Sunday, 17 February 2019

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh is a YA book set in a world in which there is a very nearby Earthlike exoplanet and a very fast (compared with reality) spaceship engine has been invented. The story is about a group of teenagers who were trained up from the age of 13 and forced to compete against each other for a place in the British expedition to claim and start colonising Terra-Two.

A century ago, scientists theorised that a habitable planet existed in a nearby solar system. Today, ten astronauts will leave a dying Earth to find it. Four are decorated veterans of the 20th century’s space-race. And six are teenagers, graduates of the exclusive Dalton Academy, who’ve been in training for this mission for most of their lives.

It will take the team 23 years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years spent in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no rescue possible, should something go wrong. And something always goes wrong.

I have mixed feelings about this book overall. (That seems to be a bit of a developing trend with the new British science fiction I’ve read over the past year or so.) It won’t surprise my regular readers that some of the science annoyed me a little bit. But the way it played out in this book, there was only one annoying physics thing in the first two-thirds (or more maybe) of the book, which was some confusion and nonsensical imprecision about the artificial gravity. But I was willing to overlook it since everything else that could have been a problem was vague enough to not be glaringly wrong. Fine. But I should have realised that it was a harbinger of errors to come. These things generally are. The most climactic scene and its aftermath were unfortunately also the most scientifically baffling and inconsistent. I went from being kept awake by the excitement to being kept awake by my annoyance, and had to read something else for a bit.

The thing is, I didn’t hate this book, but there were a lot of other small factors that annoyed me and I want to mention them since they might be relevant to other people. One is that near the start one of the characters was sort of set up as being asexual — or at least on that spectrum — but it’s not really explored or interrogated at all and in the end might not be what the author intended. Another is that the UK Space Agency seemed to have much less regard for mental health than any real-world space agencies. There were sections of the book when I was amazed that they didn’t have proper contingencies in place for depression and the inevitable loneliness of being confined with the same nine other people for forty years. Given the number of psychological studies around long term space missions, this was strange and unjustified.

But overall, this wasn’t a terrible book. There was a focus on the character dynamics and I quite liked how the point of view moved between characters. Rather than rotating in a fixed way, we tended to get a focus on one character while something interesting was going on with them, with maybe a few interludes about other characters, before moving on to focus on another character. It was a method that worked very well for the large cast of six point of view characters. The background details of worldbuilding were also interesting and added flavour to the story. The launch took place in 2012 and there are a few mentions of the London Olympics while they’re on. There was also a pleasing awareness of the space programmes other countries were running, which had some impact on the story, albeit not as much as I sometimes wanted. For example, just as I thought we were going to learn more about the Chinese mission, the book skipped ahead and ended, so that was a bit disappointing, for all that it was a sensible place to end.

Overall, I recommend this book to fans of science fiction, though perhaps not those who get as or more annoyed as I do about physics in books. I’ve called this a YA book at the start and it does focus on young people. But for most of the book they’re around 20, which might be stretching some people’s definitions. The plot structure also differs from a lot of speculative fiction YA, so your mileage may vary if you care about age bracket designations.

3.5 / 5

First published: March 2019, Simon & Schuster
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, 15 February 2019

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie was not at all what I expected. When I first heard that there would Leckie had written a fantasy book, I was ambivalent. I like her SF, but haven’t recently felt the need for new fantasy series in my life. But then some friends with early review copies started gushing about and I figured I might as well join their ranks.

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven's Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven's watch, the city flourishes.

But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods.

It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo--aide to Mawat, the true Lease--arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven's Tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself...and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden forever.

There are two main storylines in this book and both are told from the point of view of a god, in a world where there are many gods of different powers. One story tells the god’s history — first awareness, how the world has changed since then, learning to communicate with humans, etc — while the other story follows a human in the “present day”. The latter story is also told by the god so it’s actually I second person as though the god is speaking to the other protagonist.

At first I was happy to go along with the interesting premise, before I had a clear idea of where the story was going. But then, once the threads started to come together, it became rather difficult to put the book down. Especially as it ramped up towards the end because gosh was that a dramatic ending that I’m not going to spoil (!!!).

The easiest book to compare The Raven Tower to is Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, but only really because of the shared subject matter. The ideas of small gods are very similar, but aside from that the two books have little in common. I’m not sure I’ve read anything else similar to The Raven Tower. The intertwining of the two stories was expertly done, with many of the transitions leaving me wanting more, only to start reading the next section and be reminded that I had wanted more of that one too.

I highly recommend The Raven Tower to fantasy fans, especially those who enjoy reading about different types of gods and different systems for the existence of said gods. I also recommend it to readers who are looking for standalone fantasy books. While it's possible more stories could be written in this world in the future, I think it's unlikely and would lessen the impact of this one.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2019, Orbit
Series: Don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

#ReadShortStories that are technomagical (16 to 20)


This batch includes the last piece from Meet Me at the Intersection, which I have already reviewed in full, but I didn't want to skip including the last story in my roundups. I also have for you this week the first three stories from a new anthology, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color edited by Nisi Shawl. Then I accidentally started reading the John Chu story when I was having a look at the new epub format Tor.com is using to put out bimonthly groups of their published short stories (for example, January to February is here). And that's the story of how I came to read these stories.


Border Crossings by Rebecca Lim — Another autobiographical essay, this morning me focusing on our interactions and reactions to the world, especially with respect to language. Source: Meet Me at the Intersection edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina

The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias Buckell — What if a lot of different aliens all decided that Earth was a perfect tourist destination? Find out how mere humans live on the edges of a society that mainly relies on tourist income to Manhattan. Interesting parallels as well as interesting aliens. Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

Deer Dancer by Kathleen Alcalá — A story about a collective living arrangement in some sort of post-apocalyptic future (climate change I think). It was mostly slice-of-life, interesting but lost me a bit towards the end. Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations by Minsoo Kang — I originally started reading this story on the second of two long-haul flights and it transpired that I was far too tired to take the story in. When I restarted it later, better rested, I realised I had had no idea what it was about from the first attempt. It doesn’t help that it’s written in a very dry style, in the manner of a non-fictional historical essay, and that the story itself emerges gradually. Once established it was a very interesting and amusing read, if not exactly an exciting one. Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

Beyond the El by John Chu — A story about crafting food (technomagically?) and the scare family can leave us with. And moving on. A gorgeous story, as I have come to expect from John Chu. Source: https://www.tor.com/2019/01/16/beyond-the-el-john-chu/

Monday, 11 February 2019

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire is the fourth published book in the Wayward Children series, and is another prequel. It does not particularly require having read the earlier published books to make sense, but I feel like Every Heart a Doorway is a reasonable introduction to the world, if one is desired.

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.

When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well

I started reading this book without actually remembering who the protagonist, Lundy, was. The name was vaguely familiar so I knew she'd shown up in other stories, but I completely misremembered her future story. This was an enjoyable read despite that, which suggests to me that this novella stands alone completely, if necessary. I think the only thing that would be lost to someone who hadn't read any of the other novellas in the series is the background of the school and the sheer number of different types of doors to different worlds that exist. But that's almost completely irrelevant to this story about Lundy and her life travelling to and from the Goblin Market.

Lundy was a mildly unhappy child before she found her door and her particular fairyland wasn't everyone's idea of a good time. But she liked it and she made friends and she felt like she belonged. She even made several trips between the two worlds, which isn't something we've seen close up before. The story spans years as Lundy goes back and forth and is more the story of her transitions than the story of adventures had on the other side of a door. It's the story of choices made, of fair value — because that's what the Goblin Market is all about — and of family.

I really enjoyed this book. It had its melancholy and bittersweet moments, but overall I found it less depressing or distressing than the other prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. Overall, it was an interesting conversation with the idea of portal fantasy, focussing on a subset of the ideas raised in the first novella, Every Heart A Doorway. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the concepts. And generally to fans of deconstructing fantasy tropes and/or portal fantasies.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2019, Tor.com publishing
Series: Wayward Children, fourth published book of ongoing series. A standalone prequel.
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis

Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis is the second novella in the Harwood Spellbook, following on from Snowspelled. I also read the prequel novella, which appeared in The Underwater Ballroom Society. Although the story continues on from what came before, it stands on its own fairly well and could probably be read without the earlier stories.

Cassandra Harwood scandalized her nation when she became the first woman magician in Angland. Now, she's ready to teach a whole new generation of bright young women at her radical new school, the Thornfell College of Magic…

Until a sinister fey altar is discovered in the school library, the ruling Boudiccate sends a delegation to shut down Thornfell, and Cassandra’s own husband is torn away from her.

As malevolent vines slither in from the forest and ruthless politicians scheme against her, Cassandra must fight the greatest battle of her life to save her love, her school, and the future of the young women of Angland.

This was an enjoyable read. It features Cassandra Harwood going through various struggles in the course of setting up her new magical academy for young women. Aside from having to plan and teach most of the classes, she is also subjected to an inspection by disapproving government officials. If they don’t like what they see, they have the power to shut her down. Of course, that’s exactly when other things start to go wrong.

The light element of mystery in this story had me turning pages with ease. Unlike the previous novella, this isn’t a romance — Cassandra is already married, albeit catching some time with her husband is one of her challenges. My favourite aspect of this novella was the way in which a world building issue I had with the first novella was resolved. If women run the country and have more power, why do they still wear dresses?! The question is (indirectly) answered at last! It actually makes sense now, for which I’m glad.

I highly recommend this series for readers looking for a short and fun fantasy read. If you’ve already read Snowspelled, then you have a good idea of what to expect (but with more thorns, less snow). If not, the novellas can be read out of order so you are free to pick up this one first, although I like them all and certainly recommend reading them all. I await the next instalment in the Harwood Spellbook with anticipation.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2019, Five Fathoms Press
Series: Yes. Book 2 of 2 so far + 1 prequel in The Harwood Spellbook. An ongoing series.
Format read: eARC
Source: Courtesy of the author

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 7: I've Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 7: I've Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You written by Ryan North and illustrated by Erica Henderson is the seventh collected volume of Squirrel Girl comics. I have previously read and reviewed reviewed the earlier volumes (123456). This one stands alone reasonably well and does not require having read the earlier stories for continuity reasons.

Squirrel Girl goes savage! When Doreen Green and Nancy Whitehead enter a mysterious programming competition, they don't suspect that the prize for winners will be an all-expenses-paid trip to...the Savage Land! Will Squirrel Girl fight a dinosaur? Will Squirrel Girl fight two dinosaurs?! Will we come up with really excellent reasons why these fights would take place, reasons that both justify the fights while also telling the story of what lead to this dinosaur-punching smashup: a story which, even though it stars dinosaurs and Squirrel Girls, contains within it the chance for us to recognize, perhaps for the first time, our most personal and secret selves? Of course! Plus, jokes and a super villain who's causing major problems - it's the complete package!

This volume contained a four-issue story arc in which Doreen and Nancy (and Tippy-Toe) visit the Savage Land, which is a magical tropical world in Antarctica filled with dinosaurs (which was originally built by aliens). Of course, something goes horribly wrong but perhaps not quite in the way you would expect, assuming your expectations are based on Jurassic Park or its sequels. One of the problems requires programming to solve, so that's fun and different. I like how often Doreen and Nancy break out their programming chops — or at least consider things programmatically. So that was a fun arc.

The dinosaur story was followed by a special "zine" issue which was more like an anthology issue. Various guest artists wrote/drew short stories based on many Squirrel Girl characters plus some other Marvel heroes. These were mostly entertaining, although I did feel some were too short to be properly funny (and the Galactus one just wasn't).

Finally, the last issue in this volume was A Year Of Marvels The Unbeatable #1, which was a story centred on Tippy-Toe and involved a supervillain and a team-up with Rocket Racoon. That was pretty adorable because Tippy-Toe can't not be adorable. I enjoyed it even though I'm not a fan of Rocket — in large part because it was very much Tippy-Toe's story.

So this volume is a bit more diverse than the last few I've read. I wasn't a huge fan of the anthology zine issue, but I enjoyed the glimpse at Tippy-Toe's life when Doreen is otherwise occupied. Recommended to fans of Squirrel Girl. I think it's a reasonable place to start, although the zine issue will probably be lost on readers unfamiliar with the various characters.

4. 5 / 5 stars

First published: 2018, Marvel Comics
Series: the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 7th volume of an ongoing series, collecting issues #22–26 and A Year Of Marvels The Unbeatable #1
Format read: Trade Paperback
Source: All Star Comics, Melbourne

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 6: Who Run the World? Squirrels by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 6: Who Run the World? Squirrels written by Ryan North and illustrated by Erica Henderson is the sixth collected volume of Squirrel Girl comics. I have previously read and reviewed all the preceding volumes (1234, 5) except for the Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe hardcover which is its own self-contained story and also an expensive hardcover. (I’ll probably buy it eventually.)

It's a normal, quiet day at Empire State University, filled with lots of lectures and higher education and students learning quietly. But don't turn away, there's also going to be a fistfight! A big one! And Doreen Green will also get a new Flying Squirrel suit from a mystery benefactor that would render her even more unbeatable, if such a thing were scientifically possible! That pretty much means crime is over forever. There definitely can't be a new super villain in town conspiring to mold Squirrel Girl into the perfect minion...or is there?! Gasp at a secret invasion of character motivations! Thrill at a civil war of emotions! Boggle as monsters truly get unleashed and Doreen's fate hangs in the balance! Also, machine-gun-wielding bears! It's squirrels and girls and punching, oh my!

This volume starts with a four-issue arc featuring a new villain who decides to target Squirrel Girl specifically on the way to world domination. I enjoyed the depth offered by the length of this story as well as the passing nod to “fake news” towards the end. Also the minor side plot about the bear and the chicken was surprisingly awesome. Yes, this was an animal-heavy story.

The final issue in this volume was a standalone one in which Doreen and Nancy go on a trip, leaving Koi Boi, Chipmunk Hunk and Brain Drain to guard New York and have their own adventure. While I am significantly less invested in these characters, it was still an entertaining read and they got to have a bit of character development, which is nice for them.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this volume of my favourite Marvel superhero’s adventures. I recommend it to fans of Squirrel Girl who haven’t already read it. I already have the next volume lined up and I look forward to getting stuck into it soon.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Marvel Comics
Series: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 6 of ongoing series. Containing issues #17–22 of run 2015B
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: All Star Comics, Melbourne

Sunday, 3 February 2019

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 5: Like I'm the Only Squirrel in the World by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 5: Like I'm the Only Squirrel in the World written by Ryan North and illustrated by Erica Henderson is the fifth collected volume of comics. Squirrel Girl is my favourite Marvel hero and I have previously read and reviewed all the previous collected comic trades (1, 2, 3, 4). Broadly speaking, this volume brings us more of the same Squirrel Girl goodness that I have come to expect.

Everyone gets a week-long break from class, and Squirrel Girl is taking Nancy to visit her parents up in Canada! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG, RIGHT? Turns out, nothing! It's a great trip and nothing of note happens and our story is actually EXTREMELY DULL. Sorry everyone. No, just kidding! Our story is actually SUPER AWESOME and things get real crazy real quick once a certain super-powered villain nobody has heard of for over a decade reappears! That's right! This comic features mysteries AND Canadians AND camping, not to mention our ALREADY super-enticing focus on squirrel powers! Let's see Howard the Duck promise you THAT.

The volume contains a three-issue arc about a new super villain, which involves the excellent events depicted on the cover of this volume: Squirrel Girl throwing Tippy-Toe, who in turn throws Ant-Man. Superhero team-up gold. It also involves Canada and physics, so that's pretty cool.

The remaining two issues in the volume stand alone: we have a story told from the point of view of Mew the cat (who lives with Doreen's roommate), who ends up helping our heroes defeat the villain of the hour (and I think encounters Pizza Dog?). Then we have a special issue in which Doreen turns twenty and we get a look back at little Doreen on her fifth, tenth and fifteenth birthdays. That was an interesting look at the continuity of the current comic run (different to the continuity of the tie-in novels, for example).

Overall, this was a fun read and I recommend it to all Squirrel Girl fans who are this far behind in their reading (as I was). I don't think there's very much continuity in this volume, so only a basic understanding of Squirrel Girl is needed before reading; not all of the previous volumes need to have been read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Marvel Comics
Series: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 5 of ongoing series, containing issues #12–16 of the 2015B run of Squirrel Girl
Format read: Trade Paperback
Source: All Star Comics, Melbourne

Friday, 1 February 2019

Ms Marvel Vol 8: Mecca by G Willow Wilson

Ms Marvel Vol 8: Mecca written by G Willow Wilson and illustrated by Marco Failla and Diego Olortegui is the eight collected volume of Ms Marvel comics. I have reviewed all the previous seven (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), which means I feel like I have been following and Marvel for a long time. This volume followed on from the events of the previous one (the mayoral election was particularly relevant to the first story arc) and featured the reappearance of a minor character we had met before.

The villains are at Kamala's door, and Ms. Marvel has to save a city that doesn't want saving. The malleable Ms. Marvel continues her hero's journey as an enemy from her past begins targeting those closest to her, a challenge that calls into question everything about her -- not just as a super hero, but as a human being! Who can Ms. Marvel trust when everyone in Jersey City is against her? As Kamala's life hangs in the balance, a new crimefighter moves in on her turf. Plus: Bruno may be far away at a prestigious school in Wakanda, but even thousands of miles from his former best friend, Kamala Khan, adventure still finds him!

The first story arc in the volume was three issues long and very topical. It was about silent majorities and people seizing power and abusing it. Ms Marvel suffers some existential angst brought on by a) not everyone liking her and b) some people hating her and thinking she’s making Jersey City worse. But the story also deals with issues of immigration and the ostracism of people who are different. The issues are blended between immigrants and Kamala’s family, and people with super powers who are specifically being targeted by government forces. It was a pretty powerful storyline.

In comparison, the second story arc was a lot more fun and light. It was two issues of Ms Marvel and her new friend/sidekick stopping a train whose breaks had failed, but which wasn’t actually going very fast. There were some hairy moments but there was also a lot of character development. The volume ends on a low note but since I know there’s another volume out there, I’m not too worried.

I enjoyed both stories in this volume and I highly recommend it to fans of Ms Marvel. As usual, I think it works a bit better if you’ve read the earlier comics, but it probably stands alone a bit better than some of the others. I think all the important back story is filled in with only a few minor things left a bit ambiguous for people who haven’t read the rest of the series.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Marvel Comics
Series: Yes. Volume 8 of ongoing series, collecting issues #19-24 of the 2015 Ms Marvel run
Format read: Trade Paperback
Source: A Sad Physical Book Shop