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.
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.
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.
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.
“Oh no, I’m having a feeling” just about sums up poor Murderbot’s life. But I’m starting in the middle here. Let’s go back to the beginning: All Systems Red is the first novella in a series. Murderbot is the main character, an organic/machine hybrid created for guard duty and overall security. Murderbot is, as of this novella, deployed with a group of overall quite decent humans who are surveying a planet. When things start to go wrong, it turns out that Murderbot is their best chance. You see, Murderbot’s hacked its own governer module, and that means it has a degree of free will not normally enjoyed by constructs like itself.
(It has no illusions about what it is, hence the name “Murderbot”, which it has given itself.)
Dr Mensah and her team turn out to be rather great human beings, and they react well to Murderbot’s free will, allowing it to help them and ultimately… well, no spoilers! Suffice it to say that Murderbot spends quite a bit of time with them, to its own dismay. Humans are difficult, and it would much rather be watching the equivalent of Netflix.
It’s just all… so charming, despite being murdery — Murderbot has a lot of anxiety and yet also cares about the humans its meant to be protecting. It doesn’t have to take risks to help them, but it does. I would say I want to give Murderbot a hug, but the poor thing would be utterly horrified at the idea.
I’ve read All Systems Red before, of course, but I haven’t read the final novella in the series, so a reread seemed like a great idea. I agree, past self! It was a great idea. Murderbot makes me happy.
The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.
What are you currently reading?
A couple of things at once, as usual. First of all, Jo Walton’s Lent, as predicted! I started it while I was in the hairdresser, and read a massive chunk all in one go. It’s interesting to be experiencing a likeable (in many ways) and relatable Savonarola, after he’s kind of a complete power-hungry asshole in Assassin’s Creed 2. I am interested to see where this goes, and I do wish I could keep this period of history a little straighter in my head. Who did what, why, when? Totally muddled by first Assassin’s Creed and then Jo!
I’m also reading Storm of Locusts, by Rebecca Roanhorse. I’m side-eyeing just about every character a lot and not trusting anything much.
What have you recently finished reading?
I reread Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, and it was just as fun a second time. I love poor Murderbot, struggling with having feelings and being treated like a person. I also finished off my reread of The Voyage of the Basilisk; it’s funny remembering reading it the first time, with noooo idea where things would go. It’s kind of exciting reading it again, knowing where Isabella is wrong and where she’s guessing right, and what happens on a personal level.
What will you be reading next?
Revenant Gun, I think. I need to read it for my June TBR, and for sorting out my Hugo voting, and my wife loved it. I loved it when I read the first quarter or so back during my exams last year… I just didn’t pick it back up afterwards, out of my usual mood readery pain in the buttness. It’s going to be good!
I am also partway through The Bitter Twins (Jen Williams), and I should get back to that.
It’s been a long while since I first read this book, so even though I knew The True Queen wasn’t a direct sequel, I really wanted to reread this first. I’m glad I did; although I remembered the broader strokes, there was a lot I’d forgotten, particularly about Zacharias and the big secret he spends most of the book hiding. Which is odd, because Zacharias is rather more to my taste as a character that Prunella — but Prunella is definitely the more memorable, with her determination to get what she wants and needs.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In Sorcerer to the Crown, Zacharias has just inherited the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, after his mentor’s death. Given his race and some mysterious circumstances surrounding his mentor’s death, though, many English sorcerers are refusing to accept his authority. And that’s far from his only trouble… particularly once he meets Prunella. Prunella’s mother is totally unknown and her father long gone, but she was raised by the headmistress of a school for well-born girls. In this world, girls aren’t meant to use magic, and the school’s purpose is more to school it out of them than school it into them. After a visit, though, Zacharias is soon convinced that girls like Prunella should be taught.
Prunella has other ideas in mind, of course.
The story bombs along at a great pace, and that description doesn’t cover nearly everything that ends up happening. There are some great side characters (Mak Genggang! Rollo and Damerell!) and some fascinating alternate history uses of magic and magical creatures. Zacharias is serious and conscientious, and burdened with a lot of conscience, while Prunella acts as an excellent foil with her self-interest and drive (though coupled with intense loyalty to her friends, including Zacharias).
All in all, it’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it very much a second time as well.
I was quite interested in this story based on what I know about Golden Age crime fiction, and about the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie for several days at one point in her life. As far as I know it’s genuinely still a bit of a mystery what happened during the days she was missing, and this story attempts to fill in the gaps, introducing a mysterious man who wants Christie to kill for him, and thus engineers her disappearance.
There are some aspects of this that are genuinely interesting — Wilson’s description of the helplessness and disgust his version of Christie feels when the man makes her dance to “Yes! We Have No Bananas!” is quite effective. For the most part, though, I felt like the handling was clumsy: details from Christie’s life, no doubt gleaned from her autobiography and other materials, are sort of shoehorned in to convince the reader that yes, this really is Christie, this is really is what happened. It doesn’t work for me — the “verification” is just a little too blatant. (Even if I can’t tell what’s real and what’s invented!)
What’s more, the tone — apart from a couple of scenes — didn’t much work for me. There’s something so bland and generic about it, even while Wilson is working with a rather colourful person. So all in all, I found it rather disappointing and after a hundred pages or so, I found myself putting it down for good without regret. The library can have it back, with pleasure.
The second Kate Daniels book plunges straight into action, with Kate teaming up with Jim to fight a guy using a salamander to set things on fire. Things escalate from there, as is usual for Kate, while the book also introduces more important secondary characters in the form of Julie and Andrea. Julie is a vulnerable girl Kate spends most of the book trying to protect; Andrea is a knight of the Order who can put a bullet through a pinhead at god knows what distance. (Together, they fight crime! Well, kind of, a little bit, actually.)
There’s more mythology mixed into the pot — including a healthy dollop of Irish mythology, with the appearance of the Morrigan and a warrior with a skillset like that of Cú Chulainn — and a lot more frenetic fighting, running and pure badassery. I love the hints towards Kate’s heritage — I’m not sure why I never twigged further in advance, given the evidence, but somehow the first time I was not going in the right direction at all.
And as before, another thing I love is that Kate is indeed a total badass, but a badass who knows that sometimes the fighting has got to stop. That some things you have to protect, and sometimes you want to just go home and find the person you love waiting there. The fact that she’s willing to be vulnerable — not only that she wants these things, but that she’s willing to say she wants them — makes her a surprisingly positive character for me, where you might expect a female mercenary to be, well, more mercenary.
There’s still no real romance here — some flirtations, of course, and hints at what’s to come. But for those who expect paranormal romance to be a total sex fest, well… either this book has been mislabelled, or you’re maligning the genre unfairly.
I did find that the fast pacing here sometimes left me behind a little. I’m not sure if that was the speed I was reading or just the frenetic pacing, but a couple of times I did end up thinking “wait, what now?” and have to read back a little. It’s not a perfect book, in stylistic terms: I still find a lot to enjoy, all the same.
I’ve made the mistake of waiting too long to review this after finishing my reread, and I’m not sure I have much more to add than the first time. And to describe the basic outline of the book is in many ways to spoil the experience of reading it: I think the best way to experience this for the first time is probably to go in knowing nothing more than you’ve been told in Ninefox Gambit, and then hang on for a wild ride. You’re almost certainly going to be wrong about some things, and that’s part of the cleverness of it.
I did also enjoy reading it a second time, knowing everything that happens from before, though. Firstly, because there’s so much to analyse, to notice, to figure out in terms of clues you missed before and sly references, foreshadowing… Raven Stratagem is really rich in that, and it’s rewarding as a reread for that reason — not just for pure enjoyment (though that’s the only reason one should ever need) but also to fully appreciate what’s going on.
I feel like even bringing up aspects of characters I liked and why would be too much info for the spoiler-phobic, so I won’t say anything beyond: oh and possibly gah my heart.
Finally, as a kind of in-joke for readers of this book: would you wear a scarf knitted by Mikodez? I totally would. The risk of it strangling me would be worth it.