Tuesday, 4 May 2021

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark is a full-length novel set in the same world as The Haunting of Tramcar 015, a novella that I previously read and reviewed. The new novel stands alone and, while there is some overlap in characters, there's certainly no required knowledge from the novella.

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city - or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems....

I really like this magical steampunk Cairo. I already liked it from when I read The Haunting of Tramcar 015 and this novel really lets the worldbuilding shine. The longer format of A Master of Djinn means that we get a much more fleshed-out view of Cairo and get to hear even more about its relevance and position on a global stage. The cameos from certain historical figures also didn't hurt.

The other great thing about this book was the characters. I really loved all three central women for different reasons. Fatma was overall competent and cool, Siti was a bit enigmatic to begin with and made for an excellent love interest. Hadia was the rookie that Fatma initially dismissed but who eventually got a chance to shine and show her unexpected (by Fatma, anyway) talents. Overall, an excellent cast of characters.

I highly recommend this book to all fantasy fans, especially people who are keen on less common settings such as steampunk Cairo. I enjoyed this book a lot and I definitely intend to read any sequels or other books and stories set in this world.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2021, Tor.com
Series: Yes. First novel in an ongoing series plus there is novella (The Haunting of Tramcar 015) set in the same world and some short fiction.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Krtizer

Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Krtizer is the sequel to Catfishing on CatNet, which was an excellent book and I recommend reading it first. The short story "Cat Pictures Please", is also set in the same world and makes a nice introduction to one of the characters, though is not necessary to follow the story in the novels. Furthermore, do not be put of by the very generically US YA cover, the book inside is much more unique than the cover makes it seem.

It takes an AI to catch an AI in Chaos on CatNet, the follow-up to Naomi Kritzer's award-winning near future YA thriller.

When a mysterious entity starts hacking into social networks and chat rooms to instigate paranoia and violence in the real world, it’s up to Steph and her new friend, Nell, to find a way to stop it—with the help of their benevolent AI friend, CheshireCat.

Chaos on CatNet was an excellent read. We return to Steph, CheshireCat the AI, and their human friends, plus some newly introduced characters. Steph is now living (permanently) in Minneapolis and makes a new friend at school. Her new friend just so happens to have recently left a cult, which makes more some unexpectedly interesting and ominous reading.

Overall, Chaos on CatNet had higher stakes than the previous book, and the brewing confrontation was very menacing and disconcerting. I don't want to spoil anything, but I found the rising background tension unnerving and, which I think was the intent. It was still a compelling read, but less fluffy and comforting than Catfishing on CatNet (which had more of an isolated climax).

I enjoyed this book a lot and I would definitely read a sequel if one were forthcoming. This series has made for very unputdownable reading. I highly recommend Chaos on CatNet to fans of Catfishing on CatNet and the series generally to people who are intrigued by the concept of a cat-loving AI befriending a bunch of nerdy teenagers.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2021, Tor Teen
Series: CatNet book 2 of 2 (so far)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 28 March 2021

On Fragile Waves by E Lily Yu

On Fragile Waves by E Lily Yu is a novel about Afghani refugees making their way to Australia, with overtones of magical realism. It follows a family as they journey in a dangerous boat and spend time on Nauru, in one of Australia’s off-shore detention centres.

Firuzeh and her brother Nour are children of fire, born in an Afghanistan fractured by war. When their parents, their Atay and Abay, decide to leave, they spin fairy tales of their destination, the mythical land and opportunities of Australia.

As the family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru, heading toward a hope of home, they must rely on fragile and temporary shelters, strangers both mercenary and kind, and friends who vanish as quickly as they’re found.

When they arrive in Australia, what seemed like a stable shore gives way to treacherous currents. Neighbors, classmates, and the government seek their own ends, indifferent to the family’s fate. For Firuzeh, her fantasy worlds provide some relief, but as her family and home splinter, she must surface from these imaginings and find a new way.

My one hesitation when deciding to read this book was that the author was American. But On Fragile Waves reads as impeccably researched. It follows a family, from the point of the daughter aged around 10, as a lot of terrible things happen to them during their journey and after. 

If you know anything about Australia’s offshore detention system, you’ll expect this to be a pretty bleak book, and it is. Moments of darkness are interspersed with Firuzeh telling stories to herself and to her younger brother. Those stories and Firuzeh’s memories of a friend she made on the way provide the fantastical element that put this book on my radar (that and the author). But mostly the book is set in the real world, and the harsh reality of being a refugee doesn’t end just because they reach Australia. 

This was a moving read and I recommend it to anyone that isn’t explicitly looking for a light and fluffy read. It’s a book that deals with racism and trauma and even though it’s not long, I didn’t find it to be a quick read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: February 2021, Erewhon Books
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace
by Arkady Martine is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which I previously read and reviewed and which was last year's Hugo Award-winning novel. While I enjoyed the first book, I enjoyed the sequel even more.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

The central plot point is the war brewing between the Empire and mysterious aliens, only a few jump gates from Lsel Station. Our protagonists from the first book drag themselves into the thick of things and find themselves face to face with the aliens. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to two new characters — the senior fleet commander on thee front and the eleven-year-old imperial heir — who are both also excellent. I really enjoyed following all their stories and the way they ended up tying together when it came with dealing with an existential threat to human life.

After having done a lot of the heavy lifting with regards to worldbuilding in A Memory Called Empire, Martine is free, in A Desolation Called Peace, to explore other aspects of the world and characters. Some new concepts are introduced, but more of the focus is on characters and events. And while this book does follow some of the key characters from the first book and hinges on events that were set in motion in book one, both books are complete story arcs. You probably shouldn't read them out of order, but the first didn't leave us on a cliffhanger and the second had a lot more peril and a lot less poetry in it.

I really enjoyed A Desolation Called Peace, even more than A Memory Called Empire and I really hope Martine brings us more stories set in this world, even if no novel-length sequels are currently planned. I highly recommend this book to fans of space opera and space intrigue/diplomacy more generally. If you found the first book a bit slow, I think you'll enjoy this instalment more.

5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2021, Tor Books
Series: Teixcalaan book 2 of 2 (for now)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 14 February 2021

A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel

A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel is a more historic novel than I expected from the title. Most of the book is set during the end of WWII and the immediate aftermath, though there are also flashbacks to moments further back in history.

Always run, never fight.
Preserve the knowledge.
Survive at all costs.
Take them to the stars.

Over 99 identical generations, Mia’s family has shaped human history to push them to the stars, making brutal, wrenching choices and sacrificing countless lives. Her turn comes at the dawn of the age of rocketry. Her mission: to lure Wernher Von Braun away from the Nazi party and into the American rocket program, and secure the future of the space race.

But Mia’s family is not the only group pushing the levers of history: an even more ruthless enemy lurks behind the scenes.

The story here follows a mother and daughter who are from some alien(/semi-magical) line of women whose sacred duty is to make sure humanity develops space travel. So they have historically been nudging people in the appropriate scientific direction. Most recently and in the context of this book, that has involved getting Von Braun out of Nazi Germany at the end of the war and making sure the space race got started. Other plot lines were the Trackers who wanted to kill the women (for reasons that aren't very clear until the end and even then, eh) and a vague worry about climate change.

Overall, this book didn't work for me. I found it a bit dull and tedious and if it hadn't been a review book I would not have finished it. I certainly have no interest in reading the sequels. Although I don't generally mind WWII or the space race/Cold War as topics of books and media, I found their treatment incredibly uninteresting here. There were a few interesting moments but also a lot of somewhat patronising moments (e.g. frequent suggestions that humanity wouldn't get to the appropriate technological level without behind-the-scenes manipulation). The most interesting scenes were the short historic interludes, giving us snippets of history of the line of women.

I found the writing style of A History of What Comes Next to be fairly good; it was mainly the content that didn't work for me. If the above story sounds interesting to you, then I recommend picking up this book. 

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2021, Tor.com
Series: Take Them to the Stars, book 1 of ?
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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, Tor.com
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, Tor.com
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