Tag: SF/F

Review – Driftwood

Posted December 2, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Drift Wood by Marie BrennanDriftwood, Marie Brennan

Driftwood is a novella, sort of, but also a set of short stories set in the world of Driftwood, where realities go to die. It’s a world where stepping from one street to the next can induce a change in the weather, the laws of physics, and the very air people need to breathe. And everyone there knows their worlds are vanishing… and either accept it or not, as they can. Last is the main character, sort of — mostly glimpsed through others — and is a lone survivor from a long-gone world. He’s a guide, helping others half for a living and half for curiosity, and sometimes out of kindness as well.

He also isn’t dying, despite the loss of his world, despite having outlived the normal lifespan of his people a dozen times over.

It’s a fascinating setup, and Last is a pretty cool idea; the stories told about him by other characters in this book highlight a lonely man, who is making the best job he can of unasked for immortality. The sadness of it takes a while to shine through, but there’s one particular story which illustrates it beautifully, without lingering too long.

Overall, I found it a really enjoyable novella/collection — and the illustrations help! It’s possible to imagine an infinity of worlds and stories within Driftwood, but the last bit of this book closes it off beautifully. I still have questions, but the more important answer is the one Last finds, smiling at the end of the world.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fire & Hemlock

Posted December 2, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne JonesFire & Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

This was the first adaptation of Tam Lin that I ever read, so it was sort of odd to come back to it now with various sung versions of the ballad rattling round my head. I remembered much of the story and the events — one thing that stuck with me in particular was Polly’s mortification when she realises (or at least thinks she does) that Tom knows about her crush on him and thinks she’s too much of a kid. Gah. Cringe.

It’s funny the way the story weaves slowly through Polly’s childhood, dropping clues, and then suddenly at the end Jones puts her foot down and zooms off. This is kind of a feature of her endings, which take careful reading sometimes — you can’t just let them wash over you, or you’ll be left asking “wait, what?”

It’s sort of aged badly for me, though: it feels completely gross the way Tom uses Polly, not just because of the grossness of using someone but because she’s so young (I don’t care if he’s not as old as she initially thinks; you can make an argument that he grooms her, with the gifts and the letters). Her grandmother is quite right to worry about it, and though she’s the solid and dependable centre of the book in many ways, it feels like she isn’t listened to enough there!

Despite that ick factor, I kind of want to reread it again sometime sooner, to see if the memories layer over each other better and show up more of the hints and clevernesses to make that ending work.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Beast’s Heart

Posted November 30, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Beast's Heart by Leife ShallcrossThe Beast’s Heart, Leife Shallcross

The Beast’s Heart is a retelling of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, set in France (though it’s unclear at exactly what era, I think), and narrated by the Beast. I started it with some trepidation, since the Beast’s narration in the opening chapter didn’t quite appeal. I mean, it’s not especially surprising that the Beast is kind of self-absorbed before he becomes the Beast, but that was the immediate impression I had of his character as the Beast as well from his rather fussy narration. He never particularly sounded Beastly, you know?

That said, once we got over the part where he tricked Isabeau’s father into thinking he’d kill him if he didn’t return with Isabeau, things began to improve. I do love retellings of this story, and it was interesting to get things from this perspective — though there weren’t exactly any surprises. Shallcross doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary with the story at all, except perhaps for the Fairy that loved his grandmother.

Isabeau manages to feel fairly real; unlike some versions of Beauty, she’s not too perfect — she has her pettinesses, and she’s not the cleverest most amazing person of all, just a caring young woman who likes books and music and drawing and getting to have a rather indolent existence. The glimpses we get of her sisters work for me, too, though it all felt fairly close to Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

I don’t think this is the freshest version of the story; worth it if you have an itch for ‘Beauty and the Beast’, or you’re particularly fond of collecting versions of it, but not something I’d go out of my way for. That said, I read it in a few sessions, compelled to speed through it, so it wasn’t bad either — it just didn’t bring anything startling to a story that has been done many times.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Network Effect

Posted November 23, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Network Effect by Martha WellsNetwork Effect, Martha Wells

I was so excited to learn that there’d be a Murderbot novel, and so excited to get my hands on an ARC, that my performance dropped by several points due to the number of inputs. Which is to say, I started reading the book, was loving it, and then actually I got too wound up by certain events and ended up with a sort of anxiety about picking it up and continuing. Needless to say, I finally did, and many of my wishes for the series were fulfilled by the return of known characters and more exploration of the world.

I don’t really know what to say without being spoilery, because I think the thing that got me wound up is worth getting wound up about on your own terms. I should say that I found some of the interludes a little irritating, because they felt like padding. Though, well, you’ll see if you read it.

I’ll also admit that in some of the scenes where they were all figuring things out and making plans, my brain started derailing and refusing to hold the details in mind. I just sort of trusted to the narrative at that point, and it did work, but there is a lot of talking and negotiating, and there are a lot of characters running round doing their own thing. It might have been a bit sharper through narrowing down the focus to fewer characters. There are two characters who didn’t feel totally integral to the plot, who could’ve been left behind without harming things too much.

However, it’s also delightful to see Murderbot with its people, having returned with them to Preservation. All of Murderbot’s complicated feelings about having friends and being part of a team are on full display in this novel, and it’s lovely to explore. It’s also fascinating to see more of their world (spoiler spoiler spoiler). Despite my quibbles about the dialogue-heavy bits and the extraneous characters, I sped through the book in several large gulps once I settled down to it and started again.

If you’ve loved the novellas, it’s definitely recommended, with the caveat that you may feel the longer format wasn’t as ideal.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Churn

Posted November 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Churn by James S.A. CoreyThe Churn, James S.A Corey

The Churn is a short novella which tells the story of one of the major characters from The Expanse series: Amos Burton. I like Amos a lot, but I’m not totally sure I care about having read this; it wasn’t bad in any way, or not enjoyable, but it wasn’t necessary. We know who Amos is, and we get glimpses of where he came from… and I’m not sure I needed to read this novella to fill it in. I almost prefer piecing it together, because in some ways who Amos was isn’t as important as who Amos is… and in other ways, he really hasn’t changed very much in the series: it doesn’t add much development-wise, because the differences are simply in the different contexts.

So, if you’re a hardcore lover of The Expanse and you want to read every scrap of background, then yeah, The Churn is probably of interest. If not, then I don’t think I especially recommend it — the main series are all you need, I suspect.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Caliban’s War

Posted November 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Caliban's War by James S.A. CoreyCaliban’s War, James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War is the second book of the Expanse series, and I can’t help but see it (and Leviathan Wakes) in some ways as an answer to Firefly/Serenity. Serenity ends as a triumph, to some degree, with Mal getting the story out there. That’s the big win. And yet… Leviathan Wakes almost starts with that, but Holden can’t sit back and retire. He figures that getting the message out is enough, and of course it isn’t — as we’ve found in our own timeline with Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave campaign and impeachment and… everything. Getting the signal out there isn’t enough, and Caliban’s War shows Holden continuing to reckon with that, and keep trying to find a place for himself and the crew of the Rocinante.

There’s another way in which Holden is like Malcolm Reynolds, and that’s really showcased here as well. It struck me during the middle-ish part of the book, when Holden goes to confront Fred Johnson — who spits back at him:

“I’ve been putting up with your bullshit for over a year now,” Fred said. “This idea you have that the universe owes you answers. This righteous indignation you wield like a club at everyone around you.”

And yeah, Malcolm Reynolds has that as well, for all that he wants to think he’s a hardened criminal. I think Caliban’s War does a good job of digging into that and showing what makes a man like that dangerous, as well as someone to follow.

Anyway, that’s what particularly struck me this time — maybe because the part about “we got the signal out and nobody cared” really cuts deep right now!

It really did bother me again that everyone spends the book running around looking for Mei, without questioning basic things like “why did they want an immuno-compromised kid?” And Prax is a biologist! Okay, not a human biologist, but at other times he clearly has a scientific mind and the ability to think through a problem, including those which aren’t restricted to botany. I’m not sure it changes the story to know why Mei’s key, but it bothers me as someone who knew what was going on from the minute her condition was mentioned.

This book introduces Bobbie and Avasarala, and they are both great and balance out the gender balance, and give us the outside-perspective on Holden and his crew that we need. I know we won’t be seeing a lot of them for a couple of books, which sucks, because Avasarala is the kind of character who really challenges the dudes-with-guns sci-fi stereotypes. (Bobbie is less so, since she’s essentially the female version of them.) She’s a grandmother, a diplomat, an Earther — and that’s a needed sort of perspective.

I’m looking forward to continuing to chew through this series; I called it popcorn before, and I still concur. It’s very more-ish, and it goes down easy.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Posted November 15, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon JamesBlack Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf follows the adventures of a man named Tracker, from childhood to a cell where he is forced to tell his life story. He has a wolf eye and a nose — he can track anything, anyone, once he has scented it once, and that’s how he gets pulled into a quest to save the son of the king’s sister, prophesied to save the kingdom. Not that the prophecy matters much to Tracker: he’s just in it for the adventure, for the sake of a shapeshifter he loves named Leopard, and gold. Mostly the gold.

The book was pretty hard going for me. It’s rife with violence, sexual and otherwise; the narration is stream-of-consciousness, in rhythms of speech that aren’t very familiar to me. Sometimes it lacks the expected punctuation or grammar, capturing a whole different kind of voice. I found myself skipping parts, because it would take so long to say a simple thing. If a man fires three arrows, one after the other, then each arrow will be described. This isn’t a quote, but it’s an illustration of the style: “Leopard fired one arrow and a man fell down. Leopard fired another arrow and a man fell down. Leopard fired another arrow and another man fell down.”

As a stylistic choice, it adds a certain rhythmic energy, and it all adds to a clear picture of Tracker, so that you can almost hear his voice narrating… but I wasn’t a fan and found it hard to concentrate on (in the same way that it can take me a while to feel my way into the style of a Norse saga, or particularly the set-piece bits of The Odyssey).

Plot-wise, there’s a lot of back-and-forth to get nowhere, but the story builds up in its own time and I never quite got to the point where I got fed up and just wanted to put it down. I did want to know what happened. There are definitely some moments where it got under my skin, too, particularly regarding Sadogo, and another character from later in the book. The violence of it all really put me off, though; I can’t say I’d call it gratuitous, because it says something about this world and about Tracker, his companions and his outlook. It does begin to feel excessive, though.

I don’t think I’ll read the other books — I believe it’s meant to be a trilogy, and apparently the next book focuses on a character I really don’t care for. Not that I particularly care for Tracker, either! It seems like an awful long time to spend with characters I don’t enjoy, since I’m rather the type to hang a lot of my interest in a story on the players. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be invested, and I barely was.

So, glad I read it, because there are interesting stylistic choices and a few bits I did rather like (to explain would be a spoiler, but it involves Tracker’s relationship with a particular character who appears later in the story, and secondarily with some other side characters). But… I don’t think it’s for me.

(Remember, I rate books on my enjoyment of them, not an objective assessment.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Fifth Season

Posted November 14, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Fifth Season, by N.K. JemisinThe Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

Whoa. How to review this without spoiling it… It’s difficult, because The Fifth Season is cleverly structured so that pieces you see right at the start don’t fall into place until the end. I had the tiniest of clues to figure something out from what other people said about the book, and it helped me work things out; I actually like that sensation, of watching to see how the pieces fit instead of trying to find out where they fit, so to speak. I know a lot of people don’t like that and want to go into a book totally unspoiled, though… and I can see the value of that for this book.

I mean, you can barely even talk about the narrative style without risking treading on spoilery ground. Suffice it to say that Jemisin really does know what she’s doing, and you should trust that everything has a purpose. If you really hate second-person narration, or present-tense narration, and think it’s never going to work for you… I doubt it’s going to. But if you’re willing to keep an open mind, it pays off.

The worldbuilding is pretty awesome. Looking back from the end of the book, it’s amazing to think how much has been introduced, explained, hinted at, often without explicit instruction. Jemisin expects you to work for it, but she’s created a whole world and her characters live fully within it, which is always one of my big tests for good worldbuilding. She remembers that the characters will take certain things for granted, even as the reader needs to see and understand them, and she weaves that in beautifully. There are a few instances that feel like infodumps (including the first chapter), but again — it’s for a reason, and in my opinion, it’s not actually meant to be helpful. It’s all in aid of character and voice. Watch what is said, and what isn’t, and how it is said.

It’s worth noting that the whole story is pretty grim, and the outlook is bleak. There’s violence and oppression and coercion and slavery, and everybody is culpable to one degree or another.

I’m glad I waited until the trilogy was finished (and, cough, then some) to read this, because I think it’s probably best read all at once before I lose half the detail.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Leviathan Wakes

Posted November 11, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. CoreyLeviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey

The opening of Leviathan Wakes is just pure horror. Julie Mao has been trapped in a storage locker for days, during a takeover of her ship. When her need for food, water and other relief overcomes her caution, she bursts out… to find the ship empty and almost dead. She works her way to engineering to find —

Well, I won’t spoil that moment for you, even though it’s at the start of the book. The horror aspect recedes for quite a while, leaving more generic (but fun) space opera and a touch of noir. One side of the narrative follows James Holden and his tiny remnant crew after the destruction of their ship, the Canterbury, as they acquire a new ship (the Rocinante) and attempt to find (and hurt) whoever blew up the Cant.

The other side follows Miller, a halfway-decent cop who is melting down a bit after being ditched by his wife, and who fixates on a job he’s asked to do — to find Julie Mao, daughter of a rather famous family, and ship her back home. The two sides converge, of course, juxtaposing Holden’s righteousness against Miller’s almost amoral tendencies and making both of them look like assholes in the process. (Though in most ways I’m on Holden’s side, and Miller’s just kinda really creepy sometimes.)

The horror comes back in the middle, for sure, and threads through the rest. There are some epic fight scenes, some great character moments, some horrible revelations… and for my money, it all comes together really well. It’s pretty breathless, for me; for all that’s ~550 pages long, I didn’t often put it down. It was a reread for me, and it stood up to the memory. I’m looking forward to rereading Caliban’s War, too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fly By Night

Posted November 10, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fly by Night by Frances HardingeFly By Night, Frances Hardinge

Fly By Night is a heck of a lot of fun, and though I’d say it’s perfect for a pre-teen or young teenage reader… there’s a lot to attract the adult reader too. Hardinge’s created a strange world, a bit aslant from our own, and through it rampages Mosca, a young girl who has run away from her home village; Saracen, a goose that she took with her; Eponymous Clem, the smooth-talking stranger she decided to join… and a host of other characters of various stripes. I have to admit that, primed by Untitled Goose Game, I was on Saracen’s side in all of this. In any given scene, at any given stopping point, my main concern was where is Saracen???

(People who watched me live-tweeting my binge of this book can attest to that. Several tweets demanding to know where the goose was.)

Part of the reason I was on Saracen’s side is that things get a bit twisty. Who do you trust? By the last hundred pages, I only trusted Saracen. There’s so much going on: old religious iconoclasms, political upheaval, guildsmen of different factions, censorship of the written word, secret schools in alleyways, floating coffeehouses which are free of some of the censorship and rules that apply in the city… And I haven’t touched on a lot of the other stuff. There’s highwaymen! Daring escapes! Shocking revelations! It’s a madcap world and the narration tumbles through it joyfully.

The book almost ends on this note: “I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.”

I concur. Good thing I’ve got the next book!

Rating: 4/5

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