Review – One Imbolc Gloaming

Posted 14 August, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of One Imbolc Gloaming by Elora BishopOne Imbolc Gloaming, Elora Bishop

Somewhat to my disappointment, the second book of the Benevolence trilogy doesn’t expand on any of the gaps I felt in the previous book. Instead, it moves away from Benevolence for a while, as Emily and Isabella attend traditional Imbolc festivities. The world is expanded in terms of showing us more locations, more kinds of magic, and more of Isabella’s friends and family. It also gives us more time with the couple, as their relationship deepens — though it has been a bit insta-love. Still, for once it’s a lesbian couple having insta-love, and they’re cute, so why not? We can make exceptions, right?

It also features the tragic love story of a long-dead abbess and a knight, who are reunited through Isabella and Emily’s efforts. That part is a bit, well, flowery, but it works.

The scenes Bishop describes glitter with the winter cold and the warmth of friendship; that aspect is definitely done really well. I’m still curious about various aspects of the first story, and I’m also beginning to be very curious about Alice, Isabella’s cat familiar. She’s just been a sidekick so far, but there are hints at an inner life and outside personality for her, and I want it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – One Solstice Night

Posted 6 August, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of One Solstice Night by Elora BishopOne Solstice Night, Elora Bishop

For some reason, I never got round to reading the two books which follow this one, so I’ve reread this one now. It’s a very short novella — shorter, I think, than the two which follow — and so it was a very quick read. Some of the novelty has worn off from Elora Bishop’s work to me; there was a magic the first time I read this in it being some of the first unrepentant lesbian romance I read, and I think I liked it more for that. Bishop’s introduction about the lack of queer people in the books I read as a child ran true; the only ones I remember were all evil, or died.

One Solstice Night is, by contrast, a little delicate sugary confection. Isabella is a mediocre witch who has slipped up a few too many times, and has in fact been chased out of towns by a screaming mob (but this is dealt with fairly lightly). She comes to the small town of Benevolence hoping for a new start, and attracted by the fact that she only has to do one spell each year. And there she meets an outcast woman, shunned because of an ancestor’s doings, and befriends her.

Naturally, things come to a head and the spell doesn’t go right, the villagers aren’t pleased by the love fest between their witch and their outcast, but love prevails. I’m quite interested to see if the other books go into more of the background: what exactly the Wolf was, why Emily’s ancestor damaged the protective spell, etc. The lack of explanation of a motive behind that is what made this feel rather shallow on the second read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Saints Astray

Posted 25 July, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Saints Astray by Jacqueline CareySaints Astray, Jacqueline Carey

Saints Astray is a fun follow-up to Santa Olivia, following Pilar and Loup as they find a way for themselves in the wider world outside their cordoned off district. Refreshingly, after the ups and downs of their relationship in Santa Olivia, the two are devoted to each other and while they do experience moments of doubt, these are quickly put to rest. Maybe the one thing that did bother me was how many people around Loup turned out to be ‘one in a hundred’s — people attracted to her despite the results of her genetic manipulation, which make her feel unattractive or strange to people. All of a sudden, in this book they’re coming out the woodwork!

Still, for the most part it’s just really fun: Loup and Pilar learn to be bodyguards, and Pilar shows that she’s far from just a pretty face — proving herself well worthy of Loup, if her love and loyalty hadn’t already proven that. They make friends and gain supporters in the outside world… and never forget their friends, whether that be Miguel (who has also escaped) or the kids from the orphanage who grew up alongside them.

The least fun part of this book is Loup’s incarceration, but at least this time she’s treated fairly, and her case triumphs in court, winning new freedoms for her and people like her, and shining a light on what was going on in her border town home. There was hope in Santa Olivia, but Saints Astray is more hopeful yet, full of a kind of optimism that love can win. Not a bad read for the present climate, I think.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Murder and Mendelssohn

Posted 11 July, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry GreenwoodMurder and Mendelssohn, Kerry Greenwood

The last Phryne book so far! Not quite sure what I’ll do without her; in fact, I’m vastly tempted to just pick up Cocaine Blues and begin again, the same way I do with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter books, sometimes. Murder and Mendelssohn is a strong entry in the series because of the side characters, who no doubt most readers will recognise — the war-damaged John Wilson, and the genius investigator Rupert Sheffield.

They very much follow the BBC Sherlock interpretation of the characters, and if you know anything about the fan community surrounding that show, you can guess what Greenwood does with them. It’s a little weird at times because it feels downright voyeuristic, but of course Phryne plays Cupid and makes Sheffield realise that, in fact, he can’t live without Wilson and that — though he never realised it — he’s attracted to him, and even possessive of him. There is a very… weird scene involving Phryne and Sheffield, and really that whole side plot might not attract readers who aren’t so interested in queer love stories, but I think Phryne’s tenderness for her former lover was compelling, and their shared memories of the war likewise.

The main mystery was not so compelling, relying on Phryne’s sparkle; as usual, Greenwood’s Australia, or at least Phryne’s circle there, are full of queer people, unexpected people, big characters… and small petty killers, too, of course. I figured out the murder method very quickly — I’m trying to think if I read a similar plot somewhere else, or something like that. To me it was just way too obvious, somehow.

I’m very sad to leave Phryne behind, all the same: the mysteries might not always have enchanted, but Phryne and her found family certainly did. I’ll be first in line if there’s ever another book in the offing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Raven and the Reindeer

Posted 12 June, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Raven and the Reindeer by T. KingfisherThe Raven and the Reindeer, T. Kingfisher

Sometimes surprisingly sweet, sometimes surprisingly dark, this retelling of The Snow Queen turns things upside-down in quiet ways. It’s fairly traditional in the set-up, and you can recognise each incident as you go along… until you meet Mousebones, the raven. He adds a lot of life to the story with his snarky comments and unique perspective. And then there’s Janna, the robber princess, who has rather more of a role in this version than I remember from Hans Christian Anderson’s — one he probably would not have thought of, really.

This is actually, though it isn’t immediately clear, a lesbian retelling of The Snow Queen — one that isn’t too surprising when you think about the robber princess’ fondness for Gerta in the original (or at least, the version I remember reading). It works really well, and the addition of the reindeer skin magic and the… weirdness when Janna has to slit Gerta’s reindeer-throat to bring her back to normal — that little bit of darkness works really well and brings some more colour and warmth into The Snow Queen; something I think is lacking in the original, rather pious and obvious story.

I don’t love it as much as Bryony and Roses, for example, but it is a well done retelling.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Companion to Wolves

Posted 9 June, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Companion to Wolves by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah MonetteA Companion to Wolves, Sarah Monette, Elizabeth Bear

I think a lot of people have read this expecting something it really is not: comfortable LGBT fantasy romance. But while there are gay characters and themes, the main character is more straight than not, and the gay sex goes toward highlighting issues which previous work like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books ignored. Instead of telepathic dragons and euphemistic sex scenes which turn out okay for everyone because of course the green dragons choose gay men, this explores the complications for gender identity and sexuality. To that end, there’s a lot of dubious consent here: the wolf-brothers’ relationships mirror the wolves themselves. If that’s going to bother you, definitely don’t read this (or read it with caution), because it’s quite deliberately difficult for the main character to navigate and accept. If you’re reading this because you loved The Goblin Emperor — uh, don’t, at least not just for that reason.

However, since I didn’t go into this expecting sappy gay romance, since I’ve read part of Sarah Monette’s Mélusine, I was pretty prepared for this. Having noticed all those issues with the mating sequences in Pern when I reread the first book, it was interesting to see someone deal with it, and also to place it in a context that more or less forced the authors to deal with it. Of course, this is “Iskyrne”, not the Norse world, but it’s close enough, with similar gender politics and social issues to navigate.

The whole thing is an exploration of honour and how Isolfr has to adjust his ideas of honour — and how his father also has to adjust, since that theme runs from the start of the story. It’s not always comfortable and I don’t think there’s really a happy end for Isolfr. There’s just adjustment: everything is worth it for the sake of his wolf. That’s the real emotional core of the story: Isolfr’s relationship with Viradechtis.

The fantasy world is also interesting, although it’s somewhat typical: trolls and (essentially, though not described in this way) dwarves, magical wolves, etc. The set-up for the wolfhealls is essentially the same as for the Weyrs of Pern: protecting the world. The difference is essentially a) in the amount of ice, b) wolves can’t fly, and c) it actually deals with the issues of consent it raises.

I enjoyed it, even though it wasn’t always comfortable. I don’t think the brutality of parts of it are actually intended to be some kind of indictment of the lifestyle, as some reviewers have thought. There are gay couples in the story who have a meaningful and romantic relationship, just as there are characters who don’t have sex with men outside of the breeding cycles of the wolves. It reflects less of an obsession with sexuality, showing more fluidity, which is entirely possible in the society depicted in the wolfhealls.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Door into Fire

Posted 17 May, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Door into Fire by Diane DuaneThe Door into Fire, Diane Duane

This was a reread for me, since it’s been so long since I read it, and I want to get on and read the second and third book. (Although alas, I don’t know that the fourth book has progressed at all since I bought them.) It’s a refreshing world where, though people have a duty to provide an heir, sexuality isn’t tightly regulated and once you have provided a child, you can love whom you will — and polyamory is also an option. Despite that, it’s not idyllic: the characters don’t always accept their lovers’ choices, don’t always agree with their actions, do things to hurt one another, etc, etc. It’s not falsely optimistic: in fact, the way Herewiss and Lorn hurt each other is very real, and recognisable.

The fantasy elements are fun enough, if somewhat typical (though that might be partially familiarity with later fantasy). Herewiss has access to a power men can’t normally wield, and yet he can’t truly call it forth. Lorn is a king without a kingdom, exiled after usurpation. Segnbora is wandering with Bad Stuff in her past and an inability to use her abilities for other reasons. There’s a fire creature that might call to mind Calcifer at times for those of us who love Howl’s Moving Castle.

There’s all kinds of humanness amongst the fantasy elements, which is what makes good fantasy. I really enjoyed rereading this, because despite feeling typical in terms of the plot, it feels like a world with so much more potential than some other fantasy worlds I could name, because it allows for so much more — it isn’t bound by Christian morality or constrained by our history. It genuinely feels like a separate world with its own reality, and despite the fantasy elements, that’s partly because Herewiss and Lorn never have to worry about being hurt because they’re in love.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Wolfsbane Winter

Posted 10 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Wolfsbane Winter by Jane FletcherWolfsbane Winter, Jane Fletcher

Wolfsbane Winter is mostly a reasonably unremarkable fantastical love story, with some hints that this world is one we should be recognising. Not being great on the geography of the US, I only got some of the most obvious ones, like “Ellaye”, but I think there’s others for the more discerning among us. And then, of course, there’s the fact that this unremarkable fantastical love story is remarkable because of one major thing: both protagonists are women.

If you’re looking for relatively traditional fantasy without the crappy gender roles and homophobia, tahdah, you’ve found it! Women are capable soldiers and scouts, in this world, and are mostly allowed to do it. I think I remember some commentary from some characters that was less happy about it, and maybe some gendered insults, but it’s relatively free of that. The character arcs are fairly traditional too: from a damaged, traumatised child to one who can accept love, or from being broken down by a strange new ability to slowly coming to terms with it… It all feels very traditional, except minus the inevitable Guy Getting The Girl (and there are no kitchen boys who become kings, either, if you want to be really pedantic).

Given that fantasy is relatively devoid of non-straight love stories of any type, it was kind of charming to have a traditional one like this to read. If you’re looking for something groundbreaking, this isn’t it, except that it portrays a world a little more broad-minded than your average medieval fantasy novel. (Which this isn’t quite, see also “Ellaye”, but it feels it.) But it is fun.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Darkest Part of the Forest

Posted 3 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly BlackThe Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black

I’m having a hard time putting together what I thought of this book, but perhaps it boils down to one thing: communication, damn it! Between brother and sister, between friends, between parents and their children, between faerie princes and the people they hope will help them. And especially with people you want to kiss.

Seriously, half the issues here would be mitigated by communication; if Hazel talked to Ben, if Ben talked to Hazel. Jack’s the only one I somewhat let off the hook, because he’s part faerie and geasa/odd restrictions are part of the stock in trade. (Actually, I mostly liked the portrayal of the faerie people; cruel and wild and sometimes beguiling, with bits of traditional fairy stories all over the place, and fairytale narrative styles as well — things coming in threes, for instance. The portrayal of people, in general, the suspicions of Jack, the apathy regarding anything that doesn’t touch directly on the community — that all worked quite well.)

I can’t help but feel that I would’ve been more interested in Ben’s story, because Hazel is so necessarily divided from herself by the plot. There’s stuff happening to her, and you don’t really know what or why, because even though she’s the focus character, there are gaps and omissions. It makes sense, but I kind of wanted Ben’s story more — probably especially because he’s not straight, and he is in the end the most entangled with the faerie world.

I do enjoy Jack’s characterisation a lot; his resolution to get the best of both worlds, to be a human while he can. His caring for his brother (double), his human parents, and the call to the faerie side of him as well — his insistence on living a mortal life while he can and appreciating his human family, his human connections, because he has all the time in the world for the rest.

I think ultimately, the book didn’t stand out enough for me, but it is interesting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Carry On

Posted 23 March, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Carry On by Rainbow RowellCarry On, Rainbow Rowell

Ever since I heard Rowell was actually going to write this, I’ve really wanted it. I mean, it explicitly features two boys being idiots in love, in exactly the same way as Rowell’s other books portray heterosexual couples being stupid (and sweet, and impossible, and teenage). And people were so excited about it — it seemed pretty mainstream. So that was cool. And then of course it takes an adversarial relationship a la Harry and Draco and develops it into love, which is one of my things.

Did it live up to my hopes? Hell yes. I was worried about a couple of things: in Fangirl, the world of Carry On was basically created to take the place of Harry Potter. I don’t actually like Harry Potter (sorry), and I was also worried that this would just turn out to be a serial-numbers-filed-off version. That didn’t happen: I was actually impressed with the way Rowell constructed her fantasy world, especially the power of words — and the way that pervaded the whole narrative: the worst thing to do to a mage is to steal their words, and at one point Simon says something trying to make it true. Perfect.

Another concern was, well, I didn’t like Draco. I thought he was slimy and cowardly. Now, Baz isn’t perfect — but he’s a worthy lead, flaws and all. He doesn’t always do the right thing, and he has opinions that we might not 100% endorse, but he’s in a difficult position and he works with what he’s got.

Finally, I was worried that Simon and Baz being gay (or bisexual, or demisexual as some people suggest, in Simon’s case) would be a Big Thing. Actually, it shockingly isn’t. There are a few points where Simon isn’t sure about it, but it isn’t a Big Angsty Issue. And Rowell writes them well; I love the way Baz only calls Simon by name when they’re “being soft with each other”. It all feels pretty boyish.

As for the rest, well — Penelope Bunce, guys. She’s all the great things about Hermione and Ron in one, without the annoying pettiness. And she has an amazing friendship with Simon — yes, a boy and a girl being friends in YA without complications, without romance. Hurrah!

Despite the fact that Agatha got to have a voice, I didn’t feel like it was quite fair to her. She seemed fickle and cowardly, when wanting to have a life of her own was a perfectly reasonable wish, and wanting to be loved now and for herself, not as the Happy Ever After In Waiting. Still, the way it examines the tropes of the Chosen One and the Happily Ever After are welcome and interesting.

I didn’t want it to be over, and I am definitely reading it again in future.

“It’s okay,” Baz says. “It’s all okay now.” One arm is tight around Simon’s back, and the other is smoothing his hair out of his face. “You did it, didn’t you?” Baz whispers. “You defeated the Humdrum. You saved the day, you courageous fuck. You absolute nightmare.”

Rating: 5/5

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