Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Outside by Ada Hoffmann

The Outside by Ada Hoffmann is the author's debut novel. It is a far-future science fiction story with some really interesting world-building details and an autistic protagonist. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Pride of Jai was supposed to be humanity's greatest accomplishment—a space station made entirely by humans and their primitive computers, without "divine" cyber-technology provided by the sentient quantum supercomputers worshipped as Gods. And it was supposed to be a personal triumph for its young lead scientist, physicist Yasira Shien, whose innovative mathematics was key to the reactor powering it.

But something goes wrong in Yasira's reactor, leading to an unexplained singularity that destroys The Pride of Jai and most of the people on it—and placing Yasira in the sights of angry Angels, the cyborg servants of the Gods.

According to the angels, Yasira's reactor malfunction was the latest in a rising tide of disasters, intentionally caused to exploit vulnerabilities in the very pattern of spacetime and usher in horrific beings from beyond reality itself. They believe that the woman behind the disasters is Yasira's long-vanished mentor, Dr Evianna Talirr—and they believe that Yasira, Dr Talirr's favorite student, is the only one who can help them find her.

Spirited off to the edge of the galaxy and with her whole planet's fate, and more, hanging in the balance, Yasira must decide who to trust: the ruthless angels she was always taught to obey without question—or the heretic scientist whose plans could change everything she knows to be true about reality.

Really, the most interesting part of this story was the world-building and everything that went with it. From the very beginning, we see that humanity has spread through the galaxy, but that their level of technological advancement isn't necessarily what we might normally expect. As we learn fairly early on, this is because the gods have declared certain technologies to be heretical — in particular, anything that comes close to AI since the gods themselves are very advanced AIs. They allow people use (god-built) advanced technology such as portals, but prevent humanity from fully understanding how it works. This is the climate in which our protagonist, Yasira, finds herself accidentally building heretical technology. And not just any technology, technology that malfunctions unusually and gets a lot of people killed.

This kicks off a story in which Yasira is pulled around by powerful people with competing interests while, at first, she doesn't fully understand what's going on. Although there's a lot of dramatic science fiction (bordering on horror) stuff going on, at its core the story is about Yasira's journey of self-discovery and understanding. We see her being different things to different people and, eventually, coming to understand who she is to herself. All this against a backdrop of science fiction horror events — although I want to stress the book itself isn't horror, it contains some elements borrowed from the genre.

In the end, good books can be the hardest to review. I liked The Outside for the reasons mentioned above (though how much I can keep repeating the phrase "world-building" without straying into spoiler territory, I don't know). It also worked well as a package and, intrigued as I was by the setting, I would definitely be interested in reading more set in this world, whether or not it's about the same characters. The book is self-contained but was left open for possible "further adventures", so I'm crossing my fingers. I highly recommend this book to fans of science fiction, perhaps with a dash of horror, weird science (although it's not heavy science, aside from a few irrelevant details near the start), and moral ambiguity. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more from this author.

5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2019, Angry Robot
Series: I don't think so, but there's potential for more books in the series, which I would definitely be up for
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 23 June 2019

#ReadShortStories until you reach 100 (96–100)

...and then keep reading.

So this batch, which brings my yearly total of short stories up to 100, all come from the collection Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee. I had a lot of waiting time and it was just so easy to keep reading them. They are all on the sort side, although that is partly because I had previously read many of the longer stories in this collection.

Calendrical Rot by Yoon Ha Lee — 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. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Birthdays by Yoon Ha Lee — Young Cheris and her family move out of their ghetto and have to give up some of their traditions. A nicely told flash story. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Sword-Shopping by Yoon Ha Lee — Cheris and her girlfriend go to buy a sword. A cute flash piece. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Persimmons by Yoon Ha Lee — A cute flash story about a servitor arrived at Kel Academy from a small village. Who doesn’t like sentient robot stories? Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Irriz the Assassin-Cat by Yoon Ha Lee — A cute flash featuring a cat soothing a child.  Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Friday, 21 June 2019

#ReadShortStories to stave off anxiety (91–95)

All flash in this batch. Not really intentionally, but that's how it turned out. I wasn't expecting the large number of flash stories in The Hexarchate Stories, which isn't a bad thing, but has lead me to read more of them in a row than I might have otherwise.

In The Spaces of Strangers by L P Lee — A little predictable, but not a bad flash piece about swapping bodies and predatory scams. Source:

Twenty-six Seconds on Tetonia-3 by Wendy Nikel — Easily the best flash piece I’ve read in Nature this year. Heartfelt and with good, developed worldbuilding. Source:

Silence by Yoon Ha Lee — A family interlude told from the point of view of Jedao’s older brother Rodao. A straightforwardly enjoyable read. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Gloves by Yoon Ha Lee — 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. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Hunting Trip by Yoon Ha Lee — A vignette featuring Jedao and a general stopping at a zoo en route to a hunting trip. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Friday, 14 June 2019

#ReadShortStories because you can't put a book down (82–90)

A longer batch today to avoid repeating the stories that appeared in my most recent review of The Manticore's Vow. The majority of these stories come from the same collection: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee, and are all set in the universe of the Machineries of Empire books (which start with Ninefox Gambit). I will try to mix up the next few batches so that it's not all stories set in the same world — especially since I still have some Hugo reading to finish off.

It’s All My Fault, Or The Beanstalk Sucks by Ian Randal Strock — Don’t think the story makes sense physically, but wasn’t that interesting in any case. Post-nuclear apocalypse followed by an experiment gone wrong. Source:

The Chameleon’s Gloves by Yoon Ha Lee — 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. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

How the Andan Court by Yoon Ha Lee — Flash/prose poem that I’ve read before.  Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Seven Views of the Liozh Entrance Exam by Yoon Ha Lee — Longer flash musing on Liozh examinations, told from a relative future perspective, after the faction had fallen. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Omens by Yoon Ha Lee — A short story about a couple’s date, dripping with significance if you’re paying attention and have read the Hexarchate books. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Honesty by Yoon Ha Lee — A short story about very young Jedao and his even younger sister.  Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Bunny by Yoon Ha Lee — Another young Jedao and sister, this time dealing with a missing cat. A cute story. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Black Squirrels by Yoon Ha Lee — A hilarious story of a Shuos academy prank. Source: Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Manticore's Vow and Other Stories by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Manticore's Vow and Other Stories by Cassandra Rose Clarke contains three short stories set in the world of The Assassin's Curse books, recently repackaged as The Magic of Blood and Sea. Although I have read both of the novels in this world, it was several years ago and my memory of them is quite hazy. This means that I was effectively coming to these stories from a stand-alone perspective.

A vain assassin takes an assignment with dire consequences. An aristocratic lady fleeing her past is besieged by pirates. And a manticore princess sets out on a life-changing adventure . . .

The Manticore’s Vow collects three stories set in the world of Magic of Blood and Sea, all exploring the origins of some of its most memorable characters: Naji, the scarred assassin, Marjani, the pirate queen, and Ongraygeeomryn, the man-eating manticore. Explore a world of dangerous magic and thrilling adventures with this trio of gorgeous, swashbuckling tales.

Overall, I found these stories stood alone fine, especially the first two. My favourite story was, without a doubt, “The Automaton’s Treasure”, which hooked me most quickly and kept my attention the best, even though there were times when very little was happening in the story (granted the boring parts of the long sea voyage were skipped over). For the other two stories, I didn’t connect with the protagonists as well and hence did not find myself especially invested in them. My thoughts on each story are given at the end of this review, as per usual.

This book works well as a companion to the longer works set in the same universe while also working alone well. In fact, I suspect a reader unfamiliar with the larger world might not immediately realise that the stories are connected to each other since they take place in different regions of the world. This collection serves as a sampler of the author’s work, but not exactly a good introduction to the novels, since they are about tangential characters. I think it will appeal most to readers who want more from the world after having read the novels.


The Manticore’s Vow — Narrated in first person by a manticore, this story follows a young manticore, her human servant and some friends as she misadventures in her father’s kingdom. I enjoyed it well enough, particularly towards the end of the story.

The Automaton’s Treasure — A sea voyage interrupted by pirates and a sentient automaton made this story quite the exciting adventure. I enjoyed it more than the first story in its collection.

The Witch’s Betrayal — An assassin with a difficult kill and an obstruction from someone he had considered a friend. It was OK but nothing special. I think the most strongly linked to the novels in the same world (based on my vague memories).

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2019, Interstellar Flight Press
Series: Same world as The Assassin's Curse books / The Magic of Blood and Sea
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 10 June 2019

#ReadShortStories all over the place (76–80)

I'm still making my way through the Hugo Novelette shortlist, as evidenced by only one of those novelettes appearing in this batch of reading. I also started a new collection: The Manticore's Vow by Cassandra Rose Clarke. It's very short — only three stories — so expect to see either the rest of the stories soon or the review of the whole thing imminently.

It is almost interesting to note that all five stories in this batch came from different sources. (Although I put in the Uncanny link for the Aliette de Bodard story, I actually got it from the Hugo voter packet.) Unfortunately Emma Newman's story is currently not accessible to people who don't subscribe to her newsletter, but she has promised that the stories will be collected together in a book eventually.

Remember by A J Lee — An OK flash piece. A predictable twist and an insufficiently dramatic ending, perhaps. Source:

What Travis Built by Emma Newman — A short piece filling in an off-page moment set after After Atlas. A sweet vignette about the romantic relationship between two characters and also a farm-sim game. Source: Emma Newman’s newsletter

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. Source:

The Dragon That Flew Out of the Sun by Aliette de Bodard — A story of racial tensions arising from one group destroying the planet of another (well, rendering it uninhabitable). I liked both the idea and the execution. Source:

The Manticore’s Vow by Cassandra Rose Clarke — Narrated in first person by a manticore, this story follows a young manticore, her human servant and some friends as she misadventures in her father’s kingdom. I enjoyed it well enough, particularly towards the end of the story. Source: The Manticore’s Vow By Cassandra Rose Clarke

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey is an urban fantasy book about a PI investigating a suspicious death at a magical boarding school in the US. I had previously read Gailey's novellas about hippos in an alternate American South (and upsetting violence against said hippos), but this is her debut novel.

Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It's a great life and she doesn't wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.

But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

This book starts in a typical urban fantasy investigator way, with Ivy, the protagonist, being given an interesting case to solve. What makes the case unusual for Ivy is that it involves a magical boarding school, when she has always lived in the non-magical world we are all familiar with. In fact, the only reason Ivy is already aware of the existence of magic is because her twin sister has magical powers and went away to a (different) magical boarding school when they were in high school. As a reader, what I found a bit unusual about this book was seeing a boarding school from an adult outsider's perspective, which I don't think I've come across before.

As well as trying to solve the murder, Ivy finds herself mixed up with some slightly strange teenagers, a hot teacher and having emotionally complicated conversations with her estranged sister, who is now a teacher at the school where the murder occurred. I found the setting added a point of interest to what was otherwise not a terribly unusual story — although I will say that some of the magic that comes up is a bit more uncommon, overall. It also explored how magical solutions could be applied to typical teenage problems in a way that wasn't explored in the obvious example of Harry Potter. For example, magical contraception and abortion get a look in, at one point. (Because of course that would be a problem that came up in a co-ed boarding situation.)

I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. I was hesitant to read it because of the hippo thing, but I was assured no hippos appeared or were harmed in it, which was indeed the case. It's a fairly different tone and setting to the River of Teeth world, so I don't recommend deciding whether to read it based on that. If the idea of a PI set loose on a magical school appeals to you, then I highly recommend giving this book a go.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2018, Tor
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Hugo Novella Roundup

I was in the fortunate position of having read almost all of the Hugo shortlisted novellas before the list of nominees on the ballot was announced. This meant that I didn't have much reading to do before writing this round-up, but on the other hand, some of the shortlisted books have faded a bit in my memory, since I read most of them very close to the release dates. So ranking these novellas, all of which I enjoyed, is going to be a bit tricky.

Before I get to the novellas, if this is the first of my Hugo round-ups that you're seeing, you might be interested in my round-up of Hugo shortlisted short stories, which I prepared earlier. Discussions of (some of) the other categories to come!

The full Hugo shortlist with links to my review of each novella is below, if you want to quickly scroll down to have a look at it. The list is in no particular order — I think I grabbed it from — because it's quite tricky to rank these novellas, for a few reasons. Artificial Condition and Binti: The Night Masquerade are, respectively, a middle and final part of larger stories. Even though I very much like those stories (Murderbot 5eva), I'm not sure they work very well as standalone novellas, which they should for this award, in my opinion. In contrast, Beneath the Sugar Sky and The Tea Master and the Detective are both parts of ongoing series but stand alone perfectly well. Beneath the Sugar Sky has some characters recur from earlier novellas in the series, but is a fully self-contained story. The Tea Master and the Detective may have direct sequels or companion novellas in the future, but for the moment it is merely set in the same universe as many of the author's other stories (the overall series is also nominated for a Best Series Hugo Award). That leaves Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach and The Black God's Drums as completely independent and self-contained stories (or at worst, self-contained first books in series, but I'm not sure on that last point).

But which book did I like best? It's currently a three-way tie between Beneath the Sugar Sky, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, and The Tea Master and the Detective. Right now I'm leaning towards putting Beneath the Sugar Sky first, then tossing a coin for second and third, and for the remaining places. Once again, this is a very strong ballot and I wouldn't be disappointed by any of these novellas taking home the rocket trophy.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor ( Publishing)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark ( Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson ( Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Algorithmic Shapeshifting by Bogi Takács

Algorithmic Shapeshifting by Bogi Takács is a collection of mostly speculative poems. I'm not a big reader of poetry, but I have mostly enjoyed, for example, the poems that appear in Uncanny Magazine. Since I also enjoy Takács's writing, this seemed like a good place to start reading more poetry.

Algorithmic Shapeshifting is the first poetry collection of Bogi Takács, winner of the Lambda award for editing Transcendent 2: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, and finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. Algorithmic Shapeshifting includes poems from the past decade and previously unpublished work. The scope of the pieces extends from the present and past of Jewish life in Hungary and the United States to the far-future, outer-space reaches of the speculative—always with a sense of curiosity and wonder.

There is a variety of poems contained in this collection, from very short to longer works and written in different styles. Some are more narrative and some more abstract. A lot of them tell a story, although a few (fewer than I expected, to be honest) went over my head. Some were very sweet love poems, some were chilling dystopian tales. Most tended towards the science fictional or the fantastical, which definitely appealed to me. Several poems engaged with Jewish themes in various ways. A few were less conventional (I think that's the right description) such as "The Tiny English-Hungarian Phrasebook for Visiting Extraterrestrials" which told a story in a clever way, and "The Oracle of DARPA", which was an amusing poem in the form of an interview between DARPA trying to build a weapon and an oracle giving oblique answers and unexpected side effects.

With short story collections and anthologies I usually include comments on each story unless it's flash fiction. I didn't think that would work for me with poems, so instead I'm just going to discuss/react to some of the poems that stood out for me. I was expecting "A User Guide to the Application of Gem-Flowers" to be horrific rather than wholesome. I was wrong. "Trans Love Is" was very sweet, as were a few other love poems I didn't explicitly mark out. "Periodicity" and "Flee to Far Shores" were both about leaving bad political situations and migration; I found them quite meaningful. I found the sort-of-reveal at the end of "The Third Extension" quite satisfying. "A Hail of Pebbles and Dust" was particularly science fictional, about a tidally locked planet. I liked the way "The Size of a Barleycorn, Encased in Lead" engaged with the idea of time-proof sign-posting (for nuclear waste). "Six Hundred and Thirteen Commandments" told a nice story in several verses spread across time, about completing commandments in different lives.

Finally, I want to mention that I had a review copy of the ebook and there were a few typographical notes in there about how the ebook differs in presentation from the original, intended form. One poem ought to have had two verses printed on opposite sides of a double page spread. Another was originally published in an animated form online and, although there description prefacing it was quite accurate, I didn't fully understand the point until I clicked through to see the original version. It's interesting, given these two examples, that neither the ebook or the paper book can be truely said to be the definitive version of the entire collection. I kind of like the idea of there no being one true version...

If you are a fan of poetry or Takács's writing more generally, then I heartily recommend this collection. I am far from being an expert in speculative poetry, but I enjoyed it a lot and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others who are also interested in reading more speculative poetry (perhaps in between their speculative fiction).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2019, Aqueduct Press
Series: Not in the usual sense
Format read: eARC
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author