Tag: SF/F


Review – Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

Posted 4 May, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. ParkerSixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, K.J. Parker

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City follows the exploits of Orhan, an engineer in the Robur army. He’s a bit of coward, not always a very nice guy, and when he realises there’s a massive invasion of some sort coming, he’s very tempted to go in the exact opposite direction. But it turns out he’s kind of fond of the Robur, at least some of them, despite the treatment he gets from a lot of them due to his unfortunate skin condition (by which he means his race), and somehow he ends up back in the city, which is about to be besieged, and it’s entirely possible the place won’t last an hour.

Well, Orhan’s got the skills for that, right? So he sets about tricking the enemy, fortifying the city, shaking things up and getting things in place so the city can survive. The book goes on like that, from crisis to crisis — how does he find defenders? How does he ensure a supply of water? How does he deal with sappers? How does he deal with a riot? Tick, tick, tick, tick: Orhan survives each encounter, outwits the enemy, and saves the city, at every step.

Right?

I found some aspects of the book deeply frustrating at the same time as enjoying them. I liked the conceit at the end about the manuscript provenance — the story is told directly by Orhan, and then there’s a tiny bit of framing story at the end explaining why he told the story, and how people come to read it. It also drove me crazy because the end is so abrupt, and everything about it is unclear. I liked the fact that he’s an unreliable narrator, that despite his frank tone and easy admittance of his faults, he also admits to making himself look better in the narrative. It also drives me crazy because I’m not entirely sure which bits he’s lying about. I like the fact that the story doesn’t follow a traditional trajectory and then that also drives me crazy because argh, I thought the ending would be different.

I’m really unsure about the decision to have the darker-skinned people (“blueskins”, in Orhan’s parlance) as the dominant race and the clearly white people (“milkfaces”) as the oppressed people, as a direct copy/paste of real events. At one point, Orhan uses a drinking fountain in a garden and is scolded by a keeper who doesn’t recognise him; the tap is for Robur only. I feel like this direct flip can cause some cognitive dissonance in a good way, pointing out the ridiculousness of the discrimination, and that’s probably how it was intended. At the same time, putting the crimes of white people on people of colour, just flipping history to make people of colour everything that’s wrong with the Empire… I’m fairly sure that people of colour have had a lot to say about people doing that; I’ve certainly denounced it when people flipped it so gay people were oppressing straight people. That kind of one-to-one flip, the copy-and-paste, just feels like laziness more than commentary. At the same time, the book does make it clear how okay people can be complicit in terrible things: there are several characters who are friends to Orhan, basically likeable people, who just don’t see the situation and how Orhan is treated, and don’t see it as a problem when they are forced to see it.

I kept saying I’d figure out how I felt about this book by writing the review, but it isn’t really helping. I think in the end, I wish the book were a little less ambiguous and ambivalent; I feel unsatisfied because the frame story is so slight, because the ending didn’t build up to anything in the way I’d expected. There’s a lot of things I liked about the book, and I wouldn’t say the things I didn’t like are or should be a total dealbreaker. But overall, I feel pretty dissatisfied — I don’t think this is a book that’s built to have a satisfying ending that isn’t totally cliché, and that dissatisfying end is totally baked into it… but even as I recognise that and the way it was all put together, it annoyed the heck out of me.

I think I’ll go for three stars here, which is normally “liked it”, but in this case should be read as “ambivalent in a way that doesn’t mean I don’t care, I just really can’t decide”. I wouldn’t rate it lower than a 2, and I wouldn’t rate it higher than a 4, and 3 is the median, so… there.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – City of Ghosts

Posted 3 May, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of City of Ghosts by Victoria SchwabCity of Ghosts, Victoria Schwab

This book is very definitely intended for a middle-grade audience, which made it not really my thing. It’s fun enough as an idea: Cassidy is the daughter of two professional ghost hunters. Her dad takes an intellectual approach, sceptical that ghosts could exist and focusing on the stories and records that surround paranormal phenomena. Her mother is a believer. Together they write books and now they’re filming a TV show, and Cassidy’s going along, to Edinburgh — the most haunted place in Britain. The thing is, Cassidy’s had a near-death experience herself, and come out changed — and with a ghost sidekick.

Naturally, it turns out that there really are hauntings in Edinburgh, and Cassidy finds herself nastily entangled in them, while also finding other people like herself who can pass through the Veil and experience the world of the ghosts. There’s plenty of room for more stories about Cassidy, her pet ghost, and her parents, and possibly room for some of the people she meets along the way. It’s in no way a bad book, but I found it less enjoyable because it is rather simplistic and short. I’m not the intended audience, so perhaps I shouldn’t be judging it at all — but then there are children’s books which are still completely enthralling to me, so it’s not impossible to make it work.

I probably won’t follow the further adventures of Cassidy, but I bet a kid of the right mentality would enjoy the heck out of it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Undefeated

Posted 30 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Undefeated by Una McCormackThe Undefeated, Una McCormack

Received to review via Netgalley

The Undefeated follows Monica, an adventurer who made part of her fame and fortune by marrying a famous writer and part of it by becoming a journalist, as she goes back to the planet where she was born. The story is partially told through flashbacks to Monica’s childhood, which illuminate just why she was so interested in documenting the situation in conflict-torn areas. The Commonwealth was determined to annex other planets, forcing them into instability and then swooping in to “assist”, taking control and absorbing them into the Commonwealth. Monica’s home suffered just such an annexation, and in the process — well, I won’t give spoilers!

In addition to the theme of the Commonwealth’s aggressive annexations, there’s the issue of the jenjer: genetically modified people whose expensive modifications are paid for by people who then own them. Monica’s been surrounded by jenjer all her privileged life, and even travels with one now, but there’s something unsettling going on. Something coming.

I found the story a little slow, in that at times it was just a précis of Monica’s life — not so much showing us what happened as describing it at a remove. It would have had to be a whole novel to cover all the interesting stuff in Monica’s life, yes, but it did feel a little like we were skimming past stuff without really getting a chance to absorb it. ‘This happened, it meant this to Monica, then another thing happened.’

There are some great bits — the parts about Monica’s childhood work well, and her slow dawning of comprehension re: the jenjer. It was certainly an interesting read — I was never bored, or even frustrated exactly, but I felt like it could’ve been a lot more immediate and thus impactful.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Ninefox Gambit

Posted 21 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha LeeNinefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee

When I first read this, I was initially put off by the discussion of math. It took me probably too long to get past the fact that my enemy numbers was being discussed, and to understand that this is math-enabled magic, at heart. (This may bother people looking for hard SF, but as far as I know it’s true: the math, which is discussed in relatively little detail, causes effects in the physical worldthrough unspecified physics. It’s magic.)

So start again: this is magic in space. Kel Cheris, an officer in the Kel army, is fighting to uphold the Calendar; the Calendar governs what magic will function, and is founded on math and various “remembrances”, aka ritual tortures. Cheris is a little odd for a Kel: where most of her fellow soldiers can only use canonical formations and are not very adaptable, she has the ability to think outside the box. She can make the magic work in different, heretical calendars… which is why she’s first somewhat disgraced (because what she did was itself heretical) and then tapped to answer a serious problem with calendrical warfare. Her solution is an old, old weapon: what amounts to the ghost of a Kel general who, once upon a time, went mad and slaughtered countless people.

It turns out that to use the general, Jedao, you have to “anchor” him, and Cheris is chosen as the anchor — the only person who can hear what he has to say, relay his advice, and also put him back in the box if he shows any signs of going mad again.

What could possibly go wrong.

Reading this again was delightful, because I can see more of the machinations and more of people’s motivations. Jedao remains a delight to me, and a perfect combination with Cheris’ skills — and as someone who can’t read a simple number without stumbling, I can definitely cheer for a dyscalculic general who is a splendid tactician. (I did love the distinction between a strategist and tactician, as far as long-term thinking goes. That comment comes fairly early, and then — well, judge for yourself whether Jedao is a tactician, a strategist, or both.)

I think Yoon Ha Lee has done an amazing job at creating characters who are deeply, fatally flawed, partially due to the situation they’ve found themselves in — the Hexarchate is also deeply, fatally flawed — and who are also very conscious of it, very conscious of the shortcomings of the system they’re embedded in. There’s so much I could talk about in these books, about the Hexarchate, about the Kel specifically, about the way the characters interact… I haven’t touched on nearly everything I love.

Suffice it to say, I loved this book all over again and more.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Ragged Alice

Posted 20 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of Ragged Alice by Gareth L. PowellRagged Alice, Gareth L. Powell

Received to review via Netgalley

I really enjoyed the setting of Ragged Alice: Powell captures certain Welsh phrases perfectly, and I couldn’t help but smile at the phrasing “Owen the meat” — and wonder how other readers will feel about that and whether they’ll “get it”. Maybe if you’re not raised knowing that the undertaker named Dafydd (David) should be known as “Dai the death” (pronounced “Die”), this world is a little too foreign, for all that it’s just Wales.

There’s a lot of familiarity, though. It’s basically a police procedural, really, except with a supernatural element: DCI Holly Craig can see people’s souls, and she knows when they’re carrying guilt around with them. She’s come home to Pontyrhudd through her work in the police, to investigate a simple-seeming hit and run accident. But one murder turns into two, and there’s some connection to the horrible death of Holly’s own mother…

It’s more or less predictable in plot, to my mind, and I’m not sure I really quite understand why the ritualistic deaths were required. The ending felt a little sudden/contrived, as well. It’s an enjoyable novella and I wouldn’t mind more in the same world, but apart from enjoying the setting a lot (more Welsh books, please!), it didn’t stick out for me especially.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Enchanted Glass

Posted 18 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne JonesEnchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

I think that Enchanted Glass was one of the very first books I got on my ereader, and I couldn’t remember much from it beyond the general enjoyment and the immortal line — wait for it: “I seem to have excalibured this knife.” I’m not sure why that stuck with me in particular, though I suppose given my other interests it makes sense. So a lot of the plot was almost new to me, and it was surprising how long it took me to catch on. The book opens with the death of Andrew Hope’s grandfather, leaving him with the house — and his grandfather’s “field of care”. The magic system is revealed rather slowly and organically, and to be honest there are never clear rules, as such. Instead, you have to sort of intuit what’s going on, figuring things out rather like a child learning to talk.

(I use that metaphor because I remember Diana Wynne Jones as having written that children intuitively understand magic, and it’s adults that always need to ask too many questions. There’s something true in that, and it reminds me of how children learn languages. If Diana Wynne Jones didn’t write that observation, she should’ve, because I always find her books like that!)

In any case, into Andrew’s beginnings of a quiet life wrangling his computer, his gardener and his housekeeper comes Aidan Cain, pursued by who-knows-what and vulnerable after the death of his own grandmother. Andrew’s not even quite sure how to take over his grandfather’s field of care, and there seems to be something awry with an odd neighbour…

The book barrels along at a good clip, with endearing side characters (“I got zips!”) and entertaining scenes, heading toward an inevitable conclusion: a struggle between the land of Faerie, and Andrew Hope’s own ordinary townspeople. (Sometimes not so ordinary.) It’s solidly entertaining, sometimes funny, and basically everything you’d expect from a Diana Wynne Jones novel. I still enjoyed it greatly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Without a Summer

Posted 17 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Without a SummerWithout a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal

At this point, this might be my favourite novel in this series. It combines the romance and the magic with events in Britain at the time it is set, spinning a new story out of genuine history in a way that explores the implications of the magic system — much like Glamour in Glass, of course, but I love how it winds together the physical conditions in the “year without a summer” and the plight of workers and the magic and just… aah, I really enjoy it.

Which is to skip to the commentary before explaining the book, I know. In this book, Jane takes Melody up to London while she and Vincent are working on a mural together, to give her sister some more time in society to potentially meet someone she might come to love or want to marry (preferably, of course, both!). This happens to be in 1816, the year in which climatic conditions in Britain remained wintery despite the normal turn of the seasons, due to the far-off eruption of Mount Tambora. With famine and general hardship weighing on people’s minds, there’s unrest and a need to blame someone for what’s happening… At the same time, Vincent’s family make overtures to Jane and Vincent, as if they want to bring them into the fold — though Vincent’s sure there’s nothing innocent or forgiving about it.

Naturally, without spoiling the plot too much, I’ll just say that Jane gets herself involved in the unrest, Melody gets herself into trouble, there are misunderstandings and quarrels aplenty… and it’s all pretty darn fascinating. There’s a really great denouement, and — well, I won’t say anymore, for real this time!

Suffice it to reiterate that I love this book. My one point of dislike is the stupid disagreements that arise due to lack of communication. Learn from your mistakes, characters! COMMUNICATE.

(I have joked that if I were the Relationship Advice Dalek, my vocabulary would be restricted to “COMM-UNI-CATE!”)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Rose Daughter

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

Cover of Rose Daughter by Robin McKinleyRose Daughter, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley has written two rather different adaptations of Beauty and the Beast; this is the second, and perhaps more sophisticated one. There’s much more magic in this one, and more of a developed fantasy world for the story to take place in. It also departs from the basic story much more, introducing additional characters and motivations. While it makes for a much more rounded world, I found myself much less interested in it! Sometimes simplicity can work better, and this ended up feeling rather fussy to me. The whole tangle has to be explained at the end by a character who has barely previously appeared, and that also feels clumsy.

There is one aspect of this I prefer to other tellings, and that’s the fact that the Beast remains a Beast. The transformation to a man seems weird sometimes — or rather, the transformation to a man followed by an immediate marriage, especially when Beauty is described as being confused by and even timid by her transformed partner. It seems to make more sense this way, at least for this particular version of the story.

In any case, I’m glad I reread this, but I probably won’t do so again. I far prefer McKinley’s first version, Beauty!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Closed and Common Orbit

Posted 5 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky ChambersA Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

The first time I read this book, I was vaguely resentful that it wasn’t about the same characters as the first book, and I briefly had the same sensation here. Becky Chambers is so good at creating characters I care about — even if I don’t like them necessarily — and it took me a while to switch gears. However, it was easier on a second reading, and I was quickly caught up in Pepper and Sidra’s stories once more.

In this book, there are two parallel stories: one follows a little girl who escapes from a scrap sorting factory and finds a derelict ship, still equipped with an AI who takes care of her, teaches her, and helps her escape that world. That girl grows up to become Pepper, and Pepper takes care of Sidra. Sidra was an AI, and now she has a humanoid body, and through the course of the book she learns to deal with that. There’s all kinds of great stuff going on about identity and embodiment and learning how to be content with what you are, all wound up in an emotional story about family and belonging.

So naturally, Chambers rocked it. She’s great at aliens, she’s great at figuring out what an AI suddenly thrown into a human body would be like, she’s great at making the reader care incredibly much. I’m not a big cryer in general, and even less so at media, but this book (and the first) makes me cry — and not in a bad way, because there’s so much warmth and hope and joy here, amidst the normal fears and worries of being a person in a world that isn’t always friendly.

I can’t wait to get on and read Record of A Spaceborn Few now. I know I’m going to be hesitant (give me the Wayfarer crew! give me Pepper and Sidra!) and that I’m going to end up loving them.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Glamour in Glass

Posted 2 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette KowalGlamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass follows the Vincents as, early in their relationship, they take a trip to the Continent to study and work glamour together with one of Vincent’s friends. This time, Kowal explores the way her magic system might affect pregnant women, while playing with the historical backdrop as well. The Vincents find themselves at risk from Napoleon’s followers, and their trip becomes less about the glamour and more about spying out what exactly might be happening — perhaps even betrayal from the people they call friends.

This was where the series took off for me, the first time I actually read this book, and while I’ve come to appreciate the first book, this is still where I would say the series really gets interesting. This is where Kowal starts to work out the implications of the magic and how it changes society, eclipsing the primarily romantic plot of the first book. I’d say the third book is even stronger in that sense, but this one is certainly nothing to sniff at, either. It’s all up from here, and this has really become a series I think about fondly.

Rating: 4/5

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