Tag: SF/F

Review – The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Posted March 10, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi VoThe Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 24th March 2020

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is described as an “Asian period drama”, which sounds about right to me. It opens with a cleric, Chih, whose job is to document events and stories, in order that they might be remembered and understood in the future. They travel with a hoopoe, Almost Brilliant, who is a neixin. The neixin work alongside clerics, learning stories and passing them on. Chih is eager to catalogue the stories of the place where the recently deceased Empress was originally exiled from the court, prior to her rise to power. They’re lucky enough to meet Rabbit, an old woman who served the Empress before and during her exile.

The story is parcelled out in little snatches: Rabbit curates the story, presenting what she wants Chih to understand and slowly bringing them to the understanding of it. I found myself not very surprised by the reveal by the time we got to the ending, but the slow spinning out of the story worked for me. It feels very fairytale-like, with most of the characters very opaque, but the little glimpses we see are enough to flesh it out — at least enough to keep me interested through the course of the novella.

Just to note, I’m unclear whether Chih is actually non-binary rep. As far as I remember the early part of the book, Rabbit assumes they are female until she realises they’re a cleric. So it sounds more to me like a cultural thing, rather than an identity thing per se, and it isn’t really explored. It’s just a fact. There is also a brief reference to a lesbian relationship, but it’s very brief and not really very important to the story. There’s queerness woven into the story, but I didn’t feel it was particularly intended to be the centrepiece.

It feels like there’s so much potential for more stories in this world — stories about the clerics themselves, as well as the stories they discover and record. I’d be interested to read more if there ever is more, but it does also work as a self-contained story.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Hearts of Oak

Posted March 3, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hearts of Oak by Eddie RobsonHearts of Oak, Eddie Robson

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 17th March 2020

Hearts of Oak is a bit difficult to describe without giving things away. Iona is the main character, an architect in a mysterious city enclosed in a dome. She’s never really questioned the way things are, even though she has odd dreams and memories of things that no longer exist in the city. Materials that don’t exist, like concrete and felt. And yet odd things are happening: a colleague has died and a man appears at his funeral and leaps into the furnace with him; a woman she’s never met before asks her to tutor her in how the building work is done, and she seems to have had the dreams too, to know words she shouldn’t know.

There were moments that should have been really emotive — for instance, discovering you’re surrounded by automatons which don’t even look that human, but somehow you never noticed. That should surely have been freaky and weird and you should have felt for the character, but it was just kind of flat. Or the ending: the reader should have felt sorry, glad, horrified… something. But it totally didn’t work for me.

It’s an interesting concept, but it left some questions in my mind and just… didn’t engage me much on an emotional level.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Sword of Destiny

Posted February 10, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Sword of Destiny by Andrzej SapkowskiSword of Destiny, Andrzej Sapkowski

Unlike The Last Wish, this collection of short stories doesn’t have a frame-story helping it hang together. It does slowly move toward a conclusion, in that the last two stories set things up for the novels (as I understand it), but some of the stories feel like they have less of a point. Some of them develop things between Yennefer and Geralt a little more, while others introduce Ciri (following up on a story in The Last Wish, and introducing a key character for the novels), but it just felt a little more lacking in direction. ‘Eternal Flame’, while funny, didn’t seem to advance things much, and ‘A Little Sacrifice’ does develop Geralt’s character a little, but feels kind of flat.

Overall, I’m a lot less impressed than I was with The Last Wish, because I feel like the frame story there made things hang together much better. There were still some clever references (‘The Little Mermaid’, for one), but overall it just didn’t do that much for me. I’m not sure if you’re meant to view it like The Last Wish, or just as a collection of stories in the world; if the latter, then I’m probably being a little unfair.

I’m still going to try the novels, since they’re going to be quite different just by nature of the form, but I might take a little break before I pick those up.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Moontangled

Posted February 5, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Moontangled by Stephanie BurgisMoontangled, Stephanie Burgis

Received to review via Netgalley

Moontangled is a novella in the Harwood Spellbook world featuring two of the minor characters: Miss Banks and Miss Fennell. If you don’t remember them, they’re the two who had a clandestine relationship while Juliana attempted to learn magic and Caroline attempted to become a high-flying politician. In this world, women do politics and men learn magic, and ideal partnerships for political women are with men who can do magic. Juliana is one of the first women to learn, and Caroline… well, she’s now in disgrace because of her mentor’s failings, and she thinks it’s time to end the relationship with Juliana before it brings her down.

I’m not a big fan of the kind of misunderstanding that drives this novella: just sit down and communicate, people. It’s not that difficult, I promise you. (As I frequently joke, I am the Relationship Advice Dalek: COMM-UN-I-CATE! COMM-UN-I-CATE!) There’s ample room for it in the letters they send each other, for goodness’ sake. It doesn’t help that it’s exactly the same kind of misunderstanding as in the previous books I’ve read in this world: “I’m going to do things to protect you, including end our relationship, regardless of what you might actually want and oh, wait, what do you mean you didn’t want what I thought you wanted?”

Still, even if their misunderstanding is completely daft, their care for each other is sweet. I found the plotline a little obvious, but it’s fun to watch it play out anyway. Highly original this isn’t, but a sweet escapist romance with a touch of magic? It delivers. I read it all in one gulp when I should probably have been doing something else; it doesn’t need to be more substantial than this.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Edge of the Abyss

Posted February 4, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Edge of the Abyss by Emily SkrutskieThe Edge of the Abyss, Emily Skrutskie

This is the follow-up to The Abyss Surrounds Us, and it picks up almost where it left off. Just three weeks later, the Minnow is hiding out to give Bao time to forget the ship and leave them. But suddenly, the Minnow spots a hell of a thing: a wild and untrained Reckoner, quickly dubbed a Hellbeast, which attacks them. Suddenly it’s obvious that the Minnow was far from the only ship to buy a Reckoner pup, and the other ships weren’t lucky enough to run across a Reckoner trainer to use to safely train it up. Now it seems like it’s in everyone’s best interests for Cas to work with the pirates and find the Hellbeasts.

In the midst of all this, Cas also has to deal with her relationship with Swift, damaged at the end of the last book by one of Santa Elena’s well-timed bombshells. Throughout the book, Santa Elena plays the two of them against each other, letting them build things up only to shatter them again. The relationship between Cas and Swift is well done, and I especially appreciate that the ambivalence isn’t magically ironed out in a super-happy ending. It’s far from instantaneous love, and though their bond formed quickly, it’s not at all clear that it will last.

I still have some doubts about Cas’ personality/motive flipflops. To some extent, teens are just like that; her moody behaviour does ring true for someone struggling out of adolescence and into adulthood. As an adult reading about her, I cringe at the obviousness of some of her realisations… but I do remember that’s what being a teen was like.

There are some great battle scenes, and the ending comes out about as well as you’d expect, without sugar-coating things; it’s pleasing to see Cas’ family dragged back into it, after she seemed to almost forget about them on board the Minnow. It’s also a pleasing ending for Cas, Swift and the other trainees: not perfect, but just bittersweet enough to seem right. I read this one in almost one big gulp as well, and found it very enjoyable. It’s definitely YA in tone and structure, and it works well for what it is. As an adult reader, I wanted a little more complexity at times, though I appreciated the relationships that don’t just come straight out of a cookie-cutter shape.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Abyss Surrounds Us

Posted February 3, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily SkrutskieThe Abyss Surrounds Us, Emily Skrutskie

I’ve had this on my TBR for a while, but it ended up as the pick for a book club read. So I plunged on in, and… accidentally read it in a day. It follows Cassandra Leung, who has been raised training kaiju Reckoners, big sea monsters that protect ships from pirates. She’s on her first solo mission at the start of the book when a pirate ship attacks, having already weakened their Reckoner; she’s recognised as a trainer by one of the pirates, who drags her on board their ship, the Minnow, to raise their very own illicitly-obtained Reckoner pup.

The pirate captain, Santa Elena, is skilled at pitting people against each other and using their feelings against them, and she quickly puts Cas’ wellbeing under the aegis of one of her protegés, Swift. If Cassandra fails, she dies… and so does Swift. The psychological set-up there is pretty good, and the way they have to work together and the enforced intimacy creates a bond between them which feels pretty real: it’s strong, but it’s confused and ambivalent as well.

The turnaround from Cassandra’s intentions at the beginning of the book to her actions at the end feels… a bit too fast. Sure, there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome there, but it feels like Cassandra’s family have very little hold on her compared to Swift. Part of that is the fact that she’s crossed the point of no return, of course, but that capitulation felt too soon as well. Part of it is the pace of the book — it speeds along, and if you’re not paying close attention you can miss that weeks (perhaps months?) are passing as Bao (the Reckoner pup) grows.

I’m not totally sure how I feel about the ending and set-up for the next book; Swift and Cas’ relationship will be interesting, but I’m not sure about Cas’ motivations. At the same time, I hope it starts where it left off, with Cas sure of herself, because more vacillating now she’s supposed to have decided will be annoying. I’ve picked up the second book, so I guess I’ll see where it goes!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Last Wish

Posted January 29, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Last Wish by Andrzej SapkowskiThe Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski

I’ve been meaning to pick up the Witcher books for a while, and my wife watching the series was a spur to actually pick the first one up. I didn’t watch it myself, but I’ve heard and seen enough about it that I knew I’d be interested. So in I plunged! And plunged and plunged, given I read this all in one day, with breaks to work and go for a walk. It’s very easy to read: I can’t judge the accuracy of the translation, but it’s good quality in that it barely feels like a translation. (Though I question the spelling of dandelion — “Dandilion”, really?)

The structure of the book is interesting: mostly disconnected episodes that illustrate the world and things about Geralt, with interludes in between them that bring us slowly toward understanding the current state of affairs. It doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat bow: there are questions remaining about all kinds of things, which no doubt the other books will help to resolve. It’s definitely not entirely satisfying on its own, but it sets the stage quite well.

I’m not always sure what to make of the gender politics in the book. There are several female characters who are largely treated as equals with men, but that is usually because they hold power of one sort or another. It’s less clear what non-royal and non-magical women are like; we really don’t see many of them. And when we actually see Yennefer, there’s the whole spiel about sorceresses being primarily ugly girls who made themselves beautiful through magic, and how they all have the resentment of ugly girls (because all ugly girls are resentful) even though now they’re pretty. It’s a bit… reductive, and I didn’t enjoy that part.

There’s also something opaque about the writing: it’s hard to understand why things are happening as they are, because you have to guess just as if you were there. We’re used to books giving us a bit more insight, weighting every action with significance; here, the really significant stuff is super-telegraphed in comparison to the relatively sparse narration.

Still, I’m quite intrigued by the world, and entertained by the fairytale stories that are adapted into it (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast) and given their own flavour. It was really more-ish while I was reading it, even though I have more doubts now I’m no longer reading it. I’m not sure whether I want to read the whole series, but I definitely want to try the next book.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Bloodlust & Bonnets

Posted January 26, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovernBloodlust & Bonnets, Emily McGovern

I was sold on this pretty much right away by two things:

  1. “I hope you like honey, because I have a bee in my bonnet.”
  2. “It is I, Lord Byron. You know, from books.” “However did you find me?” “My eagle, Napoleon. He’s psychic.”

It’s a madcap ride, featuring Lucy (a girl who is rather unsure of her place in life and what her value might be), Lord Byron (from books), and Sham (“are you a boy or a girl?” “yes”). They’re not always in harmony (in fact, mostly they aren’t), but they’re hunting down vampires, each with their own motive. There are some great bits, including Lord Byron’s room full of rabbits, Sham’s bucking of gender norms (“is that Ms Sham or Mr Sham?” “no”) and fun dialogue.

However… it’s a bit too madcap, and that started to grate on me. It’s a bit “this is funny and quirky because I’m so ~*~random~*~!” I was in for a few chapters, and then my attention started to drift just because it was so scatterbrained. It sort of wraps itself up, but I found it kind of unsatisfying because it didn’t really seem to mean much. There was a bit of a power-of-friendship theme in the formation of the group, but otherwise… shrug. It sort of fizzled to a stop.

It was fun, but I’m glad it was from the library and can go back there now. If I ever gave half-stars, I might be inclined to now, to give it a 2.5.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Come Tumbling Down

Posted January 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down, Seanan McGuire

Received to review via Netgalley

Come Tumbling Down is the latest installment in the Wayward Children series, and really does not make sense as a starting point. We’re thrown into it as a girl nobody knows comes through Jack and Jill’s door, carrying the unconscious body of… Jill? And naturally there’s a whole new quest, despite all the rules.

I’ll admit to racing through this and definitely not lingering on anything. Jack is too close to home, with her serious OCD; I remember exactly what it’s like to worry that every inch of the skin of the body you’re in could be making you die any minute now. I also don’t enjoy the bits where she’s actually losing her entire mind as a result of the intensity of her OCD. I think I’m too close to it to fairly judge whether Jack’s behaviour seems right, but it didn’t feel right to me, at least not towards the end.

(Yes, I’m aware that Seanan McGuire is #ownvoices when it comes to OCD.)

I also wondered if it was intentional that everything the characters do actually enables Jack’s OCD, because I get the feeling it is intended to be read as supportive. And maybe it is, for someone with a very different view of OCD than I have, I’ll acknowledge that: I know that coming back from those compulsive behaviours is really hard, and some people don’t want to (and/or do not believe it is possible). But knowing how I came back from it, I can’t stand the way everyone enables it in this book, because I know that when I was in that position, people kindly caving to my compulsions made them worse.

For me, it really isn’t the epitome of love to create a map of someone’s freckles to show them that none of them are cancerous and help them monitor it obsessively — I can see that it’s actively making that person sicker. It’s not a matter of “wear gloves and you’ll be fine”; the gloves do not help, there’ll just be another step after the gloves (refusing to touch anything at all, perhaps). I remember my loved ones being torn between reassuring me and knowing they shouldn’t; it’s not an easy thing to do. But in my experience, OCD isn’t some kind of lifelong thing you just have to live with. There is treatment, you can stop being afraid. It’s rough, but it can be done, and the longer you delay doing it and engage in the reassurance behaviour, the harder it is. So it was pretty fraught reading all these things the characters do for Jack which seem kind and (for a real person) would probably just push her further into paranoia. Maybe Seanan McGuire experiences it a different way, but from my own perspective and a clinical understanding of OCD, I just cannot enjoy this the way I suspect it is meant to be enjoyed.

Also, I just really want to see Kade get a story for himself. Not somebody else’s quest, not somebody else’s happy ending. He’s enabled almost every other character’s story so far, without being given the chance to grow and find his own place for himself.

Reading this, I did enjoy it a lot, but the more I think about it, the less I do. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on with the balance of Jack’s world and meta-fictional stuff about stories, but… for me, this one was overshadowed by Jack’s OCD. And yeah, that’s probably a very personal thing, but that’s allowed.

Edit: Some sections of this review have been changed to make it clearer that I understand that Seanan McGuire is #ownvoices and has a different outlook on it than me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Jackdaw

Posted January 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Jackdaw by K.J. CharlesJackdaw, K.J. Charles

Jackdaw is part of the Charm of Magpies series, but follows a different pair of characters. It’s probably best for those who’ve read Flight of Magpies in terms of the plot, but you might actually be able to enjoy the at least one of the characters more on their own terms if you don’t know them already, because that character is Jonah Pastern, he who nearly brought Stephen and Lucien to disaster in the last book. I trust Charles to bring me to the point of enjoying even a total scoundrel’s love story, honestly, but it took a little more time because I already knew Jonah deeply endangered a character I love, and Ben Spenser — his lover — turns out to be rather dour and angry at first.

It’s worth noting that among the sex scenes in this book, there’s one with strong non-consensual themes. Ben is angry and wants to punish Jonah, and knows what he’s doing is wrong, and though he stops short of actually doing it and then Jonah wants to continue, it’s still pretty discomforting. It obviously coloured how I saw Ben: the kind of man who, in anger, seriously considers using rape to punish his lover. It is clear that Jonah has conclusively ruined Ben’s life at that point: you very quickly realise Ben lost his job, was imprisoned, etc, etc, but that isn’t an excuse.

This is also the only story in this series that really engages with the homophobia of the time. It’s not just hinted here that there could be trouble: Ben can’t do magic, can’t soften his way out of a terrible situation, so he ends up imprisoned, sentenced to hard labour, beaten, rejected by his parents, and at one point you can read him as being suicidal. He’s definitely without hope, only a grim anger, blaming Jonah for everything.

That’s not the sort of book you expect after the casual way Crane deals with even blackmail about his homosexuality; Stephen and Lucien duck almost all consequences through being able to protect themselves. It’s also not what you’d expect from Jonah’s flamboyant devil-may-care attitude in the last book. Ben doesn’t have that protection, and in the first half of the book in particular, the damage, anger and shame are all on display. It’s very grim, given the previous book, and more realistic; that’s something to bear in mind.

Aside from that, the story is essentially a redemption arc for Jonah, and somewhat for Ben as well. It has the great dialogue I expect in a novel by K.J. Charles, and in the last half or so of the book, you can start rooting for the characters again. It stands or falls, really, on the extent to which you can forgive Jonah (and Ben, if that near-rape scene bothered you as much as it did me) for what he’s done. I got there in the end — there are some delightful bits when the two of them finally feel free and comfortable — but this definitely is not a favourite in this series or among Charles’ books.

For those who are fans of the series, it does include cameos by Stephen and later Lucien, Merrick and Saint. It wraps up into a lovely conclusion, and there are some great bits of dialogue between Lucien and Stephen, as seen from outside.

Rating: 3/5

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