Monday, 31 July 2017

Ethan of Athos — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Ethan of Athos is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. In it, we meet Ethan for the first time - this is the third book in the publishing order which means Bujold wrote of Cordelia and Aral, then Miles, and now Ethan, as if trying out which storyline she wanted to continue with. Her decision becomes clear as we proceed onto further books.

You can read Katharine’s review of Ethan of Athos here, and Tsana’s review here.

Tsana: So turns out I had completely forgotten the main plot of Ethan of Athos, despite having read it before. I remembered the premise of Athos and that Ellie Quinn was in it, but that was about it. Some of the story was more of a surprise to me than it should have been. And I enjoyed it more this time around than the first read through, probably because I was paying more attention and not just being disappointed that there was no Miles. What did you think of it overall?

Katharine: I was surprised by how much I really, really enjoyed it. I’ve personally always wanted to write space opera and this being mostly based in a space station where you have to consider so many other things like what they consider actual threats (fire and disease as opposed to a murderer on the loose) was of a huge personal interest. Ethan had such character growth throughout, and I felt as attached to him as I did with Cordelia and Miles - and surprised it happened so quickly.

Tsana: Yes, that part was fascinating. I loved how quarantine/biosecurity basically had more power to arrest and detain people than what we would think of as “normal” security. And it lead to some very amusing interactions between some of the characters. The question of how to dispose of a body or other incriminating evidence was similarly interesting since everything is so carefully monitored all the time and a rotting corpse would quickly set off alarms.

Katharine: I love it so much - it’s that type of worldbuilding which sets this series apart as it’s so hard to think about what would be so different to earth.
This book felt a bit more like a mystery book set in space than the previous have - so many characters who are hunting out answers and crazed men with guns coming after them. Love it!

Tsana: Yes, definitely a mystery set in space, but let’s leave the details of that for under the spoiler shield. My other favourite thing was how realistically Ethan thought his world was normal and his reactions to being confronted with a society that we would think of as closer to the real world. He starts off thinking women are evil and not really people, which is problematic for him when half the space station’s residents are female!

Katharine: So amusing, and still so true for some small groups of people depending on their religion in our world today - I know a group who will remain at least a meter away from women they don’t know or who are unattached so… I don’t really understand why - to say temptation demeans them both - I guess ‘just to be proper’? Anyway.
I also liked how at the same time Ethan is scared of women that he comes from a place that has very open thinking about sex and relationships and how a community can work together fairly and earn their way up. One of his first interactions when he arrives is with a gang of homophobic blokey blokes, and it’s an interesting juxtaposition to show just how backwards and forwards Athos manages to be at the same time.

Tsana: Yes, that’s true. Although I was mostly disappointed at how not progressive the stationers were on that front. I like to think the future will be less homophobic than the present, not more (although, this book was written in the 80s…). After hearing so much about how progressive Beta Colony is in the other books, I was disappointed to see that’s not how most places are in this universe. Even Quinn seemed a little homophobic, although it was outweighed by her acceptance.

Katharine: And I was a little disappointed that it was most evident in the gruff men workers - kind of like our current typical ocker Aussie stereotype. But I guess the story needed some kind of confrontation early on, and it’s the easiest thing to go for.

Tsana: And it was published 30 years ago. On the other hand, I actually thought Ethan’s fear of women was handled pretty well. It could easily have come across as more misogynistic than ignorant and fearful.

Katharine: And he could have been dismissive and rude - so I agree that was handled well. What I also loved is Quinn, and how her intelligence shines through - she makes quick and hard decisions, disappears and reappears, and you never really know what she’s capable of. I love seeing so many female characters who are pretty much the most capable nearby. Even if it’s the scary waste disposal woman…

Tsana: Hah, she turned out to be more than what she seemed too. But that’s getting into spoiler territory… Perhaps we should raise the spoiler shields?

Katharine: Spoiler shields… Activate!

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold continues by rereading of the Vorkosigan books in internal chronological order. The effect of privileging chronology over publication order is particularly interesting in this case since Ethan of Athos was published in the same year as Shards of Honour and The Warrior's Apprentice but is set after Cetaganda. It was a little weird to read about Cetagandan bad guys and genetics on a so much shallower level than what we got in Cetaganda. But, that said, I had forgotten a lot about Ethan of Athos since my first read of it sixish years ago. The first time around I think I dismissed it as "OK, but insufficient Miles". This second time around I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

The familiar old SF "planet of women" chestnut is reversed in the planet of Athos — an all-male planet made possible by the invention of the uterine replicator. Ethan, drawn out of his beloved Athos by a quest, finds himself an alien in more mainstream human society, and cannot help but find women disturbing aliens as well, especially the ultra-competent, ultra-beautiful Elli.

Ethan of Athos is Lois McMaster Bujold's third novel. It departs from the concerns of the Vorkosigan family to explore the ramifications of advanced biotechnology, turning many a cliché on its head along the way.

The basic premise, and the part I remembered most clearly, of Ethan of Athos is that Athos is a planet with only men living on it, who reproduce using science and uterine replicators. Their ovarian cultures, which they need to keep making more babies, are failing and the new shipment they ordered turns out to be rubbish so Ethan has to go procure a new one. I also remembered Ellie Quinn being around (who first appeared in Warrior's Apprentice) but had completely forgotten what she was up to until I read it again.

Overall this was a more enjoyable read than I remembered and I found the book more interesting than I expected. That said, this was still a book written in the 80s and a lot of the general society people who I would expect to be more progressive than modern society (because they're presumably modern society taken into the future), weren't. There was a general negative perception towards queer people (queer men specifically) among non-Athosians, which I was a bit disappointed by. Given the big deal made about how socially backwards Barrayar is compared with Galactics, I had higher expectations. (To be fair, a lot of the comparisons were specifically with Beta Colony, which seems to be especially progressive, but still.) So there were a few cringe-worthy moments but not too many.

I think this is an oft-overlooked entry in the Vorkosigan Saga but worth reading despite the lack of an actual Vorkosigan walking onto the page. Also, Ellie Quinn is great and I like that we get to know her better in this book than we did when we first met her in The Warrior's Apprentice. I recommend Ethan of Athos to fans of Bujold's other books but also to people who haven't read any other Vorkosigan books. Although a small number of amusing references will be lost, this is a pretty feasible place to start reading the series. I mean, it's not my top recommended starting place for the series, but it's a book that stands alone well and gives a bit of an introduction to the story universe. The only disappointment is that there is no sequel or follow up, so we are left to fill in the post-ending   story ourselves.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1986, Baen
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, book 3 in publication order, book 7 in internal chronological order (more or less)
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles, Mystery & Mayhem omnibus
Source: Purchased several years ago direct from Baen

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey is a novella that I was a bit torn about picking up. On the one hand, it features hippos, my favourite animals, but on the other hand, it seemed to be a bit of a western (although, technically, all the action takes place in the south, it definitely takes cues from westerns). In the end, I bought it because a) hippos and b) I had seen some good reviews.

In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

This is certainly the most diverse western I've ever seen, at least when it comes to the composition of the main band of misfits. The main group of five contains two women, two men and a gender queer person; only one of them is a white guy. This allowed the narrative to touch on a few things that would affect women and non-white people more than white guys. That said, all of the miscellaneous background and minor and/or antagonistic characters except for one (a bartender near the start) were male. A bit more variety on that front, like female henchmen, would not have hurt. That's a fairly minor quibble, though.

My main problem with this book was the violence. There was a lot of pointless bloodshed, cruelty and murder, and not just on the part of the bad guys. This is one of the general things I dislike about westerns (the other major one being the usual sausagefests). It's not that I object to violence in books, but I prefer it to have at least a bit of a purpose. And that's just the human-on-human violence. There was also a significant amount of hippo-on-hippo violence (mostly feral hippos in the background, OK, fine), (feral) hippo-on-human violence, and human-on-(feral)-hippo violence. That was pretty upsetting to read, especially the extreme bloodlust and oddly carnivorous nature of the feral hippos. So in that respect, this was definitely not a book for me. I just like hippos too much.

Also, there was a bit near the very end which, frankly, baffled me. It's a major spoiler, so spoiler shield ahead...

I just do not understand why the bad guy blew up the dam and destroyed all of his own boats. I understand why he wanted to screw the main characters over. I understand why he wanted the feral hippos to go up river, but surely the boats represented a significant portion of his wealth? How will he be a kingpin without his casino boats?

So I don't think I'll be reading the sequel. This wasn't a bad book. The characters were certainly interesting and I am curious about what happens next... but the cover and blurb of the sequel (Taste of Marrow) do not bode well for the hippos. Fans of westerns will probably enjoy it more than I did, and I highly recommend it to fans of westerns looking for diversity in their reads.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2917,
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 2 (so far?) of the River of Teeth series
Format read: ePub
Source: Bought from Kobo

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee is the second book in the Machineries of Empire series, the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, which I reviewed last year. I enjoyed Ninefox Gambit, which has been short listed for pretty much all the awards and won a Locus for best debut novel. In my opinion, Raven Stratagem is even better.

War. Heresy. Madness.

Shuos Jedao is unleashed. The long-dead general, preserved with exotic technologies and resurrected by the hexarchate to put down a heretical insurrection, has possessed the body of gifted young captain Kel Cheris.

Now, General Kel Khiruev’s fleet, racing to the Severed March to stop a fresh incursion by the enemy Hafn, has fallen under Jedao’s sway. Only Khiruev’s aide, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, appears able to shake off the influence of the brilliant but psychotic Jedao.

The rogue general seems intent on defending the hexarchate, but can Khiruev – or Brezan – trust him? For that matter, can they trust Kel Command, or will their own rulers wipe out the whole swarm to destroy one man?

I think Raven Stratagem benefits from a lot of the more bonkers worldbuilding having been explained in the first book in the series. You don't have to remember all the details from the first book (indeed, I didn't) but a familiarity with the general ideas is certainly helpful. There is also less focus on actual battles, which we saw a lot more of in Ninefox Gambit and which were, in my opinion, the weirdest bits and certainly the hardest to follow at first.

In Raven Stratagem we are introduced to some new point of view characters, who I quickly grew to like. From memory, pretty much all of Ninefox Gambit was told from Cheris's point of view, but in Raven Stratagem the story is split between a few key characters. There's the two Kel into whose careers Jedao throws a giant wrench — a general and a lieutenant colonel — and the hexarch of the Shuos faction, all of whom made for fascinating reading. This is a very character driven book and we get to know and care about all the characters (well, some more than others). I am very much looking forward to reading more about them (hopefully) in the final book in the trilogy.

This is a book filled with excitement, tension and other reasons to keep turning the pages. I was hooked as soon as I started reading and inhaled it in only a few days. There's no release date yet for the third book, but I will be awaiting it keenly. I highly recommend Raven Stratagem to fans of character-driven, hard science fiction. It is, however, very much a sequel and I can't recommend it to readers who have not yet read Ninefox Gambit. Happily, that's also an excellent book and I recommend both without compunction.

5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2017, Solaris Books
Series: Machineries of Empire trilogy, book 2 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows is the sequel to An Accident of Stars, which I reviewed earlier this year, and the concluding volume of the duology. I didn't actually realise it was a duology until I was nearing the end — I had assumed trilogy by default — and I'm still not sure whether I'm ultimately disappointed about that.

Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns?

This book continues the story of Saffi, Yena, Gwen and friends, following on directly from the events at the end of An Accident of Stars. This is not a book to read if you haven't read the prequel as pretty much all of the story depends on what went before it. In A Tyranny of Queens we follow each of the characters as we find out first what happens next and then how everything wraps up.

That was the thing I didn't expect about A Tyranny of Queens. I went into it assuming it was book two of a trilogy and, as I was approaching the climax/end, realised that it was going to wrap up too much of the main plot to leave much for a book three. And then it felt like it was over too quickly, with everything wrapping up a book earlier than I originally expected. This is partly my own fault for not realising this was a duology but it's also an effect that was amplified by the opening of A Tyranny of Queens being a bit slow. I was mostly interested in Saffi's story — initially back on Earth — but more  time was spent on what was going on back in Kena, not all of which was as interesting, initially (although it was all ultimately relevant to the overarching plot).

The other thing was, I didn't find the overarching plot across the two books as innovative as I would have liked. Most of the interesting and exceptional elements were in the social worldbuilding (not to say that the physical worldbuilding wasn't also interesting). The overarching plot wasn't boring but kind of didn't go far enough to be really interesting. Part of it was interrogating the portal fantasy premise, but part of it could have dealt at least a little bit with colonial ideas, or at least have given us more of a historical context for <spoilers redacted>, but didn't. The antagonist side of the story was fine, but there just could have been... more.

Basically, I liked this book but I didn't love it. I'm glad I read it because I enjoyed seeing how everything was resolved and what Saffi ultimately decided to do with her life. Also, it kept my interest enough that at no point did I actually put it down to go read something else.

I recommend A Tyranny of Queens to readers who enjoyed An Accident of Stars and I recommend the whole Manifold Worlds series to fans of portal fantasy or readers who like seeing less conventional gender roles and family groupings in their fantasy stories. Indeed, the latter is one of the really strong points of the series. Although I don't expect a direct sequel, I would be more than happy to read more books set in the same universe since there's a lot of scope there to tell a lot of different stories.

4 / 5 stars

First published: March 2017, Angry Robot
Series: Manifold Worlds book 2 of 2
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 17 July 2017

Matters Arising From the Identification of the Body by Simon Petrie

Matters Arising From the Identification of the Body by Simon Petrie is a science fiction crime novella set on Titan. It follows a public investigator looking into the suicide of a young woman who opened her own helmet and exposed herself to Titan's atmosphere.

Tanja Morgenstein, daughter of a wealthy industrialist and a geochemist, is dead from exposure to Titan's lethal, chilled atmosphere, and Guerline Scarfe must determine why.

This novella blends hard-SF extrapolation with elements of contemporary crime fiction, to envisage a future human society in a hostile environment, in which a young woman's worst enemies may be those around her.

Scarfe's job is investigate the suicide and the reasons leading up to it. It's told as a police procedural with a solid science fictional setting as a back drop. Petrie has written several stories set on Titan (see my reviews of his short story collections, Rare Unsigned Copy and Difficult Second Album) but I got the impression that this version of Titan was more populated and hence the story is probably set a bit further into the future than those other stories.

As expected, the scientific background is something Petrie gets spot on in this novella. As well as a well-developed setting, I appreciated the additional layers to Scarf's life. She wasn't solely focussed on her job, she also had a family and a back story that wasn't directly related to her job or this particular case, which I appreciated. Matters Arising From the Identification of the Body was fully fleshed out, for all that it was a novella and didn't take me very long to read.

As far as the crime aspect went, I pretty much only read speculative fiction crime so my opinion is a little coloured by that. This ticked all my boxes though. The mystery elements were intrinsically tied to the science fictional setting and the "solution" followed logically from what the reader had been presented with. I did guess one aspect of the resolution, but not the full explanation, which was handled well, in my opinion.

I highly recommend Matters Arising From the Identification of the Body to fans of science fiction and mystery/crime stories. It is both a procedural and science fiction, but I expect it will appeal more to fans of the latter genre than the former. This was also a more series story than Petrie's other mystery series set on a space elevator, which is significantly more tongue-in-cheek. I am looking forward to reading more stories about Scarfe and set on Titan.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2017, Peggy Bright Books
Series: Yes. The first in a series that will have at least one more instalment (there was an excerpt at the end of the book)
Format read: ePub
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Ms Marvel Vol 6: Civil War II by G Willow Wilson

Ms Marvel Vol 6: Civil War II written by G Willow Wilson and illustrated by three different artists is the sixth volume of collected Ms Marvel comics and contains issues #7–12 with the numbering starting from 2015 (although the trade volume numbering didn't restart...). It is apparently part of the Civil War II event but, happily, makes perfect sense without having read any other comics from that event.

While CIVIL WAR II brews, the next generation of Avengers has bigger things to worry about - like a tri-state academic competition! As rival schools clash, Ms. Marvel's teammates Spider-Man and Nova are now her enemies! But when Kamala gets called to the real battle's front line, she faces a fight she can't embiggen her way out of. She's about to learn a valuable lesson: Never meet your idols! As war intensifies, tragedy strikes too close to home - and Ms. Marvel must choose between her heroes and her family. When friends become foes, Ms. Marvel struggles to put her life and Jersey City back together. Kamala will be forced to grow up fast and find her true place in the world. But will she be an international sensation...or a menace?

So first off, there's the requisite sigh for another bloody comic event ruining things. SIGH. But at least this more or less held together coherently. Except for maybe the first issue, which I think might have been a bridging one and seems, in retrospect, not very connected to the other five. The premise of the event is also not very original. It's basically minority report with Captain Marvel playing the role of wanting to stop future crime and enlisting Ms Marvel and some new randoms to help do it. There's even a psychic doing the predicting. On the bright side, the text seems at least somewhat aware of this fact, throwing in a reference to the Minority Report movie.

Around the Civil War II storyline there are two other stories being told: Ms Marvel/Kamala disagreeing with her friends (over the future crime stuff) and the story of Kamala's family migrating first from India to Pakistan and then to the US. Those two stories tie together the latter five issues in this volume and bring Kamala to dealing with the aftermath of the events of the main story. Although I did find the last part of the last issue was a bit rushed on that front. It will be interesting to see how that develops and whether it goes any further.

The real highlight in this volume, for me, was the background detail in a flashback of Kamala's grade two classroom. I was quite shocked to see children assembling a puzzle entitled "Napalm Sunrise" and reading books with titles such as "Poppa Bear is Wanted for Questioning", "Momma Bear Runs Afoul of Local Triad" and "Hobo Has No Toes". There was also boxes labelled as containing bees and (separately) teeth. And a poster about the cat of nine tails (yes, the whip). I'm not sure what to make of all that, really, but it certainly stood out.

Anyway, I'm not a fan of comic events, and this is no exception. However, this is also a continuation of Ms Marvel's story and I don't think it should be skipped out of hand if you've been enjoying Ms Marvel thus far. Therefore, I recommend it to fans of Ms Marvel. To people who haven't read Ms Marvel yet, I suggest starting from Volume 1: No Normal. This volume is certainly not a sensible place to start reading, at any rate.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Marvel
Series: Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan) vol 6 (counting from 2014) of ongoing series, containing issues #7–12 (counting from 2015).
Format read:b Trade paperback
Source: All Star Comics in Melbourne

Thursday, 13 July 2017

How to Piss Off a Failed Super-soldier by John Chu

How to Piss Off a Failed Super-soldier by John Chu is a short story published by Book Smugglers last year. I bought it close to the release but only just got around to reading it. It's not very long — technically novelette length — and I easily read it in a single sitting.

From the moment of his birth, Aitch has been prodded, tested, and measured by his scientist mother, by the shadowy government who monitor his every move, and even by his superior younger brother, Jay. When Aitch escapes from his life as a bonafide lab animal, he becomes the DRP's most wanted subject. They will stop at nothing to terminate Aitch and cover up their failed super-soldier project--and when coercion and high-tech weapons won't work, they aren't above assassins and espionage.

Aitch will fight his mother and the DRP to his dying breath, until he learns from Jay that there might be a cure for his super-powers. He starts to believe he could have a future: one that doesn't end in blood and violence, and involves a broad-shouldered man with warm eyes... Aitch just has to trust Jay first.

That's probably a longer blurb than strictly necessary for a story this short, so I'll skip my usual summary and jump to my thoughts. I liked how much of the worldbuilding, for lack of a better word, was implied rather than explicit. I realise it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoy stories that encourage the reader to fill in some of the blanks (so long as those gaps aren't too gaping, which they're not in How to Piss Off a Failed Super-soldier). I also generally enjoy unreliable narrators, so this story ticked quite a few boxes for me. For whatever reason, the narrator completely misinterpreting what someone said to him worked well for me, possibly because of the execution, which could easily have been annoying.

I don't think I can say much else about this story without going into spoilers. I really enjoyed it and I recommend it to fans of John Chu and slightly absurd and slightly military science fiction. I am always going to be happy to read another John Chu story and will grab any that cross my path.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Book Smugglers
Series: No.
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased, I think from the Book Smugglers website

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is the first in an ongoing urban fantasy series set in contemporary London. It's been recommended to me by several people over the years and I just got around to reading it now because the series as a whole was shortlisted for a Hugo Award. I'm glad I finally read it, and I can see why people have been recommending it to me.

Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

Rivers of London follows a London policeman from when he finishes his probationary uniformed stint and as he moves on to his next assignment, narrowly avoiding being permanently assigned to paperwork. It all begins when he sees a ghost after a murder and starts to become aware of the supernatural world. As it turns out, the Metropolitan Police have a supernatural division and that's where he ends up, more or less, trying to solve a series of magic-influenced murders with his new boss.

The tone of the book put me in mind of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett — in many ways the humour of the former and the London-ness (Ankh-Morpork-ness) of the latter. It was an entertaining read and it was partly the voice of Peter, the first person narrator, that kept me turning pages. The only negative in the writing style was the frequency with which Peter mentions being attracted to various women and also their breasts and/or his penis, but it wasn't too frequent and didn't by any means ruin the book for me.

I also enjoyed the slightly different take on the urban fantasy side of things — although it's possible I feel that way due to not having read enough urban fantasy books. A significant side plot deals with the... rulers of the river Thames and its tributaries (hence the title) and it provided some entertaining additional flavour.

I already have the next few books in the series waiting for me, and I intend to keep reading sometime in the near future (possibly after I've dug myself out of my reviewing backlog a little). I enjoyed Rivers of London and I recommend it to anyone who has even a passing enjoyment for urban fantasy and humour (especially British humour).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published:
Series: The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series book 1 of 6 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased several years ago and also in the Hugo voter packet — I'm not actually sure which version I read

Monday, 10 July 2017

Cetaganda — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Cetaganda is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. In it, we see Miles and Ivan sent on a diplomatic mission to attend the Empress of Cetaganda’s funeral. Of course, knowing Miles the trouble-magnet, he could never just attend a funeral.

You can read Katharine’s review of Cetaganda here, and Tsana’s review here.

Katharine: So here we are again. We know Miles is going to find trouble (or it’ll find him), but it must be a record for it to have found him before their ship even manages to dock properly.

Tsana: Yes! But you know, if it didn’t, it would have been a much more boring story. I actually really liked how it opened with something weird happening and then it was a while before anything related popped up again. All while Miles in angsting about “WTF, it must be a trap somehow!” etc. But you know what my absolute favourite part of this book was? Ivan’s childhood reminiscences about Miles’s hijinx.

Katharine: Aha he’s still so outraged about it all - and hell, who isn’t, we’re always bringing things like this at work or school reunions. I’m loving that we get to see more of Ivan and therefore, their past and a slightly more relaxed version of Miles as he’s able to rely on Ivan for everything he’s too embarrassed about with everyone else. And that we see Ivan’s intelligence, and how it differs from Miles.

Tsana: Ivan’s intelligence seems to mostly be centred on trying to stay out of the trouble Miles is generating…

Katharine: And excelling at social occasions where Miles likes to trip over his own curiosity. Like, he’s good with the ladies but he can also handle polite conversation and cues so much better.

Tsana: Ah, I loved the bit where he was drugged but came through it fine in a way Miles probably wouldn’t have been able to (also wouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with). But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

This is the first book where we get to see the Cetagandan home world and in which the Cetagandans aren’t just enemies to be fought or outwitted or avert a war with. What did you think of the planet?

Katharine: I thought it sounded spectacular, like everything would be pristine gardens (and that’s why the slightly dilapidated house would be of particular note) and buildings like the Taj Mahal everywhere. I keep wondering whether Bujold very slightly bases each planet or race on a different culture on earth - not that she doesn’t have the imagination to come up with something totally different of course - just to be, I don’t know, clever?

Tsana: I thought there were a few vague overtones of Japanese culture in Cetaganda. Not overtly, but based on, for example, the idea of flower-arranging taken to the extreme with genetic engineering. (I’m still a bit traumatised by that kitten tree.) But then the bubbles the haut ladies use put me a little bit in mind of burkas etc but with very different cultural ramifications and origins.

Katharine: Oh god the kitten tree. To hell with that! For some reason parts had me thinking of India but I have utterly no idea why. What did you think of the Ba?

Tsana: I’m not sure. They’re similar to the betan hermaphrodites we met earlier (like Bel Thorne) but I got the impression the Betans existed by choice, whereas the Ba were engineered to be servants (which seems an awful lot like slavery, for all that they seemed relatively happy) and used as test subjects both before and after their births. (Well, uterine replicator decantings, presumably.) The Ba are also only a part of the Cetagandan hierarchy. I actually found the differences between the Ghem and Haut more interesting.

Katharine: And at least the Ba seemed to have some level of power above that of general guards, thanks to who they report to… but yeah, sounded pretty much like slavery.
I have to admit I’m not strictly sure I understand the full differences between the Ghem and Haut… (I’d certainly fail in their social scene!)

Tsana: Well the haut are precisely genetically engineered the ruling class — so the Emperor and other “noble families” are all haut — whereas the ghem are less precisely engineered and are like the warrior class. I thought the way that people kept comparing them with the Vor helped me keep that straight. So ghem generals are who the Barrayarans come up against in conflict (and obviously the lower ranks of ghem doing the actual fighting). Then it got a bit confusing when we got to the part about who was ruling the other Cetagandan planets. Each planet has a male haut governor and then a female consort. They’re sort of married but don’t hold direct allegiance to each other, as we learn in the course of this book. Then there is the possibility of exceptional male ghem being awarded female haut for services to their empire or whatever. Which is a bit icky. And it’s all a bit complicated. I actually thought reading it a second time probably helped all the details stick into my head.

Katharine: I think it was at the other rulers part where I got a bit lost - but mostly it was easy to follow probably because they don’t all outwardly show their emotions. They’re all ‘everyone else is scum’ the end, which helped! Oh, should we raise the spoiler shield?

Tsana: Now sounds like a good time!

<spoilers ahead!>

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Hugo Novella Discussion

This post is a bit late, relative to when I stopped reading, but there was a delay between me reading the last novella that I read and realising that I wasn't going to read the last two for reasons I'll explain shortly. But at least I've managed to write something about this category as a whole before the voting deadline, so I'm calling that a win.

The shortlisted stories are listed below in the order I read them with a few comments on each. The title links go to my reviews.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire ( publishing)

I loved this novella when I read it last year — it was one of my favourite reads of the year overall — and I nominated it for the Hugo shortlist. Having read the other novellas it remains my favourite, hands down.

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson ( publishing)

This novella was interesting and enjoyable and kind of depressing and not exactly an easy read. The ending really made it for me but I also enjoyed the bits getting there... my feelings about it (emotionally, rather than critically) are mixed and I can't say more without spoilers. Critically, this is a strong story that certainly deserves to be shortlisted.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson ( publishing)

This story was kind of boring. I belatedly learned that this is probably because it was written in response to a Lovecraft novella which I myself have zero interest in ever reading. The story wasn't badly written on a sentence level, but the pacing was too slow. The ending was interesting, but the slog of getting there puts this story low on the ballot for me.

Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)

I have enjoyed Bujold's SF before, but this was the first time I read any of her fantasy. I actually bothered to buy and read the prequel novella before this one, and I enjoyed both. In fact, I enjoyed this second instalment more than the first and plan to read the others at some point. (That point probably being after I've finished the Vorkosigan re-read I'm in the midst of.)


And that brings me to the end of the novellas I actually read. I will say a few words about why I skipped the other two though.

This Census-Taker, by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

This got skipped for two reasons: one, I haven't enjoyed Miéville very much in the past, so I was open to any excuses to skip it (and might have done so anyway), and two, this was a puppy slate nomination, giving me a valid excuse to skip it. Miéville is popular enough to have possibly made the ballot despite the puppies, but I don't really care. His fans can vote for him if they want to, but I was never going to vote him very highly. (Also, the opening couple of sentences were so off-putting).

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle ( publishing)

I had fully intended to read this one until I found out it was also Lovecraftian. I am glad I saw that review before I started reading. I just. Don't care.


So my ranking for this category wasn't too difficult: Every Heart, Penric, A Taste of Honey, then No Award, then Dream-Quest, leaving off the two I didn't read.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold is the second novella in the Penric and Desdemona series, set in the World of the Five Gods, which is also home to a series of novels which I haven't read. I have read the earlier Penric novella, however, Penric's Demon. The main reason I picked up this series at all is because Penric and the Shaman is shortlisted for a Hugo Award this year.

In this novella set in The World of the Five Gods and four years after the events in “Penric’s Demon”, Penric is a divine of the Bastard’s Order as well as a sorcerer and scholar, living in the palace where the Princess-Archdivine holds court. His scholarly work is interrupted when the Archdivine agrees to send Penric, in his role as sorcerer, to accompany a “Locator" of the Father’s Order, assigned to capture Inglis, a runaway shaman charged with the murder of his best friend. However, the situation they discover in the mountains is far more complex than expected. Penric’s roles as sorcerer, strategist, and counselor are all called upon before the end.

While I enjoyed Penric's Demon, I didn't love it and wasn't sure that I'd bother reading more Penric books after Penric and the Shaman. However, I enjoyed Penric and the Shaman rather more than the introductory novella and found myself laughing out loud more often. I'm not sure to what extent that's due to my state of mind when reading (I was more tired and on night shift up a mountain when I read Penric's Demon) or the intrinsic quality of the writing itself. Probably a bit of both.

Penric and the Shaman tells the story of Penric's encounter with a shaman (loosely speaking) from three points of view: Penric's, the shaman's and the Locator sent to capture the (sort of rogue) shaman. I wasn't sure how much I'd like the split points of view, since I came in attached to Penric and Desdemona, but it worked very well. I should not have doubted Bujold's ability to make me care about other characters. The introduction of the concept of shamans also added to the worldbuilding that we were first introduced to in Penric's Demon (speaking as someone who hasn't read any of the novels), making it a deeper world.

I highly recommend Penric and the Shaman to fans of Penric's Demon and fantasy in general. I think the worldbuilding and jokes work better having read the prequel, but it's not absolutely necessary, especially since four years have passed in the interim. I expect I will read the sequels at some point (when I am less drowning in other books).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, self-published
Series: Penric and Desdemona, book 2 of 4 so far (I think)
Format read: ePub
Source: Hugo Voter Packet

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is a novella I have heard a lot of people saying a lot of good things about. The only other book I've read by Martha Wells was kind of meh, so I'm glad the critical mass of people praising this book was well and truely exceeded for me to pick it up. It was an excellent read.

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

All Systems Red had me from the opening paragraph which, as I immediately tweeted, was a delight. It's told in first person from the point of view of a cyborg. A bored cyborg who has gained free will and really just wants to watch TV between half-arsing its contractual duties enough to hide its illegal free will. Unfortunately, the survey mission that should have been straightforward and relatively dull — from Murderbot's point of view, if not the scientists it's protecting — turns out to be anything but.

This novella was brief but excellent. It had mystery, danger, adventure, a compelling voice and made me laugh many times. It was also an interesting look at humanity and where the lines are drawn. Murderbot counts as machinery rather than as human because of how it was constructed. But it still feels emotions and has independent thoughts and we get the impression that even if it hadn't given itself free will it would still be having these thoughts and feelings, it just wouldn't be able to act on them. On the one hand considered non-human, on the other sentient and enslaved. And we see augmented humans who have some similarities with Murderbots in terms of data processing and telemetry (for lack of a better word) but are definitely human. I assume these are themes that will be explored further in the sequel novellas.

All Systems Red was an excellent read and I recommend it to all fans of speculative fiction. It's a quick read and you don't even have to like robots or military SF to enjoy it. I cannot wait until the next novella comes out. I was sad when All Systems Red ended, not because it was a bad ending but because there was no more Murderbot to read and now I have to wait until next January for more.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017,
Series: The Murderbot Diaries 1 of a planned 4 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased on iBooks

Monday, 3 July 2017

Hugo Graphic Story Discussion

I've written reviews in separate posts of the Hugo shortlisted graphic novels. I'm going to go through them in the order I read them and then give my overall impressions at the end of this post. Title links go to the reviews.

Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa (Marvel)

I read this about a year ago when it was first released. I have been following the Ms Marvel comics since Kamala became Ms Marvel (I also heart Carol Danvers but as Captain Marvel, since pants) and I have enjoyed them all. This was always going to rate highly for me.

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)

I actually got an ARC of Monstress close to its release date but sadly didn't get around to reading it until after the Hugo packet arrived (partly because the PDF is so big my old iPad 2 can't actually cope with it). I found this story a bit harder to find my footing in because it jumped into the story without much introduction. It did make more sense as I went along and I ended up more or less liking it. Not my favourite of the bunch but not my least favourite either.

Saga, Volume 6, illustrated by Fiona Staples, written by Brian K. Vaughan, lettered by Fonografiks (Image)

Saga is another series I've followed from the start and have been invested in from the very start. There have been some issues that have felt a bit too much like a chapter in a bigger story (which they all are) and have made me think rereading the whole series when its complete will be the superior reading experience. When I was reading Monstress, I was put in mind of Saga. However, having actually revisited Saga after a long gap and read this shortlisted volume, I am not entirely sure why I saw similarities. In this volume of Saga, the story is kind of more gentle than it has been at times, which is in particularly stark contrast with Monstress.

The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel)

When I first saw the cover for Vision I was vaguely intrigued but not enough to go out of my way to read it without the prompting of the Hugo packet. I found it OK and a good series starting point (unlike Black Panther, see below). I probably won't bother reading the sequels but I am vaguely curious as to what happens (assuming no events interrupt the storyline).

Paper Girls, Volume 1, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher (Image)

This had been on my radar for a while and the Hugo shortlisting and voter packet finally gave me the impetus to read it. I am glad I did! This story is awesome and is definitely getting my top vote. The next time I go past the comic book shop I plan to stop in to pick up the next volume (and maybe the third, which is due out soon, I think). I highly recommend this comic to all spec fic fans who don't hate the comic format.

Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel)

I had heard good things about Black Panther and this creative team... but I was mostly lost in a story that didn't feel like it started with the first issue in this collection (which, yes, is issue #1). I only really connected with some of the side characters and was a bit lost as to recent events the plot seemed to hinge on.

So out of that list Paper Girls is the easy winner for me, followed by Ms Marvel and Saga. It was pretty close between Monstress and Vision, but the depth of Monstress and the promise of the developing story edged out Vision. Unsurprisingly, Black Panther comes last, mainly because it doesn't seem like the right place to start reading his story.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze

Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze is the first collected volume of the current ongoing Black Panther comic book series from Marvel. It's not the first Black Panther series, but I believe it is the first to be both written and illustrated by black men.

A new era begins for the Black Panther! MacArthur Genius and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) takes the helm, confronting T'Challa with a dramatic upheaval in Wakanda that will make leading the African nation tougher than ever before. When a superhuman terrorist group that calls itself The People sparks a violent uprising, the land famed for its incredible technology and proud warrior traditions will be thrown into turmoil. If Wakanda is to survive, it must adapt--but can its monarch, one in a long line of Black Panthers, survive the necessary change? Heavy lies the head that wears the cowl!

You would think that this Volume One would be a good place to start reading Black Panther. It wasn't particularly and I'm not sure what would be a better place to start. I am not very familiar with the character — beyond his appearance in the latest Avengers movie — and my knowledge of Wakanda, his home country (that he is king of) is limited to references in other Marvel comics (and the aforementioned move).

A Nation Under Our Feet puts the reader in the middle of conflict and struggle in Wakanda and, to a degree, revolving around Black Panther. I was pretty lost for most of the book, not entirely sure of the who/what/why of the conflict and not strongly connecting with the titular character because I wasn't entirely sure what he was doing. I got the bit about wanting peace for Wakanda and looking for his sister, but I was fairly confused about the sister part.

The only characters I did feel I could get behind were the lesbian vigilantes, partly because we witnessed their origin story, more or less, and partly because who doesn't like lesbian vigilantes? Unfortunately, they didn't get an awful lot of page time, though I expect they would feature more in future issues/volumes. Although, I'm told they had a spinoff series that got cancelled after two issues, so, um. Well done, Marvel. 🤦‍♀️

I'm entirely sure who to recommend Black Panther to besides people already familiar with the character and location. My guess is that he has recently appeared in other comic book series too, but I have no idea which, other than not the ones I've been reading. It wasn't a bad comic book, but it didn't feel like a good place to start reading, unfortunately.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Marvel
Series: Black Panther, volume 1 of going series, containing issues #1–4
Format read: PDF with hideous watermark covering some of the text
Source: Hugo Voter Packet