Chalk, Paul Cornell
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 21st March 2017
I don’t quite know how to rate this, because it’s not much my thing. It’s a bit too close to horror, it’s so grim, and the teenage boy fixation with sex was, well, rather beyond my experience or anything I’m interested in. Bullying I know well, and Cornell captures it wonderfully — but I can’t say beautifully, because who could call that beautiful? The magic is weird and wondrous and I do enjoy the way it’s tied in with history and the landscape.
I was less interested or convinced by Angie’s pop music magic; it felt very thin indeed, almost just a way to give her more of a role in the story without it feeling organic. But the main character’s ambivalence to her, the people around him, the great big revenge that’s happened because he wanted it — that feels real.
I can’t say I enjoyed this, and I can’t say I’d read it again, but nor would I urge someone not to read it. It’s definitely powerful, and I had to read to the end, even though I found aspects of it distasteful (I suspect I was intended to).
Martians Abroad, Carrie Vaughn
Received to review via Netgalley; published 17th January 2017
I had pretty high hopes for this, since I enjoy Carrie Vaughn’s work. And it’s not a bad book; it just never took off for me. The set-up, the conflict, the conclusion — all of it felt a little flat to me. I didn’t quite believe in it, I definitely didn’t believe in the stakes, and I don’t think I really believed in the characters either. On the face of it, I should really enjoy Polly’s character: her presence of mind, her refusal to think inside the box, her quickness to act and her willingness to protect others. I don’t even really know why I didn’t. I suppose because I didn’t feel her emotions coming through. She was dumped by her boyfriend and my reaction was ‘oh, well’ — partly because of her reaction, though admittedly also because that relationship isn’t built up at all.
If the phrase “dumped by her boyfriend” makes you feel like this might be a little juvenile, you’re right there, too. It feels like a YA novel, not just because of the age of the characters but because of the relatively low stakes. I mean, the stakes are allegedly life and death, and yet it always felt like a game. You got the sense that things would be okay. I almost hoped they wouldn’t be, at one particular point near the end, because that would’ve surprised me.
Bit of a miss for me, alas.
The Burning Page, Genevieve Cogman
Full disclosure: I did receive a review copy of this, but I also bought a copy.
I was really, really looking forward to this book, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. It continues to be a fun romp, centring around that idea of an interdimensional library preserving all kinds of variant texts. The warmth and love of books is still a key feature, and the characters are the same group we’ve come to love. While the last book was a bit of a break from overarching plot, this one returned to it: in this one, Irene has to confront the rogue Librarian, Alberich — and he has some very big targets in mind this time.
I especially loved the visits to alternate worlds; I’d love to see more of that. The visit to a Russia ruled by an immortal Catherine the Great was pretty awesome, and there’s so much room for Cogman to play with all kinds of alternates. They aren’t the main point of the book or plot, but they’re still fascinating little microcosms of things that could be.
I’m relieved that this isn’t the last book, because there are a few more mysteries introduced here. Irene’s parentage, where the Library is going now… it feels like the beginning, rather than the end of a plot line. And if I have any disappointment about this book, it’s in that: somehow, the seeming end of the story arc didn’t feel final enough. There may be good reason for that, in which case this book would work better on a reread after reading sequels; for now, it just felt a little odd. It felt like a return to the status quo, without being knocked as far away from it as I’d expected.
There’s still plenty to wonder about, and plenty of room for more stories, thank goodness. I think I sound more critical than I really am; I enjoyed the book a lot, and read it in almost one gulp. The whole series is a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend it — especially if you need a break from reality.
Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
This would probably have got a higher rating from me if I’d reread the first novella. As it was, I couldn’t tell what was supposed to be new to me and what was just part of me remembering the first book poorly. Things just kept happening, and I couldn’t make any guess about the next event — and then it suddenly ended. I forgot the basics. So if you were wondering about reading this as a standalone, I would say: don’t.
I really want to find the Okorafor novel/la that will work for me. Binti hasn’t been it, with either instalment. I do enjoy the worldbuilding, the mix of cultures, and the feeling of warmth I get from the story, from Binti’s courage… but I found the movement through the story a little too bewildering. I probably won’t read any more books about Binti; I just don’t seem to “get” it.
Standard Hollywood Depravity, Adam Christopher
Received to review via Netgalley, publication date 7th March 2017
Just like Made to Kill and Brisk Money, this is an entertaining story — imagine Chandler’s noir detectives, that kind of world, but add in one robot detective-become-assassin and his profit-orientated handler (actually a computer). It’s full of references and hat-tips to Chandler’s era, and though it doesn’t have Chandler’s flair with words (few people do), it’s well written and goes down easy. It’s also reasonably clear of sexism, racism, and Chandler’s other such vices.
This story in particular involves Raymond getting tangled up in the antics of various criminal cartels, and all that sort of thing implies. Bullets and assumptions fly, garnering a possibility of some grudges being held against Raymond and Ada, his handler — and we end the story with Ada and Raymond in a pretty good position. All ready for the next novel, since this is marked as 1.5 in the series on Goodreads?
In any case, this is readable whether or not you’ve read Made to Kill and the short story Brisk Money, but it is worth reading those for extra background and a better understanding of Raymond, his capabilities, and his limitations. The ARC version I read bundled in Brisk Money, so you could comfortable skip to that and read it first before going back to read Standard Hollywood Depravity.
Meanwhile, I never seem to have reviewed Brisk Money itself, and the release of this novella seems like a prime opportunity to do so — so watch out for that review coming sometime soon as well.
Brother’s Ruin, Emma Newman
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th March 2017
Brother’s Ruin is another of the Tor.com novella series, though this one is very obviously just the beginning of a series of novellas, rather than standing alone (as, for example, Passing Strange does). So it mostly seems to function as a way of setting up the world: there is a story here as well, but more important is the alternate reality being created. It’s sort of vaguely Victorian, but with magic as a relatively commonplace event, and some steampunky elements. There’s some politics around magic and its practitioners that is obviously going to become more important as the novellas go on.
The main character, Charlotte, is pretty cool. She’s part of a family and has a fiancé, but she also earns her own money through illustration work and hides her own strong magic. She’s prepared to take risks to take care of her family, and she’s fine with supporting them from her own funds. She has her weaknesses — a pretty face, apparently, as well as her strong and almost uncontrollable magic — but she also has great strengths.
The reason I’m not rating this more highly is that it does feel very much like an introduction, and it only grazes the surface of the male character who is presumably going to become a much bigger part of Charlotte’s life. I don’t know what motivates him and why he’s interested, and nor do I understand why Charlotte finds him so fascinating. The scenes where she’s suddenly finding him amazingly attractive don’t quite ring true to me, given her otherwise practical nature.
There’s a lot of potential here, but I’m not 100% sold — yet.
Agents of Dreamland, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 28th February 2017
Once again, not knowing my Lovecraft tripped me up. Yep, this is yet another Lovecraft-based story, although in this case it’s a rather less well-known one: the Fungi from Yuggoth. Not one I’d have known anything about even if I’d known in advance, but perhaps I might have been better prepared for the sheer bleakness and darkness of this story had I known it was based on Lovecraft’s mythos in any way.
It’s an intriguing little novella; self-contained, though it hints at a world before and after it through one character who is, to some extent, ‘unstuck in time’. The flesh-crawling horror of the fungi, a kind of invasion we’re helpless to fight, is done really well. There’s one phrase which just made me shudder, because of all the different implications stacked together: “the fruiting corpse”. Gah. Gaaah.
It’s very effective writing, and because I don’t know to what extent it takes any of the detail from Lovecraft, I can say that it’s definitely something that can stand on its own. It doesn’t rely on me realising exactly what’s going on through familiarity with Lovecraft; the creeping unease works as well or better if you’re ignorant of where things are going.
Birthright, Missouri Vaun
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th February 2017
Birthright is a fun, fast-moving story of a sort typical in fantasy: the lost heir to a throne taken by a tyrant. And this version is a fun example of the genre, with strong female characters coming out of your ears — and falling in love with each other, too. The love story is at least as important to the plot as the lost heir, which is worth keeping in mind; it motivates the way the end of the story shakes out, and takes up a good amount of the narration. I enjoyed that though Aiden is boyish and Kathryn more feminine, there’s no stereotyping — both can fight, both can rule, both know what they’re doing.
There are a couple of moments where I felt things rushed by a little too fast — the connection between the two characters grows very quickly in just a couple of scenes — and where I’d have liked a bit more depth, like the characters of Frost and of Gareth, or even Rowan. Without more background, for example, Kathryn’s jealous moment made little sense, especially since how we got to that moment felt a little contrived.
Nonetheless, it’s fun and has a happy ever after, and I’d definitely recommend it to people looking for lesbian fantasy.
Foxglove Summer, Ben Aaronovitch
Once again, this book takes a step back from the main action. It’s not that the events of Broken Homes aren’t alluded to, because they are. In the background, there’s a lot of stuff going on with tracking down Lesley and the Faceless Man. But the main action of the plot is a police procedural dealing with some missing children. I wasn’t really surprised that this book brought in the concept of a changeling child, but it did manage to give the whole idea a couple of twists that did surprise me.
For me, both the strength and weakness of the book is the lack of progression in that main series plot, and the absence of many of the supporting characters. There’s no Lesley to make Peter do the proper policing thing, and there’s no Nightingale for backup. Which leaves Peter on his own, thinking for himself, and showing that actually, he doesn’t need those two. He also keeps showing that though he might not be as good a copper as Lesley, who never misses a beat, he’s a good policeman because he’s a good man. And this book reminds us of the people Nightingale and Peter are meant to be working for — ordinary people who need protection — rather than against (mysterious practioners of unclear motive).
I’m definitely ready for more of the main plot now, but the respite from it wasn’t bad either.
Diamond Dogs, Alastair Reynolds
Diamond Dogs is a really effective novella, for my money. I reread it recently, but I remembered the key points from the first time I’d read it — a twisty story that got under my skin. There’s lots of little references and clues to point you to what the story is going to do, and there’s plenty of worldbuilding and detail to keep you wondering. It helps to know a little bit about the larger universe of Reynolds’ books, just for background… but it’s not necessary.
It’s creepy and psychological and well structured. It’s just one of those novellas which perfectly gets under the skin, scratches that itch, etc, etc. I won’t give away anything else…