Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard is a standalone fantasy novella set in a matriarchal society inspired by pre-colonial Vietnam. It's quite short, and I was disappointed that I didn't get to spend more time in it's world.

Fire burns bright and has a long memory….

Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

This was a fun and interesting read, with a reasonable dose of moderate peril. We have the princess Thanh, who is the spare royal child and now in a position to negotiate an alliance between her country and the country she was fostered/hostaged out to when she was younger. She still has not mentally recovered from a fire that she narrowly escaped while she was in the other (Western imperial analogue) country, not least because fire seems to follow her around in a magical way.

The story focusses closely on Thanh and her relationships with her mother, the Queeen, with her friend/lover, the foreign princess, and with the mysterious servant girl with whom she escaped the near-fatal fire. Most of the challenges Thanh faces are social, and I don't want to say too much more and spoil this relatively short read.

I enjoyed this novella a lot. I read it at a time when I wanted something fun and relaxing to read, and this book delivered. I recommend it to fans of asian-inspired fantasy and lesbian romance. If you feel that you would be troubled reading a book with literally zero men in it, this may not be the read for you.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2021,
Series: Don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Across the Green Grass Fields
by Seanan McGuire is the latest addition the the Wayward Children series. Like several Wayward Children books (but not the most recent few) it stands alone and just follows one child on her journey through a door to another world. You can read it first or last or in between. (If you want a bit more background on the setting, you can check out my review of Every Heart a Doorway, the first Wayward Children book, but it's not necessary to have read it first.)

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to "Be Sure" before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

There are several themes explored in this book. First off, Regan is a horse-loving girl, so it is no surprise she ends up in a world full of magical horse-adjacent creatures like centaurs, unicorns, kelpies, and so forth. The reason she ends up there is a bit less common, from what we've seen in the other Wayward Children books. Regan does not come from an unhappy home, but inadvertently finds herself in a difficult social situation, which is what triggers the door. 

The other really interesting thing about Across the Green Grass Fields is the way in which it subverts the portal fantasy genre. Allusions to Narnia and the Wizard of Oz serve to emphasise how silly the child-as-chosen-hero narrative is. I won't spoil the ending, of course, but I found it extremely satisfying and sensible.

Overall, another excellent read from McGuire. I highly recommend this book to fans of the Wayward Children books and general fans of portal fantasy. As I said at the start, you needn't have read any other books in the series before picking this one up, so it's a perfectly good place to start.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2021,
Series: Wayward Children book 6 of 6 so far, but stands alone.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 4 January 2021

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Remote Control
by Nnedi Okorafor is a stand-alone science fantasy novella, set in near future Ghana. It tells the story of a girl who is alone and feared and, for a large part of the story, nomadic.

"She’s the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. Beware of her. Mind her. Death guards her like one of its own."

The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa­­--a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.

Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks--alone, except for her fox companion--searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.

But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

I requested this novella for review because I've enjoyed Okorafor's other work, especially the Binti series of novellas. However, I wasn't sure what to expect, since the blurb makes it sound very different from Binti. After reading, I can say that, it is and it isn't. Fatima/Sankofa undergoes an intensely traumatic event at a young age, leaving her alone. Magic helps keep her safe, physically at least. 

Sankofa's story is not told entirely chronologically, which works very well for this context. I liked the way in which aspects of her life were revealed piece by piece. I also liked the worldbuilding that went into the story. From the shea tree Sankofa climbed as a child to the towns, cities and homes she encounters during her travels, Okorafor paints very clear pictures of the settings. The contrasts between rural and urban settings is especially stark. While Sankofa is in the forest, it is easy to forget that this story is actually set in the future. The advanced technology present in the city is a stark contrast, and reminds us that there is more going on in the background of the story than what we most frequently see from the tight focus on Sankofa.

I really enjoyed this story. I highly recommend it to fans of science fantasy and speculative fiction generally. I'm not usually a fan of science fantasy but this one really worked for me. If you enjoyed Okorafor's other works, especially the Binti series (since I have not yet read any of her longer works, I can't compare those), I highly recommend Remote Control.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2021
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 31 December 2020

A Wrap on 2020

As I'm sure most people agree, it has been A Year. Among other things, it was a year in which a lot of the work of making Rebuilding Tomorrow happened. Even if you didn't back our Kickstarter, you can now buy the ebooks of Rebuilding Tomorrow on all the ebook platforms. I won't list everything that slowed down the paperback copy (😱) but it has been delayed and will be available some time in early 2021 (after it has been shipped to all our Kickstarter backers).

Partly because of the time and energy I put into Rebuilding Tomorrow, 2020 has not been a year in which I got an awful lot of (non-submission) reading done. This has also been an ongoing trend for me over the past few years, as long-time readers of this blog may have noticed. At this point in my life, I don't feel I have enough spare energy left over from my day job to keep up with reviewing. Because of this, it has also just stopped sparking joy. So I'm going to stop, for now.

For nine years, I have reviewed every book and short story I read with exceptions only for awards judging and my anthology submissions. That has been A Lot. Blogger tells me I have 1070 published posts, though not all of those are reviews. Including the two reviews I have already scheduled for early 2021, I have written 840 review posts. I have also posted 36 interviews with authors. (You can browse them all in my index.)

I need a break.

I intend to review a few more books that I have already committed to, but I won't be taking on any new review books for the foreseeable future. Time will tell whether this will be a temporary or permanent hiatus. If you want to be kept abreast of my sparse future posts, consider subscribing via email in the box on the left (on desktop view).

Here's to 2021! 🥂 

Monday, 28 December 2020

Defending the Galaxy by Maria V Snyder

Defending the Galaxy
by Maria V Snyder in the third and final book in the YA Sentinels of the Galaxy trilogy. I have previously read and reviewed the first two books: Navigating the Stars and Chasing the Shadows. This is absolutely not a book/series to read out of order because each book builds heavily on discoveries made in the previous books. I strongly recommend starting with book one (Navigating the Stars) if you are new to the series.

Year 2522. Oh. My. Stars.

Junior Officer Ara Lawrence here, reporting for duty. Again. It's situation critical for the security team and everyone in the base - including my parents - with a new attack from the looters imminent, a possible galaxy-wide crime conspiracy and an unstoppable alien threat. But this all pales in the face of my mind-blowing discovery about the Q-net. Of course, no one believes me. I'm not sure I believe me. It could just be a stress-induced delusion. That's what my parents seem to believe...

Their concern for me is hampering my ability to do my job. I know they love me, but with the Q-net in my corner, I'm the only one who can help the security team beat the shadowy aliens from the pits we discovered. We're holding them at bay, for now, but the entire Milky Way Galaxy is in danger of being overrun.

With battles on too many fronts, it's looking dire. But one thing I've learned is when people I love are in jeopardy, I'll never give up trying to save them. Not until my dying breath. Which could very well be today...

Defending the Galaxy finally ties up the story of Ara, the Q-net, and the looters wreaking havoc across multiple planets in the galaxy. The second book ended with a big reveal and this one opens with Ara trying to come to terms with the new information. That really sets the stage for the rest of the book, since there are several major discoveries that shift Ara's world view. As the title suggests, the book culminates in Ara and friends (including plenty of responsible adults) defending the actual galaxy. Or, at least, a handful of planets spread throughout the Milky Way.

I enjoyed this book but it was a lot more focussed on action and railing against bad guys (and against parental restrictions) than the earlier books. Even though there were a lot of discoveries and reveals here, I felt that the mystery was less important than the battle that needed to be fought. Which certainly makes sense from a narrative point of view, but it also means that I personally enjoyed the first book in this series best, though I didn't dislike this concluding volume, to be clear.

I recommend this series to fans of YA science fiction, especially those who like the idea of space travel and galaxy-sized high stakes. If you haven't read the earlier books in the series, I recommend starting with Navigating the Stars to best lead you into the story, which escalates with each book.

4 / 5 stars

First published: December 2020, Harlequin Australia YA
Series: Sentinels of the Galaxy book 3 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 19 December 2020

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
by Nghi Vo is a standalone sequel novella to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which I read and reviewed earlier this year. It features the same cleric seeking stories, but everything else about the book is quite different.

The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.

Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in this mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune

The framing narrative in this novella ends up being unexpectedly tense. Chih and their escort run into some tigers (the shapeshifter kind) during a mountain crossing. To avoid being eaten, Chih tells them a story. But unlike Scheherazade trying to entertain her audience, Chih's tiger audience scoffs and interjects when they perceive the story to be told wrong and/or with too-human values. It made for a delicate interplay between framing and framed narratives, that kept me interested and turning pages.

The framed narrative is a love story about a scholar and a tiger and all sorts of misfortunes that befall them. The story itself would be interesting enough, but having it deconstructed from a tiger perspective while still being told was excellent. I really enjoyed how this poked holes in the biases of the human story tellers.

I highly recommend When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain to fans of fairytales and asian-inspired fantasy stories. I hope Vo continues writing about scholar Chih or other people in the same world, because I'm really enjoying the collecting of stories and learning about the magical (and non-magical) beings of this world.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: December 2020,
Series: The Singing Hills Cycle book 2 of 2 so far (but they stand alone)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas is a standalone contemporary fantasy novel. I previously read The Psychology of Time Travel, by the same author so thought I'd give The Thief on the Winged Horse a try, even though the blurb didn't immediately appeal to me.

The Kendrick family have been making world-famous dolls since the early 1800s. But their dolls aren't coveted for the craftmanship alone. Each one has a specific emotion laid on it by its creator. A magic that can make you feel bucolic bliss or consuming paranoia at a single touch. Though founded by sisters, now only men may know the secrets of the workshop.

Persephone Kendrick longs to break tradition and learn the family craft, and when a handsome stranger arrives claiming doll-making talent and a blood tie to the Kendricks, she sees a chance to grasp all she desires.

But then, one night, the family's most valuable doll is stolen. Only someone with knowledge of magic could have taken her. Only a Kendrick could have committed this crime...

As I said, I enjoyed this book more than I particularly expected to. I think the special ingredient was the author's very readable writing style. The story follows three characters linked to a magic-doll-making family empire in Oxford: two women who are discouraged from making dolls and aren't allowed to place enchantments on them, and an outsider who arrives at the start of the book, claiming to be a long-lost relative. The women are, arguably, trying to make the best of an unfair situation, and not always making the best choices in the process.

In some ways it's a book about people in crappy situations making questionable decisions — which is not generally my cup of tea — but it worked here. The characters are interesting and their interplay makes for compelling reading. The magical dolls are a bit mundane but also very creepy. The author plays off the mundanity as we are taken through discoveries and revelations of family history to disturbing events that are not dwelt upon. The author trusts the readers to make connections and doesn't spell out every little detail. The result is I spent quite some time thinking about and being horrified by a minor event that the characters in the book did not themselves interrogate fully, even as they thought through some of the practical consequences.

This was a strange and strangely enjoyable book. I picked it up on a whim and I think I liked it more than The Psychology of Time Travel, even though the subject matter of time travel inherently interests me more. I recommend it to fans of mundane fantasy and contemporary fantasy, especially those that enjoy character-driven stories.

4 / 5 stars

First published: November 2020, Head of Zeus
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 16 November 2020

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Phoenix Extravagant
by Yoon Ha Lee is a fantasy book with a setting quite different to the author’s Hexarchate books. I enjoyed those very much as well, but if you didn’t, I suggest not writing off Phoenix Extravagant.

Dragons. Art. Revolution.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.

One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.

What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight… 

Phoenix Extravagant is set in a secondary fantasy world that is based on Korea (here called Hwaguk) during the Japanese (Razanei) Occupation. The main difference being the existence of magic and magic-powered automata, and the broad acceptance of non-binary people in Hwaguk society. The protagonist, Jebi, is an artist struggling to earn money. Their friend is a collaborator and convinces them that working for the invaders is maybe not so bad if it means they get paid and out of debt. Of course, Jebi quickly gets in over their head and learns there’s more to the invaders’ automata than meets the eye.

I really enjoyed this book. It shows us an interesting mix of rebels, collaborators, traitors and invaders, and gives us the opportunity to understand the perspectives of each group. The world building is also very well done. I’m a fan of K-dramas (Korean TV series), so I had some familiarity with the time period being fantasified in Phoenix Extravagant. Lee goes beyond the standard expectations of just having a Real World Plus Magic setting, adding his own unique spin and hence giving readers a unique world to immerse themselves in. I also enjoyed how logical the magical elements were.

I hope there is another book in the series, so that we can find out what happens next to Jebi and to the nation of Hwaguk. While the ending tied up most of the loose ends in the story, there is definitely room for more, which I hope we'll get to read soon. Phoenix Extravagant was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to fantasy fans, especially those that enjoy any of: asian settings, rebellions, or dragons.

5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2020, Solaris
Series: I hope so...
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 26 October 2020

A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen

A Neon Darkness
by Lauren Shippen is another spinoff novel based on characters from the Bright Sessions podcast. I previously read and reviewed The Infinite Noise in the same world. The two books only really have the setting in common and can be read in any order. A Neon Darkness is actually a prequel to the story in the podcast, following the younger version of one character in particular.

Los Angeles, 2006. Eighteen-year-old Robert Gorham arrives in L.A. amid the desert heat and the soft buzz of neon. He came alone with one goal: he wants to see the ocean. And Robert always gets what he wants.

At a very young age, Robert discovered he had the unusual ability to make those close to him want whatever he wants. He wanted dessert instead of dinner? His mother served it. He wanted his Frisbee back? His father walked off the roof to bring it to him faster. He wanted to be alone? They both disappeared. Forever.

But things will be different in L.A. He meets a group of strange friends who could help him. Friends who can do things like produce flames without flint, conduct electricity with their hands, and see visions of the past. They call themselves Unusuals and finally, finally, Robert belongs.

When a tall figure, immune to their powers, discovers them, the first family that Robert has ever wanted is at risk of being destroyed. The only way to keep them all together is to get his powers under control.

But control is a sacrifice he might not be willing to make.

This wasn't exactly an easy book to read. Not because of the writing style — that was perfectly adequate — but because the protagonist is not a nice person. For most of this book he isn't trying to be a bad person, but he is, essentially, the villain in the future (during the time of the story in the Bright Sessions podcast). So I didn't very much enjoy spending time with him in the book, though the the other characters and the glimpses we got of the institute were more enjoyable. Actually, the other characters were all very interesting and complex, once we got to know them, and I think Shippen did a good job of portraying the diverse cast in a nuanced way, despite the constraints of writing from the first person perspective of a self-absorbed white guy.

It's very hard for me to gauge how a new reader would find this book. The start, before I realised who the protagonist was (I try to forget about blurbs by the time I come to read the book, and it's been a while since I listened to the podcast), was interesting and had me invested in the story. By the time I realised the identity of the protagonist, I was already not not exactly enjoying being inside his mind. I think that even without prior knowledge of the character, many readers would react to him similarly to me. Perhaps being invested in learning about his backstory would be more motivation to read.

If it weren't for the choice of protagonist, I would have given this book 4 stars. It's unusual for me to dock half a star for the unlikeability of the protagonist, but it felt warranted in this case. I mainly recommend this book to fans of morally grey characters, as well as fans of the Bright Sessions podcast who want to know more about Damien's backstory.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2020, Tor Teen
Series: Bright Sessions — a series of standalone stories (and a podcast or three)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Cover of Over the Woodward Wall
Over the Woodward Wall
by A. Deborah Baker is the book featured/quoted in Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, written by McGuire so that she could more easily refer to it. You absolutely do not have to have read Middlegame to read this book and, if anything, reading Over the Woodward Wall might add to your experience of reading Middlegame (but I did read them in the other order). Also, completely unlike Middlegame, Over the Woodward Wall is a children's/middle grade/pre-YA book, where as Middlegame is an adult book.

Avery is an exceptional child. Everything he does is precise, from the way he washes his face in the morning, to the way he completes his homework – without complaint, without fuss, without prompt.

Zib is also an exceptional child, because all children are, in their own way. But where everything Avery does and is can be measured, nothing Zib does can possibly be predicted, except for the fact that she can always be relied upon to be unpredictable.

They live on the same street.
They live in different worlds.

On an unplanned detour from home to school one morning, Avery and Zib find themselves climbing over a stone wall into the Up and Under – an impossible land filled with mystery, adventure and the strangest creatures.

And they must find themselves and each other if they are to also find their way out and back to their own lives.

This book is definitely not similar to Middlegame, it merely exists in the universe of that book. I cannot stress this enough. If you are looking for a similar companion novel to Middlegame, then you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a portal fantasy book featuring children from a non-specified time period finding themselves in a slightly nonsensical magical world, then this is the book for you.

I liked Over the Woodward Wall. There were a lot of interesting side characters, who added to the story. There were also some creepy villain characters that the children had to contend with. There were a variety of small lessons for children to learn over the course of their adventure, which were not heavy-handed. One thing that I was not expecting is that this ended as the start of a series. This might have been mentioned in Middlegame, but for whatever reason I had been expecting a standalone story, so that's something to keep in mind if you prefer tidy endings.

Overall, this was an interesting portal fantasy for children, especially if you hold it up against the ideas explored in Every Heart a Doorway. Over the Woodward Wall is absolutely not set in the same multiverse, and has its own unique voice more suited to the kind of book it is trying to be — one that is not juxtaposed against other ideas of portal fantasy. (That said, it put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, but that's mainly because both are portal fantasies with a road for the protagonists to follow.) I recommend this book to readers, both old and young, who find appealing the idea of two very different children thrust into a magical world together.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2020,
Series: Apparently this might be a book 1 of a continuing series (based on Goodreads)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley