Category: Reviews


Review – The Just City

Posted 7 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Just City by Jo WaltonThe Just City, Jo Walton

This whole novel is a bit of a thought experiment about people enacting a thought experiment: what would happen if people travelled through time to make Plato’s thought experiment of the Republic real, with the help of the Greek goddess Athene, the participation of her brother Apollo, and the addition of robots to do the hard work. There are multiple points of view: Maia, one of the readers of The Republic who comes to the city to found it; Simmea, one of the 10-year-olds recruited to be the first generation raised in the Republic; and Pytheas, the god Apollo incarnate in human form as another of those children. Those three perspectives together give us the City, from start to… well. The end of the book.

It’s really fascinating reading about the arguments for setting up the Republic, the way the Masters (Maia’s generation) interact and react to each other — because of course, very few people read The Republic and think that Plato’s suggestions should be implemented exactly as he says, but most people disagree on what things are right. And Walton has fun with who might plausibly be part of setting up the Republic: Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Lucrezia Borgia… along with other people real and fictional.

(It’s especially fun going back to this after reading Lent, and seeing two different…ish takes on Pico!)

It’s also fascinating following Simmea and Pytheas, seeing the way they pursue excellence not only for themselves but for each other. If there’s an ideal love affair in fiction, this might be it: while there are physical elements to their relationship (more implied in the second book than actually seen here), that’s not the basis of their love for each other, and they’re never static. Right to the end, they’re always pushing at each other, demanding excellence of one another, and it’s lovely.

And then of course there’s Sokrates, brought into the City in its fifth year. With him comes change: greater freedom for Simmea and others like her who are deemed to be ‘golds’, or budding philosophers, and greater questioning of what Plato meant, what will work, and of almost every assumption the Republic has been founded on. I’d have loved to see more of Crocus and the other robots and their developing intelligence and sense of self.

Really, I could delve into several different aspects of The Just City, have it all in much greater detail, and be pretty happy.

Before writing this review, I deliberately refused to look back at what I thought when I first read it until I finished writing this. It’s… a quite different review, from a different me, and probably also worth reading; I still agree with it, but I experienced the book differently this time!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Ninth Rain

Posted 5 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Ninth Rain by Jen WilliamsThe Ninth Rain, Jen Williams

I put off writing this review to try and sort it out in my head, and not just lean on what I already said in the readalong posts about it, but I’m not sure that’s served me well — especially since I read the sequel in the meantime! But let’s see what I can do. The Ninth Rain is a fantasy novel that reminds me a lot in some ways of sci-fi and horror; in fact, it reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It’s a human world, but one that’s full of strange flora and fauna wiped by the remnants that a mysterious attacking force, the Jure’lia, leave behind them. In this world, we follow Hestillion and her brother Tor, a scholar named Vintage (“Lady Vincenza de Grazon”, actually, but she doesn’t stand on ceremony), and a young witch who wields fire fuelled by energy ripped from living things.

Hestillion and Tor are not quite human: they are Eborans, formerly sustained in long, healthy, beautiful lives by the sap of their tree-god Ygseril. But he’s been silent and dormant for years, leaving the Eborans at a loss — though they did find that human blood makes a substitute for the sap, leading to monstrous barbarism, and later prejudice. Tor’s not like that: he’s only interested in blood given willingly, and probably during sex. I find it interesting that he’s one sort of vampire, but arguably the witch, Noon, is an energy-vampire. They’re both pretty prejudiced and awful to each other about what they are, when their paths cross, but really they’re neither better than the other.

Vintage is mostly just a delight. Older than the others, and sure of what she wants, she is passionate about the remains of the Jure’lia and finding out what exactly is going on with them. Naturally, this steers a course straight into trouble, bringing Noon and Tor along for the ride.

Noon herself… is not really a favourite for me. She’s damaged and desperate, and horrible things have happened to her, but I don’t find her motivations as interesting as Vintage’s. Vintage has this scientific curiosity that really appeals. Tor’s alright as well, and I’m entertained by the female gaziness of the descriptions of him, but I don’t adore him.

Hestillion, though… she’s so clever and so manipulative; she’s both a horror and a delight, because you need to know what she’s going to do but ai, you wish she wouldn’t do it. That’s more or less what this whole book does: it’s an awesome ride, and it does some awesome things, but they’re also awful and whyyy do they have to happen.

It’s immensely satisfying — like filling up on a good meal.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Extraordinary Insects

Posted 4 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-ThygesonExtraordinary Insects, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I am not, as most people know, a fan of insects. In fact, there was a time not long ago when the mere thought of insects practically made me hyperventilate, and I’d still appreciate if they could keep their creepy little feet well away from me. But there’s always a world of things to know, and actual knowledge helps to replace instinctive fear, so I’ve been reading around somewhat, now and then, just as I did with deadly diseases. It’s kind of helping.

Anyway, Extraordinary Insects has some interesting titbits, it’s true. A lot wasn’t surprising to me — I have a biology degree, I think we can take it as read that I can grasp taxonomy — but there were some interesting facts. It was just… kind of thin, in the end; there were a couple of eyebrow-raising points where I quibbled with the facts as presented*, but the most part it was just a moderately entertaining, quick read, suitable for a layperson but not for anyone looking for depth. (Which is a big ask from popular science, perhaps, but I know plenty of popular science books that have been satisfying to me!)

(*For example, she claimed that binomial species names are always, invariably, in Latin. They are not. Many contain Greek as well, not to mention those that contain names.)

So in the end, fairly ambivalent. Meh.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Natural History of Dragons

Posted 2 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie BrennanA Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

I thought I’d read this more recently, but apparently not since 2016? It’s surprising how fresh it all stayed in my mind, really! This is one of my favourite series, I think, and there’s so many reasons why.

Reason one: Isabella. She’s far from perfect as a person — she’s prone to speaking before she thinks, thinking badly of people, thinking herself above people — but she also grows throughout the books (learning that her colonialist assumptions are just that, for instance). From the start, she has a thirst for knowledge, and a commitment to science; to finding out the truth and sharing it, while doing her best to be ethical and deal fairly with the people she meets.

Reason two: the science. It’s dragons, but it’s also a Victorian naturalist going through proper scientific process. Making a hypothesis and testing it. In this book in particular, I laughed because she called out bad statistical analysis in her younger self, pointing out that the cry that “it can’t be coincidence!” is really… not how science is done, and it could be coincidence.

Reason three: the dragons, of course.

There are other reasons to love the series, though they mostly come in the later books. I do enjoy the romance between Jacob and Isabella; I think I’ve gained in appreciation for it since I first read the book. It feels necessary to shaping who Isabella is, what she believes, what she’s later able to do.

When I first read the book, I worried a little that it would set up a kind of pattern: Isabella goes to research dragons, stuff happens, she returns home to prepare to do it again. But it’s better than that: you can follow genuine scientific progress through the series, as Isabella slowly starts to piece things together, and there have been hints all along. It’s great. I do recommend these books so much.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Afterward

Posted 30 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Afterward by E. K. JohnsonThe Afterward, E.K. Johnston

When I read this, I more or less straightaway gave it to my sister. It’s light, sweet, and very easy to read — though it has some Moments, certainly. The basic premise is that it follows a group of knights, and one thief, who have returned from a fairly traditional fantasy quest. This is after everything’s gone down (mostly), and the story is shaped instead around the social conditions. For example, the fact that becoming a knight is so expensive that many knights get themselves set up and then have to go off and have an arranged marriage to pay for it all. Or the fact that after the end, there’s not much for a thief to do except go back to thieving.

It turns out, of course, that it wasn’t quite the end — there’s still something that needs doing. The thief Olsa ends up wrapped up in that, while the knight she fell in love with during the quest — Kalanthe — gets busy on that whole getting married thing. I’m going to say a spoiler now, so look away if you don’t want to hear it: there’s a happy ending. And that’s great, because we need lady knights and the lady thieves that love them and their happy endings, because gosh the world can be awful, and especially for ladies who love ladies.

There’s also other representation too, from the cover on down — a tutorial from one character to another in how best to deal with their tangled, tightly-curled hair, for example; a trans knight… If I recall rightly, there’s also an asexual character.

It’s a little piece of happy fluff, though there is a little bit of angst and longing in the middle, and a couple of genuinely painful and poignant moments. But mostly, it’s a feel-good book — not something Deep and Meaningful, except insofar as life and the bonds between people ever are Deep and Meaningful (which of course they are, but I’m digressing) — and I am so glad I got to give it to my sister.

(Who is not a teen anymore, of course, and I wish I could go back in time and give it to her as a teen, but I can’t. She can have it now, though.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sunshine

Posted 28 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sunshine by Robin McKinleySunshine, Robin McKinley

This was one of my favourite books when I was in my mid-teens, and I was very curious to see how I found it this time. Sunshine is a fairly ordinary woman, or so it seems, working as a baker at her family’s cafe, ducking out on family night because she’s restless. It takes a while for the post-apocalyptic, alternative world to become fully apparent: this is a world of supernatural creatures, magic-users, wards, and cops who are out to stake vampires and deal with any threats from the Others. Part of that sinks in because Sunshine is very quickly kidnapped by vampires, of course, but the rest of it trickles through in a fairly organic way.

Kidnapped by vampires? Oh yes. At the very start of the book, Sunshine finds herself kidnapped and taken to an old abandoned house, near a ‘bad spot’, where a chained vampire waits. Of course, she expects to be dinner immediately — that’s what humans expect from vampires — but it doesn’t quite work that way, and she finds herself drawn into an odd alliance with a creature who should be a mortal enemy. It feels beautifully done — their odd reliance on each other, while they still don’t fully understand or perhaps trust each other.

And of course, Sunshine isn’t actually just a normal woman. Her magic is based on sunlight, and it’s been growing within her silently since she was a child. Her escape with the vampire Con is just the beginning.

I really enjoy that Sunshine isn’t very heroic. She’s scared and she wants to bury her head in the sand. Deeply. She wants to knead bread and bake cakes and feed people, mostly, and having to be a hero and hang out with vampires is an unfortunate roadblock. She doesn’t want to use her magic, though she fears not being able to. She’s not brave, she’s just doing what she has to, step by step. She could be all gungho and ready to slay, but we have plenty of women like that in fiction now. One who is a baker and also a reluctant badass is a little bit different.

There’s so much untold about this world, so much I’d love to know. Mel’s background. What happened during the wars. What happened before. What happened to Sunshine’s father, and Sunshine’s grandmother. More about the cops with whom Sunshine has a fragile alliance. More about other types of magic user, more about Yolande, more about what happens to Sunshine and to Con…

But at the same time, there’s something rather enjoyable about the fact that it’s a one-and-done (thus far). You can imagine so much for yourself, and you never have to be disappointed. There’s so much potential.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Valour & Vanity

Posted 27 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette KowalValour & Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal

Here Mary Robinette Kowal takes on yet another genre crossover. We’ve had the fantasy romance, the fantasy spy book, the fantasy revolution, all wrapped up in a historical analogue. Now we get the spy caper novel, as Jane and Vincent find themselves robbed on their way to Murano to work with the glassmakers there. The novel continues to explore their relationship, and the limits of their art and magic, while also bringing in some new characters, and another whole new backdrop. I love that Kowal had Byron only visiting on the days he visited in our history (according to records) — I love that eye for detail she brings for the world, like her Austen dictionary.

Valour & Vanity probably isn’t my favourite — actually, during the scam I get a little second-hand embarrassment for them being taken in. But as a chapter in the Vincents’ lives, it’s entertaining and pushes the historical fantasy a little further. What Kowal does in these books is clever, and always completely readable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Dark Days Club

Posted 25 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Dark Days Club by Alison GoodmanThe Dark Days Club, Alison Goodman

In theory, this could be pretty awesome. Lady Helen has been raised by her aunt and uncle after the mysterious death of her mother, a strange woman who was possibly a traitor to the British crown. She was wild and rebellious, and Helen must behave herself completely to try and avoid being touched by the shadow of her mother’s misdeeds. Strange things are happening, though: Lord Carlston is interested in her, and she seems to have her own strangeness, a wild strength and agility unlike anyone she’s ever known. She quickly discovers more: that there are dark forces among humans, feeding on them, and that Carlston — and herself — represeent a force that can fight them and save people.

I said it was awesome in theory, and it would be. I found the opening quite interesting, because it started out like a historical novel. The setting felt okay, but it quickly started to sound a sour note: Helen manages to get away with just about anything, and that just wouldn’t have worked in the time period — especially not for a young woman as highly scrutinised as her. It’s fantasy, of course, but still: it otherwise copies over a lot of the attitudes of the period, and at times there are references to her being constrained by her sex and station. Just only when it’s convenient for the plot.

It just kind of felt too juvenile for me in the end, and too telegraphed — it was obvious where certain things were going. And at the end, though Helen acts like she’s made a choice of her own free will, really she just had the choice to do otherwise taken away from her. She doesn’t feel particularly admirable at that moment, and given that’s where we finish the book, I didn’t feel much inclined to follow her further adventures. It’s a shame.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Spineless

Posted 24 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spineless by Juli BerwaldSpineless, Juli Berwald

I’m so behind on reviews that it’s been a while since I read this, oops. I’m not a huge fan of jellyfish, but I can be entertained greatly by reading about something I don’t know even if I’m not already a fan, and such was the case here. Jellyfish didn’t particularly strike me as interesting, biologically, and they still don’t hold much fascination for me in themselves — but the book definitely grabbed my interest and kept it. There’s lots of interesting facts, albeit I couldn’t immediately verify the ones I checked up on (the claim, for example, that there’s a jellyfish that zips its mouth shut so tightly that trying to forcefully unzip it simply rips the jellyfish’s face).

It’s a little prone to wandering into autobiography, with some filler chapters like the one about how to prepare jellyfish to eat, but this is pop science: one expects that kind of detail and filler when you’re talking about as vague a subject as this. Going into it with that level of expectation, it was generally entertaining, full of the sort of facts I like to randomly tell my wife, and a quick read.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fire Logic

Posted 21 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fire Logic by Laurie J. MarksFire Logic, Laurie J. Marks

This book has been on my to read list a really long time, and I thought it’d be a sure thing. It’s got queer characters, the opening caught my attention — particularly with the character eager to go and view a manuscript! — and the elemental magic seemed potentially interesting. It’s a fairly standard set-up, I suppose: the invading army, the guerilla defenders, people’s way of life at risk, and Our Bold Heroes… But in the end, this was a really slow version of that. Realistic, in some ways — worrying about supplies and morale — but slow.

Too slow for me, alas. That combined with the writing style — everyone “cried” everything, even when a shout, sob, or any other loud noise is not exactly the appropriate reaction — and a general sense that I just wasn’t catching on… Meh. Life’s too short. It’s not my thing, the end.

Rating: 2/5

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