when I actually submit it. What about you? Which novelettes did you like most or dislike? Let me know in the comments!


"If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again", by Zen Cho — A wonderful story about an imugi trying to ascend to a heavenly dragon form. It takes a long time and learns many things along the way. Both about the Way and, eventually, about humans. A very enjoyable story with an emotional and bittersweet ending.

"The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections", by Tina Connolly — A fantasy story about magical pastries that forcibly evoke certain memories. Well, the actual story is about the wife of the baker that makes them and the tyrannical King who has taken the throne. It was an interesting that I enjoyed even as I wondered how it would end satisfactorily.

"Nine Last Days on Planet Earth", by Daryl Gregory — The story was OK but I found it a bit old fashioned. I’m also not sure that the title made sense in the end with the direction the story took, but I don’t want to spoil it by explaining. I was weirded out by how often the (gay!) protagonist described how beautiful his mother was. That was super weird, and only got more so with repetition. Overall, the science parts with the apocalypse were interesting, the rest was fine.

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander — This was published as a separate book, much like the novellas, and hence it got a standalone review from me. You can read it here.

"The Thing About Ghost Stories", by Naomi Kritzer - The story opens like a nonfiction essay but then settles into the lived experience of the narrator, who is a ghost-story collecting anthropologist. As well as discussing different types of ghost stories, the story gives us a glimpse into the narrators life with her ageing mother. I quite enjoy this story, for its discussion of ghost stories as well as the main story. I guess I had enough of a scientist to enjoy such categorisations.

“When We Were Starless”, by Simone Heller — Exquisitely detailed world building as we follow a tribe and their spiritual leader across a world unable to sustain life. Their world is very different from ours and, although the tribe is not human, they are recognisably people who have forgotten their distant past and are distrustful when confronted with a remnant of it. The story felt fantastical when I started reading but became more clearly science fiction as I read further. A very well-thought-out story.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Memento by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Memento by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is a prequel novella set in the Illuminae Files world. I have previously reviewed the first two books in the series, Illuminae and Gemina. While I have read the third book, Obsidio, I have not reviewed it since I did not get a chance to read the final fancy typeset version, which is now on another continent. (I read an earlier version for science-checking purposes.) The printed booklet version of Memento is the only version I have read and came as a preorder bonus for the authors' new book.

December, 2574. Forty-three days before the BeiTech attack on Kerenza IV.

This is the story of my first friendship.

This is the tale of my first murder?

Some monsters are born.

But I?


I was made.

I won't say this was a fun read per se, but as with the main books in the series it was presented in a fun way, with transcripts of conversations and a few pages of strange word art. I did not think I remembered the main characters (other than AIDAN) from the main series and, given the series, it was not hard to guess the shape of the ending. I enjoyed the new protagonist, Olivia, who had an interesting story arc.

Memento does not contain any significant spoilers for the series. Being a prequel meant that certain events were set in stone, but we did see them from a new perspective. The events that overlap between the novella and the first book, Illuminae, happen near the very start of Illuminae, so I would not consider them to be spoilers. It's reasonable read for someone wanting a sampler of the series (although it might not be easy to obtain — I'm not entirely sure how broadly it will ultimately be distributed).

This was an interesting read and I recommend it to fans of the Illuminae Files as well as new readers who can get their hands on it. It's a reasonable introduction to the series, and is a quick and self-contained read. I also like the way in which it was presented — although I generally prefer ebooks, the unique formatting of this series lends itself better to print and the staple-bound booklet of Memento was kind of cute.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Alfred A Knopf (US), 2019
Series: Illuminae Files, prequel/volume 0.5
Format read: Paper!
Source: Preorder bonus with Aurora Rising

Sunday, 14 July 2019

#ReadShortStories all over the place (106–110)

Stories from a variety of sources in this batch. Aside from finishing off my Hugo novelette reading (stay tuned for a round up of all those stories), I listened to an audio story while travelling (possibly it was a novella, but I'm including it here) and read a paper story, so a range of formats.

Rules for the Care and Maintenance of Phoenix Eggs For Wayward Daughters by Tansy Rayner Roberts — An amusing flash/listicle story about caring for a Phoenix egg, just like it says in the title. Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon (and subsequently newsletter)

When We Were Starless by Simone Heller — Exquisitely detailed world building as we follow a tribe and their spiritual leader across a world unable to sustain life. Their world is very different from ours and, although the tribe is not human, they are recognisably people who have forgotten their distant past and are distrustful when confronted with a remnant of it. The story felt fantastical when I started reading but became more clearly science fiction as I read further. A very well-thought-out story. Source:

Into Darkness by Anike Kirsten — Implausible but sort of interesting flash. Source:

Let Sleeping Princes Lie by Tansy Rayner Roberts — An entertaining story in a parody fairytale world with royalty and reporters and the need to dodge stray spinning wheels. I enjoyed it. Source: (also available in print)

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly — A fantasy story about magical pastries that forcibly evoke certain memories. Well, the actual story is about the wife of the baker that makes them and the tyrannical King who has taken the throne. It was an interesting that I enjoyed even as I wondered how it would end satisfactorily. Source:

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Interview with Ada Hoffmann

Today, rather than a review, I have an interview with Ada Hoffmann to share with you all. Ada Hoffmann is the author of The Outside, which I recently read and reviewed and enjoyed immensely.

Q. One of my favourite things about The Outside was the backstory of the gods, angels and trappings of religion. How far do you think we are from creating AI sufficiently intelligent to become gods?

A. Thank you! I think that we are actually quite far from this. In real life there's an issue of how much responsibility we give to AIs, how we rely on algorithms in making certain kinds of decision. But with current technology it's really not an issue of the AI becoming intelligent and taking over. It's much more about humans in power trying to hide their acceptance of bias, institutional violence, and unchecked capitalism behind a veneer of machine-like objectivity.

The AI in The Outside really isn't "hard" science fiction, in the sense of extrapolating future scenarios I think are likely — instead it's there because of the emotional hold that AI and aliens have on us as readers, the role they play in our cultural imaginations as superior beings. There's an article up on the Uncanny blog where I talk about this in a bit more detail.

Q. You focus on Nemesis out of the AI gods in The Outside, with Aletheia being present in the thoughts of several characters. Out of the other gods, which are only mentioned in passing, do you have a favourite, and can you tell us a bit about them?

A. I definitely have a list of all the other Gods and their portfolios somewhere. I think my favorite is Philophrosyne, the God of love. She's not specific to any particular form of love but oversees all of them; she encourages people to be kind to their loved ones, families and friends as well as strangers, guests and their community at large. She doesn't have much to do in this book but in many ways She's the polar opposite of Nemesis, even more so than Arete, who's in some ways positioned as Nemesis' more-shiny-and-better-intentioned counterpart. I also have a soft spot for Gelos, the God of joy, pleasure, and entertainment. He has a childlike, playful personality which contrasts with most of the other Gods. I think that Gelos's angels are rarely seen, but every year or two they suddenly appear on some planet with a pop-up art installation or carnival-like thing and it's a doozy.

Q. I personally enjoy seeing scientist characters in books and Yasira came across as quite believable in that respect. Can you tell us a bit about where you drew inspiration for creating her character?

A. Well, I'm an autistic person in STEM in real life (computer science) so some of it's drawn from that. But mainly Yasira was drawn up to the constraints of the other parts of the book that already existed. I had Akavi and Ev in my head long before I had Yasira. I knew I needed her to be Ev's student, so that logically meant another physicist, and I needed her to have a big personal and emotional stake in finding out what's going on with Ev, so I gave her the big project of power generation on the Pride of Jai, which inevitably goes wrong. The actual science in the book is quite handwaved, in my opinion. The parts of Yasira that are drawn more from life are her emotions - pride in her work, but also impostor syndrome, anxiety, and burnout.

Q. What can we expect to see from you next? Will you be writing more books/stories in the same universe or are you working on something new?

A. I am definitely hoping to write more in this universe. The Outside has a strong resolution and stands on its own, but it clearly sets things up with regards to where the characters might go next. We're still in negotiations with the publisher about a second book, so stay tuned! In the meantime, I have also been tinkering on and off with a WIP novel about dragon palaeontology.

Q. Followup: Have you written or are you planning to write any short fiction set in The Outside world?

A. Yes! There's a story called "Minor Heresies" which is already out; it appeared in an anthology called "Ride the Star Wind," and was reprinted in "Transcendent 3: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction." It's set about 200 years earlier than The Outside, and features a shapeshifting Vaurian who stumbles upon something he ought not to. I'm hoping to eventually publish more short stories fleshing out this world. There's one about Enga, for instance — a minor angel character from the book — which needs revisions, and which I've been sitting on and not revising for an embarrassingly long time, but I need to get back to it. I really enjoy her.

This next question contains a small spoiler, so I will put it under a spoiler shield for those who haven't read the book. Don't hover/highlight/read on if you want to come to the book completely unspoiled! 

Q. The Outside seems like it was influenced by Lovecraftian themes (minus a literal Cthulhu). What inspired you to take that direction with The Outside?

A. To be honest, the Lovecraftian themes came from somewhere very old — they appeared in the same D&D campaign where I originally encountered Akavi, the book's main antagonist. Pitting him and Evianna Talirr against each other - Law vs. Chaos, villain vs. villain — was the original impulse that led to the creation of the novel's setting and everything else in it. When I paired them with the science fiction system of AI Gods, it made for a religious allegory that I really liked: mechanistic Gods who reward and punish according to clear rules, vs. completely wild, unknowable mysticism, both incredibly dangerous to the mortals who get in their way.

Thank you Ada for stopping by and answering my questions!

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a short novel about two time-travelling agents who start corresponding with each other. It's written in a poetic style and is half-epistolary, half-prose.

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

And thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more.

Except discovery of their bond would be death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

This is a remarkable book, told in a very poetic style, with chapters alternating between snippets of our characters’ lives and the letters they send each other. Although it is written as prose, one feels as though one is reading poetry. The use of imagery and metaphor is strong and frequent and the relationship between the characters shifts as they become more obsessed with each other as they learn more about the other.

At first I had difficulty keeping the characters straight in my mind — Red and Blue, from futures Garden and Agency, wait, which was which again? — but then it became clearer as they obtained more identifying characteristics. There was [the one that had happened to] and [the one that did this thing], to keep it spoiler-free. I started reading this book while travelling and I don’t recommend reading it in a noisy environment. It was easier to enjoy at home, calmly. Or at least with noise-cancelling headphones on. It is the kind of book that demands your full attention to properly take in its words and worlds.

I don't generally like spending too much time comparing books to other things, but it feels particularly topical in this case. This Is How You Lose the Time War is a book that pushes many if the same buttons as Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman or Killing Eve but with a more poetic writing style than Good Omens and more emphasis on the relationship between enemy agents than Killing Eve. (I speak of the TV show Killing Eve, here — the books it’s based on look dreadful.) Also, in the struggle for a better future, no one side is clearly better than the other, which is not how most oppositional relationships are portrayed. In Killing Eve, Villanelle is the assassin so MI6 agent Eve clearly has the moral high ground. And things are both more and less ambiguous in Good Omens, where the two sides are literally heaven and hell. But if you liked either of those stories for their protagonist relationships, this is the book for you. Especially if you wished there was more time travel in them.

Actually, before I wrap up, I will say a few words on the time travel aspect. It's both integral to the story and sort of minimally done. No mechanics are explained, which makes sense for the style of the book, and all the time travel feats are basically magic, as far as we mere time-bound mortals are concerned. Sometimes that sort of thing bothers me, but in this case it fits in perfectly with the style of the book. The time travel is absolutely not the point, the letters between Blue and Red are, and doing it any other way would have been bizarre. For all that I've said the prose is very poetic, it's also very sparse (in the way of poetry, now that I think about it). For this reason, it took me a little while at the start of the book to feel grounded in the story (or as grounded as one can be in such a story) but, again, it makes perfect sense for what it is.

I really liked this book. I highly recommend it to fans of doomed and/or oppositional romance (is that the right term?), poetic letters and magical time travel. It's a quick read but a powerful one. If you're not sure whether the style is right for you, I think it's something you could quickly determine by reading the sample chapters on your favourite ebook store. In any case, I highly recommend This Is How You Lose the Time War.

5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2019, Jo Fletcher Books
Series: No, I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee is a collection of short stories set in the same world as the Machineries of Empire series (Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun). Although not all the stories require familiarity with the main series, I generally recommend having read the series before picking up Hexarchate Stories since some of the flash pieces and especially the concluding novella work better with knowledge of the characters and series events. (Though many of the stories absolutely stand alone.)

The essential short story collection set in the universe of Ninefox Gambit.

An ex-Kel art thief has to save the world from a galaxy-shattering prototype weapon...

A general outnumbered eight-to-one must outsmart his opponent...

A renegade returns from seclusion to bury an old comrade...

From the incredible imagination of Hugo- and Arthur C. Clarke-nominated author Yoon Ha Lee comes a collection of stories set in the world of the best-selling Ninefox Gambit. Showcasing Lee’s extraordinary imagination, this collection takes you to the very beginnings of the hexarchate’s history and reveals new never-before-seen stories.

I really enjoyed this collection. Even given the slightly unusual way in which I read it; skipping over stories I had previously read meant I skipped some award worthy reads. (The reviews for those stories, by the way, are copied from my original reviews of them in italics below.) I was particularly taken with the three longer stories that were new to me: "The Chameleon's Gloves", "Gamer's End" and "Glass Cannon". The first two are meaty stories more about life in the universe than about the specific characters that featured in the series (although Jedao does appear in "Gamer's End"). "Glass Cannon" is a novella that takes place after the trilogy and, as such, is pretty spoiler-heavy for the events at the end of Raven Stratagem. Mostly because "Glass Cannon" dominates this collection in terms of page-count, my usual summing up is after the story mini-reviews (and after a spoiler shield).

“The Chameleon’s Gloves” — A fascinating story about a Kel outcast set before even the Heptarchate came into existence. And if that sentence made no sense, it’s a story about a thief given a job no one should have ever had to sign up for.

“How the Andan Court” — Flash/prose poem that I’ve read beforeA flash piece that is more of a love letter explaining the absence of roses.

“Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam” — Longer flash musing on Liozh examinations, told from a relative future perspective, after the faction had fallen.

“Omens” — A short story about a couple’s date, dripping with significance if you’re paying attention and have read the Hexarchate books.

“Honesty” — A short story about very young Jedao and his even younger sister.

“Bunny” — Another young Jedao and sister, this time dealing with a missing cat. A cute story.

“Black Squirrels” — A hilarious story of a Shuos academy prank.

“Silence” — A family interlude told from the point of view of Jedao’s older brother Rodao. A straightforwardly enjoyable read.

“Extracurricular Activities”previously readSet in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, this story follows Jedao while he is still young. He goes on an undercover mission to extract a friend from academy. I really enjoyed this story. It was funny with serious moments. A good read for both readers of the novels and new comers to the world.

“Gloves” — Pretty much smut, with a bit of character exploration thrown in. I can’t imagine the framing details working very well for someone who hadn’t read the series.

“Hunting Trip” — A vignette featuring Jedao and a general stopping at a zoo en route to a hunting trip.

“The Battle of Candle Arc”already read: Shuos Jedao leads a Kel army to victory against heretics. I had some memory of this particular battle being mentioned in the novels (Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem), but misremembered the context. In any case, an interesting read, even more so since it was published years before the novels. Clearly the authors has been living in this world for a long time. Also, the explanations of the factions and calendar were done particularly well, especially given how complicated they can get. This story is a good introduction to the world.

“Calendrical Rot” — Things get weird. Apparently this was almost the prologue to Ninefox Gambit, so it’s interesting to me that it works as a short story.

“Birthdays” — Young Cheris and her family move out of their ghetto and have to give up some of their traditions. A nicely told flash story.

“The Robot’s Math Lessons”previously readAn adorable flash story about a robot making friends with a little girl (who I think is Cheris from Ninefox Gambit). — And yes, it was Cheris. This story is referenced in "Glass Cannon".

“Sword-Shopping” — Cheris and her girlfriend go to buy a sword. A cute flash piece.

“Persimmons” — A cute flash story about a servitor arrived at Kel Academy from a small village. Who doesn’t like sentient robot stories?

“Irriz the Assassin-Cat” — A cute flash featuring a cat soothing a child.

“Vacation” — Different characters take a trip to the zoo in this flash piece.

“Gamer’s End” — A second person short story about an advanced trainee sitting a test under Jedao. It’s one of the longer stories in this collection and is not so much filling in past anecdotes as telling a self-contained story set in the same world. And the second person narration adds some interesting flavour.

“Glass Cannon” — This is a novella (well and truly; it takes up the entire second half of Hexarchate Stories) set after Revenant Gun. It contains a lot of spoilers for the end of the Machineries of Empire series and I definitely don’t recommend reading it without having read the series. Not only will it be confusing, but it will also spoil some of the surprises and enjoyment of the series. In fact, a proper review of it is spoileriffic, so I will restrict it to my full review of Hexarchate Stories.

Full review with massive spoilers for Revenant Gun/Machineries of Empire. Do not hover over/highlight  the spoiler-shield below if you don't want to be spoiled.
“Glass Cannon” was an excellent read. Taking place after the end of Revenant Gun, it follows Moth!Jedao after he escapes imprisonment by the Shuos. His one desire in life is to get his memories back from Cheris and gain some sort of closure regarding the gaps in his memory, many of them from his youth. Cheri’s, meanwhile, is living a normal life in a settlement of her own ethnic group (much depleted after the events of the main series). She is just starting to get bored with a normal life teaching maths when that life gets disrupted by the escaped Jedao and the soldiers on his tale. Despite the inconvenience to her life, she agrees to transfer Original!Jedao’s memories to Moth!Jedao, since they have been haunting her. And so they set out on a quest to retrieve a device necessary for the transfer, and run into various troubles along the way.

Aside from being a really enjoyable story, “Glass Cannon” also manages to address some of the aspects of the world building that did not fit into the main series. Certain revelations from Revenant Gun — let’s say those loosely related to servitors and their factions and the human (non)regard of them — is raised here. So as well as following our beloved characters, we get to follow a little bit more progress in the Hexarchate, admittedly, not quite to completion, since that would be a much longer story.

I definitely recommend reading “Glass Cannon” as a sequel to the series if you enjoyed Machineries of Empire. I think Hexarchate Stories is worth buying for this novella alone, but the other included stories were also worth reading (but if you have already read the longer short stories/novelettes, the flash fiction may not feel weighty enough to bother buying the book for, but “Glass Cannon” certainly is).

This was a great collection, even if it was a little unbalanced in story lengths, and I definitely recommend it to fans of Yoon Ha Lee's books. While some of the stories are good entry points to the series, the majority of the flash stories work better if thought of adding something to the universe, rather than full stories in their own rights. For the prospective reader who wants to read Hexarchate Stories but not the trilogy (but why?), I see no reason why the first half of this collection can't be enjoyed, but I repeat my caution about "Glass Cannon" being full of spoilers and probably confusing without the trilogy context. On the other hand, if Lee plans to revisit the Hexarchate/Heptarchate universe again, sign me up for reading more stories/books set in that world.

5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2019, Solaris
Series: Machineries of Empire, stories set in the world of
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley