Tag: SF/F


Review – Of Noble Family

Posted 19 July, 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 – The Philosopher Kings

Posted 18 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Philosopher Kings by Jo WaltonThe Philosopher Kings, Jo Walton

This book follows The Just City, and develops on some of its themes. After the Last Debate, in which Sokrates defeated Athene, the Just City fractures: some left with Kebes, while others splinter off to form other cities following other principles. Athenia tries to follow Plato’s Republic even more strictly, while Sokratea questions everything; other cities exclude women, focus on numerology, mingle in Christian principles… I was about to say that isn’t really the heart of the book, but maybe it is in the sense that this book is so full of people trying to implement a just city in different ways, all more or less just, all flawed, but all trying.

In the emotional sense, however, the heart of the book is Pytheas, after Simmea’s death in a stupid art raid. Pytheas intends vengeance, absolutely sure it must have been Kebes’ fault, and into this Ficino, Maia, Arete (Simmea and Pytheas’ daughter) and a number of others from the Remnant City are dragged, going off on a voyage of exploration. They find other people, outside Kallisti, all trying to create just cities as well — with differing ideals, different ways of trying to achieve it, but all trying.

The most horrible and possibly unnecessary part of the book is when Pytheas takes vengeance on Kebes; I really didn’t like it, and I’m not sure it worked for me. The exploration of the other characters, particularly Simmea and Pytheas’ children, works for me, but that one scene is a sour note. Of course, it’s not meant to be fun to read, but still. I wanted Pytheas to be better, sooner, and I’m not sure he ever quite understood what Simmea wanted when it came to Kebes.

And then of course there’s the end of the book. I’m intrigued to see what happens in Necessity, and who the narrators are; I’m hoping there’s not too much of Ikaros/Pico della Mirandola, because I’m not a huge fan of him. (I’m more of a fan in Lent, but that’s quite different.) I do enjoy his struggle to understand what happened with Maia and the slow degrees by which he reaches a conclusion, but… gah.

In any case, I love this less than The Just City — I miss Simmea, and I don’t enjoy Pytheas’ character arc until the end — but I’m interested in where things are going for Necessity.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Rogue Protocol

Posted 16 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha WellsRogue Protocol, Martha Wells

In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot figures out a way it can help Dr Mensah, though naturally while it gets to work on that it ends up entangled with — what else? — protecting a whole new group of humans, along with their pet robot, Miki. Murderbot has a lot of complicated feelings about the relationship between Miki and Abene, which is obviously a parallel to that between Murderbot and Dr Mensah.

This one didn’t really stick in my head very well before I reread it — I knew it was the one with Miki, of course, but to me it’s the least distinctive so far. It’s a bit like the second book over again, with a slightly less compelling companion/foil for Murderbot. It’s not bad, and of course it leads to Murderbot’s conclusion about what it needs to do at the end, but it doesn’t sparkle for me in quite the same way.

Very much looking forward to getting into the final act properly now, with everything fresh in my mind. Here goes…!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Tropic of Serpents

Posted 15 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Tropic of Serpents by Marie BrennanTropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

When I was first reading the series, this is the book that really got me hooked. Isabella’s weathered the loss of her husband, and has bounced back by throwing herself into further research, planning to discover more about dragons. She and Thomas Wilker — and the new character Natalie Oscott — are heading to Bayembe, a stark contrast from their time in cold Vsytrana. Over the course of this book they chase dragons across the savannah and through a swamp. It’s hard to say whether the most interesting aspects of these books are the dragons, and the portrayal of Isabella’s scientific endeavours surrounding them, or the cultures Isabella comes into contact with… or the political situations she manages to muddy. Really, I suppose, it’s the fact that there is so much there, and that it portrays scientific endeavours as embedded into everything else.

It’s obviously intentional that these books are very much like a Victorian explorer reporting back on native societies around the world, but it can be a bit discomforting at times; Isabella is being a bit of a tourist in that way, for all that she tries to be respectful of the cultures she meets. There’s condescension in the way she agrees to go along with a rite or accept a taboo just to further her eventual goal, and while I think Brennan tries to be respectful of the history, and have Isabella point up the issues in hindsight, it can still be rather uncomfortably too much like an endorsement of that kind of exploration and colonialism. These books repeatedly engage with that, sometimes with success, and sometimes… well, sometimes it doesn’t quite work for me, anyway.

That said, I’m not sure you can make an analogue of this era of exploration without also having to deal with the racial and colonial issues that came with it. Any character in this situation is bound to raise this kind of discomfort, and it would be very difficult to ameliorate it entirely, I think. History is full of problematic attitudes, and these books address a lot of them, like the struggle for women and working-class men to be treated as scientists. It succeeds in many ways!

Whatever else it is, it is definitely entertaining, and it’s fascinating to see the way Brennan has woven dragons into the history and the fabric of the societies Isabella comes into contact with, in greater and lesser ways. I enjoy Natalie as a character a lot — she’s no less driven than Isabella to break the mould, though her interests are different — and this is also the book in which I fell for Tom Wilker as a character. I adore the relationship between Tom and Isabella, and the way they slowly learn to respect and rely on each other.

This book contains one of the best examples of Isabella’s “deranged practicality”, and I refuse to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but it’s a pretty amazing demonstration of how nuts she is and why she is awesome.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Border Keeper

Posted 12 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Border Keeper by Kerstin HallThe Border Keeper, Kerstin Hall

Received to review via Netgalley

The Border Keeper lives on the border of the land of the dead, mostly alone, mostly untroubled by people and not taking any trouble about them. Vasethe comes to her house and, by virtue of mostly just being annoying enough to keep her attention, eventually goes inside and has the Border Keeper, a woman he calls Eris, take him into the lands of the dead. There’s a lot of beauty in this book, and grotesquerie as well, in the descriptions of their journey through Mkalis. There are some interesting worlds that they pass through, with their own very specific rules, and lots of fascinating stuff going on… But.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid this book didn’t really work for me. I felt like I never quite knew where it was going, and like I was missing a lot of cues. Maybe I was! Maybe the cues were there and I just wasn’t catching hold of them; it’s entirely likely. But for me it just never caught hold, and I read the whole thing feeling as if I was skimming off the surface instead of getting involved and really getting interested. It’s not that the rules of the story made no sense — I think it’s intentionally prone to taking a left turn and leaving you going, ‘wait, what now?’ But that didn’t work for me, in this instance. It didn’t come together for me at all.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Artificial Condition

Posted 11 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Artificial Condition by Martha WellsArtificial Condition, Martha Wells

Artificial Condition might be my favourite book of the quartet so far on this reread (though I haven’t read the last book yet). It features ART, Asshole Research Transport (so-called by Murderbot), and the interactions between the two are just a delight. Murderbot stows away on ART, only to find that the intelligence controlling the ship is far greater than usual, and very curious about Murderbot, its motives, and where its going. With ART’s help, Murderbot disguises itself to look a little more human, and even ends up with a human job as a security consultant, which it naturally takes very seriously. Protecting humans, after all, seems to come naturally — as long as Murderbot can snark about them being idiots to itself in private, at least.

Really, my favourite parts are the way ART and Murderbot interact when they’re alone, the tentative trust between them, and of course the fact that they watch Netflix and pretend not to have feelings about it. The part where Murderbot is actually figuring out its past and helping the humans from the team it works as a security consultant for is a bit secondary, though ART does add commentary and help throughout.

I really do hope we see more of ART (and understand some of the mysteries around ART, because really, why is that AI so independent and well armed?). I do enjoy the episodic nature of these novellas, but I’m also looking forward to the idea of an actual Murderbot novel with more room in it to roll around in.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lifelode

Posted 9 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Lifelode by Jo WaltonLifelode, Jo Walton

Lifelode is a mostly domestic fantasy: the central character (for the most part) is Taveth, a woman whose lifelode (chosen purpose in life would be a simple way of “translating” that) is taking care of the home. There are lifechanging things for the characters of the book, but Taveth is usually making the bread or washing the clothes or cleaning out the bedrooms when it happens. When there’s an attacking force, she’s the one who worries about the supplies; as people storm the gates, she’s making stew and figuring out what will keep the children happy.

Arguably the other central characters are Hanethe and Jankin, but they aren’t really the emotional heart of the story: they’re the movement that stirs the whole pond, but Taveth is the core of it all, what holds it together. It’s tempting to talk about the plot and say too much about the way Hanethe is being pursued, the cause of the problems that she stirs up, but really the key to this book is the domesticity and also — to me, at least — that concept of a lifelode. Something that you not only intend to spend your life doing, but which to me gives you more life. You can pour everything you have into doing it, and it repays you tenfold.

When I first read this, I was 21, and I don’t think the idea resonated with me so much. I would’ve been towards the end of my first degree, and planning a fairly straightforward track through academia. At 29, with another two degrees behind me and eagerly looking forward to the next, it’s clear English Literature was not my lifelode, but just a part of it. Really, what gives me joy and feels like my real work is finding out more, about all kinds of things. Not just with the degrees, but with everything I read and do and talk about. It’s such a powerful concept, and probably not enough of us in this world think about finding our lifelode and making it work — and I’m glad I picked this book up again now and got to have a think about that, and about what I’m willing to do to keep pushing through and doing what I love.

There are also other lovely things about this book — the domestic detail, the casual queerness (including asexuality), and yes, the magic and the actual plot, and the structure of the narrative. But really this time what stuck with me and resonated with me was that idea of a lifelode. I’m really very curious as to why I never seem to have thought about it the first time I read it, but then, I know I hadn’t figured out yet that there was no straight track through to an obvious career that was going to satisfy me!

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Revenant Gun

Posted 8 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha LeeRevenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee

I don’t know how to review this book! The first thing to say is that it’s a beautiful conclusion to some of the character arcs and questions, while leaving a big wide universe full of questions, and a history full of things to unpick as well. I’m sure I won’t understand everything until I read it again, and I could probably benefit from reading it again right away. So many things answered, so many new questions… gah!

It’s hard to give a precis of this book since it’s so strongly following the first two, so I won’t try. I definitely don’t recommend it as any kind of starting point: I think that would be a miserable idea, and unnecessarily annoying to anyone who could just pick up Ninefox Gambit and start there. It continues to make me feel in ways I don’t expect, to surprise me in how things work out while making them feel perfectly in tune, and it continues to have dozens of small moments that delight me — witness my expression when it mentions that Mikodez crochets, for instance.

It’s also delightfully queer, both in gender roles and in sexual roles, and it’s a delight that it’s so brazen about that. There are no apologies.

I enjoyed it greatly, and if it isn’t my vote for Best Novel in the Hugos I’ll be surprised; I will also give this my vote for Best Series. It’s not that it has no flaws, but if I tried to name them I couldn’t right now; I enjoyed it fully, and am glad I read it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Just City

Posted 7 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Just City by Jo WaltonThe Just City, Jo Walton

This whole novel is a bit of a thought experiment about people enacting a thought experiment: what would happen if people travelled through time to make Plato’s thought experiment of the Republic real, with the help of the Greek goddess Athene, the participation of her brother Apollo, and the addition of robots to do the hard work. There are multiple points of view: Maia, one of the readers of The Republic who comes to the city to found it; Simmea, one of the 10-year-olds recruited to be the first generation raised in the Republic; and Pytheas, the god Apollo incarnate in human form as another of those children. Those three perspectives together give us the City, from start to… well. The end of the book.

It’s really fascinating reading about the arguments for setting up the Republic, the way the Masters (Maia’s generation) interact and react to each other — because of course, very few people read The Republic and think that Plato’s suggestions should be implemented exactly as he says, but most people disagree on what things are right. And Walton has fun with who might plausibly be part of setting up the Republic: Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Lucrezia Borgia… along with other people real and fictional.

(It’s especially fun going back to this after reading Lent, and seeing two different…ish takes on Pico!)

It’s also fascinating following Simmea and Pytheas, seeing the way they pursue excellence not only for themselves but for each other. If there’s an ideal love affair in fiction, this might be it: while there are physical elements to their relationship (more implied in the second book than actually seen here), that’s not the basis of their love for each other, and they’re never static. Right to the end, they’re always pushing at each other, demanding excellence of one another, and it’s lovely.

And then of course there’s Sokrates, brought into the City in its fifth year. With him comes change: greater freedom for Simmea and others like her who are deemed to be ‘golds’, or budding philosophers, and greater questioning of what Plato meant, what will work, and of almost every assumption the Republic has been founded on. I’d have loved to see more of Crocus and the other robots and their developing intelligence and sense of self.

Really, I could delve into several different aspects of The Just City, have it all in much greater detail, and be pretty happy.

Before writing this review, I deliberately refused to look back at what I thought when I first read it until I finished writing this. It’s… a quite different review, from a different me, and probably also worth reading; I still agree with it, but I experienced the book differently this time!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Ninth Rain

Posted 5 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Ninth Rain by Jen WilliamsThe Ninth Rain, Jen Williams

I put off writing this review to try and sort it out in my head, and not just lean on what I already said in the readalong posts about it, but I’m not sure that’s served me well — especially since I read the sequel in the meantime! But let’s see what I can do. The Ninth Rain is a fantasy novel that reminds me a lot in some ways of sci-fi and horror; in fact, it reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It’s a human world, but one that’s full of strange flora and fauna wiped by the remnants that a mysterious attacking force, the Jure’lia, leave behind them. In this world, we follow Hestillion and her brother Tor, a scholar named Vintage (“Lady Vincenza de Grazon”, actually, but she doesn’t stand on ceremony), and a young witch who wields fire fuelled by energy ripped from living things.

Hestillion and Tor are not quite human: they are Eborans, formerly sustained in long, healthy, beautiful lives by the sap of their tree-god Ygseril. But he’s been silent and dormant for years, leaving the Eborans at a loss — though they did find that human blood makes a substitute for the sap, leading to monstrous barbarism, and later prejudice. Tor’s not like that: he’s only interested in blood given willingly, and probably during sex. I find it interesting that he’s one sort of vampire, but arguably the witch, Noon, is an energy-vampire. They’re both pretty prejudiced and awful to each other about what they are, when their paths cross, but really they’re neither better than the other.

Vintage is mostly just a delight. Older than the others, and sure of what she wants, she is passionate about the remains of the Jure’lia and finding out what exactly is going on with them. Naturally, this steers a course straight into trouble, bringing Noon and Tor along for the ride.

Noon herself… is not really a favourite for me. She’s damaged and desperate, and horrible things have happened to her, but I don’t find her motivations as interesting as Vintage’s. Vintage has this scientific curiosity that really appeals. Tor’s alright as well, and I’m entertained by the female gaziness of the descriptions of him, but I don’t adore him.

Hestillion, though… she’s so clever and so manipulative; she’s both a horror and a delight, because you need to know what she’s going to do but ai, you wish she wouldn’t do it. That’s more or less what this whole book does: it’s an awesome ride, and it does some awesome things, but they’re also awful and whyyy do they have to happen.

It’s immensely satisfying — like filling up on a good meal.

Rating: 4/5

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