Review – The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales

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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

 

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Review – Sleeping Beauties

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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

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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

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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

 

Review – The Stone Sky

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By N.K. Jemisin

Published 15/8/2017 (Orbit)

Score: 10/10

 

I’ve been trying to avoid doing reviews of sequel to books I’ve already reviewed, since that usually sees me repeating myself a lot. I gave The Obelisk Gate a brief mention when I finished that, but now that I have completed the series with The Stone Sky, I feel compelled to sing its praises.

The Fifth Season was the book that got me interested in fantasy again. The world of the Stillness was unique, vividly imagined, and cruelly unfair. This is more than mere worldbuilding though, as this massive land and its 40,000 year history play a vital role in everything that happens in this story. The Stillness experiences apocalyptic events so regularly that they are called ‘seasons’, and every aspect of this society is influenced by the need for communities to be able to survive these cataclysms. The magic system of this world consists mostly of a power called orogeny, which affects the earth. Given that most of the seasons are caused by tectonic upheavals of some sort, people with the ability to use orogeny are vital to preventing seasons. Since Orogenes are so necessary, they cannot be allowed a choice in how their powers are used. They must be broken down and made to serve. Those who are not under government control must hide who they really are, because the population at large hates them.

The main characters, the orogene Essun and her daughter Nassun, are shaped almost completely by this world and its prejudices and need to exploit others. The plot at its core is their attempts to fix this broken world, or at least to find a place where they can be happy. This story would not have been as powerful as it was, nor would the characters have been as engaging as they were, if the worldbuilding had been anything less than perfect, and in The Stone Sky the nature and history of this magical Earth really shines through.

Let’s speak more about the prejudice orogenes (and now the Niess) experience in this series. This book has a message to deliver. A message that is sorely needed in today’s world. The Shattered Earth series shows the many ways that prejudice, bias, and oppression operate. This is a series where we see loving parents turn on their children, a whole group of people treated as sub-human, marginalised children turning to desperate measures to protect themselves, a society that has everything they could ever want, but still feels the need to enslave and exploit others for more, and much much more. This is a brutal book, but it is not brutality and tragedy just for cheap shocks. The horrors we see in this series feel real, because they are things that happen way too easily in our world.

Reading about Essun, Nassun, Hoa, and everyone else working through the dangers of this world made for an amazing story. I loved all the characters in these books, and the reason why was because I was deeply invested in their struggles. To change the world, or just give up and end all the suffering. This is a series that packs a strong emotional punch.

It is also very well written. I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Season that Essun’s parts of that book were written in second person, and that in general there is a very strong narrative voice. The Stone Sky has three viewpoint characters, having three different adventures. One story is told in second person, one in third person, and another in first person. It sounds like a mess, but it works so well. Part of the reason is because the way this story is told reflects the characters and their relationships. In The Obelisk Gate, we find out why the narrative voice is so prominent, and in The Stone Sky, we realise why parts of the book are in second person. It is genius the way this book was written. Pure genius.

It’s hard to think of things I didn’t like about this book. I suppose at times the way the magic system worked could have been clearer. I also forgot who Hjarka was when I started reading The Stone Sky. I can find a few nitpicks if I look hard enough, but all in all, this entire series is amazing. The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate both earned their Hugo Awards, and I’m already tipping The Stone Sky for next year. If you haven’t read this series yet, please go out and get it.

 

~Lauren

Review – 2084

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By Mason Engel

Published June 2017 (Self Published)

Score: 7.5

 

Engel credits the inspiration of this book to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s  Brave New World. As the title suggests, it’s a story more inspired by 1984 than Brave New World. 2084 could almost be considered a modern, YA re-imagining of 1984.

2084 follows Vincent, a high school student who lives in an isolated community called a Seclusion. The ever-constant TVs of 1984 are no-where to be found in the Seclusion. Instead, everyone wears devices called lenses, which are contact lenses with the capabilities of a smartphone. Amongst all the mundane functions of the lenses, there are two big things they can do. The first is run simulations; VR programs that provide education and entertainment. In other words, brainwash the population, and then use pleasurable simulations to keep the people happy and unable to speak or think clearly, like the drug Soma in Brave New World.

Most importantly though, the lenses also record everything their wearer sees. For security reasons. This world has a terrorist problem you see. Vincent cherishes the few minutes a day when he can remove his lenses, but not long after the book starts, everyone gets new lenses that can’t be taken out. After that discovery, Vincent becomes a target for Newsight; the company that makes the lenses and which is lobbying for less restrictions on what it can do with the data the lenses provide.

2084 differs from 1984 in that in the latter, Big Brother’s dystopia is well established and so powerful that nothing can be done to stop it. In this story though, the permanent lenses are only just getting handed out and Newsight still needs to lobby the Senate. We have the appearance of hope, which makes Vincent’s escape and resistance more exciting. It also makes the setbacks he experiences more shocking.

Whilst there are a lot of intentional similarities between the two stories, there are some important aspects of the 1984 world that Engel doesn’t re-explore. There is no equivalent of Newspeak, which was disappointing considering how language played such an important role in limiting people’s ability to resist in 1984. The closest Engel gets is including a few slogans. Manipulation of the truth also isn’t one of Newsight’s concerns, and yet it was what terrified me the most about Orwell’s world, and what scares me the most about our current post-truth politics. Here though, Newsight hasn’t got the ability to change its mind about who the nation is at war with right in the middle of a rally and have the entire population roll with it. Or at least, I saw nothing in the story to suggest they could do that.

Of course, these are areas where I think Orwell has said all that needs to be said in a way that no-one else will be able to top, so shifting the focus to the constant attempts to use the threat of terrorism to undermine our privacy, and the ever growing power of large corporations isn’t a bad thing. The shift in focus helps 2084 feel like something new and distinct from 1984, but the more I think about it the more I miss Orwell’s most pervasive themes.

A lot of the best parts of this book are still those that resemble Orwell’s book the most. Whether you see this as a faithful homage or a blatant rip-off is a subjective issue, though I tend towards the former.

As to the quality of the writing, we get a mixed bag. There are some scenes written so well that they really drive the horror home. Most notable is when Vincent tries to take his new lenses out and realises that they are stuck to his eyeballs. On the other hand, this book really needed another run through with a red pen. There are some poorly worded sentences, and a number of grammatical and spelling errors. For example, using the word ‘gate’ instead of ‘gait’ in one instance. These errors aren’t everywhere in the book, but they were common enough to make me lower my rating.

2084 is not without its flaws, but it is still an impressive debut novel. Today more than ever, we need to remember what Orwell warned us about in 1984, and here we are once again reminded of just how easily we could find ourselves completely controlled.

~Lauren

 

 

 

 

Review – Alien Influences

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By Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Published 1994

Score: 7

 

This is a book that has been sitting on my bookcase for years. It is also the first novel by Rusch that I have ever read, though I have read many of her shorter works and enjoyed them. Alien Influences is a ‘fix-up’, a novel constructed from a number of short stories. I haven’t read the original stories and am not sure how much of this book is original or reused. I’m only going to judge this story as a whole.

Alien Influences is the story about Humans on a colony world called Bountiful, which produces a valuable drug and is home to an alien race called the Dancers. The Dancers have a number of differences to Humans, such as an apparent inability to recall the past. Their heart, lungs, and hands also work like our teeth; the baby forms fall out to make way for more permanent replacements. The Dancers speed up this process with a ritual that removes a child’s heart, lungs, and hands, allowing them to grow up. When a few Human children turn up dead and mutilated in the same way, this understandably causes some tensions between the colonists and the Dancers. There are also questions on how the colonist’s children are influenced by spending time with these aliens.

Given that this is a fix-up novel, the book suffers from some pacing issues and an uneven plot. We start with what seems like a murder mystery/ethical dilemma, with questions about how to ethically deal with aliens who see killing and mutilating children as a good thing, and cannot be taught that Humans don’t work that why because they learn through instinct and repetition rather than knowledge of the past. This story comes to a satisfying end (for a short story) but then the book goes on to other stuff. First we get the trials of the Humans involved in the whole affair. We also see the Human government being extremely corrupt and terrible, and get hints that there will be a legal drama that seeks to undo it… but that never really materialises. Then we have a time skip, and find out what happened to the children that were influenced by the Dancers at the start. One of these children has become a bounty hunter, and ends up having to go back to Bountiful and confront his past.

I really enjoyed the first part, even though the true nature of the murders was quite obvious. Though to be fair, part of the reason it was obvious was because of the blurb. I also liked the end part, where John is a bounty hunter going after first a creature called a Bodeangenie and then some very special Dancer jars. There were also cool bits in the middle, but overall it got pretty slow there. And we never really get to see anything get done about the big government cover-up. A lot of the problems facing the characters in the second part of the book seemed to just disappeared on their own during the time skip.

Another problem I had was that I went in expecting a science fiction book, but it’s more of a fantasy in a sci-fi setting. This threw me for a while, because I was trying to figure out how the magic worked rather than just accepting it as magic. I’ve read a lot of books lately that blur the line between science fiction and fantasy and enjoyed them, but this didn’t go over so well for me. Until right near the end it just feels like a SF story with fantasy elements being patched on.

Alien Influences has some interesting ideas, and a lot of really emotional scenes. I really felt for a lot of the characters, and enjoyed this story despite the issues with the fix-up nature of the plot.

Double Review – Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

 

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee & Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Published 2017

Score: 10/10 for Both

After talking about this year’s Hugo nominees, I was excited to dive into not one, but two sequels to those books. First I read Raven Stratagem, the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, and then I immediately followed up it up with Seven Surrenders (Sequel to Too Like the Lightningon Audible. All I can say is WOW, both books are amazing, and reading them so close together made July probably my best month for reading. Both are 10/10 books for me.

I suppose I should be giving these books both separate reviews, but since I have already reviewed the previous books in both series I feel doing full reviews would see me repeating myself a lot.  I’ve also been a bit busy on my own writing, so I’ve had less time to do reviews.

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I’ll start with Raven Stratagem. Last year I gave Ninefox Gambit a perfect score, but warned that it was a book that didn’t explain much of the world and would require the reader to pay a lot of attention. The first thing I noticed about Raven Stratagem was that there was a fair bit of exposition at the start to explain the world. This worried me at first, even though it is standard practice for sequels to have that bit of catch up exposition for people who haven’t read the first one. I feared that some of the wonder of the world would be lost if Yoon Ha Lee started explaining everything as we went. I soon found my fears were unfounded. Once the obligatory second-book exposition was done it was all action, and I found I really liked having everything I’d learned from the first book confirmed and re-explained.

In Raven Stratagem, the crazy undead general Shuos Jedao, who is possessing the body of Captain Kel Cheris, captures a fleet, and we see how the Hexarchate scrambles to respond to this new threat. We have epic space battles, a range of interesting characters, and no idea just how things are going to go down until the end.

Whilst the first book dealt with one battle and really showed how war is hell and the toll fighting a war takes on individual soldiers. In Raven Stratagem we zoom out, and instead see how even without actively participating in a war, life in an oppressive regime can be hell. The Hexarchate has a faction called the Vidona, who are responsible for the public, ritualistic torturing of heretics. (For extra horror, the Vidona are also this civilisation’s schoolteachers.) At one point, the Hexarchate tries to get Jedao/Cheris to give up by committing genocide against Cheris’s ethnic group. After this declaration, we get a few snippets from the point of view of these innocent genocide victims who have played no role in the story, just to show that once again the decisions those in power make have a real impact on other people.

There is one issue that Raven Stratagem has that I can already see has divided people. In Ninefox Gambit, we saw the world mostly through Cheris’s eyes. Her relationship with Jedao was one of the highlights of Gambit, and after the end of that book, I was really eager to get back in their head and see how that huge ending had altered them, and how much of each one of them was left. However, Stratagem doesn’t give us this until near the end. This is understandable, since if we were in their head and knew what Jedao was planning, a lot of the suspense would be gone, but it is a dynamic that is sorely missed.

The upside though is that we get other viewpoint characters who give us a much wider view of the world. And damn the worldbuilding continues to be amazing. The culture of the Hexarchate has a very East Asian feel to it, going off the naming conventions, food, artworks, card games etc. In Ninefox Gambit we spent most of the story at the Fortress of Scattered Needles, so we were limited in how much of this galaxy we saw.

If you’ve read these books and want to know even more about the factions of the Hexarchate, there is a faction Cheat Sheet on both Yoon Ha Lee’s Page and on Solaris’s website.

Raven Stratagem was a perfect continuation of the series. At first, I thought it might be the end of the series, but I’ve been assured that this is a trilogy, and I will be looking out for any word on book 3.

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Now we get to Seven Surrenders. I enjoyed Too Like the Lightning; it was a unique story completely unlike anything I’ve read before. However, there were parts of Too Like the Lightning that I felt dragged on a bit, and there was a lot about the world and the characters left unexplained. I feel that Seven Surrenders fixes these issues, and delivers an impossible to put down ride. There is no catch-up exposition at the start; In universe, Seven Surrenders is Vol.2 of Mycroft Canner’s history, and therefore it is expected that you’ve read Vol.1. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend reading Raven Stratagem without reading Ninefox Gambit, I think doing so would be possible, though very confusing. Not so with Seven Surrenders; if you try to start here, you’ll have no idea what’s happening. Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders between them cover just seven days of plot and feature dozens of important characters.

Given that this book is an immediate continuation of Too Like the Lightning, most of the things I loved about it I’ve already talked about. The worldbuilding is great; we get shown those futuristic flying cars we’ve wanted for decades but we also see how they change the world. The big focus of the series is the politics of this new world, and as the story progresses and we see the conspiracies the rulers of this utopia have become involved in, we can’t help getting drawn into the plot. In Seven Surrenders, all these conspiracies begin unravelling at once and it is glorious to see.

We also get a better look at some off the characters. Our narrator Mycroft provides more information about why he did the horrible things he did, and we also discover the true nature of the enigmatic J.E.D.D Mason, which is quite a ‘Whoa, WTF’ moment. It’s really a testament to Ada Palmer’s skill that she can have so many memorable characters in one story. (Hell, she gets so many memorable characters in just one room, and it still works.)

This series discusses a lot of different ideas about religion, gender, and war. We see a peaceful world that hasn’t known war for 300 years, but throughout the series there is a dread that war might return to the world, and with the new technology and lack of experience, it’ll be the worst war ever known. This makes a lot of sense, and really made me think about the problems that come with maintaining peace for so long. I wasn’t so interested in the discussions on gender. This future society tries to avoid gendering people, and one of the characters tries to use society’s lack of experience with gender roles as a weapon. I’m not really buying that idea, and I also think it’s weird that all the ‘feminine’ social activities fall under the jurisdiction of just one of the Hives. But the discussion was done in an interesting way, and I didn’t feel like I was being preached at about the author’s views; this was just the way gender worked in this universe.

In short, Seven Surrenders was amazing. It wrapped up the stories quite well, whilst also setting the stage for the next pair of books, which will depict how this war will be thought.

2016 saw some amazing books, and already 2017 is proving to be just as good. I cannot recommend these two series enough; they just keep getting better.

And now that I’ve done that, I really need to read some of the older books that have been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Give them some love. At least until The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin comes out.

Happy Reading Everyone,

~Lauren