Tag: SF/F


Review – The Dark is Rising

Posted 5 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

The Dark is Rising by Susan CooperThe Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper

It strikes me, reading these books now, that just as Tolkien tried to write ‘a mythology for England’, so did Cooper try to write ‘a mythology for Britain’. This book is addressed rather insularly to the British reader — the Old Ones are ‘as old as this land’, not ‘as old as Britain’: the reader is assumed to be British. However, and this is a relief for me, the reader is rarely if ever assumed to be a child or to belong to a particular era or group of people. Cooper is more subtle in her editorial than Tolkien or Lewis (given here as examples because both of them speak directly to the reader a good deal).

All the same, it’s a mythology for Britain, or even of Britain (don’t get Tolkien scholars arguing too much about which he said and what he meant): even in the most juvenile of the books, Over Sea, Under Stone, there’s a good deal about invaders assimilating and becoming British, about the power of the British character. It’s explicit, oddly enough, when Will’s father speaks to Merriman: “You’re not English, are you?” And Will is surprised to notice hostility in his usually mild father’s eyes. (And I was surprised to note that he said English; I shouldn’t have been, given the historical gulf between Welsh and English, but I thought this series in particular would be better about that, given the setting of the fourth and fifth books, and the narrative importance of King Arthur and his very Welsh son.)

Perhaps a modern liberal writer would be inclined to paint the Dark not as the invader, but the insider who refuses to change. Not the waves of invaders (or migrants, or refugees, depending on how you view them) but those who insist upon Englishness as an inherent good that can be corrupted and ruined by contact with the non-English… Mind you, Cooper covers that angle too, in Silver on the Tree, so I’m getting ahead of myself.

Putting the insularity of the book aside, The Dark is Rising is the first in the series to give a real idea of what’s going on. It’s here that the mythology takes shape: the Light versus the Dark, the role that Merriman (and now Will, and the other Old Ones we’re introduced to) has to play, and some of the tangled British legends that contribute — Herne the Hunter, the anonymous king given a partially Viking ship burial (suggested by Drout as being the son of Scyld Scefing, from Beowulf), Merlin…

It’s also the first to evoke and try to portray more adult emotions. Instead of being purely focused on children, this book has an odd half-life. Sometimes Will is a child (and behaves as such, forgivably — his moment of jubilation when the Dark are drawn back, which leads to the Lady having to expend her power, is a lovely touch in my opinion) and sometimes he’s much older than his years, understanding of the nature of people, time, religion… So you have both his delight in snow on his birthday, and his lonely understanding that he is now set utterly apart from his family, from everyone he has ever loved. The story of Merriman and Hawkin is full of love and regret, and is not a simple story of betrayal and forgiveness: there is much going on between the two that a younger reader can simply ignore, but the older reader can savour as a more complex layer on top of the adventure story.

There are also some beautiful set-pieces in this book: some of the descriptions of awe and delight in the magic of the Light, but also the moments of being part of a family, the warmth of Will’s family Christmas.

It’s worn better than Over Sea, Under Stone because there is a lot more to consider, but all the same, I think I need to set it aside for a couple more years now so I can come back to it fresh. That I will come back, I have no doubt.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Over Sea, Under Stone

Posted 4 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan CooperOver Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper

At one point, I read The Dark is Rising trilogy at Christmas every year, lining up the timeline of The Dark is Rising itself with the season, as the most obviously timed event in the books. I still maintain that it’s a good series: Cooper did some clever things with mythology and history. I recently read an article by Michael D.C. Drout, ‘Reading the Signs of the Light’, which made that very clear (though that essay is more focused on the second book of the series onwards than on this one). Cooper also has a very deft touch with character: the children behave like real children, with their bursts of moodiness, sibling rivalries, etc.

The main issue, really, is that I’ve read these books too much. Everything is all too familiar — though there are scenes that bring back the old dread and excitement even so, like Barney’s journey alone into the cave under the rocks, and Simon’s chase scene when he escapes with the map. This is the most juvenile of the books, and has worn the least well, all the same. It’s focused on the story from the point of view of the children, without a real idea of the seriousness and significance of the quest.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Tea Master and the Detective

Posted 14 December, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Teamaster and the Detective by Aliette de BodardThe Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

This is basically a Sherlock Holmes retelling, set in de Bodard’s Xuya universe of short stories and novellas, where Watson is actually a sentient ship, and the mystery involves a body dumped into the equivalent of hyperspace, through which humans can’t travel without a ship to protect them and a cocktail of drugs (served in teas, traditionally, though presumably the format doesn’t necessarily have to be a tea) to keep them from going insane.

Of course, the ship, The Shadow’s Child, is less blindly fascinated by the Holmes character (Long Chau) than Watson is in the original stories, and there’s a certain friction between them throughout. The ship doesn’t like Long Chau’s attitudes (she can be abrasive) and is suspicious of her past. The Shadow’s Child has her own tragic past, in which she lost her crew, her family, in an accident — in those deep areas of space that the mindships are able to navigate and from which humans need protection. Naturally, the mystery — and Long Chau’s incisive commentary on her understanding of The Shadow’s Child — end by drawing the ship into the space she fears, in order to prevent further tragedies. Likewise, there are links to Long Chau’s own history and her past disgraceful involvement in the disappearance of a young woman she was tutoring.

Ultimately, the story is perhaps less about the actual mystery and more about that interplay between the two personalities — and The Shadow’s Child eventual decision to face her fears in order to rescue Long Chau and another human, at the conclusion of the mystery. There’s definitely room for more in this world (of course, since it’s part of a whole series of not-necessarily-connected stories) and with these characters: I’ll be interested to read whatever might come of that in future.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Rogue Protocol

Posted 2 December, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha WellsRogue Protocol, Martha Wells

In this installment of the Murderbot series, our favourite SecUnit ends up protecting a new group of humans (at some risk to itself, as ever), finding out more conspiracies and hinky things going on, and making friends with a human-form robot who starts off too twee for words and yet somehow grows on both Murderbot and the reader. I do miss ART and dearly hope that all of Murderbot’s friends can come together somehow for Netflix and popcorn, but it’s another fun adventure all the same. The ending got to me, actually, more than I expected: Wells does a great job of making the companions of the week (so to speak!) relatable.

If you’re new to Murderbot, don’t start here. Despite the companion-of-the-week issue I slightly have with the series, the background information about SecUnits isn’t present in this book, which would make it unclear for a new reader, and Murderbot’s past is a big part of what drives it in the books too. Starting at the beginning and going through chronologically seems best to me.

I’m excited to see how the final novella wraps everything up: I have it open in my Kobo app. Here goes!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sandman Slim

Posted 30 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard KadreySandman Slim, Richard Kadrey

I’ve had this book for ages, so I felt it behooved me to finally pick it up! It turns out to be a fairly typical urban fantasy book: it feels very Supernatural, with the angels and demons and the humans stuck in between; the guns and blood and guts and gore (although of course I’m talking about later seasons when it comes to the apocalyptic stuff). The main character, Stark, always had a natural aptitude for magic, and let his arrogance about it suck him into a group that eventually sacrificed him to demons for power. Now he’s back, and he wants revenge. It’s all so familiar and a little tired, and Stark’s attitude is much the same.

I did enjoy his dedication to his murdered lover — he’s such a tough guy, but then he adores the very ground she used to walk on. However, that’s also a problem in terms of originality: a fridged girlfriend, really? Really?!

In the end, it’s fairly fast-paced (with one or two boggy parts) and amusing, but I’m not sold enough on the whole thing to actually pick up the rest of the series. Not enough room in one lifetime. It probably gets better later on in the series, but… the dark/gritty aspect is not really for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Testament of Loki

Posted 25 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Testament of Loki by Joanne HarrisThe Testament of Loki, Joanne Harris

Received to review

I’ve been enjoying Joanne Harris’ Norse myth based works for a while, but this one just seemed a bit too goofy for me, for all that I like the characters and the idea. In this book, after Ragnarok, Loki finds a way out of Chaos through… a mythology-based video game, and then the brain of a teenage girl. He quickly finds that Odin has also found the same way into the world, and of course, Odin also wants to bring his son Thor through, and he’s already found the perfect host for Freyja…

Honestly, the possession bit just freaked me out: Loki’s tendency to take over Jumps (his teenage host) when he feels like it is just squicky to me, while the Aesir in the bodies of teenagers is also a bit cringy. It’s a shame, because Harris’ take has been generally clever, funny and transformative in a good way; her Loki voice is great. But this specific story just really does not work for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Magpie Lord

Posted 23 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Magpie Lord by K.J. CharlesThe Magpie Lord, K.J. Charles

As always with Charles’ work, this book is entertaining, sometimes funny, and an almost distressingly quick read. I wanted more! Not that the story isn’t complete: that isn’t it. It’s just that I ended up wanting to spend more time with the characters: not just Crane and Stephen, though the tension between them and their back-and-forth is undeniably fun, but Crane’s man Merrick as well. Crane is the remaining scion of a dissolute family; Merrick has been with him since he was banished to China, and is as faithful to him as a hound. They’ve been through all kinds of adventures before Crane is ever cursed, so he trusts Crane and wants to save him from the curse. Stephen Day, a magician who says he can help Crane, hates him on principle due to the depredations of his father and brother.

Of course, Stephen quickly finds out he’s wrong to assume the present Lord Crane is the same as his family, and he finds himself drawn into Crane’s orbit as he struggles to figure out the magic that surrounds him and unwind the hatred and dark magic that seems to be choking Crane and his estate. As an additional draw, Crane turns out to be the descendant of a powerful magician, one all English practitioners know of. Also, surprise surprise, he’s physically attracted to Crane. (If you know Charles’ work, this shouldn’t be a surprise at all — nor is it a spoiler that they get together.)

The background story is pretty dark and icky, and there’s one awful scene — well-written, but horrible to read — in which another magician forces Crane to choke on his own cut hair. All’s well that ends well, though, with plenty of room for more stories. Which I know exist, so I’ll be off in search of those now.

Obviously not one for people who aren’t into LGBT romances, but a fun fantasy-mystery for those who are. There are sex scenes, which didn’t seem to be absolutely necessary for the plot, but did add to character development.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ballad of Black Tom

Posted 22 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValleThe Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle

It would probably help me appreciate this if I’d read Lovecraft’s original story, but on the other hand, I don’t really ever want to read Lovecraft, so there’s that! LaValle rewrites one of Lovecraft’s short stories, partly from the point of view of a young black man. Unsurprisingly, it comments on racism in the US both modern and longer entrenched: that part is easy enough to appreciate, even for an outsider. The response to Lovecraft is a bit beyond me: I don’t know if Black Tom is a character from Lovecraft or invented for the purpose, even.

It doesn’t feel like a novella about a character or a place or even an event, in the end: it does feel very much like a response — to the original, and to the world. I enjoyed that, though I imagine plenty of people will be complaining about stupid SJWs, etc.

There are some genuinely icky-squicky bits (well-written, but difficult to read) and moments of horrid claustrophobia, along with the awful and all too familiar treatment of people of colour by the police, which is equally horrifying. It’s well written, but I feel like I’m missing the point through not knowing the original.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Hobbit

Posted 15 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

A long-time love of mine, I reread this because I wanted the Werther’s Originals taste/feel of the book, because stresss (which is over now, hurrah!). The main charm for me lies in what came of it later, along with the paternal and knowing tone of the narrator. The narrative voice has always felt warm to me — cognisant of the characters’ faults, and sometimes gently pointing them out, but always with a deep good-naturedness. And then, of course, there’s the world: perhaps not quite fully realised by the time of writing The Hobbit, but stretching out before and beyond it, even if the brushstrokes are broad.

There are many things tone-wise that don’t quite fit with The Lord of the Rings, and the text itself was revised to fit in with the later material — but so cleverly, playing with the textual history of the story, tying together the real with the imagined. I love all the things Tolkien did with creating texts within his stories: that too is part of what makes his world real, that there are books and histories that are relevant to the world… there are few people who do it quite as well, and it’s always a delight.

Of the story itself: a rather ordinary middle-class hobbit, comfortable in his world of small social engagements, good food and convenience, ends up swept into an adventure involving trolls, goblins, magic rings and (in the end) a dragon. He’s the most clearly delineated of the characters, with many of the dwarves being mere thumbnail sketches: nonetheless, it works (with one or two dwarves picked out for slightly more detail here and there to keep them from being entirely props, and Gandalf being the enigmatically fascinating sorcerer of somewhat unknown motive in the whole affair). It’s definitely pitched more at children, though there’s something about the tone that I think makes it a delight at any age. As a fantasy book, taken alone, it’s not all that astounding. It mingles some lore together, barely hinting at the more cohesive and seriously built world Tolkien would later introduce to us.

In the end, it’s a typical quest story  — it’s Tolkien’s world and his narrative voice that make it for me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – War Cry

Posted 11 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of War Cry by Brian McClellanWar Cry, Brian McClellan

Received to review via Netgalley

I haven’t read any of McClellan’s longer work yet, so this novella from Tor seemed like a good point to jump in, really! It’s set during a war in a fantasy setting, with very familiar attributes — there’s propaganda, there’s airplanes, everyone’s running short and coaxing coffee out of months’ old grounds… but there’s also wizards, of at least two kinds: shapeshifters, and those who can cast illusions. We don’t get some big overview of the war: it’s fairly tight in to a little squad who have been taking losses, fighting hard, and living right on the edge. They get a chance to do a risky mission to get some supplies so they have food and maybe even coffee. And, predictably, it goes wrong.

It feels like there’s a lot more room for story in this world, whether that be an extended version of this story or a series of novellas. It’s not terribly unsatisfying on its own, because there is a kind of end to the immediate plot, but there’s so much more in the world that we don’t get to see, so much more for the characters to do, that it doesn’t feel like a stopping point (more just a pause). There’s room for awesomeness, but it feels like it’s mostly potential right now — an opening act, rather than a story in itself.

Rating: 3/5

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