Review – American Gods

American Gods20180206_131836

By Neil Gaiman

Published August 2017 (Del Rey)

Score: 8/10

 

I started off 2018 with a big book that has been sitting on my shelf for way too long. American Gods won the 2002 Hugo for Best Novel and was partly chosen because of my goal of reading more Hugo winners, but also because I’ve just been wanting to read it for ages. American Gods is a book about the old gods of mythology locked in conflict with new gods, such as Media, and Technology, and Government Conspiracies. Just for the spectacle of gods and creatures of all the different mythologies of Earth interacting, this book is worth the read.

God fights are not all this book is about though. It is an exploration of how we interact with myths, and how our beliefs shape not just our lives, but vice versa. It is a love-letter to America: it’s endless roads, strange tourist traps, and the traditions that have been bought to the land over thousands of years. Thankfully not just traditions that have come from afar. The Native American Wisakedjak appears, along with Native American mortal characters, and a chapter imagining the first great migration from Siberia to Alaska. I’ve never been to the USA, though American culture is ever-present in media and pop-culture. I found this story to be an interesting look at a different side of America.

American Gods is a slow, meandering book where a lot happens. The only part that was impossible to put down was towards the end, but I still enjoyed the rest of the book. Gaimen creates a world that is perfect for exploring slowly, with a lot of lovable characters to meet and fun places to see. It helps that the humour fit in perfectly. The main character Shadow disappointed me at first, as he seemed passive and unemotional, but it soon became apparent that that was his way of coping with his wife’s death and betrayal. Shadow’s journey through his grief and the wonders of meeting so many gods was in the end a joy to read about.

Whilst American Gods is almost universally acclaimed and highly awarded, it is a very weird book. Early on, there is a sex scene that ends with a man getting swallowed completely by a vagina. Gainman referenced this scene as a sort of ‘weirdness gate’: if you can deal with the vagina swallowing, nothing else in the book will be too much for you. If it is too much for you, then well… you’re not going to encounter anything worse than that, so may as well dive in.

My copy of American Gods included a novella set in the same universe called The Monarch of the Glen. I loved the universe and intend to read this novella, but for now I need a break for this world. As I said before, American Gods is a long book. Long, but a joy to read.

 

Happy Reading,

 

~Lauren

 

 

 

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Review – Phasma

Phasma34859132

By Delilah S. Dawson

Published August 2017 (Del Rey)

Score: 7/10

 

I haven’t read a lot of tie-in novels, and I probably wouldn’t have picked up this one normally. I got Phasma because I was looking for an audiobook my partner and I could listen to in the car during the long Christmas holiday drives. In that respect, it was a good buy. We’re having fun going through the book (he isn’t finished yet), and the production value and narration on the audiobook is amazing. January LaVoy did a great job, and there is a lot of music and sound effects from the movies used.

As for the story itself, well, it’s the only Star Wars book I’ve ever read, so I can’t compare it to the rest of the expanded universe. As a story I found it alright. Quite enjoyable, and it showed a lot more of the Star Wars universe than what we see in the movies. We get a look at the inner workings of the First Order, including information on how they train and recruit their stormtroopers. We also see the world of Parnassos, a post-apocalyptic planet with some really cool killer beetles. Most of the story on Parnassos takes place in a desert, but it is made perfectly clear that there are other environments on the planet, which when you consider how many single biome planets we see in Star Wars, impressed me more than it should have.

The main draw of this story though is Captain Phasma’s backstory. I found it delivers. Phasma here is ruthless, a highly competent fighter, and a capable leader. The fact that she will do anything to survive is constantly shown, and watching this be something her warriors admire her for, to something that makes them uneasy, was a good journey. It wasn’t a perfect depiction, but this story got me to care more for the character, and I hope we see some of her bad-arseness in the next movie.

There were problems with the story. Firstly, the framing device didn’t work. We have a rebel spy named Vi being tortured in secret by Phasma’s rival Captain Cardinal. Cardinal wants information that he can use against Phasma. He is in a huge hurry to get it. He also hates the Resistance. Yet he allows Vi to talk on and on about things that don’t help him at all. We also get two very long, drawn out chapters about Cardinal’s mental state. The second one was interesting, as we saw him reacting to the implications of Phasma’s place in the First Order, but they were still long.

I think listening to this as an audiobook made me enjoy the story a lot more than if I’d read it. I’m also really into this book because it’s one my partner is listening to as well, and it’s rare I can talk to him about a book that he’s read too. I rated it a seven, but it only just scrapes into the seven range. Phasma is a fun adventure story, which I feel will be great for anyone that loves Star Wars. There are flaws though, and whilst this story did a lot of things I liked, in the end, it was just a nice, fun, alright story.

~Lauren

 

My 2017 in Books

The End of Year Novella Rush

20180102_111314_resizedAt the start of the year, I set myself a reading challenge on Goodreads. 50 books in one year seemed doable in January, but towards the start of December, less so. Which meant I turned my attention to all those novellas I’d been putting aside in favour of full-length books. I should have gotten around to it sooner; there have been some great novellas this year.

The highlight of this novella binge has been catching up on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series. I started this series when the first novella, Penric’s Demon, was nominated for the 2016 Hugo Awards and became hooked on Bujold’s world and characters. Earlier this year I read the third book in the series, Penric’s Mission, which saw an older Penric help a widow after her brother was blinded for false charges of treason. This month, I read Mira’s Last Dance, and The Prisoner of Limnos, the 4th and 6th entries in the series and direct continuations of the story in Penric’s Mission. This trilogy-within-a-series has been amazing, especially The Prisoner of Limnos. The series has great worldbuilding with a fun magic system, amazing characters, a thrilling plot, and a sense of humour that I quite enjoyed. These books are set in Bujold’s World of the Five Gods/Chalion universe, which I really need to explore more.

I also read George Orwell’s Animal Farm for the first time in late November. I was familiar with the story, and had watched the 1954 animated movie before. Given Animal Farm’s status as a classic, I can’t really say much that hasn’t been said many times before. Even though the Soviet Union is long gone, this little book is still an important read, as we would do well to keep in mind that dictators like Napoleon the Pig are still a possibility even today in the West. We must be careful we spot them before it becomes too late.

The other recent novellas I’ve read are Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson and The Murders of Molly Southbourn by Tade Thompson. Snapshot is a detective story that makes use of a fake world of sorts: a complete recreation of a past day. I really enjoyed it. I thought I could see the ending coming, and whilst I was partly right, Sanderson managed to add a twist I wasn’t expecting. This story really lives up to the hype. Murders of Molly Southbourn has also gotten a lot of praise, but this story just didn’t do much for me. The concept is that every time Molly bleeds, the blood grows into a new Molly who tries to kill her. It is a gory, creepy body-horror story, but whilst it had some cool parts, I feel that the plot didn’t deliver.

 

My Goodreads Reading Challenge    

Speaking of my Goodreads Reading Challenge, I did succeed in reading 50 books in 2017. Kinda. I originally decided that by ‘book’, I would only count novels, novellas, complete short story collections and complete magazine issues. I did however end up adding a couple of novelettes to the list when it looked like I wasn’t going to make it. We can argue whether I cheated or not, but the point is I had a wonderful time with my books this year. According to Goodreads, I have read 12,781 pages across 50 books. Considering that there is quite a bit of short fiction that I haven’t logged with the site, I’ve really read a lot more. I’ve talked about most of the novels and many of the novellas I’ve read, but for those interested, my complete 2017 reader challenge can be found HERE.

 

I’ve found that one benefit of keeping a record of what I read is that looking back at the stories reminds me of the significant events that occurred in my life whilst I was reading those books. I first noticed this when every time Naomi Novik’s Uprooted was mentioned, I couldn’t help but remember reading the book on my Kindle whilst laying on a mattress on the floor of my new house. It is as if my world intersected some other magical world at that point, and I am glad for one more reminder of how it felt to buy and move into my own home.

This year has been a somewhat quieter one for me, and therefore reviewing the books I’ve read doesn’t trigger such special moments. Just mundane ones, like that time I drank a whole Red Bull at work and then couldn’t sleep. At about 4am I gave up on sleep, went to my bookcase, and took down the copy of Neuromancer my partner had given me for Christmas. I didn’t get to sleep that night, but Gibson made the early morning much more bearable. On a more positive note, I went to look after my Nana whilst I was reviewing novellas for the Hugo Awards. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and it was nice to catch up. After she went to bed I finished reading The Ballad of Black Tom, and now that gory Cthulhu tale has an unintended sweet happy spot in my heart.

I find it interesting how stories (and songs too) can become linked to our memories. Just one more magical thing about books. If anyone else has any stories about strange associations that some books evoke, I’d be interested in hearing them.

 

My Book Bingo Card

 

Haven’t forgotten this little challenge I set myself. Much. Here is what my bingo card looks like at the end of 2017. I didn’t fill it, but at least I got a bingo. I also added Phasma to it even though I’m still reading that book, just to make it look a bit less empty.

 

A Hugo Winner: Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu Has a Dragon: Tech Mage – Chris Fox Graphic Novel or Comic Book:

 

 

Translated Book: The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu High Fantasy:
Alternate History:

 

 

A Hugo Winner: Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

 

Space Opera: A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers Book from a Wider Franchise: Phasma – Delilah S. Dawson

 

 

Animal Main Character: Animal Farm – George Orwell
Owned for over a Year: Alien Influences – Kristine Kathryn Rusch Alien Characters: Cycle of Fire – Hal Clement A Hugo Winner: Neuromancer – William Gibson

 

Self Published: 2084 – Mason Engel Continue a Series: The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
Written before the 20th Century:

 

 

Recommended by a Friend: Horror: The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle A Hugo Winner:

 

Short Story Collection: The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales – Yoon Ha Lee
Has Magic: Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff

 

A.I Character: A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers LGBTI Themes: A Taste of Honey – Kai Ashante Wilson Re-read a Favourite: A Hugo Winner:

 

 

Reading Resolutions for 2018

Again, I’ve set myself a 50 book challenge on Goodreads. It’s a challenging amount, but I feel a doable one. And again, I’ll try to only count works of novella length or longer. Unless I suppose the shorter story was already on my ‘to read’ list.

I think I’ll skip the bingo card this year. I just forgot about it for most of the year, and the Goodreads challenge is motivation enough. Though if anyone is interested in bingo cards, I’d be happy to make a challenge.

One side challenge I will task myself however is to read at least 5 Hugo Winning Novels or Novellas. Not including the 2018 winners if I read them for the first time this year. I’m also thinking of reading some of the short story Hugo winners with a friend of mine. She isn’t much of a reader, but over the past couple of years I’ve ended up reading to her on a few occasions and enjoying that. Not sure if this could translate to an interesting series of reviews for this blog, or even if it’ll happen, but who knows?

My next two resolutions are somewhat in conflict. I wish to diversify my short fiction reading this year. I have a subscription to Analog, which I wish to keep. However, reading every issue of Analog means less time for other magazines. In particular, I want to read more Uncanny and more Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. To make my goal of reading more diverse short fiction harder, I also want to read more of the back issues I have collected over the years. Most of these are old issues of Analog from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. If I read these, I will review them on this site. Maybe something like Jamie Todd Rubin’s seemingly abandoned Vacations in the Golden Age, but given the piecemeal nature of my collection, less structured. One reason why I haven’t already started such a project is because I want to add an art component to it. I’ve always loved the artwork from these old magazines, and I’ve really been slacking off in my drawing, so it’ll be good to have some practice.

 

What to Expect in 2018

I know that lately my reviews have been fewer and far between. I intend to keep reviewing, but I want to shift the focus of this blog away from just reviews. Either discussions of short stories or reviews of old magazines could help to breathe new life into my little blog. I’m also thinking of sharing more of my own writing. I know I said that last year, but I have more interesting things in the works now.

Last year, I finished the 1st draft of a novel I’m calling Beyond the Fence. It’s about an alien. A very alien alien who must learn to live with Humans even though this species doesn’t even use language or see the world through just one set of eyes. This year, I’ve began the long process of re-writing it. So far, I’m 30,000 words in. I plan to put the first chapter up on this blog when I’m done, but before then it would be nice to get another set of eyes on my work. I always get terrified showing people my work, but that’s something I’m going to have to change. When I get further along I’ll start asking for some beta readers.

Depending on how things work out this year, I may also do a NaNoWriMo challenge in November. I was planning to do it this year, but this November turned out to be busy and I didn’t want to stop working on Beyond the Fence. This year, I’m going to make it a priority.

I’ve also been working on a table-top role-playing game with my partner that has a futuristic, space opera setting and theme. Hopefully we’ll be at the playtest phase in February, and if all goes well I might share some of this universe on this blog.

And finally, I have joined the 76th Worldcon as a supporting member, meaning I will be nominating and voting in the Hugos yet again. As with the previous two years, I intend to keep up a similar coverage of the awards, and to review the fiction nominees.

 

Happy Reading in 2018,

~Lauren

 

Review – The Winter Tide

The Winter Tide29939089

By Ruthanna Emrys

Published April 2017 (Tor.com)

Score: 7.5/10

 

There have been a lot of Lovecraft-related stories recently. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson and The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle were both finalists for this years Hugo Award for best Novella. 2016 also saw the release of the excellent Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and I know there have been plenty of other stories I haven’t gotten around to. The Winter Tide continues this trend of re-telling Lovecraft’s mythos whilst re-examining the themes he dealt with.

The Winter Tide is a sequel of sorts to Lovecraft’s classic story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which features a town of human/monstrous-fish-people-hybrids who worship Cthulhu, perform human sacrifice, and make people who find out too much about the town disappear. However, Winter Tide suggests that what we learnt in Shadow Over Innsmouth may not have been quite true. Here the people of Innsmouth are presented as being not demon-spawn, but a different species of human who after a brief life on land metamorphize and live in the ocean. Their beliefs are strange and some of their rituals look barbaric to those who don’t understand them, but they are not evil. They just want to be left alone. If you have read Shadow Over Innsmouth, you know that things don’t end well for the townspeople.

Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb are the last survivors of Innsmouth. They spent years in an internment camp, and after their people had nearly died off were joined by Japanese-Americans who were interred because of paranoia during WWII. Aphra and Caleb are released along with their new Japanese family, and then began trying to rebuild their lives. This is a book with a big message about many of the injustices that come from othering and misjudging people. Caleb goes back to Innsmouth and attempts to retrieve the books that belonged to his people, and finds that they have been confiscated and sold off. The entire culture of Innsmouth has been prohibited to him and Aphra. Aphra is given a chance to gain access to the books, as long as she helps the government that destroyed her family and way of life find a way to stop the Soviet Union from using magic against the USA.

Reading this book reminded me a bit of Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. We have a team of ‘irregulars’ dealing with supernatural forces and the prejudices of the time during a real conflict (WWI for Ghost Talkers, The Cold War for Winter Tide). Whilst Ghost Talkers delivered a captivating action/romance plot, I feel Winter Tide neglected some of it’s potential by pushing the Cold War with Magic premise aside. Aphra recognises the importance of the situation, but she uses it mostly as a chance to gain access to her town’s books and to improve her magic. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, Aphra has a lot of reasons for not trusting the government and not wanting to work with them. She also longs to find a family, and ends up doing so in unexpected ways. We are given a good plot, but I feel that de-emphasising the magical Russian element and attempting to create such a close bond between this group of characters hurt the story in some places. There were parts where it felt a bit slow, and some scenes where it seemed like some characters were standing around saying and doing nothing.

In the end, I feel these issues didn’t detract too much from the story. Aphra is a compelling character, and I enjoyed her journey. Once I finished the book, I realised it was a sequel to a novelette called The Litany of Earth which I had to read straight away. You won’t miss anything by reading The Winter Tide without reading The Litany of Earth, but I found myself feeling much more excited about this world after reading Litany.

Now let’s talk about the worldbuilding. For die-hard fans of Lovecraft, this new approach to the mythos might not ring true. Seeing Cthulhu as a disinterested but protective god was somewhat jarring for me. But this new way of looking at the mythos was also super interesting. Lovecraft paints our insignificance and powerlessness as horrific, but Emrys shows her characters finding peace and humility in the knowledge that their lives, and even all human history, will one day be long gone. This feels like fantasy, not horror. What horror we do get comes not from the usual monstrous entities (thought, there is one) but from what humans can do to each other.

Emrys also references a lot of Lovecraft’s work. The references to Shadow Over Innsmouth and the wider Cthulhu mythos have already been mentioned. The events in The Thing on the Doorstop also play a role in Winter Tide, and Arkham city and Miskatonic University are key pieces of the setting. For me though, I was most excited to see the Great Race of Yith make an appearance. The Shadow Out of Time is my favourite Lovecraft story, and I found myself so enamoured by the Yith and their record keeping that I was able to gloss over the fact that they occasionally destroy entire races to continue their existence. Emrys makes sure we can’t ignore the more disturbing actions of the Yith, and highlights many other disturbing implications of their way of life. Yet despite being forced to admit that the Yith are jerks, I still enjoyed their depiction here, and loved how Emrys fleshed out the role they play in Earth’s history.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. The ending left me excited to see where Aphra will go next. I’m glad to see that the sequel, Deep Roots, is set for release on the 10th July next year.

Happy Reading,

~Lauren

 

 

 

Review – The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales

The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales25733384

By Yoon Ha Lee

Published June 2015

Score: 9.5/10

 

I purchased this collection after I first read Ninefox Gambit and then forgot about it. The Fox’s Tower is a collection of Yoon Ha Lee’s fairytale-inspired flash fiction, which is not my usual thing, but I love Yoon Ha Lee’s writing so much I felt compelled to give it a go and damn I am glad I did.

Flash fiction (stories around 1000 words long) is hit or miss with me. Some stories pack a big hit in a little package, others I just don’t get or wish there was more to them. This collection also had some misses, but even stories I didn’t get, I still enjoyed, because Lee is an absolute master of the format. Every word is carefully chosen for vibrant imagery, and some stories feel more like poems. Yoon Ha Lee is an amazing writer, and this collection shows off his skill.

The stories all had a fairytale/East Asian folklore feel to them, but I didn’t recognise any as retellings. Not that that is saying much, since I grew up with European fairytales. There were quite a few fox stories, as the name suggests, and as far as I know they keep to the mythology of the magic trickster fox. Most of the stories are also written as fables, and makes you think about their meaning. Each story has a lot going for it: message, meaning, worldbuilding and characters, and it’s amazing that everything fits and works together so well in such little stories.

Some stand out stories for me include The Stone-Hearted Soldier, The School of the Empty Book, The Fox’s Forest, The Youngest Fox, and The Firziak Mountains, even though I don’t drink tea. Seeing that little list I just made, I can think of many other stories that deserve praise, but then I may as well list nearly all of them. These stories contain a lot of magic, and a lot of wonder. They also contain mostly female characters, including women as soldiers and rulers. There are also many queer couples and characters who are either non-binary or whose gender isn’t revealed in this collection, which was nice to see.

My biggest complaint about this collection is that it does not come as a physical book. This collection would be perfect in a nice hardcover book that can be picked up and flicked through at any time. I got the next best thing by getting this collection on my kindle, but most of these stories can be viewed for free here on Yoon Ha Lee’s website, along with more of his flash fiction.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Yoon Ha Lee, I have just found out that the final book in his Machineries of Empire now has a title: The Revenant Gun. Every source I’ve found seems to indicate it’ll be out around June next year. I cannot wait to get back into that world.

 

~ Lauren

 

Review – Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties34466922

By Stephen King and Owen King

Published September 2017 (Orbit)

Score: 8.5/10

 

Oh wow, this was a huge book. 700 pages, but I listened to it as an audiobook, so nearly 24 hours of narration there. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised. After all, it’s a Stephen King book; it is going to be a huge doorstopper. But this isn’t just a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is a collaboration between King and his son Owen, with the idea being Owen King’s. The two authors wrote the book in such a way that you can’t really tell which parts come from who, but the result is a book that is very Stephen King, but also a bit different to his usual stories.

Sleeping Beauties is a story about what would happen to our world if all the women were gone. A suspected virus wraps a cocoon around any woman that falls asleep, and she can no longer wake up. This has some huge consequences on the world, and allows some interesting discussions about some of the unfairness the world dishes out to women (a topic which I think the Kings handled very well) and the different ways men and women act (which I think had a few issues.) The Kings do a great job at showing us the rapid changes to the world from many viewpoints, and in getting us into the heads of a range of characters. Having over 70 named characters did make things a bit confusing at times, but I feel I got a very good understanding of the most important characters. Not only that, but everyone was very sympathetic, even one of the main “villains” came across as a man who loved his daughter and wanted to do the right thing despite his anger issues.

Well, maybe not everyone was sympathetic. Some characters are just arseholes. Bonus points to this book for getting me to hate Don Peters so much, while also making him feel like a real person. I’ve seen other reviews call some of the more antagonistic characters cardboard cutouts, but unfortunately a lot of the viewpoints expressed by such characters are all ones that get expressed in the real world.

One thing that bothered me was the idea put forward by this book that men are inherently violent whilst women could theoretically build up a much more peaceful, fairer society. Aggressive, unreasonable or cruel women are seen as an exception, rather than the norm. It surprises me that the man who wrote Carrie can put forth such a vision without more deconstruction. True, there is some biological truth to the fact that males tend to be more aggressive, but these differences are exaggerated in Sleeping Beauties.

At one point a man in a bar preaches to the drinkers that women serve the same function in society as boys employed by coal companies in days gone by to pour water over the machines: they stop everything from catching fire and becoming destructive. An argument for this viewpoint is that women don’t start wars. My first thought was ‘What about Catherine the Great?’, but the point was never really argued against in universe. My problem with this reasoning isn’t just that it’s inaccurate, but that it assumes that women have had equal opportunity to become warmongers and tyrants. Or heroes for that matter. Or that history has remembered the contributions of women as well as those of men. Oh, and there is also the problematic suggestion that without women men would just be violent monsters shooting everything and everyone in their path.

But on the other hand…,

Everything the characters do can be explained in universe by factors other than ‘no women so now we go crazy’ or ‘no men so now we’re free’. As the women fall asleep, the men are left in a world where basic infrastructure is falling apart due to the lack of half the population. They must deal with this while fearing for the safety of their lost loved ones and facing an uncertain future. In this context, the aggression we see is to be expected. Meanwhile the women who become isolated from the men (don’t really want to explain this, kinda spoilery) have their small-town community connections, lack of outside enemies, and are able to pull together to rebuild like so many other communities do in the face of disaster. With all these elements, it is quite reasonable to expect them to act more rationally and kinder. The World of Men is falling apart, whilst the World of Women requires rebuilding and co-operation for survival. If the two worlds were not segregated by gender, I could see then both going down similar paths anyway. Maybe the reason why none of the characters bring up these factors is because in their world (and in ours), the perceived division between the sexes is such a huge thing that the search for answers stops there, rather than taking a more nuanced look at human nature and circumstances.

I’ll be thinking about this book and its message for a while. Whilst the aforementioned small issues exist, over all Sleeping Beauties is a call for equality, that gets a lot of the issues women do face. The message isn’t overbearing either; this is simply a good story, with characters that interested me and a plot that kept me invested for that whole 700 page trek. I never felt like it was dragging.

Despite how much I enjoyed this book, I felt annoyed that we never got any real answers to what caused the sleeping incident or why the small town in this setting was so special. That could just be me being accustomed to science fiction stories where everything makes sense. Asking for more explanation than what we got could be asking too much: after all, the reveal in Under the Dome wasn’t that satisfying.

It is also worth praising this book for the battle scene at the end. I’ve often read Stephen King books where the final battle was built up well, but then the battle itself fizzles out rather quick. Looking at you, Wolves of the Calla. That was not the case here. Maybe it’s because storming a fortified position is a longer process than a pitched battle, or maybe this is Owen King’s influence shining through. Either way, I was hooked through every process of the battle.

Now that I’ve typed that review, I just realised that it has been a long time since I read anything by Stephen King. I went back through my old blog posts, and the most recent King book was Doctor Sleep, all the way back in January of 2015. I think that has been my longest gap between Stephen King books. As for Own King, I have never read any of his work, and whilst I feel that he is the reason why this book was so much better than Doctor Sleep and other more recent King books, I probably won’t be reading any of his stuff. Read the blurb for Double Take and his short story collection, and just doesn’t seem like my thing.

I better finish this review before I get completely off topic. I liked this book a lot, and the narration on the audiobook was amazing.

 

~Lauren

 

 

 

Review – Provenance

Provenance25353286

By Ann Leckie

Published September 2017 (Orbit)

Score: 9.5/10

 

I love the Imperial Radch trilogy. I love it so much, that when I heard that Ann Leckie was writing a new book set in the same universe I added it to my Goodreads shelf before I learnt anything else. Then back in June I got a sample book at Supanova that contained an excerpt from the first chapter. I liked what I read, but I also felt some doubts creeping in. This story is very different from the Imperial Radch series, and protagonist Ingray is very different to Breq. Also, they use regular pronouns. With a few Spivak pronouns thrown in.

As I read through Provenance though, it became apparent I had no reason to be disappointed. Yes, we have gone from military space opera to something a bit different, but it is still a very good story. I’ve seen other reviewers call Provenance a comedy of manners in space, and I agree with that label, even though I didn’t think about it whilst reading. All I thought about this book was that it was good science fiction driven by characters and worldbuilding.

We start off with Ingray on a space station, having just spent all her money to break a convicted thief out of prison to help her retrieve valuable stolen artefacts. Rather than going on a heist or quest type story, we instead see Ingray’s plans fall apart, and each new development change the game. There were a lot of things going on, but I never found it hard to keep track of the different agendas. Leckie also avoided the trap of having Ingray be a passive player as all these different things kept happening. Most of the action was out of Ingray’s control, but she never lacked agency. When she had an opportunity to do something, she did it.

Whilst Provenance is set in the Imperial Radch series, it is not set in the Radch itself. The aftermath of the events from Ancillary Mercy are in the backdrop of this story, and in a roundabout way have influenced it (No Ancillary Mercy, no Geck aliens in this story), but they are not what this story is about. I was a bit disappointed that what was happening in the Radch didn’t play a more prominent role, as I was looking forward to seeing how things worked out there. The good part about Provenance not being a direct continuation of the Imperial Radch series is that it stands alone. However, I would still recommend reading the Imperial Radch series first, as that’ll explain the universe better. Also, Provenance references the ending of Ancillary Mercy, so reading this book first will lead to a big spoiler.

The worldbuilding here continues the high standards set in the Imperial Radch trilogy. The people in this story feel like they have their own real cultures and histories. Ingray’s people, the Hwaens, have a fascination with relics and collectables called vestiges that drives a lot of the plot. Hwaen inheritance customs also play a huge role in the story. We are also introduced to an alien race called the Geck. The Geck ambassador’s dialog was well written; it was understandable, but still felt somewhat alien to me. Leckie has only given us the briefest glance into her universe, but she makes this fantastic universe feel very real and leaves us wanting more.

I also really enjoyed Ingray as a character. She differs from most S/F female protagonists I’ve come across in that whilst she is highly competent and resilient, she is also very feminine. She wears large fancy skirts and her hair is held up by multiple hairpins throughout the story, but she never feels like a princess/girly-girl stereotype. She does feel very human, with what I feel to be realistically strong reactions to events like finding dead bodies, having a gun pointed at her, or believing she may have thrown her future away. She also had a few confidence issues to work through. Something I can relate to.

I also found it interesting comparing Ingray to Breq from Imperial Radch. Breq wasn’t human, and one of the strengths of that trilogy was how inhuman Leckie made Breq feel. Ingray meanwhile is very much human, and her humanity makes it easy to root for her as the story unfolds.

I already knew that Ann Leckie was a master storyteller. Provenance just proves to me that I need to go and read everything I can by her.

~ Lauren

 

 

 

 

The Sore Shoulder Read-a-Thon

Last week, I went to sleep and woke up barely able to move. I’d somehow managed to pull a muscle in my shoulder while sleeping, and therefore had to spend a couple of days in bed. This situation hasn’t been conductive to writing, but I managed to finish a few books. Let me tell you what I thought of them.

 

Tech Mage – Chris Fox

Score: 7/10

I became interested in this self-published book after stumbling across the author’s Youtube videos on how to write and publish. Check out Chris Fox’s channel here.

Tech Mage interested me because it promised magic and fantasy elements in a science-fiction setting, and it delivered on that promise. This story features spaceships fighting dragons and everything about the setting is really cool. Mages cast spells with guns, and a lot of thought has gone into this magic system.

Despite the amazing worldbuilding and magic system, there were a few issues with this book that bothered me. First of all, I’ve read quite a bit of military science fiction over the years, and despite being set on a warship with soldiers as the main characters, Tech Mage didn’t have the right feel. The fantasy elements justify some of the differences, but at times there is a very ‘military cliché’ feel to the way the characters interact. I feel I would have enjoyed the characters more if they were a small group of mercenaries rather than part of a professional army.

There was also a character who I didn’t like. Major Voria, the commander of the spaceship we follow, has an unearned reputation. I’m not sure if the dreaded Mary Sue label applies, but I don’t think the admiration she gets is justified. She is portrayed as a commander who cares about her soldiers, but until the events in this book she had knowingly allowed one of her commanders to cause division amongst her soldiers and unapologetically waste the lives of the non-magical marines. A good leader would have put a stop to that before ship culture included marines beating up tech mages on sight. When she finally does fix the problem, no-one calls her out on allowing it to happen in the first place.

At the end of the day, I had some issues with this story. However, I have recently read two books that I felt were better written than this, yet come away deciding that I don’t want to continue with those stories. Despite my issues with Tech Mage, I am very interested in continuing this series. The worldbuilding and lore have pulled me into this world, and I want to learn more.

 

The Far Horizon – Patty Jansen

Score: 7

Another self-published book, The Far Horizon ended up being much shorter than I expected. The Far Horizon is aimed at a younger audience, but I still found it enjoyable. This story is about 10-year-old Cory, whose father is marrying an alien (called Extra-terrestrial Humanoids) and moving the family to a space station where he will be meeting with alien diplomats. Cory must adjust to a new environment, re-evaluate his beliefs about his new step-mother and aliens in general, and stop some terrorists from killing all the alien diplomats.

There is a nice anti-racism message, and the story does interesting things with the ‘adults-are-useless’ trope, but in the end, there is nothing extra special about this story. At least, not that I got from it. I would recommend it for young adults or older children.

 

Friday – Robert A. Heinlein.

Score: Did Not Finish

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Heinlein right now.  He was ahead of his time when it came to free love and women’s rights. But at the same time, I’ve often found something off about his female characters. The titular character of Friday was a character I really wanted to love. I think I do like her a lot. We’re introduced to her as she kills a dude and expertly disposes of the body. She is an artificial person (think Bladerunner) with enhanced strength, reflexes and hearing. She works as a courier for a spy-like organisation and has received enough training to be a complete badarse. She walks a fine line between being an unstoppable force and feeling insecure and vulnerable about her status as not human. She also wears skin tight catsuits and is happy to have sex with nearly everyone she comes across.

I do like Friday. And if this was a non-stop action story about her taking down bad guys whilst dealing with her marginalised place in society, this would have been a really good book. But I got halfway through it and just couldn’t maintain my interest. Friday isn’t in the thick of the action in this story. Instead she is trying to get back to her boss along with a nice man who seems to have become the most competent member of a duo, even though he is a professor and Friday is a trained secret-agent type. Heinlein goes into excruciating detail about every step of their journey, and it just drags on and fails to grab me. Not only that, but some of the things that happen just don’t seem plausible. Friday and Georges happen to come across the leader of the country they are in just as he is about to be assassinated, and that same day Friday wins the lotto. This book had a really gripping first chapter, but by the halfway point I had to admit that it feels like a chore getting through this story. I’m going to set the book aside for now. Maybe after I have satisfied my thirst for the new Stephen King and Ann Leckie books, I’ll be more patient with Friday.

Whilst I put this book down at the halfway point, I almost put it down much earlier than that. Near the start of this story, Friday gets gang-raped. It is mentioned that her conditioning as an artificial person and her training makes her better able to deal with such situations, but I don’t think either of those factors justify how blasé Friday was about the whole matter. I don’t think it was Heinlein’s intention, but the horrors of this situation are severely downplayed, and I was very uncomfortable reading such a casual depiction of rape. For this alone, I would not have scored this book anything higher than a six even if the plot had turned out awesome.

 

I’ve been slogging through Friday for a few days, and now that I’ve put it down I’m unsure where to go next. I have a lot of really good books waiting for me. Even better though, my shoulder is all better. So, now life can get back to normal. Be careful how you sleep people.

 

~ Lauren.

 

Review – Cycle of Fire

Cycle of Firecyclefire

By Hal Clement

Published 1957

Score: 7/10

 

I have in the past labelled some science fiction stories as ‘hard’, without fully explaining what that means. To quote Wikipedia; “Hard Science Fiction is a category of science fiction categorised by an emphasis on scientific accuracy.” Originally terms like ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ differentiated between the ‘soft’ sciences (i.e, social sciences) and ‘hard’ sciences (natural sciences), however the distinction has since become more about the relationship between the science and the rest of the story.

Science Fiction stories can be thought of as existing on a spectrum between soft and hard. For example, Star Wars explains none of its technology, and the Force is almost a fantasy element. The story in Star Wars is a very space opera one, that could conceivably be retold as an adventure or western with a bit of creativity. Meanwhile, Star Trek often has episodes that revolve around technology or bizarre alien biology. Hence Star Trek is ‘harder’, science fiction-wise, than Star Wars. However, a lot of the technology in Star Trek isn’t fully explained, and whilst there is usually an internal consistency, Star Trek technology and worldbuilding isn’t always scientifically accurate. Thus, Star Trek is still on the ‘soft’ side of the spectrum.

At the very end of the ‘Hard’ end of the spectrum, you’ll find Hal Clement. Clement and some other hard SF authors of the time saw their stories as a game. The objective of the author was to create a crazy world and crazy situations whilst adhering to the known laws of reality. The objective for the reader was to find mistakes. This approach leads to some amazing worldbuilding, but it also results in less emphasis on story and characters, and whilst I have enjoyed everything I have read by Clement, his work is dated, and not just because of 1950s morality (though, this story does contain a Human going to a planet and meeting pre-industrial age aliens and we know how that is usually played in this era. I think Cycle of Fire treats the subject better than most other books of the time, but it is a very 1950s worldview at work here.) The prose itself isn’t something that modern writers would do. The narrative switches between the thoughts of both main characters without any type of break (though I feel this works, given the narrative voice) and towards the end of the book we get pages and pages of exposition about the planet’s history and the biology of the aliens on it.

Keep in mind though, that Hal Clement is a master worldbuilder. Reading pages about Humans researching an alien planet and reporting their findings is fun if you enjoy natural history and the research is being done on a crazy Hal Clement world with two suns, or 250x Earth’s gravity. Also, Cycle of Fire is short. I’ve read a lot of hard SF that occasionally gets bogged down in the technical details and I end up skimming, but such books are usually huge doorstoppers. Meanwhile, Cycle of Fire is under 200 pages, so the info dumps are out of necessity kept short and are better integrated into the story.

If you can keep in mind the time period in which Clement wrote, and the aim of his stories, then it quickly becomes apparent why he is considered a Grand Master of science fiction. In his most famous story, Mission of Gravity, we are taken on a romp on a planet with 250x Earth’s gravity and a day length of about nine minutes. Cycle of Fire isn’t as well known, but the worldbuilding is still amazing and almost as crazy.

We find ourselves on planet Abyorman, following Dar, a native pilot who has crashed his glider and must traverse a barren volcanic landscape to get his precious cargo – his books – to the Ice Ramparts. Along the way, he meets another castaway; space cadet Nils Kruger. Kruger was part of an exploration team, but was left behind after an accident which led the team to conclude he had died. The two must travel on foot across a planet in a binary star system, and use a combination of Dar’s supreme intellect and knowledge of the planet and Kruger’s willingness to experiment and experience with higher technology to overcome a range of challenges.

The characterisation of Dar and Kruger is somewhat lacking, but it was enough that I came to believe they had a close bond and found their last conversation touching. Of course, the draw of this book isn’t the characters. It is the world. Abyorman is the only planet in a binary system, and it goes through intense seasons that kill Dar’s people en masse every 60 odd years. The true nature of the world and its people is obscured for most of the book, until Dar and Kruger’s journey comes to an end, and then they help some researches find out everything they can about the world. We get many chapters about the geological and evolutionary history of Abyorman, and it is fascinating stuff. I also loved how all this new knowledge impacted Dar. His whole view of his world and his place in it was upturned by the humans and he took it in stride.

An interesting thing about this book is that Dar’s people are shown to be more intelligent than Humans, even though they’re level of technology is so much lower. Kinda progressive for the time, but the way the Humans respond to meeting supposedly superior aliens says a lot about the time period this was written in. But writing about colonialism and racism in old SF could make a post of its own.

It’s also interesting reading Cycle of Fire because it comes before Star Trek made the Prime Directive such a huge part of alien stories. Dar joins the human researches and they encourage him to learn as much as he can from them. In fact, the aliens ask the humans to stop sharing so much science, since they are concerned with how that will impact their way of life. The humans view the alien that made that request as “an opinionated, narrow-minded, dictatorial old fuddy-duddy.” Interestingly though, arguments are made that support the Prime Directive attitude.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who loves classic SF, and anyone who likes hard SF. Even if these two things aren’t your jam, I’d still encourage anyone who loves science fiction to read a Hal Clement book at some point for the historical value. Just keep in mind the time it was written in and the way Clement approached his writing. Also, it’s nice to know that you can write hard SF without destroying an entire forest. Whether I’d recommend Cycle of Fire as the Hal Clement book to read though is a difficult question. The only other books I have read are the Mesklin ones (Mission of Gravity and Starlight). Cycle of Fire is a lot more accessible than that series, and I liked the characters better. However, Mission of Gravity has much better worldbuilding (remember that part about a nine minute day and 250x Earth’s gravity?), which is really what you’re looking for in a Hal Clement book.

 

~ Lauren

 

 

 

 

Double Review – The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and Frost by M. P. Kozlowsky. Also, I Love Audiobooks.

No real reason to review these two stories together to be honest. I’ve just been falling behind with my reviews, as my followers may have noticed. I enjoyed both novels, but don’t feel like they were anything super special.

I did listen to both these books on Audible, making them my first non-Ada Palmer audiobooks. I must say I am liking this format a lot more than I thought I would. I’ve heard mixed things about audiobooks, but since I spend a lot of time driving alone, being able to listen to a book in my car works for me. Frost is also going to hold a special place in my heart because I started listening to it with my partner in the car. He isn’t a reader, so although I talk to him about the books I read a lot, I’ve never been able to have a conversation with him about a book where he has followed along with the story and come to his own conclusions about it. He hasn’t finished Frost yet, but it was great listening to it together and then coming up with our own theories about it.

Let’s start talking about the actual books though. The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel-length Russian folktale. It is certainly fantasy, with talismans and magic and demons aplenty, but it is also grounded in reality. This story features a lot of information about 14th Century Russian life and politics, and when the fantastical elements weren’t present it almost read like historical fiction.

The more realistic vibe has an impact on the fantasy parts of the story too. A lot of common fairy tale tropes are played with. For example, the Heroine’s mother died giving birth to her, and early on in the book her father remarries. Her step-mother is an ‘evil’ step-mother, but she is not entirely unsympathetic, and her relationship with the heroine deteriorates over time, rather than starts out entirely antagonistic.

This book had great worldbuilding and lovable characters, and a nice coming-of-age story, but I find myself not excited about the sequel at all. Which is okay, since this book feels complete to me. It had a satisfying ending where all loose ends were tired up. The sequel feels like a bonus, but I am just not interested in continuing in this world at the moment. So, I guess I’m going to part amicably from this series. I guess the magic system didn’t appeal to me, though I did like the descriptions of all the spirits of the house and forest. I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t love this book. It could just be that I’m not that into fantasy.

All in all The Bear and the Nightingale is a good book, and really well written. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy and folk tales.

Now we get to Frost, and I can tell you exactly what this book did right, and what it got really wrong. First of all, the narration by Cyrina Fiallo was excellent. She used a lot of filters to get all the robot voices sounding perfect. For this alone, I would recommend the audiobook. The story itself was also interesting. It’s about a young girl called Frost who has spent her whole life in an apartment in a post-apocalyptic city. Her only companions are her pet Roams, a giant pink monster, and her robot Bunt, who has the consciousness of her dead father somewhere inside him. When Roams gets sick, Frost insists on taking him through the city, which is full of all sorts of dangers, hoping to get him to a safe place that may have medicine for him.

So we have this innocent young woman travelling through this terrible city, witnessing all these horrible things as she tries to save her beloved pet. As she meets many different robots and Humans in robot bodies, there are discussions about what makes someone a human, or how to obtain personhood. There were some elements that reminded me of games that had discussed this topic, such as Nier Automata and Soma. There are also zombies in this world, but they’re not really your standard zombies. They are called eaters, and it is made clear that they are still thinking, feeling people, they just have an uncontrollable hunger that they cannot resist. They also can’t communicate, because usually they eat their own tongues soon after becoming infected. I really liked the eaters, as they act like zombies, but their personhood poses a moral dilemma to the protagonists.

The writing style was a mixed bag for me. Kowlowsky uses very descriptive language, which paints a real vivid picture of the world. But some of this descriptive style finds its way into character dialog, which created some really long and unrealistic monologues. Characters were also a mixed bag. I liked Bunt, and I liked the main villain. I liked Frost a lot at first, but she did seem a bit Mary Sue at times. Some of the minor villains also seemed unrealistically bad. These problems probably wouldn’t have been that big a deal, but I also really didn’t like the end. Or rather, I didn’t like where the story ended.

During Frost’s journey, she crosses the Good John Lord, a tyrant who requires something from her and her father. The plot to defeat this villain and save the city got really interesting and exciting. It also came to a satisfactory conclusion an hour before the book finished. Everything that happened after that seemed long, drawn out, and rather pointless. Which is a shame, because this book has a good twist that was very well built up, but the reveal happens for no reason and doesn’t pay off. There were two other moments in the last hour of the book that were supposed to be really dramatic and touching, but they just felt pointless and contrived.

There is a sequel in the works for this book, and again, I’m not too sure I want to continue the series. I am really interested in some of the unanswered questions at the end of Frost, but I feel really let down by the ending.

Both of these books I found entertaining, but I didn’t love them. Both were good, enjoyable books, and I’m glad I listened to them.

 

~ Lauren