Summer in Orcus, T. Kingfisher
Summer in Orcus is just lovely; a portal fantasy with something of the whimsy and warmth of Valente’s Fairyland, and likely to appeal to a similar audience. Some of the characters could’ve come straight from Fairyland, in the best possible way: Reginald the society hoopoe, with his Regency slang; Glorious the were-house, who is a wolf during the day and a house by night; Boarskin, Deerskin and Bearskin, who warn Summer of the cancer at the heart of the world; even the Frog Tree and its dryad.
That isn’t to say it feels derivative, because it doesn’t: it feels very much like itself. But it has something of the same whimsy and imagination, and I enjoyed it heartily. There is something a little darker than Fairyland, I think; perhaps from the very fact that the quest is initiated by the capricious and sometimes cruel Baba Yaga.
It’s a fairly typical quest story, in a way, except that the great confrontation at the end turns out to be uniquely suited to Summer’s talents and experience. There’s a fair dose of bittersweetness, heroism aplenty — and, to my relief, a hope that Summer will see her friends again someday.
Wicked Wonders, Ellen Klages
Received to review via Tachyon
I was really interested to read more of Klages’ work after reading Passing Strange. I think I’ve read one or two short stories before — one of the stories in here was definitely familiar — but I hadn’t consciously connected the author to them, if that makes any sense. Klages is a careful writer, as her afterword shows: she moves the words around until they’re just right, pays attention to pace and rhythm and all of that. It works: her stories are all readable and all seem to fit perfectly within the form.
There’s something eerie and wistful and tender in almost all of these stories, bar one or two that are more mischievous than anything. I was pleased to meet some of the characters from Passing Strange again, particularly, and get some more detail on the paper-folding magic which is alluded to there. But my favourite of the stories was probably the least speculative: ‘Woodsmoke’, which features two girls on the cusp of adolescence, at a summer camp. I won’t say too much about it, but it felt real and wistful, and the ending avoided any kind of saccharine sweetness, touching something real instead.
It’s a good collection of stories, and I also enjoy the fact that there’s a section included on where each story came from and giving more details. There were one or two bits I hadn’t noticed about the stories, which is always fun to learn.
If you enjoy short stories, this is definitely a good collection; if you enjoy Ellen Klages’ work, doubtless you know what you’re in for. Either way, Passing Strange is also worth a look…
Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire
Reading this again, there are two main things for me. 1) Nancy, and 2) I love the idea of all these kids from portal fantasies finding a home away from home together. And what happens if you didn’t quite fit in your world, the way Kade didn’t? What happens if you want to go back forever, and what happens if you can’t? How can you cope with “real life” when you’ve spent however long learning the rules of another world? But I talked about this in my first review.
This time, I focused on Nancy. The fact that she’s asexual, and the fact that it avoids the usual stupid pitfalls. She cares about people, for one thing. And though you might think that it’s a bit of a cliche, having a girl who went to an underworld be asexual — of course they’re not sexual, they’re dead — it actually makes a point of mentioning that it isn’t true at all. She’s still different in her underworld; her asexuality isn’t a plot point in the sense that it proves she belongs in some other world. It’s just a part of her, and her world suits her for other reasons. The fact that she’s asexual — and for that matter, that Kade is trans — feels organic.
I love the diversity, sure, but I also love the fact that it’s matter of fact and part of a world I love for other reasons too.
Brisk Money, Adam Christopher
I’ve gone about things a bit backwards, because I only read Brisk Money after already having read Made to Kill (and Standard Hollywood Depravity, too). So the twist in this tale was one I already knew. It’s still a fun short story; good set up for the later stories, and a good pastiche of Chandler’s general style — if not quite his flair at coining a phrase. It doesn’t take itself too seriously: honestly, all through it you can feel that the author is having fun. It’s Chandler-esque sci-fi, where Chandler called sci-fi fiction crap, and Christopher takes obvious joy in using the noir setting and bending it to take account of a robot detective.
I can’t promise it’ll blow your mind, but if a noir detective robot story appeals, then I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to have fun. It’s well-structured, too, which is also a delight to me in a short story.
Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 11th April 2017
I’m not sure if it’s my reading comprehension or the book at fault, but I did have some trouble understanding the technology and political background to this. There’s stuff which is obvious (overcrowding has forced people into hive-like cities, people want to go to nearby habitable planets) and then there’s the science and the politics of funding the venture and… whatever all that means.
However, on the personal level it worked: Kir’s connection with Margrethe, her difficult relationship with Bill, her half-a-relationship with the computer in her own head, Altair. The hothouse effect of the confined living space felt real, as did the consternation spreading through the group. The ending worked as well, though it felt a little rushed.
Overall, not the most effective of the Tor.com novellas, but that’s a pretty high bar to try and clear. It was entertaining enough to keep me reading.
Late Eclipses, Seanan McGuire
My year o’ Seanan McGuire continues! I don’t know why I never started the October Daye series before, because I do really enjoy them. Sometimes October herself can be annoying — stubborn, reckless, slow to grasp things which quickly become obvious to the reader, fickle about whether it’s Tybalt or Connor she wants to sleep with… But I enjoy her nonetheless, and especially the Faerie politics and lore that underlies her world.
In this one, we get a few more glimpses of the problems in the Torquil family, and a bit of an explanation for Amandine, and some things that didn’t seem quite right about Toby herself. Also, some of Tybalt’s quiet hints start to make sense, as does the Luidaeg’s dark mutterings. May Daye continues to be fun, while developments from An Artificial Night are also used to advantage. Characters from the earlier books appear, and some misunderstandings and old grudges are straightened out — somewhat.
In other words, it’s another fun outing with Toby which builds well on what’s come before. There’s some tragedy, too, which Toby is powerless to avert — a good lesson for the hero, and a warning to the reader that nothing is entirely safe, I think.
Final Girls, Mira Grant
Received to review via Netgalley; release date 30th April 2017
This seems to be the year of Mira Grant aka Seanan McGuire, for me. I started the year with Rolling in the Deep, and I’ve read a couple of other Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire books since. Final Girls is what you’d expect of the Mira Grant half of the persona: a little horrifying, psychological, more towards the realistic speculative fiction end. This one examines the idea of a system that drugs people into receptivity, puts them into a simulated situation, and thus fixes their hangups and flaws. Sisters who hate each other can become friends, and lasting friendships can be forged based on fictional scenarios of blood and sacrifice and horror. It doesn’t even have to be that realistic: it just has to feel real.
One of the main characters, Esther, is sceptical about the truth of all this. It seems too good to be true, especially since her life was severely impacted by the false conclusions of people who went through regression therapy. As you’d expect, things go wrong.
Grant/McGuire’s writing is as good as usual, and the conclusion to the plot comes as a bittersweet surprise. Something is salvaged from the situation, but there’s a lot of damage along the way. Because it’s a novella, it doesn’t do more than hint at the long-term effects of the technology it explores. Instead, we experience it, its failures and its saving graces, through the characters. It works well.
Rolling in the Deep, Mira Grant
Rolling in the Deep is a documentary/found footage type story with a fairly predictable ending. Scientists, performers and television personalities go on a ship to find evidence of mermaids, with the scientists mostly using the opportunity to get some real work done without needing to charter the ship themselves. Everyone starts out sceptical, and the whole affair is rather cynical. The performers include professional mermaids — people who don mermaid outfits and swim in the sea to make it look like they really have found mermaids… or have they? Etc.
Naturally, this is a Mira Grant story and so things go wrong. The experiments disturb something real in the deep, and in the usual way of humans meeting other races, they cause harm. Cue the horror movie ending, and the later rediscovery of the empty, drifting ship… with some footage of the attacks intact. And of course, people ask if it’s real or not…
It’s a fun format and the story works well; it gets off to a bit of a slow start, which might disappoint horror fans. There’s a few too many characters in the space to really get attached to any of them, though one or two show promise. Not my favourite of Grant’s novellas, but definitely a good read.
On Basilisk Station, David Weber
The first time I read On Basilisk Station, I actually gave it five stars despite the flaws — it just caught me up that much. And it’s proven to have the same grip on my sister, who has been ravenously tearing through the series, reading and rereading it for the sake of Honor and her treecat. This time, I wouldn’t go as far as giving it five stars, but it’s definitely still very enjoyable, for all that I was even more aware of the flaws.
First, the flaws: the didactic, digressive sections like the whole ten-page section which interrupted a high-speed space chase to explain the math and physics behind it. The fact that Honor can do basically no wrong. The wish fulfilment of the smart, empathic space cats. Etc.
But then there’s the fact that Honor just has a presence, somehow. She’s not depicted as a sexual object, but nor is she denigrated by anyone for not being so. She’s a capable, attractive, dedicated woman who loves her home, her service, her ship and her crew. She’s, well, honourable. And she leads by example, slowly gaining the confidence and love of her crew. You can understand her thought process and all her decisions, and it all makes sense. And the people around her make sense too: their grudges as much as their loyalty.
So, yep. Still flawed, still enthralling.
Temeraire, or His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik
I’ve read this before, quite a ways back, and always intended to visit it anew, and finish the series as well. Imyril’s reviews of the series (for example, this first one) had a big part in making someday now, and I’ve got to be grateful for that. Temeraire is a lot of fun, just as I remembered it to be. It’s the Napoleonic War… but with dragons! And with a whole alternate history around the dragon corps and their officers, along with an alternative culture. It works very well, and produces a rather epic adventure… which nonetheless has plenty of tender moments, as Laurence comes to understand and cherish the dragon who has changed his entire life.
Temeraire himself is just the best character: he likes to read, he’s very curious, he’s polite and protective and worries about all things Laurence — which results in rather funny scenes in which Laurence discovers his dragon has learnt about prostitutes, or things like that. The insatiable curiosity is both funny and, at times, touching.
And come on, if Temeraire weren’t a dragon, everyone would be calling his relationship with Laurence what it is: a bromance.
The reason this really works for me is that it doesn’t just add in dragons, and expect everything else to be more or less the same. Instead, the dragons have an effect on society and Novik worked out exactly where they, and their riders, would stand. And the other thing is, people don’t always get what they deserve, despite the temptation: there’s a horribly touching emotional arc involving one mistreated dragon, and it does not end the way you hope it will. Which makes it all feel more real, and like bad things can genuinely happen — a wise thing for a writer to establish when otherwise things might look just a bit too easy.
I’m looking forward to continuing the series, though I do recall I didn’t love the later books as much, however far I got with reading them.