Tag: SF/F

Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 4

Posted February 26, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 4

The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System, vol 4

by Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 436
Series: The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System #4
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

What happens after an epic tale ends?

This collection of eleven short stories picks up days after Scum Villain’s finale and follows the cast’s relationships and adventures through their pasts and futures. The first trial? A glimpse into another world, where Luo Binghe was never saved by his beloved teacher — unless he can claim this world’s Shen Qingqiu for himself. Other tales recount the riotous history of Shang Qinghua and Mobei-Jun, the bittersweet romance of Luo Binghe’s parents, and the untold tragedy of the original scum villain himself.

The fourth volume of The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System is actually a collection of extras and shorts, some of which are focused on Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu, and some of which don’t even mention them — expanding instead on Shang Qinghua, Mobei-jun, Shen Jiu, etc.

Some of the stories were more of interest to me than others (Shen Jiu is pretty unredeemable to me, sorry, and I don’t quite get the appeal of Mobei-jun and his relationship with Shang Qinghua), but it was interesting to get a better look at the world and particularly at Binghe’s experiences during the five years that Shen Qingqiu appeared to be dead.

It’s lovely as well to see in some of these stories a sense of ease growing between Binghe and Shen Qingqiu. At times, Shen Qingqiu is still a little too caught up in his own internalised homophobia, but we see him begin to forget where he came from and live fully alongside Binghe, and accept their relationship.

It’s funny sometimes to look at the relationship between the two of them, though. Just reading the words on the page, Shen Qingqiu spends a lot of time protesting — but it seems pretty clear that it’s a case of the maiden protesting too much, putting everything together. Still, I’d have loved another snippet a bit later on, showing him being a bit more comfortable still with the physical side of his relationship with Binghe. And for the love of god, someone give the two of them some sex ed, geez.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The October Faction, vol 1

Posted February 25, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The October Faction, vol 1

The October Faction

by Steve Niles, Damien Worm

Genres: Fantasy, Graphic Novels
Pages: 152
Series: The October Faction #1
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

The October Faction details the adventures of retired monster-hunter Frederick Allan and his family... which include a thrill-killer, a witch, and a warlock. Because sometimes crazy is the glue that binds a family together.

Volume 1 of Steve Niles’ The October Faction was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art style, though it felt like it was all going for a very Addams family aesthetic and was very successful at that. The setup is fairly straightfoward: ghosts and monsters exist, the main guy used to hunt them, now he’s tried to settle down… but his family want to hunt, and monsters are still interested in them.

There was enough here to keep my interest, and I’ll probably read the next volume, but at the same time… I wasn’t entirely impressed either? It felt very introductory, so maybe reading more will help with that — though there was one development at the end that felt naively and over-swiftly done, so my interest also somewhat depends on whether that gets handled in an interesting way, or whether it’s just to be taken at face-value.

So all in all… it was enough to make me a little curious, but I’m not sold on it yet, I guess?

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Permafrost

Posted February 23, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Permafrost

Permafrost

by Alastair Reynolds

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 182
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Fix the past. Save the present. Stop the future.

2080: at a remote site on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a group of scientists, engineers and physicians gather to gamble humanity’s future on one last-ditch experiment. Their goal: to make a tiny alteration to the past, averting a global catastrophe while at the same time leaving recorded history intact. To make the experiment work, they just need one last recruit: an ageing schoolteacher whose late mother was the foremost expert on the mathematics of paradox.

2028: a young woman goes into surgery for routine brain surgery. In the days following her operation, she begins to hear another voice in her head... an unwanted presence which seems to have a will, and a purpose, all of its own – one that will disrupt her life entirely. The only choice left to her is a simple one.

Does she resist... or become a collaborator?

Alastair Reynolds’ Permafrost took a while to get going for me: the structure does make sense, in retrospect, but at the same time it felt like quite the barrier to understanding what exactly was happening. A conventional start would’ve been less memorable, of course, but this one definitely doesn’t hold your hand.

That’s pretty much a theme with this one: there’s a complicated plot which involves time travel of a kind, and that can make it difficult to follow. There were one or two points where I was thinking… you’re a time traveller, you know about paradoxes, why are you doing this? Also another where I wondered, hang on, isn’t everything going to be undone in just a moment by you telling him to — ?

I’m not 100% certain, still, whether that actually all made sense to me in the end. It felt like it did, but looking back at it I want to pick gaps into it (as often happens with anything time travel related). It’s an entertaining idea, all the same, a striking hard SF novella, and I enjoyed it while I was reading it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Heartstopper: Become Human

Posted February 20, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Heartstopper: Become Human

Heartstopper: Become Human

by Alice Oseman

Genres: Graphic Novels, Romance, Science Fiction
Pages: 126
Series: Heartstopper #0
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Alice Oseman reimagines the scenario of Detroit: Become Human with Nick and Charlie, where Charlie is a grumpy detective and Nick is his android police partner.

Heartstopper: Become Human is an alternative universe comic based on the characters of Heartstopper, by Alice Oseman herself. It’s based on the video game Detroit: Become Human, but you don’t need to know the game in order to understand the story — it’s pretty self-evident, though I’d bet there are some lovely touches if you know the game as well. It’s available for free on Alice Oseman’s Tapas page.

It’s Nick and Charlie, but not as we know them. They’re adults, they’re in a much more serious situation, and at first it takes a long time for Charlie to warm up to Nick (who is an android, and thus isn’t supposed to have feelings, warm or otherwise). As ever, their connection is something special, and I really enjoy Oseman’s art style: it’s distinctive but always clear, with unmistakable character in each panel.

I read this in a flash, and had a lot of fun. Some of the same Heartstopper feels, in a tiny AU package.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Where the Drowned Girls Go

Posted February 19, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Where the Drowned Girls Go

Where the Drowned Girls Go

by Seanan McGuire

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 208
Series: Wayward Children #7
Synopsis:

"Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you’ve already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company."

There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again.

It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children.

And it isn't as safe.

When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her "Home for Wayward Children," she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn’t save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.

She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Seanan McGuire’s Where the Drowned Girls Go as much as as I did: I haven’t been totally all-in on this series for a few books now, or so it feels, and Cora goes to some pretty dark places in this book. It’s probably important to know going in that there are potential triggers for those with eating disorders, and probably any kind of abuse, especially anything relating to a boarding school.

But all the same, Cora rises above it. She finds the strength to own her experiences, and to finally Be Sure, and that’s a journey I enjoyed. Eleanor West’s school is warm and quirky and endlessly accommodating, but here Cora (and the supporting cast, including Sumi) have a bit more adversity to stand up to, and it’s a stronger book for it. And we get to see Regan, from Across the Green Grass Fields, tying her into the ongoing story of the school and the loose collection of kids that we know from it.

I’ll admit there was one point in the story I didn’t 100% follow, how Cora suddenly realised that the headmaster wasn’t the real one, and how they’d all get out of there. I don’t know if I missed something, or whether it just was meant to be a bolt of intuition… But that didn’t take away the fun of watching Cora come into herself and emerge strong.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 3

Posted February 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 3

The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System, vol 3

by Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 408
Series: The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System #3
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

To save his sect from destruction, Shen Qingqiu has at last submitted to Luo Binghe—though he wishes people would stop saying it like that! Unfortunately, they're not wrong.

Luo Binghe has finally made his desire for his old master clear. For all that Shen Qingqiu longs to return to their peaceful days together on Qing Jing Peak, he knows it's impossible now that Luo Binghe has darkened into a true demon lord. But as Shen Qingqiu begins to uncover more of Proud Immortal Demon Way's hidden plot, including his host body's own backstory, he realizes he must learn to see Luo Binghe for who he truly is if either of them is to survive.

Oof, what to say about volume three of MXTX’s The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System? I suppose one thing to address up front, which I didn’t really discuss in my initial reviews, is that this isn’t a straightforward romance novel/series in the way I think some Western readers expect when they see others’ enthusiasm. If you read it because you’re a fan of Western romances, there’s a lot in this series that just won’t make sense, because it’s part of a bigger tradition, and that tradition is required for understanding some of what’s going on. The story does explain a lot of it along the way, as do the extras in the back of the book, but it’s not a straightforward ride… and another thing is that despite this being the last part of the series proper (the fourth volume has extras), the happy ending is fairly understated.

Art from The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System, vol 3. A curly-haired young man with an uncertain expression grasps the hand of a smiling, elegant older man who is looking at him with acceptance and love.In addition, the relationship between Shen Qingqui and Luo Binghe is extremely problematic: SQQ is older and knew LBH as a child, and is also his teacher/master. SQQ could do a lot of harm to LBH due to that childhood crush turned obsessive love (and does, albeit against his will and by refusing to have a relationship with LBH). Consent is also a massive problem, in both directions (SQQ has sex with LBH while LBH is out of his mind, to save him; the sex is painful and awful for SQQ, who sees it as the only way to save LBH). So if anyone got this far to volume three thinking it was going to change, or has been curious because of my reviews and is now getting tempted to dip a toe in, be very very aware that this isn’t a romance novel and there are a lot of tropes and cultural things that would never be OK in Western romance. The whole dynamic is a mess.

All the same, there’s also a lot to enjoy here, when you take it in its context. There’s a fair bit of action and swordplay, which is all a lot of fun. The art pages are beautiful, and SQQ’s stupid inner narrative makes me giggle a lot (though, trigger warning for his internalised homophobia). SQQ’s slow acceptance of LBH’s love, and his slow steps toward trusting him and loving him in return, produce some genuinely lovely moments. I absolutely love the last piece of art (shown on the right):

“This time, no matter where you wish to go, this master will accompany you.”

I really want to read the last volume now, from what I’ve heard about it.

[And indeed, I’ve read it since I wrote this review, and loved it… but that’s a story for another day.]

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Iron Children

Posted February 11, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Iron Children

The Iron Children

by Rebecca Fraimow

Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 159
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Asher has been training her entire life to become a Sor-Commander. One day she’ll give her soul to the gilded, mechanical body and fully ascend. She’ll be a master of the Celesti faith, and the commander to a whole battalion of Dedicates. These soldiers, human bodies encased in exoskeletons, with extra arms, and telepathic subordination to the Sor-Commanders, are the only thing that’s kept the much larger Levastani army of conquest at bay for decades.

But while on a training journey, Asher and her party are attacked, and her commander is incapacitated, leaving her alone to lead the unit across a bitterly cold, unstable mountain.

It should be fine. She has the terrain memorised, and Sergeant Barghest is exceptional at their job. But one of the Dedicates is not what they seem: a spy for the enemy, with their own reasons to hate their mechanical body and the people who put them in it.

To get off the mountain alive, Asher and her unit will need to decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice—and what for.

Rebecca Fraimow’s The Iron Children packs a lot into quite a small space. The basics are easy: there are two nations at war, and one of the tools used by one side against the other is the ability to turn people (Dedicates) into mechs, who are deployed under a fully mechanical commander who can take control of their bodies when needed (or wanted).

We get just a glimpse of how things are supposed to work, before things go south and Asher — a young training officer, still human for now — has to take charge of the situation. It’s all pretty claustrophobic as we follow the unit through an avalanche and into a cave system, and we know that one member of the group is a traitor. It’s not immediately obvious who, because their sections are written in first person. The switching between first and third is a little odd sometimes, but it makes sense for telling this particular story.

There’s a heck of a lot of potential to the world, but mostly the story stays focused on this particular group and the frictions between them, which helps it feel very immediate and urgent. Like I said, claustrophobic, as well.

The ending feels slightly unsatisfactory; it’s not clear to me exactly what Asher intends to do, or how she and Barghest are going to conceal the fallout of what happened — if they are. Won’t people work it out quickly? I don’t always need my stories wrapped up in a tidy bow, but I could’ve used a little more here at the end. Otherwise, though, I found this one pretty compelling.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Tusks of Extinction

Posted February 7, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – The Tusks of Extinction

The Tusks of Extinction

by Ray Nayler

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 101
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

When you bring back a long-extinct species, there’s more to success than the DNA.

Moscow has resurrected the mammoth, but someone must teach them how to be mammoths, or they are doomed to die out, again.

The late Dr. Damira Khismatullina, the world’s foremost expert in elephant behavior, is called in to help. While she was murdered a year ago, her digitized consciousness is uploaded into the brain of a mammoth.

Can she help the magnificent creatures fend off poachers long enough for their species to take hold?

And will she ever discover the real reason they were brought back?

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I’ve been curious about Ray Nayler’s work for a bit, since my wife enjoyed The Mountain in the Sea, so I was quite interested in giving The Tusks of Extinction a shot. The blurb left me a bit unsure, though, wondering if it’d feel maybe a bit goofy and weird, with a human in a mammoth body.

Well, the execution worked out well, tying in Damira’s memories and past with how she’s experiencing the world now as a mammoth, with different senses and different priorities. It took a few pages for me to orient myself to what exactly was going on, but that’s very much intentional, because Damira’s a little lost in the memories too.

I was going to talk about one of the threads being rather weak, but actually looking back on it, I was wrong to think so. There are basically three threads: a rich hunter (from the point of view of his husband), Damira, and the son of a poacher. They do all three meet and make sense of each other, giving each other meaning and casting the point of the story into relief — and Vladimir’s point of view in particular really added emotional shading to the story, beyond just the obvious outrage of Damira.

Definitely eager to try more by Nayler now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Fireborne Blade

Posted February 4, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – The Fireborne Blade

The Fireborne Blade

by Charlotte Bond

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 192
Series: The Fireborne Blade #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Kill the dragon. Find the blade. Reclaim your honor. It’s that, or end up like countless knights before her, as a puddle of gore and molten armor.

Maddileh is a knight. There aren’t many women in her line of work, and it often feels like the sneering and contempt from her peers is harder to stomach than the actual dragon slaying. But she’s a knight, and made of sterner stuff.

A minor infraction forces her to redeem her honor in the most dramatic way possible, she must retrieve the fabled Fireborne Blade from its keeper, legendary dragon the White Lady, or die trying. If history tells us anything, it's that “die trying” is where to wager your coin.

Maddileh’s tale contains a rich history of dragons, ill-fated knights, scheming squires, and sapphic love, with deceptions and double-crosses that will keep you guessing right up to its dramatic conclusion. Ultimately, The Fireborne Blade is about the roles we refuse to accept, and of the place we make for ourselves in the world.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Charlotte Bond’s The Fireborne Blade was obviously meant for me the second I saw that cover — or perhaps even more meant for my sister, let’s be honest. It has an interesting structure of jumping back and forth in time, and it becomes obvious why at the end (it’s not just the author not knowing where to start the story!).

It seems like a straightforward quest story, with an object at the end, and what we get is something a bit more tricksy. I was also expecting to feel much less ambivalent about how the book ends, but the book dodges being too obvious and straightforward about that, and gives us something unsettling and morally ambiguous. At least, I found it so — vengeance probably shouldn’t seem the clean and simple thing it is in some novels, so this isn’t a criticism at all!

I have so many questions about the world, and loved the little glimpses of other knights, other dragons, and all the customs around them. It’s a story that’s pretty complete in itself, but left me curious about what more would look like.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 2

Posted February 2, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 2

The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System, vol 2

by Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 351
Series: The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System #2
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

[CHARACTER DEPTH LEVEL +10]

Three years have passed since Shen Qingqiu betrayed Luo Binghe, and now there are only two years left before his “deceased” disciple rises from the dead to claim his bloody glory as the protagonist. At least, that’s how the story is supposed to go.

In the midst of investigating a mysterious plague, Shen Qingqiu discovers that his actions have irreparably altered the plot—Luo Binghe has returned all too soon and Shen Qingqiu’s brilliant escape plan isn’t even ready yet! Worse, Shen Qingqiu can no longer predict his young disciple’s actions.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is Luo Binghe’s intense fixation on Shen Qingqiu himself, but even this obsession may be more than it seems. Not that Shen Qingqiu has the time to puzzle through all the inconsistencies. There are various parties at play in the changing plot, and if he doesn’t act fast, he may face a fate far worse than death.

The second volume of MXTX’s The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System is as gorgeous an object as the first, with black and white illustrations, helpful back matter, etc. The tone and style set in the first book continue, unsurprisingly, with SQQ being completely clueless — though LBH is a bit more opaque. The conflict does centre on a miscommunication (or, let’s be honest, a complete failure to communicate), but one that’s kind of unavoidable given the givens.

Still, if only people would just talk instead of making assumptions…

All in all, it’s a lot of fun, totally over the top, and I felt like I had to bump up my rating from the previous book. It’s still not 100% my thing in every possible way, but I had enough fun that that doesn’t matter. I’m curious how it’s going to wrap up in the next volume.

Rating: 4/5

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