Robin McKinley has written two retellings of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale; this one is the closest to what you might think of as the classic story (i.e. actually the version immortalised by Disney, albeit with touches like including Beauty’s sisters), and is also the youngest in terms of how it’s written. It follows the traditional set-up, and the retelling mostly relies on filling in the gaps — characterising Beauty’s sisters, playing with irony (Beauty is not, in fact, beautiful — at least not at first, though somehow she becomes very pretty over the course of the book), creating several secondary love stories — rather than being wildly transformative or creating a rich world. Rose Daughter… well, I’ll come to that when I’ve finished that reread!
I find it very enjoyable, partly because it’s kept fairly simple, and because I enjoy the characters. It’s an undemanding read, but it’s fun.
The plot of this book? A war-preventing intergalactic Eurovision contest in a decidedly Hitchhiker’s Guide-style universe world, where newbies who lose get obliterated and the rankings determine the distribution of galactic resources. It’s a sentience test, designed to figure out whether a species can be trusted to join the ranks of sentient species or needs to be nuked from orbit to prevent future wars. It’s full of glitz and glamour and impossibilities, and Valente has a hell of a lot of fun coming up with weird species and the ways they perform and relate to each other and get high and start wars and have sex.
In fact, she has so much fun with that that the story of Earth’s discovery and non-optional invitation to join the latest contest in order to save Earth is pretty eclipsed by the sheer torrents of verbiage about aliens shiny and strange. It takes a while to realise that Decibel Jones is pretty much the main character, and honestly he’s always pretty much secondary to the wild vagaries of Valente’s imagination.
If you know Valente’s writing, then you can imagine how this comes out. At times, it’s like a firehose of adjectives blasting straight at your eyes, and it takes five minutes to work through a page because the colours are all running — a metaphor, of course, but honestly that’s the indistinct impression I end up with. There’s just too much going on, and it never stops.
And I know it’s not meant this way, because it’s Valente, but it sounds like it’s making fun (in that “oh god SJWs what will they come up with next” way) of some of the language queer people use to describe themselves, and I really don’t find the joy in that. I know it’s meant to be playful, maybe even freeing, but knowing how people complain about LGBT alphabet soups already, it stings. Of course that’s a personal reaction; probably others are really enjoying the freedom from labels pasted onto the characters.
I didn’t connect to the characters or to the plot, and in the end it just felt like I was being hit repeatedly in the head with a discoball while being attacked from all sides with glitterbombs, while someone shouted “ARE YOU HAVING FUN? WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FUN? IT’S SO QUIRKY AND OFF THE WALL! HAVE FUN DAMN YOU! MOOOORE GLITTER! WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FEELINGS??” in my ear. So the big finale didn’t come off, I just rolled my eyes.
I do enjoy Valente’s prose in some instances, but nothing about this worked for me — particularly since I think the tone and humour is frequently ripped absolutely directly from Douglas Adams, do not pass go, do not add anything original beyond LOTS MORE ADJECTIVES and a spot of David Bowie. It feels like Hitchhiker’s Guide with the volume turned up to distortion point.
Meh, meh, and meh again. I’m not entirely sure why I stubbornly finished this book, to be honest.
I know, I know; some of you are surely wondering, “Again?!”
The Goblin Emperor is the story of an ill-prepared fifth son, who has hitherto spent his time in exile due to the disfavour his mother was viewed with, finding himself on the throne of the Elflands after the murder of his father and half-brothers. Thrown into the midst of it all, he has to find his feet and become a ruler — one who is careful to respect his father and the tradition of the throne, but who is also prepared to make some fairly drastic changes to benefit his people. All of them.
Naturally, some of his people were quite enjoying the status quo, and even those who wanted to change things had some rather different plans.
This was, I think, my fifth time reading this book, and I still love it so very much. It helps that the main character is so completely endearing: despite a lifetime of mistreatment, he clings to the principles taught to him by his mother (herself fairly mistreated by the system) and tries to be a good person. It’s not that he succeeds entirely — he’s unfairly waspish at times, he has the impulse to be ungracious and to take revenge, he has the urge to run away… The important factor, though, is that he works on it.
I do also enjoy the world-building, which is pretty high quality: Addison has given thought to how the language works, to how the two primary cultures in the book intersect, and to the world that surrounds them. She has so many characters who are intriguing, even when they can only be seen in glimpses due to Maia’s isolation as emperor — so many things I’d love to know more about, and so many opportunities to expand on the story (not necessarily Maia’s story). I’m so excited for the new book in this world; there are so many possible characters it could follow, and I’m pretty excited about most of them.
Saying anything else really comes repetitive of all my other reviews, but as usual, I thought I’d pick out the things I really noticed this time round. One image that this read-through left me with: the image of Maia, on the day of his coronation, in the rocky cave alone; the quality of the darkness, the coldness of the water, the stillness of the room.
Sealey Head is a small town, perched above a harbour, where people mostly go about their everyday lives — managing an inn, running a business, selling their wares — with the main magic being in the stories written by Gwyneth and the books read by Judd, childhood friends who have become somewhat estranged as they grew up and had more responsibilities. The strange thing, though it’s now so normal that inhabitants of the town think of it entirely normal, is that every day a mysterious bell sounds. They have no idea where the sound comes from or when it began, though there are a cluster of stories and assumptions around it.
In the big house owned by a local aristocrat, a servant called Emma knows magic does exist, because every so often, she opens a door in the house and sees another world, and a woman she’s never met in this world. Princess Isabo lives a life strictly confined by ritual: light this candle, move this sword, fill the goblets of certain men but not others… and don’t ask questions.
Into that world comes a scholar, Ridley Drow, to shake everything up and make people confront the magic in their midst. It feels like such a typical story for McKillip: it has all her hallmarks in the handling, in the love of books, in the way the magic is handled, in the prose, in the way people relate to each other. So if you enjoy McKillip’s work, you’ll probably enjoy this as well: I certainly did, from the shy reconnection between Gwyneth and Judd to the chattering good-heartedness of Daria Sproule to the daring of Princess Isabo, finally asking questions and breaking the ritual routine.
It all builds up very nicely, but the denouement stumbled a little, for me. After all the build-up, knowing there’s danger and that their friends are in trouble, Gwyneth and Judd rush to Aislinn House to help… only to be thwarted by the fact that no one can open a way into Isabo’s world. Instead of doing anything, they settle down to wait… and the climax of the story happens entirely without them. It feels like all the characters build towards that, but only Ridley and Isabo actually get to see it. It feels odd that they’re left out of the main plot, even though Gwyneth and Judd’s stories are completed in other personal ways.
Also, there are some things I just… missed somehow in the climax of the book — some things seemed to come out of nowhere for me. I didn’t have a clue about the significance of the boat, for instance — or rather, I did realise it was significant, but the reason for its significance just didn’t seem to have been telegraphed at all, to the point where it felt like a deus ex machina. This isn’t a first for me with McKillip’s writing, and sometimes it’s possible she’s just being too subtle for me.
Overall, despite those quibbles, I enjoyed the book a lot, and McKillip’s writing is gorgeous. It’s a great read all the same.
Finally, I’m proceeding with my rereads to get on and maybe someday finish this series! This is the second October Daye book, featuring Toby and Quentin as they delve into a mystery in a neighbouring duchy. For one reason or another, Sylvester hasn’t been able to get in contact with his niece, January, and for political reasons among the other fae, he can’t go himself. Since Toby amounts to an independent contractor, sending her doesn’t count, and Quentin’s just along for the ride… so off October goes, quickly finding out that there are murders being committed at January’s computing company, and even the strongest of the fae who work there are being killed.
To me, the killer is fairly obvious all along, but then I do have the advantage of having read the book before. There are some delightful ideas and bits of fae lore here: I love what we discover about the night haunts, for instance, and the idea of a Dryad being maintained in a server after the death of her tree. There is a sense in which this book is just one continual long thrashing of Toby — if she’s not being attacked by an actual enemy, she’s being seduced by a fae who can drain her and leave her for dead; if she’s not worrying over Quentin being injured, it’s because she’s got to worry about Connor instead… But in a sense, that’s what the whole series is like.
It feels like this book could’ve been resolved faster if Toby was thinking with her brain instead of rolling around trying to avoid the next punch by instinct, and it’s certainly not my favourite of the series (though I haven’t read much of the whole series, my money is currently on An Artificial Night for that title, of the ones I’ve read before), but it’s enjoyable enough and has some fascinating stuff going on, like the idea of how to save Faerie.
Jennifer Estep’s Kill the Queen is joyfully tropetastic: after Lady Everleigh witnesses the massacre of everyone who stands near to the throne before her, except one traitor, she escapes due to her hidden magic and plans to disappear, becoming just plain old Evie, despite her promise to the previous queen to take back the throne. She falls in with a group of gladiators and ends up training as a gladiator herself, not noticing the parallel with the fact that the first queen of her bloodline rose to the throne via combat as a gladiator. Throughout the book, she discovers that skills she learned as the seventeenth in line to the throne are useful — things that dealt with certain customs that nobody more important had the time to cater to, like baking a particular kind of pie and learning fiendishly complex dance steps.
It continues in that vein throughout: it’s readable, and fairly well-paced, and it has all the obligatory spices like a fairly obvious deeper plot, and a hate-to-love romance. It’s basically brain candy, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I didn’t love it, and I’m not sure if I’m going to bother reading the second book or not, but it was fun.
Stars Uncharted features a ragtag crew getting into trouble, slowly becoming a found family, dodging around the universe to avoid bad guys of various stripes. If that sounds somewhat familiar, then you’re right. It has a very Firefly-ish, Expanse-ish, Long-Way-To-A-Small-Angry-Planet-ish, Dark Run-ish feel… which didn’t hold any surprises for me or stand out in its little sub-genre, but did scratch an itch… and make me want to read more like it again. (Firefly is such a comfort thing for me!)
It does have its different features, such as the body modding plotline that is such an important part of the plot and understanding various characters: everyone is infinitely plastic in appearance, and a good modder can do anything — changing you right down at the molecular level if necessary. This is woven into the plot pretty inextricably, featuring in several characters’ secrets and motivations, holding up the action at times, and enabling the next twist in others. It’s used pretty well, honestly, and the skills of the two modder characters help to steer the story in a slightly different direction, avoiding it being mere chase scene after fight scene after chase scene.
I did find that I’d figured out Roystan’s secret well, well before any of the characters had cottoned on at all, which was a little frustrating. Not sure if the authors plan to write another book and make it a series, but I suspect I’d read it if they did. And I thought that the hints of romance between two of the characters were a little… well, it felt like a cut and paste job. I did understand why those two characters, but it all felt a bit cookie-cutter predictable, like it wasn’t quite about those two people in particular, but just about adding a bit of extra spice along the way.
(My kingdom for a story with strong bonds without romance being required — oh right, my wish has already been granted: I’m thinking of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.)
It’s fun enough, and I’ll probably read future books by these authors or in a series with this book, if I come across them… but I probably won’t be in a hurry.
I struggled with this book so much. I’d read such glowing reviews from a whole range of people, but I just couldn’t get into it. Probably part of that is my own fault for reading it on the treadmill (though that normally isn’t a problem) and in little bits, but a lot of it was the narrator’s obsession with sex. I don’t know how many orgasms he had during the book, some of them spontaneous, let alone the number of erections he talks about (seriously), but everything for him seemed to revolve around sex. That’s what women mostly seemed to be for, for the narrator: the first question through his mind always seemed to be a variant on “can I fuck her?”
I especially did not enjoy him in gryphon form fucking a butterfly-winged stranger on what amounts to the astral plane. Just… no thank you.
There is some fascinating stuff here with the setting (Nigeria), the isolation of the US, the xenoforms, Wormwood… but for me it was buried under the general unpleasantness of Kaaro. He’s not particularly ashamed of using his talents to become a thief, and he’s definitely not ashamed of his objectification of women and his complete shallowness. There was an awesome potential whole different book here about Oyin Da, or Aminat, or Femi, but instead they’re sidelined and putting up with Kaaro’s shit.
I don’t know. I don’t get it, guys. I appreciate some aspects of it — SF set somewhere other than the US (or to a lesser extent, the UK/Europe)! The concept of a network of fungal infection allowing mindreading in sensitive people! Awesome! But.
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…
I was so excited when I first heard about this book, and extra excited to come back from a weekend away to a pre-publication copy waiting for me, along with a bag, pin and bookmark! So you can imagine that I was super-eager to dive into it — and dive I did.
To get it out of the way straight away: yes, the point of view is second person. But there is a character telling the story, not to the reader but to a character within the story, for a reason. I thought the narration was brilliantly handled, especially at such length. In retrospect, perhaps some of it came across a little exposition-heavy, but I was so fascinated with the ideas that it worked perfectly for me. Yes, the point of view does limit certain things, particularly the understanding of what characters (other than the Strength and Patience of the Hill) are thinking and feeling — but that would be the case with an ordinary first-person narrative as well, if you think about it.
This didn’t turn out the way I expected, really — I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, really, but certain characters drove events with a strength of feeling and stubbornness I wasn’t expecting. I don’t want to say too much, because spoilers at this stage are really unfair, and I do think that you need the whole book’s build-up to give you the slightly stunned daaaamn but also of course that I had at the end of the book!
I think the world-building is beautifully handled without relying on medieval fantasy tropes. I especially enjoyed that one of the main characters (the “you” the story is addressed to, in fact) is trans, in a way that is essential and authentic for the character, without the plot leaning on it. It flavours the interactions and decisions of the character without being a huge issue. I know for some people the question would be “is it necessary” — and to that, the answer is no, but my answer is “perhaps not, but is it necessary for the character to be cisgender?” (Also no.)
Also, it took me far too long to pick up on the fact that this is essentially Hamlet, in many ways.
All in all, for me, the hype was justified. Leckie hasn’t written a typical fantasy novel as some people expected, but she didn’t write typical SF, either. I’m not sure this one will have the impact of the Imperial Radch books, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, and I’m so glad and grateful I got to read it early.