Review – Inheritors of the Earth

Posted 5 May, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Inheritors of the Earth by Chris D ThomasInheritors of the Earth, Chris D. Thomas

Inheritors of the Earth is a shockingly optimistic book given the premise: it’s a discussion of the impact of the Anthropocene — of the impact of humans on the world. It’s a huge impact, from pollution to changing the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth to fossil fuels to climate change to global travel… We’ve imported new organisms to every continent, mixed formerly separate species, annihilated species… There is no doubting that, whatever you think of that, humans have irrevocably stamped our mark on the Earth. Chris Thomas doesn’t shy away from that in the least, but he does have a new and more optimistic outlook on it.

The premise of this optimism is basically this: in many ways, globalisation and change have created more diversity, not less. We’ve created niche environments and species have changed to exploit them. While there have been extinctions, there has actually been a net gain in number of species. And as Thomas points out, the world has never been static. We’ve counted up species as they were in 1970 (to take one arbitrary date) and forgotten that that is arbitrary, that it’s a still from a very long movie in which everything, absolutely everything, is in motion. Avengers: Endgame has got nothing on Earth.

To me, the optimism is well-grounded as far as it goes. We can safeguard diversity by moving animals to habitats they can survive in; we can make space for species to survive alongside us. We can limit our impact on the world from now on, we can use technology to safeguard species… as long as we don’t feel too beholden to one static idea of how the world’s ecosystems should work, there’s still plenty to work with. Thomas also reminds us, as readers, that humans are natural. Everything we do is part of Earth’s ecosystem, and as with all other changes to the Earth, we can be adapted to.

I think he’s probably more optimistic than a lot of people, and more optimistic perhaps than I feel, but I agree with Thomas that there is a world to save, and that trying to slam on the brakes now isn’t the way. More change is inevitable, and we have to work within that. I do recommend this book as a way to get a change in perspective — one that reminds us there are ways forward, even as we pass the points of no return.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

Posted 4 May, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. ParkerSixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, K.J. Parker

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City follows the exploits of Orhan, an engineer in the Robur army. He’s a bit of coward, not always a very nice guy, and when he realises there’s a massive invasion of some sort coming, he’s very tempted to go in the exact opposite direction. But it turns out he’s kind of fond of the Robur, at least some of them, despite the treatment he gets from a lot of them due to his unfortunate skin condition (by which he means his race), and somehow he ends up back in the city, which is about to be besieged, and it’s entirely possible the place won’t last an hour.

Well, Orhan’s got the skills for that, right? So he sets about tricking the enemy, fortifying the city, shaking things up and getting things in place so the city can survive. The book goes on like that, from crisis to crisis — how does he find defenders? How does he ensure a supply of water? How does he deal with sappers? How does he deal with a riot? Tick, tick, tick, tick: Orhan survives each encounter, outwits the enemy, and saves the city, at every step.

Right?

I found some aspects of the book deeply frustrating at the same time as enjoying them. I liked the conceit at the end about the manuscript provenance — the story is told directly by Orhan, and then there’s a tiny bit of framing story at the end explaining why he told the story, and how people come to read it. It also drove me crazy because the end is so abrupt, and everything about it is unclear. I liked the fact that he’s an unreliable narrator, that despite his frank tone and easy admittance of his faults, he also admits to making himself look better in the narrative. It also drives me crazy because I’m not entirely sure which bits he’s lying about. I like the fact that the story doesn’t follow a traditional trajectory and then that also drives me crazy because argh, I thought the ending would be different.

I’m really unsure about the decision to have the darker-skinned people (“blueskins”, in Orhan’s parlance) as the dominant race and the clearly white people (“milkfaces”) as the oppressed people, as a direct copy/paste of real events. At one point, Orhan uses a drinking fountain in a garden and is scolded by a keeper who doesn’t recognise him; the tap is for Robur only. I feel like this direct flip can cause some cognitive dissonance in a good way, pointing out the ridiculousness of the discrimination, and that’s probably how it was intended. At the same time, putting the crimes of white people on people of colour, just flipping history to make people of colour everything that’s wrong with the Empire… I’m fairly sure that people of colour have had a lot to say about people doing that; I’ve certainly denounced it when people flipped it so gay people were oppressing straight people. That kind of one-to-one flip, the copy-and-paste, just feels like laziness more than commentary. At the same time, the book does make it clear how okay people can be complicit in terrible things: there are several characters who are friends to Orhan, basically likeable people, who just don’t see the situation and how Orhan is treated, and don’t see it as a problem when they are forced to see it.

I kept saying I’d figure out how I felt about this book by writing the review, but it isn’t really helping. I think in the end, I wish the book were a little less ambiguous and ambivalent; I feel unsatisfied because the frame story is so slight, because the ending didn’t build up to anything in the way I’d expected. There’s a lot of things I liked about the book, and I wouldn’t say the things I didn’t like are or should be a total dealbreaker. But overall, I feel pretty dissatisfied — I don’t think this is a book that’s built to have a satisfying ending that isn’t totally cliché, and that dissatisfying end is totally baked into it… but even as I recognise that and the way it was all put together, it annoyed the heck out of me.

I think I’ll go for three stars here, which is normally “liked it”, but in this case should be read as “ambivalent in a way that doesn’t mean I don’t care, I just really can’t decide”. I wouldn’t rate it lower than a 2, and I wouldn’t rate it higher than a 4, and 3 is the median, so… there.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 4 May, 2019 by Nikki in General / 8 Comments

Good morning, folks! It feels like it’s been a quiet week, but I really haven’t done nearly enough reading to suit me. Still, Wyrd and Wonder has kicked off, and there’s plenty of books ahead…

New books:

Cover of Once And Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy Cover of Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

A queer retelling of King Arthur and a book I’ve been wanting for months?! Yep, my Litsy swap partner for the Mythology and Legends swap spoiled me good. <3

Books read this week:

Cover of Uprooted by Naomi Novik Cover of Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews Cover of In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Reviews posted this week:

The Undefeated, by Una McCormack. I found this a little slow and prone to reminiscing about rather than telling the story, if that makes sense. 3/5 stars
City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab. Rather too simplistic and middle-gradey for me, though I’m sure it’s a great read for the right audience. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Wyrd and Wonder Reading List. And I’ve been dared to/bet that I can’t read all of these by the end of May, so watch out!
WWW Wednesday. The usual update post!

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘Vaccination safety.‘ Don’t worry, I’m not advocating against vaccines — the opposite! — but I was asked whether getting an extra MMR booster could harm you. (Answer: almost definitely not, but consult with your doctor who knows your individual health status.)
NEAT science: ‘Pandas are not a stupid idea.‘ Really! They’re really well adapted to a bamboo diet, despite common misconceptions.
Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Fire & Flame.’ Another short story written to go with a bookmark I stitched!

So what’ve you been up to this week?

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Review – City of Ghosts

Posted 3 May, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of City of Ghosts by Victoria SchwabCity of Ghosts, Victoria Schwab

This book is very definitely intended for a middle-grade audience, which made it not really my thing. It’s fun enough as an idea: Cassidy is the daughter of two professional ghost hunters. Her dad takes an intellectual approach, sceptical that ghosts could exist and focusing on the stories and records that surround paranormal phenomena. Her mother is a believer. Together they write books and now they’re filming a TV show, and Cassidy’s going along, to Edinburgh — the most haunted place in Britain. The thing is, Cassidy’s had a near-death experience herself, and come out changed — and with a ghost sidekick.

Naturally, it turns out that there really are hauntings in Edinburgh, and Cassidy finds herself nastily entangled in them, while also finding other people like herself who can pass through the Veil and experience the world of the ghosts. There’s plenty of room for more stories about Cassidy, her pet ghost, and her parents, and possibly room for some of the people she meets along the way. It’s in no way a bad book, but I found it less enjoyable because it is rather simplistic and short. I’m not the intended audience, so perhaps I shouldn’t be judging it at all — but then there are children’s books which are still completely enthralling to me, so it’s not impossible to make it work.

I probably won’t follow the further adventures of Cassidy, but I bet a kid of the right mentality would enjoy the heck out of it.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 1 May, 2019 by Nikki in General / 1 Comment

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.

Cover of Magic Bites by Ilona AndrewsWhat are you currently reading?

I started a reread of Magic Bites, by Ilona Andrews, to kick off Wyrd & Wonder! I’ve been meaning to reread/finish this series for ages (as with so many series, I know), and it seemed like a good time. I’m ripping through it — and wildly entertained by the start of Curran and Kate’s relationship! “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty…”

Cover of Uprooted by Naomi NovikWhat have you recently finished reading? 

Two rereads! First, I finished rereading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I just sort of tore through in a matter of two days. Then last night I also finished rereading Raven Stratagem, leaving me ready to go on and finally finish Revenant Gun. At this rate, I might even finish Revenant Gun before my wife gets there (if she likes the series and reads all three, I mean — if she does, she often beats me to the last book of a trilogy).

And Uprooted, I just sort of inhaled. I have Feelings about how Novik managed to make the Dragon go from incomprehensibly awful to “that’s… kinda cute actually”.

Cover of Magic for Liars by Sarah GaileyWhat will you read next?

I really don’t know. Something fantastical, probably, since it’s Wyrd and Wonder. But then maybe not — who knows, when I’m in charge? Whims, whims, whims. Whims all the way down. I’m most tempted to finish up with Magic for Liars (Sarah Gailey), and then maybe diving into something new-to-me. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, maybe!

What are you currently reading?

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Wyrd & Wonder Reading List

Posted 1 May, 2019 by Nikki in General / 22 Comments

Text banner: Wyrd and Wonder: Celebrate the Fantastic (1-31 May) - plus a gorgeous stylised dragon glyph

So here we are. It’s May, and Wyrd & Wonder has begun! I promised I’d come up with some kind of reading list, and here it is. Will I be able to read all of these? Almost certainly not (but it is theoretically possible, I promise). Will I even try? Unlikely. But I always get along better with goals to strive for, and you never know…

This is not, of course, an exhaustive list, either. I could read something else. I probably will.

Rereads:

  • Magic Bites, by Ilona Andrews. I’ve been meaning to reread/finish this series for a while, and it’s a bit different to… almost everything else on this list!
  • A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. Because the new book is coming out on my birthday this summer, and it’s always a good time to spend time with Lady Trent.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho. I actually got The True Queen as an ARC… and I’d like to reread this first. (Sensing any patterns?)
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. I enjoyed this a lot the first time, but it’s been so long. Gotta reread this before I can read the sequel.
  • Valour & Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I’ve been rereading this series, and I’m up to this one, the last one I’ve read before!
  • Dreamer’s Pool, by Juliet Marillier. I want to read the whole trilogy, but I only read this one, and quite a while ago now, so… you’ve got the idea by now.
  • Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. I just got hit by the urge to reread this, so what the hey — it’s on the list!
  • Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. I feel like the amount I can remember about this is actually shockingly bad, so before I read Spinning Silver, I’d like to revisit!

Cover of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan Cover of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho Cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal

ARCs:

  • The True Queen, by Zen Cho. See above! I’m late to get this read… oops.
  • The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. It’s time for me to read this! It really really is!
  • Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey. This is due out… 4th June. I should read it before then!
  • In An Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire. You may be sensing a theme here… I really need to stop procrastinating on ARCs.
  • Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire. It’s not out yet! I’m doing well here!
  • Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. It’s my book club choice on Habitica! It’s also an ARC I’ve had for far, far too long.

Cover of Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey Cover of In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire Cover of Middle-Game by Seanan McGuire Cover of Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

From the backlog:

  • Snowspelled, by Stephanie Burgis. This is not very backlogged; I just got it, and I would like to get to it soon.
  • The Dark Days Club, by Allison Goodman. I might have started reading this at the start of the year and… put it down… and not picked it back up yet?
  • The Afterward, by E.K. Johnston. I’ve had this on my wishlist for a while, I forget exactly what I read about it, and picked up a copy recently.
  • Of Noble Family, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Time to finally finish reading this series!
  • Fire Logic, Laurie J. Marks. I have been meaning to read this for so very long, and recently picked up a physical copy. It’s time and past time!
  • Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker. I picked it up on a whim during my trip to Amsterdam, and I’d like to stay on top of this year’s book purchases. So, voila.
  • Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse. Apropos of the Wyrd & Wonder readalong!
  • The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams. Ditto.

Cover of The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman Cover of The Afterward by E. K. Johnson Cover of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker Cover of The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

Now I kinda want to do some kind of challenge about how well I can stick to the list… But I know myself. The number one rule has always gotta be “have fun, and stop reading it if you aren’t”!

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Review – The Undefeated

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

Cover of The Undefeated by Una McCormackThe Undefeated, Una McCormack

Received to review via Netgalley

The Undefeated follows Monica, an adventurer who made part of her fame and fortune by marrying a famous writer and part of it by becoming a journalist, as she goes back to the planet where she was born. The story is partially told through flashbacks to Monica’s childhood, which illuminate just why she was so interested in documenting the situation in conflict-torn areas. The Commonwealth was determined to annex other planets, forcing them into instability and then swooping in to “assist”, taking control and absorbing them into the Commonwealth. Monica’s home suffered just such an annexation, and in the process — well, I won’t give spoilers!

In addition to the theme of the Commonwealth’s aggressive annexations, there’s the issue of the jenjer: genetically modified people whose expensive modifications are paid for by people who then own them. Monica’s been surrounded by jenjer all her privileged life, and even travels with one now, but there’s something unsettling going on. Something coming.

I found the story a little slow, in that at times it was just a précis of Monica’s life — not so much showing us what happened as describing it at a remove. It would have had to be a whole novel to cover all the interesting stuff in Monica’s life, yes, but it did feel a little like we were skimming past stuff without really getting a chance to absorb it. ‘This happened, it meant this to Monica, then another thing happened.’

There are some great bits — the parts about Monica’s childhood work well, and her slow dawning of comprehension re: the jenjer. It was certainly an interesting read — I was never bored, or even frustrated exactly, but I felt like it could’ve been a lot more immediate and thus impactful.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 27 April, 2019 by Nikki in General / 8 Comments

Good morning, world! I need to queue up these posts further in advance, because I’m writing this at Late On Friday Night and wife would like to be asleep. Whoops.

Received to review:

Cover of The Toll by Cherie Priest

Bought:

Cover of Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

Read this week:

Cover of Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David Cover of Spineless by Juli Berwald Cover of An Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

Reviews posted this week:

Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell. Enjoyed the setting a lot. The plot is a bit shakier, but I’d read more in the same world. 3/5 stars
Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee. It’s still brilliant, ’nuff said. And better for a reread, even. 5/5 stars
Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, by Daisy Dunn. Not sure if author knows whether they’re writing fiction or not. 2/5 stars
The Bull of Minos, by Leonard Cottrell. Way out of date and focusing on fairly discredited archaeologists, but interested in its own dated way. Not really about the Minoan civilisation at all. 2/5 stars
Hacking the Code of Life, by Nessa Carey. Really accessible and easy to read; could’ve wished for a bit more meat on it. 4/5 stars
Searching For The Lost Tombs Of Egypt, by Chris Naunton. Fascinating stuff and it all seemed plausible and not pie-in-the-sky; Naunton isn’t actually saying all these tombs will be found or that there’ll be miraculous treasure if we do find them. He’s just weighing up the evidence. 4/5 stars
King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, by Nicholas J. Higham. Absolutely great. This looks like it could be another book going in search of a dubious historical source for King Arthur, but actually it dismantles every one of them with meticulously explained evidence. 5/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday. Kinda less a Top Ten and more just my First Ten, but that was the prompt!
WWW Wednesday. The usual update!

How’re you doing, fair reader? Big reading plans this weekend?

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Review – King Arthur

Posted 26 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend by Nicholas J HighamKing Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham

*clapping*

*clapping intensifies*

*standing ovation*

Much as I’m tempted to leave my review at that, I’ll be a little more rigorous. Higham’s book methodically examines every claimant for the original model for King Arthur, from Lucius Artorius Castus to the myths about the Narts, mostly focusing on the theories about a specifically historical Arthur. He examines each claim thoroughly, discussing its merits… and where each and every one falls down. The vaunted similarities between myths are barely similarities, the alleged likelihood of transmission to Britain is shaky, and so on and so forth. History isn’t my beat, but wherever Higham touched on the fiction that built the Arthurian mythology, he’s correct (as far as my knowledge and memory goes; it has been some years for me, admittedly).

It helps, of course, that his arguments come out strongly in favour of the common-sense conclusion that Arthur is a legend, as many legends are, with many sources and very little agreement between those sources about the kind of man/king he allegedly was. He’s also using some good common sense when he points out that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean any crazy theory could possibly be true. And he doesn’t just state why this is so: he goes through it, explaining why one translation should be favoured over another or how likely an interpretation is.

For my money, this is an excellent analysis of the ideas about a historical Arthur and in many ways of the claims for various fictional sources as well. Ultimately, if you long for Arthur to be real, this book won’t satisfy. If (like me) you’ve long understood that Arthur works best as an ideal, a chimera, a changeling who can be all things to all people, then you’ll be well satisfied that there seems to be no evidence that will pull the Welsh Arthur from my clutches or the Roman auxilliary from Sarmatia from anybody else’s.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt

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

Cover of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt by Chris NauntonSearching for the Lost Tombs of Eygpt, Chris Naunton

When someone talks about looking for the tombs of people like Imhotep, Alexander the Great and Cleopatra, I think there’s always a chance that it could go the wrong way and turn out to be weird fabrications and confabulations piled on top of wishful thinking. Fortunately, Naunton’s book isn’t that at all, despite discussing the chances of finding those graves (and several others). Instead, he lays out the facts very clearly, describes the differing interpretations of the existing facts and the theories about where to look, and then — as far as I can tell, not being an Egyptologist — weighs them up in a down to earth, matter-of-fact analysis. The fabulous potential riches of Herihor’s tomb are cut down to size, and hopes of finding Imhotep’s tomb undisturbed are gently dissuaded.

Which sounds unfun, perhaps, but Naunton’s discussion of the past work and current findings are pretty fascinating to me, even if the conclusion is that we’ve probably already found as much as we’re going to find in one case or another. He doesn’t totally dismiss things that genuinely remain possible, but he’s pragmatic about it, and rightfully sceptical of things like refusal to reveal methods of analysis (for example in the case of the scanning done in Tutankhamen’s tomb that allegedly clearly showed another room, which can’t be replicated by other teams).

Fascinating stuff to me — I ate it up.

Rating: 4/5

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