Tag: Mary Robinette Kowal

Review – The Calculating Stars

Posted July 22, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

I was so eager to read this when it came out, and then somehow it slipped further and further down the pile. Finally, with Hugo voting coming up, it was time! And I devoured it in a day. The Calculating Stars is an alternate history wherein, after a meteorite large enough to wipe out most of the East Coast of the US strikes, the space program is dramatically accelerated, with one chief aim: a colony on the Moon. It’s an extinction-level disaster, with a good chance of leading to the world’s oceans boiling, and in the center of this is Elma York. She survives the initial strike, along with her husband, and returns to her work as a computer, easily winning her way into working for the space program. But she has a bigger dream: she was a WASP pilot, and she wants to become an astronaut.

I love the way that throughout this book, her relationship with her husband is rock solid. He seems like a pretty great guy, and between them they make a formidable team — even when sometimes (like Kowal’s other protagonists in the Glamourist Histories) they have to work on their relationship. (Actually, there’s something a little idealised about Kowal’s leading couples, to me, and it’s partly because they always seem to work through their issues. It’s lovely! There needs to be more of it in fiction! But it feels weirdly unexpected.) I also love that they’re Jewish, because that shapes some of their responses to people, and that Elma suffers from fairly intense anxiety, because a) representation and b) it makes her relatable. And I do enjoy the way that Elma is repeatedly forced to confront that there are people just as good as her being blocked from the space program because they’re black, and the way she uncomfortably and conflictedly tries to deal with it.

I also really enjoyed the slight nuances about a character who is pretty unlikeable: Parker. He’s a sexist pain in the butt, and yet he has his moments where you see the humanity in him. I was surprisingly invested in wanting to know what happened to him, and between him and Elma. There’s also Betty, who is in some ways unlikeable and yet you can also see why she does what she does.

Finally, let’s talk about the magic system. People being able to compute those numbers in their head? Ha! Totally unrealistic… (Note: this is a joke. I do not actually think it is magic. It is possible, it just feels magical to me.)

It’s amazing how fast 400 pages can whip by: there was something joyous about Elma’s achievements and this whole story, as well as more quietly in her relationship with her husband, and I’m very much looking forward to where the second book goes. I’m not entirely sure about giving this five stars, but then the rate I whipped through it speaks for itself. I don’t think I have any genuine quibbles, so… there we go.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Of Noble Family

Posted July 19, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette KowalOf Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal

I can’t believe it took me so long to get to this book, gah. Well, apart from the fact that last I checked it wasn’t published in the UK, unlike the rest of the series. In any case, this wraps things up a bit for the Vincents, bringing to an end the long thread through the books: at the start of the book, they get the news that Vincent’s father is dead, and they’re asked to go and sort out his estate in the West Indies. They decide to go, of course, for a sense of closure as much as anything else.

Naturally, things don’t turn out the way they expected, and they find themselves trapped on the estate and working once more to untangle the mess Vincent’s father created for them without incriminating themselves or doing any harm. It would be saying too much to go into much detail here, but I love the way that their marriage is still work — they still need to negotiate, to know when to reach out and when to give space — and that they still do the work. There are some other fascinating characters introduced as well… and of course, since it’s set in the West Indies in that particular time period, there are issues with people of colour and with slaves, and with the kinds of life they lead.

As you’d expect, Jane and Vincent are generally ideal white people, giving credit to the people of colour around them, instantly recognising personhood, respecting them, etc, etc. It’s difficult to know, as a white person and as someone who enjoys these characters and wants them to be good people, how well Kowal has walked that line, so I won’t try to comment.

I did find the exploration of Vincent’s trauma around his father quite well done; other reviews seem to expect that abuse is a thing you can walk away from, and then you’ll see it clearly and understand it and cut all your ties with it immediately. That’s not something I’ve ever seen anyone be able to do, though I’m sure there are people who have. Particularly in the case where someone has been raised by an abuser, it can be so difficult not to have ties with that person — moments when things weren’t so bad, good things that happened, etc. I think the push and pull here — while frustrating in a way to read, because from outside (whether as a reader or an observer of a real situation) it’s so obvious, it’s also really true to what actually happens.

I don’t love this book, but I think it’s well done, and a worthy ending to the series.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Valour & Vanity

Posted June 27, 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 – Without a Summer

Posted April 17, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Without a SummerWithout a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal

At this point, this might be my favourite novel in this series. It combines the romance and the magic with events in Britain at the time it is set, spinning a new story out of genuine history in a way that explores the implications of the magic system — much like Glamour in Glass, of course, but I love how it winds together the physical conditions in the “year without a summer” and the plight of workers and the magic and just… aah, I really enjoy it.

Which is to skip to the commentary before explaining the book, I know. In this book, Jane takes Melody up to London while she and Vincent are working on a mural together, to give her sister some more time in society to potentially meet someone she might come to love or want to marry (preferably, of course, both!). This happens to be in 1816, the year in which climatic conditions in Britain remained wintery despite the normal turn of the seasons, due to the far-off eruption of Mount Tambora. With famine and general hardship weighing on people’s minds, there’s unrest and a need to blame someone for what’s happening… At the same time, Vincent’s family make overtures to Jane and Vincent, as if they want to bring them into the fold — though Vincent’s sure there’s nothing innocent or forgiving about it.

Naturally, without spoiling the plot too much, I’ll just say that Jane gets herself involved in the unrest, Melody gets herself into trouble, there are misunderstandings and quarrels aplenty… and it’s all pretty darn fascinating. There’s a really great denouement, and — well, I won’t say anymore, for real this time!

Suffice it to reiterate that I love this book. My one point of dislike is the stupid disagreements that arise due to lack of communication. Learn from your mistakes, characters! COMMUNICATE.

(I have joked that if I were the Relationship Advice Dalek, my vocabulary would be restricted to “COMM-UNI-CATE!”)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Shades of Milk and Honey

Posted February 21, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey is essentially meant to be the novel Jane Austen would write if a magic called “Glamour” was considered an art that gently bred women should practice as part of the small touches that make a house a home. Jane Ellsworth is a plain woman, almost old enough to be entirely on the shelf, but she has a good heart and a talent for magic. Despite her fears of being a spinster forever, her talents draw the attention of several men in this book. And despite her fears of being eclipsed by her pretty sister Melody, her good sense and her talent are what carries the day, as she finds romance with someone who initially overlooked her and disparaged her talents, but who grows to appreciate what she can do and the person she is.

I don’t know what it is about this book, but it’s really grown on me with each reading — and even though it wasn’t something I loved the first time I read it, it really stuck in my head somehow. Partly because Kowal does do a compelling job of weaving magic into a fairly Austen-esque Regency novel: she’s fit it into society, thought about the implications for various trades, for war, etc. Possibly I’m also a bit of a sucker for the romance, for the way plain Jane and surly Vincent come together.

Also, it’s just really good to sink into and read all in one go.

I suspect it also helps that the later books use the setting but go on to fill it out: it’s not just magic and manners, but also political implications, and a bit more of the alternate history that would result. Having read Glamour in Glass and Without a Summer, this sets up a larger plot about progress and change; this book doesn’t contain much of it, but without it the themes couldn’t be developed so easily in the other books. If you do find Shades of Milk and Honey a little slight, but find the world interesting, the other books definitely expand on that!

But I’ve come to appreciate it for itself, as well. Possibly I was still being a snob about romance the first time I read it…

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted January 16, 2019 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

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 The Dark Days Club by Alison GoodmanWhat are you currently reading?

The Dark Days Club, by Alison Goodman. I’ve been surprised by how long it took for any (credible) supernatural elements to creep in. I did enjoy the opening very much establishing Helen’s place in society, the importance of propriety for her, etc. I’m hoping that won’t fall by the wayside as she starts to take on the ‘sacred duty to protect humanity’ mentioned by the back cover!

Cover of The Story of Pain by Joanna BourkeWhat have you recently finished reading?

Apart from Stitches in Time by Lucy Adlington, which is the last book I read cover-to-cover, I recently DNF’ed and probably won’t fully review The Story of Pain, by Joanna Bourke. Although I might, I don’t know; it could be useful to people to know that it’s a rather literature-based book rather than focusing on the science of pain, which is more what I was hoping for. It has a very dry and academic tone, too; it never uses a simple quick definition when five examples from literature and history will do.

Cover of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalWhat will you be reading next?

I don’t know. I really feel like rereading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey; if I avoid the reread impulse, I might pick up the sequel to The Dark Days Club and read that, or delve into my backlog from last year. I haven’t read the final Murderbot novella yet, even! There’s plenty of options and as ever, I’m fickle and probably won’t get to any that I pick out.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – Ghost Talkers

Posted February 13, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette KowalGhost Talkers, Mary Robinette Kowal

It took me ages to finish Ghost Talkers, and it really shouldn’t have — it’s well written and well paced, the idea is fascinating, and I wanted to know what happened… I just also came over all sulky because I (foolishly, given the setting) wanted a happier ending, and what I hoped for was quashed surprisingly early in the proceedings. Not that that surprised me, but I’d been hoping it would somehow… do something else. The book did surprise me later with one or two twists and turns, but that initial disappointment made me reluctant to get on with reading it. I imagine that should very much be filed under ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.

I enjoyed the main character, Ginger, and her relationship with her fiancé. I enjoyed the concept of mediums becoming involved in the war, and ghosts reporting in to them with their last known whereabouts, etc. It almost doesn’t need the murder mystery, though that experience does give Ginger a personal stake (as if the other circumstances weren’t enough) and gives Kowal a chance of demonstrating what the mediums in this situation would go through, experiencing the last moments of ghost after ghost. I wished there’d been more of some of the other mediums, especially Helen; her limitations in society given her ethnic origin would’ve made the story quite difficult if she was the main character, but I can’t help but wish she had been. Not that I didn’t love Ginger, but Helen would’ve been extra special.

Overall, very enjoyable; I just wish it had dodged the plot element that I immediately predicted. It’s not that it’s a bad plot or that keeping the plot very similar while constraining one of the characters in another way wouldn’t have been rather cliché, because it’s a fun story and the workaround I’m thinking of (trying not to give spoilers) would’ve been fairly predictable in itself. And certainly, that a character experiences a major loss in the context of WWII is just appropriate. But… but… I wanted different for Ginger.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Forest of Memory

Posted April 17, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette KowalForest of Memory, Mary Robinette Kowal

For a short novella, I actually got surprisingly invested in this — and didn’t really realise until the end, where I was rooting for… something more. A rescue, a redemption, something. The sting in the tail of the story, while most of it was obvious to me, works well and adds to the meaning of everything that comes before it, which is exactly how stories should be written — especially short ones.

The setting of the story, while not revolutionary — the whole idea of society being connected, of storing your memories practically in the cloud, of never being out of touch — is done well, too; not too obtrusive, and yet it permeates the story.

The conceit of the typewriter and the typos, etc, just drove me a bit mad, though. Nope, cannot be doing with typos, even on purpose, apparently. But that’s a personal peeve, probably driven by my editing work, and didn’t get in the way of the story itself.

In the end, I just wanted a little more. I wanted the why, and we got some of it, but I wanted the motives of people we didn’t even meet in the story. So of course it was limited by the narration, but. But. Gimme!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Word Puppets

Posted December 28, 2015 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Word Puppets by Mary Robinette KowalWord Puppets, Mary Robinette Kowal

Received to review via Netgalley

Word Puppets is a collection of short stories written by Mary Robinette Kowal, arranged — if we can trust the alleged Patrick Rothfuss’ introduction — in the order they were written. I always think that’s a fascinating way to read an author’s work, because you get to watch their skills develop, their interests change, etc. This particular collection comes with an introduction written by Pat Rothfuss… which is a little suspect because in a little game they had on twitter, Kowal was better at being Rothfuss than Rothfuss was.

If that confused you, don’t worry; I think it bent more than a few brains.

As a whole, in any case, it’s an entertaining collection. There were one or two weaker points, where by my personal lights the twist was just a little… I saw it coming. ‘For Solo Cello, op. 12’, for example. And looking at the list of titles, there’s some where I can’t figure out which story they were, which you can attribute either to my terrible naming or perhaps less than memorable/well-matched titles/stories. ‘For Want of a Nail’, what was that one… ah, the one with the conflicted AI.

Still, for the most part I think Word Puppets is a strong collection, solidly entertaining, and what’s also nice, it has a wide range. Fantasy, various kinds of spec-fic, different settings, older protagonists… And it’s definitely quite different to her Regency/fantasy novels (which I do enjoy, but it’s nice to see Kowal taking on other frontiers). I enjoyed most of the stories, and I think particularly ‘Chrysalis’, ‘Body Language’, ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ and ‘The Consciousness Problem’. Some of them really are sticking in my head, to be thought about later — so that’s a good sign.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Valour & Vanity

Posted June 4, 2015 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

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

These books seem to be just perfect for my brain at the moment. I read this on the train, more or less in one gulp. You’ve got to love that one of the most important threads of the story is the love between Vincent and Jane, and how it gets them through everything, no matter what. And despite how far their acts of derring-do have come from their Austen-esque beginnings in Shades of Milk and Honey, the development is clear. This time, the trouble they get into grows out of everything before (rather than being a whole new problem), which makes it tidier.

Likewise, their personal relationship grows out of everything that’s gone before; Jane’s miscarriage, Vincent’s time in captivity, the effects that had on them. They trust each other more now, and they’re readier to work through problems than despair. (Which is not to say Vincent doesn’t have some black moods in this novel. He does, in a way that very much reflects on the way some men even now feel less when their wives are the ones bringing in the money.)

I think really the blurb on the back gave a little too much away; knowing, for example, that they’re victims of ‘an elaborate heist’, I immediately began to suspect where the heist began and who was involved. But it doesn’t give away the motive, fortunately, nor what Vincent and Jane end up doing to fix the situation.

It’s a lot of fun, as I’d expected, and I enjoyed the inclusion of Lord Byron as well.

Rating: 4/5

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