Reviews: The Collapsing Empire and Six Wakes

The Collapsing Empire and Six Wakes

 Finished the two Hugo Nominees I haven’t reviewed yet. I’d been meaning to read both of them earlier, but The Collapsing Empire I never got around to, and Six Wakes seems to have not made it to my country yet. Couldn’t find it on the Australian Kindle store or in Australian shops. I had a similar problem with Too Like the Lightning last year, but I did manage to get that one from Audible. Six Wakes wasn’t even available there. Not unless I wanted to subscribe to the US Audible. If that would have worked. I was thinking of just waiting until I got the voter packet, but in the end I just didn’t want to wait anymore and ordered a copy online. After all that effort, I am so glad to be able to finally read and review these books.

The Collapsing Empire

By John Scalzi

Published March 21st 2017 (Tor Books)

Score: 8/10

The Collapsing Empire is a fun, accessible, and impossible-to-put-down space opera that I enjoyed every moment of. We are taken into a world called the Interdependency, where all human inhabited worlds are connected by an extra-dimensional field called The Flow, and no world has the resources to survive without trading. There are great houses and royalty and rebellions and scientists and ship captains galore. Everything great about the genre. Well, nearly everything. No aliens, but there’s no need for them here.

The problem with the Interdependency is that The Flow is about to collapse, leaving all those interdependent worlds to fend for themselves. To make matters worse, there is only one world in the Interdependency that is an actual habitable planet, and due to how far away from the trade routes it is, it’s been used as a backwater for exiles for decades. The story follows three characters – a scientist studying The Flow, the daughter of a house and trader, and the newly crowned Emperox – as they realise just how screwed the Interdependency is.

All three storylines are a lot of fun, and the main characters all feel real. It’s nice that there were so many strong female characters here. It’s like reading an old-school space opera, but with modern sensibilities in mind. The parallels between the collapse of The Flow and the inability of previous Emperox’s to respond to the threat and our own issues with responding to climate change were great, and didn’t feel too preachy.

What let me down though is that The Collapsing Empire felt more like the set up to the series, rather than a complete story in itself. Though I imagine if the second book was out now I wouldn’t care too much about that.

 

Six Wakes

By Mur Lafferty

Published January 31st 2017 (Orbit)

Score: 7.5

Six Wakes is a locked-room murder mystery with a twist. We dive into a world divided between humans and clones. Clones get their minds copied and implanted into a clone of themselves when they die, and there are strict rules governing the whole process. The story starts when the crew of a ship heading towards a new planet wake up from the cloning process with no memory of how they died and their previous bodies floating dead in the ship and their computer damaged.

The story takes place over five days as the crew try to repair the damage and piece together what happened. It’s a simple but intriguing premise, and as we learn more about the characters and unravel the mystery the book becomes impossible to put down. There is a lot of action on the ship itself, but also a lot of opportunities to explore the ethical implications of the cloning technology. It is mentioned that with the technology to copy a human mind and download it into a new body, there also comes the ability to ‘hack’ a person: To change aspects of their personality or alter their memories. Some of the technological speculation reminded me of the game Soma by Frictional Games, where mind copying – and how it isn’t the same as mind transference – is a big deal. Especially the parts that focused on the captain of the ship.

There is a lot of information to take in and I’m not sure if that hindered the ‘fairness’ or solvability of the mystery. I didn’t figure out what happened until the characters did, but I also tend to gloss over dates and timeframes, so someone who is paying more attention might figure out who the killer was earlier. Not that being able to solve a mystery yourself should be an essential part of a mystery, but I tend to prefer mysteries that I could have possibly figured out myself.

For a story that takes place over a few days with a handful of characters in a confined area, Six Wakes packs in a lot of world-building. What does personhood mean when we can be re-programmed? Does cloning make life cheap? Or was it always cheap? How do religions react to the technology? This book contains interesting questions, great world-building, and a fantastic plot. The characters are a bit forgettable though. Six Wakes is a fun book, and I’m glad I put in the effort to get myself a copy.

 

~ Lauren

 

 

 

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Review – Beyond This Horizon

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By Robert A. Heinlein (Writing as Anson McDonald)

Published 1942

Score: 6.5

 

I’m still thinking about how I feel about this one. I have read Heinlein years ago and enjoyed stories like Time Enough for Love, Job: A Comedy of Justice, and Stranger in a Strange Land but the last Heinlein story I read, Friday, I could not get into. I had a lot more fun with Beyond this Horizon. It contains a lot of amazing ideas, gems of quotable Heinlein social commentary, and some top-notch worldbuilding that even after 70 years feels exciting. However, I listened to this as an audiobook while driving to and from work. I got home on Friday just as a chapter finished, and I could see that I had twenty-six minutes of book left. I spent that night reading an issue of Asimov’s. (Shout Out to Liu Cixin’s The Sea of Dreams. Favourite novelette of the year so far.) There were pacing and storytelling bugs in this book so great, that I found myself near the end and being in no particular hurry to finish.

Let’s focus on all the good things about Beyond This Horizon. Heinlein often uses small details to make the future feel real. The best example is the famous line ‘The door dilated’, which has been praised for decades as the perfect example of an understated sentence that conveys a crystal-clear image of a high-tech future society. There were other little lines that did a lot to build this world. There are still info-dumps and a particularly obvious “And as you know…” spiel, but over all this book shows some of the future-making techniques that Heinlein has became famous for.

I suppose I should say what this book is about, and it’s here we get to some of my issues with it. It’s about Hamilton Felix, who lives in a world of positive eugenics and gun duels. He has been selectively bred to be awesome, and now the local geneticist wants to breed him with an equally awesome woman and make babies that are as perfect as possible. Hamilton refuses to have children until he knows the meaning of life. Then he gets mixed up in a future tiki-torch group that want to take over the government and use genetic engineering to make a society with castes (they get to be the leader caste of course). While this happens a man from the past (the 1920s) is found and tries to adjust to modern life, and Hamilton’s friend Munro-Alpha has problems in his love-life. Then the supremacist group tries to take over the world, and that plot climaxes about halfway through the book. After that we go on to the more mundane stuff about raising kids and researching supernatural stuff. I found this last section a bit boring, but then again children have never appealed to me.  There are a lot of interesting things in Beyond This Horizon. It’s worth reading for the ideas and world, but I feel it was too many good ideas jammed into too short a book to be a great novel. I read a lot I liked, but I found myself not excited about the book as a whole.

Let’s talk about characters. In particular, about the female characters. Heinlein does this thing where he writes strong female characters and supports equality between the sexes, but he also expresses a lot of gender stereotypes that come across as sexist today. If you’re familiar with Heinlein, you know what I’m talking about. If you aren’t, then I’ll just say that modern readers are in for a bumpy ride. Especially for the scene where Hamilton meets his love interest Phyllis.

Phyllis is an interesting example of how Heinlein writes women. She goes armed, unlike most women in this society, and when she gets in a firefight she is shown to be highly competent. She’s also flirty and has a lot of agency. Yet at one point, she states that making babies is “what she’s for”.

I guess what I’m saying, is that Beyond This Horizon is fair for it’s time. Progressive for it’s time even, at least when it comes to women. Possibly for race too. There is an n-bomb dropped, followed by the phrase ‘what does your colour have to do with anything?’ Besides values, the scientific understanding about how DNA works has also advanced since Beyond This Horizon was written. You really have to keep in mind that this book was written in 1942.

None of the other characters stand out for me, male or female. They were fun, but not memorable. If you haven’t read Heinlein before, then this isn’t the best place to start, but if you keep in mind the time it was written it’s still got a lot of good things going for it. I just wish all those good plots and ideas came together better.

 

~ Lauren

 

Review – The Darkness and the Light

The Darkness and the Light

By Olaf Stapledon

Published 1942

Score: 8

 

I’ll be reading the Retro Hugos this year. Or at least, all the ones I can find. Let’s start with The Darkness and the Light, an examination of two futures for humanity: one a utopia that has enough issues to remain interesting, and the other one of the most horrific dystopias I have ever encountered.

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Oh well, I did only pay $1.31. Still worth it.

Before I start talking about this story, I have to pause a moment and rip on the quality of the Kindle edition I got. I think someone copy and pasted a PDF without bothering to format it for eReaders. The formatting was painful to read. According to Goodreads, there is another Kindle edition out there by Gateway, but I haven’t been able to find it on the Australian Amazon store. Once I did get into the story the formatting became easier to ignore, which I’m going to say is an accomplishment in itself for Stapledon.

This book is entirely exposition, without dialog or even any named characters appearing. We get a full examination of the future of humanity. Stapledon extrapolates the after-effects of WWII, which eventually sees the Soviet Union and China take over most of the world. The last holdout against these tyrannical Empires is Tibet, and Stapledon explores two far-flung futures based on first the failure than the success of Tibet’s rebellion against the ‘darkness’. Stapledon leaves it up to the reader to decide which of the outcomes is the true future.

The world-building skill in The Darkness and the Light is amazing. Both futures are so well thought out that it is easy to forgive that history has marched on during the past 76 years. There were a lot of things in here that reeked of 1940s views, but there was also a lot of things that were progressive for the time, like a Zulu World President and Eastern traditions playing a huge role in making the good future good. After all, it was the Tibetan people who saved the world here. There are some parts modern readers may find objectional, but it hasn’t aged as badly as some books.

I’m impressed that the exploration of the utopian future was just as interesting as the rest of the book. Utopia can be boring, since struggle and conflict are so essential to a good story, but Stapledon makes it work here. We get to see what happens after the “Tibet saves the world and everyone lived happily ever after’ part. The New World still has issues, and they still face crises, but unlike the dystopian world and our own, the people in this world can work out most of their disagreements peaceably. The people in the good future also progress to the point where they gain a goal that we can never hope to attempt today. A goal that reminded me of Lovecraft in it’s nature but was totally unlike Lovecraft in tone. The best part of the utopian future was that humanity was no longer insignificant and helpless on a cosmic level and I enjoyed reading that.

I expected to come into this review and talk more about the bad future than the good, but I feel that we’re all familiar with what makes a good dystopia by now. I will say that the bad future Stapledon portrays was one of the most chillingly vile dystopias I’ve read in a long time. Stand-out features of this future include a radio device installed in the human brain that allows all thoughts to be monitored and eventually for commands to be issued. The sheer impossibility of any resistance against the state was terrifying. There was also a chapter detailing the state’s attempts to increase population by subjugation and flat-out torture of women that was especially horrific. The fate of humanity in this dystopia was disturbing. Completely implausible, but still a fitting, disturbing end.

I think the best part about this book is how relevant it feels in today’s world. We seem to be faced with two possible futures. On one hand, living standards around the world are the best they have ever been and look to increase, technology has the potential to lift millions out of poverty, to open new frontiers to human exploration, to connect us with our fellow humans in a way never before possible. Everywhere I look I see efforts to reduce the suffering of people and animals, to repair the damage that has been done against our environment and our society, and to push back against those vested interests that wish to maintain the current, exploitive status quo. There is a push towards the Light here in our own time, and the potential is amazing.

On the other hand, if you don’t live under a rock the path to Darkness is painfully obvious. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether it’s too late to save ourselves. In The Darkness and the Light, the bad future reached a point were it could no longer be redeemed long before it’s end. The loss of the Tibetan Resistance was a complete victory for the Darkness. Have we reached that point yet? I think there is a lot of horrible stuff that will happen within the next hundred years no matter what we do now, but humanity has pulled through upheavals before. I think our Tibet is yet to come, but it will come and it’ll be soon enough that we need to start working towards the future we want now.

I encourage everyone to read The Darkness and the Light. And I hope that when people get to the part about the Tibetal Resistance, they notice why it led to two vastly different outcomes. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t because of a natural event, a great man, or a pivotal battle going a different way. It was because of a difference in attitude. It was because of the actions of an entire population. Take note of how Stapledon’s Tibetans reacted to the tyranny around them, because that’s what we need more of today.

 

~ Lauren

Review – Nova

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By Samuel R. Delany

Published January 1968 (Doubleday)

Score: 9.5/10

 

Wow, I knew this book would be a fun read, but I didn’t realise I would be coming across a hidden gem. If I had done some research I would have known what I was reading. Algis Budrys once said:

Samuel R. Delany, right now, as of this book, Nova, not as of some future book or some accumulated body of work, is the best science-fiction writer in the world, at a time when competition for that status is intense. I don’t see how a writer can do more than wring your heart while explaining how it works. No writer can.”

But I have somehow gone my life never hearing about Nova. Whenever I thought Samuel R. Delany, I’ve always thought Dhalgren or Babel-17. I came across Nova after watching the Deep Space Nine episode where the characters are all 1950s science fiction writers  and then seeing if I could figured out who everyone was meant to be an expy of. Since I was looking for a new audiobook at the time and thought it sounded interesting, I grabbed it.

Nova is everything great about old-school space opera, yet in most places it still feels like it could have been written today rather than in the sixties. It mixes classic space opera tropes with allusions to the grail quest, speculation on how society can change in a thousand years, and lots of Tarot readings. Long ago, I used to believe Tarot cards actually had predictive powers. I’ve become a lot more sceptical and now think they’re just cards; but they are cool cards, and I enjoyed seeing them show up in this setting. It’s also nice to see an advanced, futuristic society still have their superstitions. Even though Tarot may actually work in this universe.

Nova follows Captain Lorq Von Ray, one of the most powerful men in the Pleiades Federation, on his quest to get rare and powerful elements known as Illyrion from inside an exploding sun. His rival is Prince Red; a rich, cruel, and crazy man with a cybernetic arm capable of crushing sand into quartz. His crew are a varied bunch, and the trip takes them to a couple of fascinating worlds. On the surface it’s a fun space adventure story, but there are so many layers to this story. So many ways to read it. Pure space opera? A grail quest? Social Speculation? Moby Dick in Space?

Delany’s writing is beautiful. Right at the start we meet the character Dan, who has been blinded, deafened and had all his other sensors damaged by looking at a nova through the ships sensory input. Dan’s description of what happened was poetic, horrific, and conveyed how cybernetics worked in this universe without feeling like exposition. From that first page; before I had even been introduced to Lorq Von Ray or learnt of the quest, I knew just how epic and dangerous this quest would be. Seriously, hearing Dan describe what happened to him was one big holy shit moment, and it happened right on that first page..

The word ‘page’ is misleading in this review, since I listened to this as an audiobook. After listening to the book and then learning more about how it was written, I believe that reading the text and listening to the narration would be two very different experiences. In the print book, the header of every page is labelled with the date and location of the action on that page. This is helpful, as there are a lot of flashbacks, and sections have a tendency to end mid-sentence, which made following along with the audiobook difficult at times. On the other hand, narrator Stefan Rudnicki does an amazing job. The character voices are great, and he makes the unusual word-order used by characters from the Pleiades sound engaging and natural. It was also nice not having to guess how to pronounce the name Tyÿ (Tai-yee). As much as I enjoyed the audiobook, I think next time I read Nova, I will be actually reading it.

Another thing I loved about this book was the world-building. We see only a small part of the world, but so much more is implied. It makes this huge galaxy feel huge despite us only going to a few planets. One of the characters provides a lot of exposition about the universe, but because he’s a rambler and these long rants often end up turning into comic relief, it never feels like info-dumping. Even outside these explanations, small throw-away comments (“has it occurred to you that someone from the 21st Century would have no idea how we eat?”) give us so many insights and questions about this far-flung feature. There are so many little details like this that help make Nova an immersive read.

If you haven’t read any of Delany’s work before, Nova is an excellent place to start.

 

~Lauren

 

 

The Left Hand of Darkness + The Wind’s Twelve Quarters Vol. 2

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By Ursula K. Le Guin

Published 1969

Score: 9/10

 

Alright, now I understand why Ursula K Le Guin was such a giant in the field. The Left Hand of Darkness isn’t the first thing I’ve read by her, but this is the novel that made me go ‘ahh, I get the hype now’. I loved this story, and whilst I was saddened at the news, it’s only now that I fully appreciate just what a poorer place the world has become with Le Guin’s passing.

The Left Hand of Darkness is part of Le Guin’s Hanish Cycle; a universe where planets have been seeded with humans, and now we’re all re-discovering each-other. This is book 6 in the series, but so far I have seen nothing to indicate that there is any need to read the series in order as each story stands alone. Given The Left Hand of Darkness’s status as one of the most influential books in the genre, there isn’t really much for me to say that hasn’t been said a million times before, so I’ll keep this review brief.

This story takes place on the planet Gethen, aka Winter. The people of Gethen differ from the other humans in the Hanish cycle in that they have no fixed gender. Instead, the Gethenians are androgynous most of the time, and enter a state called kemmer every month that allows them to become either sex. Into this world comes Genly Ai, a man from Earth who has come to introduce the Gethenians to the rest of humanity. Ai’s mission is hampered by the simple fact that due to their different understandings of sexuality and social politeness, he doesn’t understand or fully trust the Gethenians. Le Guin uses the Gethenian’s ambisexuality not only to build a compelling story about the challenges of communication, but also to explore the ways gender influences our lives, our relationships, and our society.

Gethenian ambisexuality also plays a huge part in worldbuilding, as so much of Gethenian society differs from ours because of it. The other big part of the worldbuilding is the planet Winter itself. As you can tell from the name, Gethen/Winter is a very cold world, and Ai is shown dealing with all the problems involved with travelling over a frozen world. Throughout the story, we get retellings of Gethenian folklore, giving the planet a rich history. The geography, politics, and society of this world are so fantastic, but also feel so believable.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic for many good reasons. It is a milestone of feminist science fiction, an example of amazing world-building, and a love story that isn’t a romance story. Also, the ending really had a big impact on me. Had to stop for a moment and process what had happened.

234693I’ve been reading some of Le Guin’s short fiction as well. I have Vol. 2 of her short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and devoured that before I read The Left Hand of Darkness. This collection included the Hugo Award Winning story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, which portrays a perfect, happy city with one dark secret. This story was much shorter than I’d been expecting but does an excellent job of making the reader uncomfortable and introspective about our own morality. The collection also contained The Direction of the Road, which given my strange fondness for plants as viewpoint characters, I also enjoyed a lot. Actually, I liked all the stories except A Trip to the Head. It’s unfortunate that don’t have the full collection, but after reading these stories, I’m looking forward to getting more.

Ursula K. Le Guin is no longer with us, but her influence still lives on. Modern fantasy and science fiction owes so much to her work, and I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t read any Le Guin to find a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness as soon as possible.   

~ Lauren

 

 

Review – Frankenstein in Baghdad

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By Ahmed Saadawi

English Translation Published January 2018 (Penguin) (original March 2013)

Score: 6.5/10

 

I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this one. Frankenstein in Baghdad feels a lot more like literary fiction than genre fiction, and has won the International Prize for Arab Fiction. It is exactly what it says on the tin: a re-animated corpse roaming the streets of Baghdad. The description made me think I was going to get a horror story, but instead I got a fascinating look at fragments of life in U.S occupied Iraq. Sometimes, it didn’t even feel like the monster was the main part. We get to read about an old woman whose son has been missing for years, a reporter who wants to be like his shady boss, a government official who used mystics to catch criminals, a local hobo who made a reanimated corpse, and some real estate stuff.

In Baghdad, car bombs are a regular occurrence. The monster in this story was made from the severed body parts of bomb victims, with the intention being to give the recreated corpse a proper burial. Instead the creature gains a soul and goes out seeking revenge on behalf of all the people that make up his body. There is a segment in the middle where the corpse – called the Whatshisname – narrates his mission and struggles which I found engrossing. Every time he gets closer to his goal of gaining vengeance for all the victims that make him, parts of his body begin to rot, so he must find replacement body parts, which in turn force him to avenge more deaths. The quest for revenge is shown to be futile, only bringing more death.

Saadawi has captured the violence and fear in Baghdad, but has also provided us with an insightful, sometimes even funny look at the lives of the people living there. The way everything in this book fits together is surreal and unexpected. A bit like the Whatshisname I suppose. Unfortunately, there were some characters and stories that just didn’t interest me, and some parts of the book I felt like I was working through the story, rather than sitting back and enjoying it.

All in all, this book didn’t really do it for me, but I can’t think of any major reasons why not. Maybe I just needed something more speculative and less literary. Or my lack of knowledge of Iraqi culture meant most of the satire flew over my head. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a unique look on the Iraq war that touches on many different aspects of how war and violence impact people’s lives. But at the time I read this, I just could not get into it. A good book, but I guess just not the sort of story I was looking for right now. Maybe I’ll read it again in a few years and see how my thoughts have changed.

Happy Reading,

Lauren

 

 

Review – American Gods

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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

 

 

 

Review – Phasma

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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

 

Review – The Winter Tide

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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