Tag: SF/F


Review – The Seventh Miss Hatfield

Posted 26 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

The Seventh Miss Hatfield, Anna Caltabiano

I didn’t know much about this book or author before I started the book — I’d seen the books around a bunch and ended up just getting it from the library on a whim. I’m really not impressed, and I’m actually giving up without finishing the book, so you should take that for its worth in considering the book itself!

The book opens with a mysterious little scene in which a young veiled woman is thwarted at an auction in obtaining a painting she wants. The first chapter then appears totally unconnected in time (and possibly in place as well), as a young girl called Cynthia plays on the front porch of her parents’ house and goes over to deliver a parcel to their mysterious new neighbour, a Miss Hatfield. Miss Hatfield invites her in for lemonade and cookies, and trying to be polite, Cynthia goes in. Very quickly, she’s aged up to being an adult (apparently gaining more vocabulary as she does so — anyone bothered explaining to Caltabiano that language is acquired by exposure, not simply age?) and given something that makes her immortal. She’s told that she’s the seventh Miss Hatfield, an immortal and unhappy group of women blessed with immortality, and cursed to leave behind their lives. Almost immediately after that, despite her resentment, Cynthia is sent out to retrieve — aha! — the painting mentioned in the prologue.

Although things happen quickly, it doesn’t feel fast-paced. Instead, it feels like the kind of story a child tells: this happened and then another thing and another thing and then this and then another thing and and and and… The explanations barely hang together, and what could be fascinating (for example, the clock) is skimmed over. Cynthia is shockingly accepting of her fate, and does things whether they make sense or not. For example, she’s mistaken for being someone’s granddaughter and just… plays along, feeling trapped because… I don’t understand why.

The story has very little internal logic and doesn’t hang together well, and then, worse, Cynthia ends up in a romance. This is an 11-year-old girl who has just been aged up using vague magic means, adding barely hours to her sum total experience of the world (for all that Caltabiano seems to think that will automatically improve her vocabulary and make her an adult). Romance is not at all appropriate, geez.

So here’s where I get off. This book and the sequels are being summarily handed back to the library without me bothering to read a single word more.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Rebel of the Sands

Posted 19 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonRebel of the Sands, Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands is set in a world that’s part fantasy Wild West, part Arabian desert, with the sharpshooting smart-talking djinn-folk to prove it. It’s a reread for me, so I can go on to read the other two books: it’s not a book I’d class as one of my top reads ever, but I found it solidly entertaining, and I’m interested to see how the trilogy builds on this start. It’s decidedly young adult in tone and level, which I know is a turn off for a lot of people, but I take my fun where I can find it, and Rebel of the Sands was definitely fun.

It opens in the town of Dustwalk — or rather, at a shooting contest in the nearby town of Deadshot. Amani is dressed as a boy, and she plans to win a shooting contest, earn some money, and finally get away from her life in Dustwalk, a life that has been shadowed by the fact that her father was clearly not from Dustwalk and the execution of her mother for killing her adoptive local father. She has at least one friend in Dustwalk, a fact which I assume is going to become relevant later on, probably in a way Amani will regret. Tamid has to use a crutch to get by, and has a tendency to be overly serious, but he accepts her (more or less) for who she is, and even bravely offers to marry her to help her get out of a repugnant marriage. In this book, he’s kind of wasted, because Amani is only too quick to leave him behind when trouble starts.

She travels across the desert with Jin, an enigmatic boy who nonetheless (and unsurprisingly) has ties to the rebellion going on at the time. Slowly, he persuades her towards where she’ll meet others in the cause, where she could be an asset for a particular reason that isn’t her sharpshooting…

In many ways, it’s a typical story, and more so because of the romantic tension between Amani and Jin. The desert-setting helps to make it feel a little fresher, though the caravan travel section isn’t exactly unique, for all that.

In the end, it’s not a standout story that I’ll never forget. It’s entertaining, though, and I don’t regret the reread to bring myself back up to speed.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Annihilation

Posted 18 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, and a reread for me. It’s a really, really weird trilogy, which always reminds me of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside PicnicI seem to have forgotten a lot of the finer detail of the trilogy, and the extent to which we ever receive explanations, but this particular book stays really clear in my mind. It’s something about the tone, the matter of fact calm of the biologist, the illusion of objectivity that her narrative gives.

Annihilation records the twelfth expedition into Area X. The team is made up of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor — along with a linguist who actually backs out of the expedition before they cross the border. And Area X is… a pristine wilderness filled with uncannyness. You can’t take in anything high tech, people don’t report back — or if they do, they come back changed, riddled with cancer in the case of the eleventh expedition, oddly amnesiac and lacking in affect. The objective of the missions is to work out what’s happening, what Area X is, how it came about, and try and get some understanding of a phenomenon that seems to have no rhyme or reason.

As usual, everything goes awry. The psychologist turns out to be hypnotising the group; the anthropologist quickly dies; they see things which make no sense — words written in fungi, colonised with living creatures; villages decaying faster than they ought to; a lighthouse which has clearly been the site of intense struggle, even a battle… and one by one, the group come apart. The biologist no less than the others, though as the narrator she gives a kind of illusion of calm objectivity, of careful and unbiased observation. As the story unfolds, you learn how much she holds back from the reader as well, and that shapes the story profoundly…

It’s well written in the sense of handling an unreliable narrator well, and also in the sense of creating a truly weird, uncanny landscape which sounds beautiful, undisturbed, and yet…

I really enjoy these books, though they leave me with a sense of creeping unease. I’m looking forward to rereading the second and third as well. If you find this one frustrating, well, the others don’t take quite the same format — if you’re intrigued by the world, you might want to give the second one a try too. On the other hand, Vandermeer’s class of weird might just not be your thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Lost Plot

Posted 12 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot, Genevieve Cogman

It’s taken me so long to read this, and not for lack of wanting to. I even had it started for far too long and just stalled on it. Admittedly, that’s because it’s very short on one of the main characters of the previous books: the Great Detective archetype, Vale, hardly appears at all apart from at the beginning and end, and doesn’t play any part in the major action of the book. Still, it’s a great romp, as ever, this time taking Irene and Kai to a world with little magic, where they have to navigate through Prohibition era Boston and New York. The dragons also feature heavily, and the issue of Kai’s family finally really comes to a head. The next book is definitely going to have to be different; that might be a good thing, in terms of changing up the plotline and keeping things fresh.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In The Lost Plot, Irene discovers that another Librarian is violating the Library’s neutrality by working directly for a dragon, in a matter of dragon politics. That interference can’t be tolerated by any of the parties, so Irene is sent by Library security to figure out what’s going on and fix the situation — and as usual, all the blame will fall on her if she fails. Chasing the errant Librarian, Kai and Irene end up in a Prohibition-era USA, swapping smart talk with mobsters and dodging the cops as best as they can. Since dragons are involved, Kai has to be especially careful: at some point, he’s going to have to make a choice about where his loyalties lie.

As I said, it’s a romp in very much the same vein as usual for these books. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Kai and Irene’s relationship in this book: I feel like there’s been a bit too much will-they-won’t-they with both Irene and Kai and Irene and Vale, and honestly I was at a loss for how it was going to turn out. Now it has turned out, at least for now… I’m a bit disappointed. I did always feel that both potential relationships were a bit of a distraction: I just wanted the three of them, all together, all working on their problems, and all trusting each other. An intense relationship, perhaps, and one that didn’t have to become romantic — it was just pushed that way, almost as if the author can’t see any other way for it to turn out.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining read, though I think my favourite of the series is The Masked City. I’m interested to see how the events of this book will change the pattern for the next book. For one thing, Irene’s going to need a new student…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Book of Hidden Things

Posted 11 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco DimitriThe Book of Hidden Things, Francesco Dimitri

I wasn’t sure about this book from the blurb, but some trusted reviewers (e.g. Mogsy of Bibliosanctum) thought extremely highly of it, and I kept seeing it on the shelves, so when I finally spotted it at the library I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say, I’m not sold on it, but I also feel like I need to talk through my thoughts before I really decide.

So, what’s it about? It starts with the Pact: a group of four friends, who knew each other from childhood and grew up in the same Italian town, have agreed that every year they will meet again in the same place, back in their hometown, to eat pizza and talk and stay in contact, no matter what. They can’t call each other to set it up, they don’t necessarily stay in contact in the meantime, but every year, they meet there. The first point of view character is Fabio, a struggling photographer who hates his hometown, going back only to see the others. He missed the previous year out of shame for his less-than-spectacular career, and he’s not entirely sure what’s going to happen.

Two of his friends, Mauro and Tony, show up just as agreed. Mauro’s a lawyer, married with kids, and Tony has since they grew up come out, while maintaining ties to his home town and especially his sister. Art… has not turned up. Worried that this might be linked to their friend’s mysterious disappearance as a child, which had the three of them suspected of murdering him and which he never could satisfactorily explain, the three start to dig into what happened to their friend, talking to the local crime group, the police, anyone who might have information.

The book walks a line the whole time between the supernatural elements and the mental illness explanation, and it’s up to the reader really which you decide it was. The four characters are all fairly unlikeable in their own ways: one can sympathise with Fabio half the time, and then he — well, that’s probably too much of a spoiler. Mauro and Tony aren’t wonderful either, although Fabio is the most annoying. They’re all such boys, too, trying so hard to be macho. It’s realistic, but I tend to prefer likeable characters if I haven’t latched onto the plot/world, and I didn’t really latch on here.

And Art… is a whole ‘nother thing. In the words of Marvel’s Bruce Banner, speaking of Loki: “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you can smell crazy on him.”

In the end, I just didn’t love it, I think. There are some amazing bits evoking the area they’re in, the food, the sense of community. And there are great bits of interaction and banter. But in the end, the whole business of walking the line between fantasy and madness-based mystery isn’t an original one, and I’m not that interested in reading about people being depicted as crazy in stereotyped ways that explain why they go and kill. (Most violence related to mental illness is against the mentally ill person, not committed by them.) Meh.

I’m torn between giving it two stars because I really didn’t feel it, and being coaxed up to three because people did love it and I can see why… but in the end, I rate based on my enjoyment.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Stardust

Posted 7 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Stardust by Neil GaimanStardust, Neil Gaiman

My wife was rewatching Stardust, so the urge was there and I… gave in. I read it in the space of a couple of hours, drugged to the gills on antitussive meds (aka codeine-based painkillers, so probably my familiarity with the book is a good thing; I don’t think I was up to the heights of intellectualism at that point).

It’s tempting to imagine that everyone knows all about Neil Gaiman by this point… all the same, what is Stardust? It’s a light-ish novel which is somewhat based on fairytales: Tristan is sort of a changeling child (not switched for a human child, but he’s half-fairy in a human world), and he goes through a fairly typical quest narrative, learns to take help from the people he meets, etc. At the same time, there’s wicked witches, people go off seeking their true loves, and there’s a kingdom with seven sons who have to fight out the succession. It’s a bundle of fairytale/fantasy tropes, dealt with in a self-aware and sometimes rather wry manner (Tristan is decidedly Wrong, for example, about the identity of his true love).

It’s a bit more morally complex than the movie, and perhaps has less of an emotional payoff because of that. I don’t honestly have a preference: I think the book is clever, but the movie is the kind of story that cheers me up. It has some interesting background stuff that I’d love to know more about (the Castle thing? What’s going on there!), but for all that I said it’s more morally complex than the movie, it stays pretty focused on Tristan’s quest and his path to a fairytale ending. It’s not really a complex story: it even skips over a ton of the potential development for Yvaine and Tristan’s relationship in a couple of pages.

It’s clever and amusing, but maybe not quite the epitome of wonderfulness I thought it was a few years ago. The love story isn’t all that epic because it kind of just happens, sort of inevitably; there are surprising depths to the characters at some points (Victoria in the book is more complex and interesting, in the end, than in the movie; Tristan’s human mother actually exists and has complex feelings about him), but… but…

I don’t know. I’m less wowed than I used to be. It’s still absorbing and charming and I do enjoy it very much.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Descent of Monsters

Posted 1 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Descent of Monsters by JY YangThe Descent of Monsters, JY Yang

The first two books (The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven) introduce you to a world and a setting without making it essential to have read the other book first (though personally, I would read Black Tides first anyway). I found that by contrast, The Descent of Monsters was very much settled within that now existing framework, and relied on prior knowledge of the other two novellas to orientate you and help you understand who means what to whom and why, and why this character does x and y, etc.

This is a bit different in format to the first two books as well, focusing on the investigations of a new character into events that Akeha and Mokoya are involved in, without giving us much access to the actual thoughts of Mokoya and Akeha (and the other characters we already know). Part of it is written as an investigation report: there are also letters and a couple of interrogation transcripts.

Honestly, I found this not quite enough to re-orientate myself within the world. Before I read another book in this world, I think I might well make the time to reread these first three together, to make sure I understand all the nuances and how the events connect. I didn’t even read the first two books that long ago, but Yang doesn’t spoonfeed you (which is not a complaint! I think it’s reasonable to expect you to carry a certain amount of information between books, it’s just that apparently my brain is a sieve right now).

This one ends up feeling a bit slight compared to the other two: while we learn a bit more about the world and the machinations of those in power, I found it difficult to connect up. Again, rereading might help, but that was (sadly) my impression. I do find it enjoyable: Chuwan is a bit of an archetype (the oh-so-determined investigator, destined to find the truth!) and it works. This does stand alone in the sense that it’s a character we don’t know investigating events which, on their own, are fascinating and clearly shocking — but I think the connections to be made with the previous novellas are important in really getting the full effect.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Posted 27 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, Brandon Sanderson

Received to review via Tor

I read Legion ages ago — and then reread it sometime more recently, actually — but never got round to reading the second book, Skin Deep. Once I got my hands on this collected edition, though, it was inevitable: I might be a little late to the party (sorry, Tor; moving is a pain in the butt), but I absolutely raced through it once I did settle down to read. I didn’t stop or put the book down at all, and I’m sure my bunnies got away with murder while I was reading.

So what is Legion about? The main character is Stephen Leeds, but really he’s more of a cipher: it’s his ‘aspects’ that are really intriguing, something like voices in his head or a split personality, but not exactly. He is, as he says several times in the narration, something different — and he doesn’t consider himself insane, since he’s living a (relatively) normal life. That’s arguable, but the fact that he’s a genius and gets along pretty well using his aspects in many ways isn’t. When he needs to know something — speak Hebrew, understand theoretical physics, deal with crime scene investigation — he flips through a book or two on the subject, and a new aspect will join him, genuinely expert on the subject and able to guide him in his investigations. These books are mysteries, too, with a supernatural/science fictional bent. A camera that can take pictures of the past; using the cells of the human body as storage for information…

Through the mysteries, we get to know a little about Stephen and his aspects, and how they work: Ivy, repository of all his social understanding; Tobias, a walking encyclopaedia with a deep knowledge of art and architecture, always able to talk soothingly about something or other; J.C., a trigger-happy Navy SEAL, who knows security and weapons… and all the other aspects who play a more incidental role, like Armando (photography expert and megalomaniac who thinks he’s the king of Mexico), Ashley (far too comfortable with being imaginary), Ngozi (forensics expert) — the list goes on. It’s a fun cast, and Sanderson has been conscious to make the aspects pretty varied, while trying to be respectful of their apparent origins. Aside from the aspects, there’s also Stephen’s butler, who is impressively forbearing and clearly very fond of Stephen, despite the weirdness.

The mysteries themselves are a little light, definitely not the point of the stories, and I’m still not sure what I think exactly about Lies of the Beholder, the third (and final) novella. It’s not the ending I wanted, but it makes a certain amount of sense and answers various questions arising from the events of the previous two books (or less the events than the actions and hints of Stephen’s aspects during that time). It works; maybe I just didn’t really want my time with the characters to be over.

All in all, as a collection it’s very satisfying (perhaps less so if you only try the novellas standing alone), and I do recommend it. Excuse me while I go press my wife to read it soon

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Death of a Clone

Posted 21 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Death of a CloneDeath of a Clone, Alex Thompson

Received to review via Netgalley

This has been out for, um, ages now. I did actually start it as soon as I got it, and then I had my dissertation and moving and a thousand other excuses. When I actually sat down to finish it, though, it’s a very easy read and went by quickly. It was a little bit predictable to me, but it comes together nicely, and I do enjoy the constant references to Golden Age crime fiction (or at least Agatha Christie; now I think about it, I’m not sure whether any others were mentioned).

I probably shouldn’t say too much about it for fear of spoiling the reveals — it is kind of fun to just read and let things fall into place for yourself, after all. But I do find it weird that it has a lot of similarities with another recent book, One Way (S.J. Morden). There’s a slightly different angle, but nonetheless a lot of similarities, right down to the ending (which I peeked at in the case of One Way, which I haven’t quite finished). If I remember rightly they must have been being published at the same time, so it’s not a matter of plagiarism — just a kind of synchronicity, I think, but it definitely gave me deja vu!

Not bad, but nothing particularly astonishing either.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Farthing

Posted 3 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Farthing, by Jo WaltonFarthing, Jo Walton

I think this is the second time I’ve read Farthing, and it gets more chilling all the time. It’s an alternate history in which Britain compromised with Hitler, and documents the creeping anti-Semitism and losses of freedom. It’s about compromising with the devil — and in the case of one of the characters, knowing exactly what you’re doing, hating it, and knowing you’re not strong enough not to do it. I love Carmichael, but god, I hope I’m not like him (though I fear I am; one can only hope that when they get offered a choice like that, they have the brains to see it and the guts to say no).

It’s particularly painful for me to read because I do see it happening in Britain now; gradually, people are becoming more and more negative toward foreigners, and it’s all been legitimised by Brexit. I hate it, but I’ll be honest: I’ve started hesitating to admit that my wife is European, gauging the audience to make sure it’s going to be okay. I’ve been told I’m a race traitor for marrying a European; I’ve been told I’m an EU collaborator and a traitor to the UK — etc, etc, all that sickening crap that comes from a certain kind of Brexit supporter. (Not saying all Brexit supporters are doing that and saying things like that, but it’s happening and it’s shocking how little anyone cares apart from to assert it’s not them saying it!)

I imagine US folks would probably have much the same experience right now, and more so.

Despite that, it’s also a deeply entertaining book — Lucy’s narrative voice is great, and the Golden Age crime fic pastiche is great fun. This was the first of Jo’s books that I ever read, and it had me hooked — and it did again this time. She’s excellent with character, with mood, with description, with pace… Honestly, I can’t think of any complaints I have about Farthing, except perhaps that it’s far too on the nose right now.

Rating: 5/5

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