Tag: SF/F

Review – Piranesi

Posted September 29, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Piranesi by Susanna ClarkePiranesi, Susanna Clarke

I didn’t read anything about Piranesi before starting it, though I was vaguely aware of some reviews and reactions from friends. I’m one of the people who found Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, really fascinating — for all that it’s 1,000+ pages long, I ate it up in great big chunks. I wondered if the magic could be repeated, especially in a novel as slim as Piranesi. I’d say it has, and even that I like the worldbuilding of Piranesi even more.

That said, if you didn’t like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, there’s a chance Piranesi will be more for you: though I said the magic is repeated, I mean the magical captivating quality that had me riveted to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Piranesi is rather different in tone and scope, at a quarter of the length. For one thing, it has a relatively cramped cast, made up essentially of four characters, one of whom only appears once, and one of whom doesn’t appear until quite late on. The other people mentioned are all dead, and only tangentially important. Well, unless you consider the House a fifth character.

The House is the most fascinating thing, and I could happily have spent at least another fifty pages visiting the Statues, travelling to far-off Vestibules, and watching the Tides. The whole idea of it, this strange house with the sea in the lower levels and thousands of rooms filled with mysterious Statues — argh, I really loved that part! Piranesi himself (it’s the name used for one of the characters, as well as the title) is rather delightful in his innocent inquiry and his love of the house.

I’m trying not to be spoilery, but this bit talks about the ending: without saying too much about what exactly happens, I found the ending rather sad, because of the change to Piranesi. There was such joy in his exploration of the House, it was really awful to think of that joy being shattered by his discovery of his past. In a way he keeps it, but in another way everything has changed. It makes sense as an ending, and the whole book comes together pretty well… but ouch.

Overall, though, I loved it — and just as with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I practically inhaled it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Beneath the World, A Sea

Posted September 16, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Beneath the World, A Sea, Chris Beckett

I was fully on board with the premise of this: a British policeman is sent to a mysterious area in South America, tasked with finding a way to stop the killing of duendes. Duendes have been deemed to be sentient and to be protected under the law, but local people hunt them down and kill them because of their ability to bring out people’s suppressed emotions, often rage and shame. To reach the area, you have to go through the Zona, on a boat, and everything you do inside the Zona… you’ll never remember once you leave it again. The book starts as Ben emerges from the Zona, to find that he wrote some mysterious journals… and probably left the boat, as everyone was advised not to do.

It doesn’t really go anywhere from there, unfortunately. There’s plenty of weirdness, some great little thumbnail sketches of people with all their insecurities bared, and it feels like there’s a plot leading toward some kind of climax, a confrontation between Ben and the weirdness. I didn’t necessarily expect answers to the weirdness, or at least not all of it, but it felt for a while like it had a fairly traditional plot trajectory — and then just at the point where you’d expect action to be taken, Ben decides to run away. He just runs away. That’s it. That’s the story.

Sure, he’s learned stuff about himself that he never knew and didn’t want to know; the Zona and the world within its circle have scared him and changed him… but essentially, he just decides to run away, and there’s no real feeling that there’s any kind of resolution.

Now maybe there isn’t intended to be, but it felt weak to me, especially after the inklings that there was more to come. It’s not that it was a bad reading experience, but despite the promise of the setting… I was left cold by this. I don’t mind weird, and I don’t mind non-traditional stories, but the sense that this was going somewhere and didn’t really made the ending limp for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Orfeia

Posted September 16, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Orfeia by Joanne M. HarrisOrfeia, Joanne Harris, Bonnie Helen Hawkins

Orfeia is a fairy tale, drawing the main character Fay from a world of late-night runs (recorded diligently on a Fitbit) to the world of Faerie, pulled on a line of Childe’s ballads and longing. Fay’s husband died when their daughter was young, and now her daughter is gone too — unexpectedly, through suicide. The runs are less a method of coping or escaping than just dulling herself to non-existence… and then one night as she runs she sees light through a crack in the pavement, and sees her daughter, alive but sleeping.

So begins Fay’s quest, driven by her love as a mother even as Faerie slowly steals away her memories and her shadow — and that love really drives the whole story. Her clues are fragments of ballads and riddles, and her weapons are her wits and her voice. She doesn’t remember or understand the world she’s drawn into, even as the other characters insist she’s a queen.

Some of the songs I was familiar with, and others less so, but I enjoyed the way they were used. It can be hard to do something new with something that retells or uses or references old ballads, because you may need to hew pretty close to the original story for anyone to recognise it… but you also want to bring your own twist to it. Harris is well-used to retellings, and doesn’t let source material hamper her one bit.

And alright, it’s a quest story: I was pretty sure of the answers of some of the big questions, but the ride was the important part, along with some of the details along the way. Some of the scenes are so vivid to me — I’m not blessed with a visual imagination at all, but the illustrations help there, and there are other senses to imagine…

Speaking of which, the illustrations are gorgeous, and worth lingering over for the little details.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. I always find Harris’ prose gripping — she has a way with words, or at least her words have a way with me. I ended up reading it in three sittings, and regretting each time I had to put it down.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Burning Roses

Posted September 15, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Burning Roses by S.L. HuangBurning Roses, S.L. Huang

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 29th September 2020

Burning Roses combines a mixture of different fairytales/folklore: Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Goldilocks… and Hou Yi, an archer from Chinese mythology. It blends all these disparate-sounding elements together with aplomb, remixing Hou Yi’s story in the meantime to make Hou Yi a trans woman, and winding in what reads as a racism metaphor in the grundwirgen (magical beings with animal qualities or animal forms, all of whom Rosa rather virulently hates in a way inherited from her mother and compounded by a ghastly experience as a child — you can guess what that experience was when you consider the Red Riding Hood story).

I didn’t think that all these stories could be combined like this so comfortably; for me, they’re all on quite different formal registers. I don’t know much about Hou Yi and how that story is usually told, of course, but the version I heard was rather formal and in the context of an anthology of mythological stories. On that basis, it initially seemed oddly placed next to a nursery story like Goldilocks. Just settle in and trust the author: in my opinion, it works out. I especially enjoyed the way that the story used both versions of the Hou Yi story that I knew of, showing they’re essentially the same story from different angles, depending on who is telling the story.

The grundwirgen (which I read as a metaphor for racism) theme feels a little heavy-handed at first, but when I think about the story now that doesn’t really register. The image that sticks in my head is that of both Rosa and Hou Yi working to be worthy of their families, failing and being human, and finding their way through it. It’s not a story of young and giddy fairytale love, but of love that endures through pain, love that forges a true family which you can’t walk away from.

I haven’t read the short stories in this world, but I don’t think it’s necessary to appreciate and enjoy this novella.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Four Profound Weaves

Posted September 14, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. LembergThe Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg

I originally had this to review, but ended up buying a copy on release because I’m generally picking up physical books much more regularly at the moment, and I really did want to give this a try. I’m actually wondering if I’ve read one or two of the stories set in this world before, and somehow forgotten, because some things felt really familiar.

In any case, it took me a while to get into the story — partly because I didn’t properly take notice of the POV shift, and partly because I felt like I was assembling the world from pieces of a puzzle I’d briefly seen before. It was a bit weird, as a feeling, but I settled in and ended up racing through the novella all in one go. It begins with two older people, long known to each other but not of the same cultural group, deciding to go in search of what they feel they’re missing: a name, in the case of one of them, who has just completed his long-awaited transition after a life lived as a woman for the sake of his family; and the other, in search of her aunt, and the things her aunt promised to teach her.

The story is less important, I think, than the claiming (and re-claiming) of one’s voice, one’s identity, one’s true self. Both the main characters have to find that and learn to grasp it, in their own ways, and it is only through that that they can be whole and the neglected threads of their lives picked up and woven in.

I wasn’t always in love with the story: I felt thrown in at the deep end, though I suspect some of my confusion came from expecting something else (either from reading a previous story in this world, or just something with some similar elements… it’s hard to say, because I can’t put my finger on it). I didn’t feel the two voices were entirely distinct, despite what I said about the theme of the story, and there were at times some clumsy things — like the repeated reminders that Uiziya repeats questions until they’re answered. That felt like the ultimate “show, don’t tell” violation (even though sometimes telling can be very effective):

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

A thin green snake slithered in the dusk between us, as if drawing a boundary I should not cross. I stepped right over it.

“So what is going on?” I had a habit of repeating a question until it was answered.

That really, really could’ve been shown — we didn’t even need to know at that exact moment that this is a habit, we could’ve just seen it throughout the scene, the story… Telling can be a powerful tool, especially with a first-person narrator like this, but this — and the repetitions of it later, to make sure the reader notices — didn’t quite work for me.

Overall I found it really enjoyable; I just had a few niggles, I think.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Grace of Kings

Posted September 12, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Grace of Kings by Ken LiuThe Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

I think on balance I enjoyed The Grace of Kings, but I’m not sure whether I care enough to seek out the next book any time soon. It reminded me very much of my experience of reading Icelandic sagas, somehow; something about the parade of characters and the almost didactic tone of the prose at times… It’s hard to put my finger on, but it felt very much like that — which let me engage the same reading technique I used when reading the sagas: I sat back and let it wash over me, trusting that the narration would remind me of the important things at the right moments. And it did.

The thing is, though I could read massive chunks of it all in one go, I didn’t crave picking it back up when I put it down. It was so easy to read, and yet not compelling to me; I liked the characters okay, but felt like they were more legends and parables than people to follow or enjoy. The violence and plotting and political manoeuvring felt less than urgent to me, and in the end I only barely got invested in who won in the end. It’s a different way of storytelling, and one I wasn’t in the mood for at the moment.

I think I need to sit with this a bit longer before I decide whether to get the second book; right now, I don’t feel like it, but I wonder if it’ll creep back and make me curious. We’ll see!

So the upshot is, it’s enjoyable enough, but if my past self asked, “Hey, should I bother?”… I wouldn’t say no, but I wouldn’t say a whole-hearted “yes!!!”, either.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

Posted September 6, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of When the Tiger Came Down The Mountain by Nghi VoWhen the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Nghi Vo

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 8th December 2020

This is a follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, following the cleric Chih on another journey to discover and record stories. I’m a little sad that the book doesn’t contain Almost Brilliant, but in every other way I liked it even more than the first book. I think that despite giving the first book a pretty high rating, it didn’t wholly stick with me; this one, I think, will. Perhaps it’s partly the sense that Chih is not only learning the story, is not just a vessel for the reader to experience it, but is in a story themselves with a beginning and an ending and tension in the middle. That sense was missing from the first book, for me, for all that it was cleverly done.

It’s not that this one was more surprising for me — I mentioned with the first book that I knew where we were going before we got there — but that the frame story kind of supported it better, I suppose. The predictability in both cases is a good thing; it’s like seeing the end result of a puzzle, and then all the intermediate stages as you work towards it; that doesn’t “spoil” getting to the end!

I’m definitely on board for more of Chih and their travels.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Seventh Perfection

Posted September 6, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Seventh Perfection by Daniel PolanskyThe Seventh Perfection, Daniel Polansky

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 22nd September 2020

This is the first book I’ve read by Polansky, and I’m very tempted to expand to read more in the near future. The Seventh Perfection is a little bit challenging, because it’s all narrated by various people who are speaking to the main character — a different one in each chapter. It’s a format you have to have a bit of patience with, as these voices don’t necessarily know what’s on the main character’s mind and what they’re searching for, and there’s plenty of room for red herrings. I hadn’t read the blurb recently, so I had very little to guide me going in… and that turned out to be all the more fun, trying to fit the story together and learn about the world from only the hints in the text.

I think that’s honestly the most notable thing about this book — not so much the story, or the world, though there are fascinating bits of that I’d love some more answers to — but mostly the narration, the clever way things are fed to you a very little at a time. It works so very well, and though I can quite understand other people not getting along with it, I’m very enthused.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Priory of the Orange Tree

Posted August 23, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha ShannonThe Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon

Oh boy, how to review this chunkster? I actually started to read it back when it first came out, and was fascinated… and then got distracted, as happens so often for me. Then I ended up reading it at a pace of five pages a day, alongside other workerbees from Beeminder! Which was pretty cool, actually; I thought I would find it really frustrating, because I’m usually a fast reader. Granted, I didn’t exactly stick to five pages a day — it was more like a chapter every other day. Either way, it worked, and I found myself eager for my daily snippet instead of daunted by the size of the book, which has been a problem for me lately.

It’s a retelling of George and the Dragon, but it doesn’t really show unless you already know that; you can also just sink into it as a story about dragons, alchemists with dubious backbones and morals, pirates, witches, queens, friendship and love. I didn’t know anything much about the characters and their relationships before starting, so I very much enjoyed watching them unfold. I never expected Sabran to grow on me so much, or for her relationship with Eadaz to work for me; her moodiness and even capriciousness made her really unattractive to me as a character from the start, but as she opened up to Ead, I came to pity her and understand her a little better… and slowly I could at least see part of what Ead saw, even if I’m not wholly convinced by the depth of the relationship given the timing.

I do agree with some other reviewers that there are pacing issues; Tané’s parts feel almost sketched in compared to Ead’s, which really dominated all the others for me. I’ve read about the book having to be substantially cut and revised, and it makes sense for it to linger on Ead the way it does… but it makes it feel like the others are both secondary and have not enough to say given their significance. I really felt like Tané needed a bit more time to grow, given her completely self-centred and self-righteous behaviour at the start.

I’m not wholly sure I followed the sterren and siden magic system, but this was partly the piecemeal way I read the book, I think. It’s certainly a world I’m sad to leave and interested to potentially revisit.

I’ll agree with other reviewers that comparisons to Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings are completely inappropriate, and if you’re looking for those worlds, you should probably just reread the originals. The Priory of the Orange Tree is not that close a comparison, and you’ll definitely be disappointed if you’re just looking for more Tolkien or GRRM. I’m not saying that as a value judgement, though; The Priory of the Orange Tree is its own thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Last Smile in Sunder City

Posted August 20, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke ArnoldThe Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold

From the cover onwards, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a patchwork of influences. Ben Aaronovitch, obviously and brazenly; my bets are on Jim Butcher as well. And, if not directly from Raymond Chandler, then his brand of noir and his style of imagery — there’s something about his comparisons that make it feel like a cut-rate Phillip Marlowe. It’s a very readable book, even though Arnold doesn’t have the control of language that Chandler did (none of his coinages are as good as “shop-worn Galahad”, even though Fetch Phillips suits the description as well as Marlowe does).

Sunder City is just one city in a world that used to be full of magic, but the source of magic has been destroyed by humans. Elves have aged suddenly and cruelly, anyone who uses magic is bereft, vampires are shrivelling to nothing… and Fetch Phillips is a man for hire amidst all this, tracking down missing folks and contemplating oblivion, at the bottom of a bottle or a long, long drop.

You know from the start that Fetch has done something godawful, and you can see it coming in the flashbacks, and you kind of want to stop it or ameliorate it somehow — and that’s when I knew it was really working for me. Fetch is not a good person, but you can see in him the ability to be so much better than he is… and even though he keeps making the stupidest mistakes, and you know nothing can be alright for him again, you can’t help but hope along with him that he can salvage something.

I’m kind of eager to read the next book right now; I don’t know how much this first one will stick with me, but it was a quick and enjoyable read, and I’m really curious to see where Arnold goes next with Fetch.

Rating: 4/5

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