Tag: SF/F

Review – Record of a Spaceborn Few

Posted August 13, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky ChambersRecord of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers

All the books in this series are rather cosy, and they’ve been getting less of a plot with each installment — the first book has a crew of characters with a definite short-term purpose in mind, the second book is a character study in many ways, and this… this is slices of life on board the Exodan feet, contemporaneous with the other books. There’s not much of a plot beyond the very basics: people want to live, people want to find their place. It’s got quite a large cast of characters, and it kind of goes a bit aimless and limp in the middle if you’re looking for a plot or even hoping for a definite character arc. It’s very slice-of-life-ish. Even when something dramatic happens, the point is not the drama, but the way the people involved heal afterwards and deal with it.

If you’re looking for a character study and an exploration of how this society might work, though, there is a lot to enjoy. I got a bit teary about the other books, but this one had me in tears within the first fifty pages. There’s something powerful about the Exodan fleet and what it stands for, and this book explores that. It’s interesting to follow these characters as they do their very particular jobs, with meaning and significance only for the Exodan fleet.

I think it’s still an enjoyable read, as long as you’re not going into it with the expectation that you’re going to have gun fights and interstellar politics. This isn’t The Expanse, and there’s very little of the do-or-die heroism. Instead, it’s about people getting on with life, and the small everyday ups and downs they have to deal with. I don’t think it’s as strong as the previous two books, even though it’s the epitome of the hope and family and connection that makes those books so good! It’s just a little too slow and contemplative, without the clear drive of either of the other two.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Dread Nation

Posted August 12, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Dread Nation, Justina Ireland

I can’t remember who I spoke to who thought this might be rather like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, just a sort of awkward shoehorning of zombies into a historical period in a fairly superficial way. That’s not how this comes across — I’d compare it more closely to Mira Grant’s Feed and sequels in terms of the way it’s built into how society works — and it does seem to me to reflect the era of history fairly well. Set after zombies rose during the American Civil War, this book follows the fortunes of Jane, a black girl who has been sent to a combat school in order to learn to kill zombies (along with all other non-white children of her age). No longer slaves, but definitely second class citizens, black people bear most of the burden of fighting zombies, leaving white people living in luxurious safety.

For the most part, anyway. Maybe things aren’t safe as they seem. But as soon as Jane starts to poke around into that even a little bit, she’s caught and carted off to a new settlement, a place that’s meant to be safe from zombies — safe because it’s guarded by a vast perimeter wall and the endless patrolling of people like Jane. Naturally, there’s all kinds of nastiness — in terms of race, class, and just plain horribleness — and a whole mystery into which Jane must dig.

I enjoyed her character on a superficial sort of level, though I found her somewhat contradictory. One minute she hates Katherine, another girl from the school, and the next she does her a favour with the thinnest of reasoning. (Tit for tat doesn’t work if you don’t like or trust the person covering your back if you cover theirs, especially if the stakes are rather different between the two of you.) Katherine’s the same, one minute despising Jane and the next relying on her. The interpersonal stuff just never quite adds up for me.

The setting works well, and I believe in the way Ireland has tweaked history and changed things up. What she changes makes sense, as far as I understand history, and the social consequences are all too easy to imagine. The story ticks along well, action following action rather than getting stuck — it certainly keeps the pages turning. In the end, though, I just wasn’t in love with it. It wasn’t bad, but nor do I feel any pressing need to read the sequel when it arrives.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Bitter Twins

Posted August 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Bitter Twins by Jen WilliamsThe Bitter Twins, Jen Williams

AAAH. Well, this book certainly did things to my heart. If people were hoping that the war beast pods at the end of the first book meant everything was going to be okay, then they were sorely mistaken (of course). Vostok is the only war-beast who has memories of her past lives, and the whole team are working badly together, finding it impossible to take orders and coordinate efforts. Vostok believes that the missing memories will provide that link, so Tor and Noon end up off on an adventure to find the Eborans who left to find where Ygseril originated, while Vintage, Bern and Aldasair hold down the fort.

And then there’s Hest, taken up by the Jure’lia at the end of the book, and finding her way on the corpse moon itself…

The revelations of this book have it feeling ever more like it’s really sci-fi at heart, which is a pretty cool turnaround. Vintage continues to be awesome, and Bern and Aldasair come into their own a little more as well. I adore the relationship that grows between Bern and Aldasair, the care they take of each other, and the way they work together. Of course, by the end of this book the whole group have come together more, through yet more heartstabbing events. And Hest, well. The less I say, the better, in terms of spoilers, but if you spent the first book peeking at her warily wondering what on earth she was going to do… it’s that again and more so.

Once again, there’s just so much to chew on, and it delighted me. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book, the last of the trilogy.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – An Artificial Night

Posted August 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuireAn Artificial Night, Seanan McGuire

In An Artificial Night, Toby ends up confronting one of the Firstborn in order to save children — both mortal and fae children, snatched away to join Blind Michael’s Ride. I think in the previous books we’ve had a reference or two to him here or there, but now he comes out in full force, and full horror. Toby has to be a hero, of course, even when her Fetch arrives to say hi early in the book. As ever, she goes through the whole thing a couple of steps from being killed, and the reader lets it work because we love heroes.

I think this is the book that really got me into this series: it’s so clever, the way the mythology is used and added to, and there are so many great emotional notes that I shouldn’t name for fear of spoilering people.

I do still feel that for all that Toby suffers in this book, it’s lacking in teeth in one way: I never really felt that someone we love was at risk, even when Toby behaved recklessly. We know she’s going to be fine, and I feel like I’m always waiting to see her reckless behaviour really hurt the people around her — not just because they’re worrying about her, but because she’s really pulled someone else into trouble. In the first book, there was Dare, of course, but… that was the first book. It feels like the stakes should be raised, and yet this book is remarkably bloodless in that sense. The person who suffers is Toby — and it’s not that it means nothing, but I’m just expecting the way Toby behaves to get Quentin killed or something. By rights, she should’ve by now.

Despite that quibble, it’s a strong book in the way it uses the mythology and ratchets everything up to the ending, and I enjoy it a lot.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lent

Posted August 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Lent by Jo WaltonLent, Jo Walton

This review might be a little spoilery, so if you want to go in totally blind, this is more than just a high level overview of the setup. Just as a warning!

Though I didn’t know much about Savonarola, I thought that even for Jo, making me like him might be too much of a task — and here he’s the main character! But it works: with the first section of the book, we’re introduced to Savonarola, his genuine piety and his earnest attempts to rid himself of his sins, to the point where the first return burns. It’s just a horrifying moment, this holy man who loved God finding himself plunging into Hell, and finding that all his life has been a kind of cosmic joke, because there is no forgiveness, and even his “god-given” skills of prophecy and banishing demons are actually due to his demonic powers.

And then it begins again. This was a weaker part of the book for me, because it’s hard to avoid the repetition of all the different lives while also making it clear how much of a grind it is. The different lives are interesting in themselves, and it’s fun getting to see other sides of the same characters, and every return is still awful. But the actual resolution comes both too fast and too slow — it felt half too easy and half like reading it was about to become a drag. It’s an awkward line to walk, and I do think the book does a good job with something that’s difficult to portray well.

The section of this that is historical fantasy is beautifully done, and making me like — or at least be fascinated by — Savonarola when I was predisposed not to was quite a feat. I feel like I’m still chewing this one over, in a good way, even if I ended it not quite sure how I felt exactly. If I rated solely based on the punch in the gut of the first return section, I’d give it five stars.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Traitor Baru Cormorant

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

Cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth DickinsonThe Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson

I reread this because I wanted to read the sequel, just out recently. It’s stood alone for a few years now, and almost feels complete in itself: the story of a young girl, Baru Cormorant, who comes of age just as her home is taken over by the Empire of Masks. She vows vengeance in her heart, while on the surface she plays their game, and keeps on playing it as she becomes the Imperial Accountant for another land in transition. She keeps on playing the game as she gets embroiled in a rebellion, though she’s now compromised by her love — a love the Masquerade would kill her for having — for the Duchess Tain Hu.

The ending is one of those awful punches in the gut that you kind of know is coming, but which still feels awful and which you keep hoping you’re going to be able to dodge. It’s amazing that this book about an accountant manages to be riveting, really shows how money has the power. Sometimes I think it’s simplified a bit too much in this book: it’s a bit too easy to push this lever and get that reaction from the people of the country. But in principle, it works, and it’s a hell of a ride. There are so many characters to love even as you know nothing good is going to come of this.

It’s a shame that when I read the first 10% of the sequel, it didn’t work for me — something felt off, and people’s reviews encouraged me to put it down and let The Traitor Baru Cormorant stand alone. Luckily, in a bleak way, it does stand alone — and really, after everything that happens in this book, I don’t think there’s anything that would feel like enough of a payoff, or enough of a triumph. I kind of like the idea of treating it as a standalone, with that awful and hopeful ending.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Magic Strikes

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

Cover of Magic Strikes by Ilona AndrewsMagic Strikes, Ilona Andrews

In the third book in this series, Kate finds that Derek’s got himself into some kind of trouble, and it seemed to be tangled up with Saiman’s involvement with an underground arena that pits people against one another in gladiatorial bouts, with real blood, guts and death. It’s pretty obvious where that’s going to lead, and yes, there are some epic team-ups in the arena. There’s also progress on Kate’s non-courtship with Curran, and we get to see several characters old and new kicking butt in lovely ways.

(There’s also finger-gnawing anxiety for one particular character, and no shortage of high stakes, but that’s what you get with Ilona Andrews!)

As always, I find myself pondering the classification of these books as paranormal romance. I’m wary of saying a thing isn’t paranormal romance just because I like it… but I think that genre label is sometimes used to dismiss a book that (if written by a man) would be urban fantasy, and I’m also wary of that. The thing is, I really don’t see these books as being all that much about the romance, especially not the first two or three. The real driver of these books is Kate’s given purpose in life — to kill her biological father — and the way she struggles with it, sometimes willing to follow it, sometimes throwing caution to the wind. It’s a slow process of her letting people in, and that doesn’t mean Curran, primarily: it means having a best friend, it means having an adopted kid, it means trusting and protecting Derek…

I mean, there is romance there: there’s a lot of sexual tension between Kate and Curran, and their stupid banter is the reason these books crease me up with laughter. (A particular kind of laughter which my wife can pinpoint to meaning “ah, Nikki’s reading that series”, embarrassingly.) But I’d more readily categorise something as romance when the plot is all about driving the characters together and the end payoff is the relationship. The drive in romance is typically toward Happy Ever After — to the point where people get very upset if something is billed as romance and doesn’t have a Happy Ever After — but I think the real drive here is about Kate facing her demons, and the romance is just one part of that.

On the other hand, I am also totally ready for Kate and Curran to hurry up and get together already, so that’s probably a vote that it is romance — I don’t have opinions this strong about Peter Grant and Beverley Brook, after all. And there are things about the relationship that are pretty tropey: His Furry Majesty can be kind of creepy at times, in a way that can be very wish-fulfillment-y for some people. (Never mind that Kate usually flings that back in his face and things are rarely less than equal between them.)

The point is, there’s a lot going on in these books, and though romance and sex are a part of it, there’s also a very long game being played concerning Kate and her biological father, and that story is also pretty riveting. This book takes a step further in that direction… but just a step.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Tower of Thorns

Posted August 1, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Tower of Thorns by Juliet MarillierTower of Thorns, Juliet Marillier

After the events of Dreamer’s Pool, Blackthorn and Grim are both rather well-settled in Dalriada, respected by their community and particularly by Lady Flidais and Oran. Blackthorn is more or less resigned to staying put and awaiting the end of the term set on her by Conmael, and Grim… well, he’s happy, taking care of Blackthorn, doing odd jobs for local people. Still, when a woman called Lady Geiléis arrives pleading with Oran for help, it’s no surprise that Blackthorn is caught up in it. Where Blackthorn goes, Grim follows — even if one of Blackthorn’s long lost friends has also shown up on the scene, disrupting the dynamic between them.

I love the way this book is put together: the mystery, the slow revelation of the backstory through the story about Lily and Ash, and the way it also brings to light things about Grim and his past. There’s so much that goes on in this book in terms of development, even while there’s a kind of ‘monster of the week’ to provide the excuse. The backstory is heartbreaking, of course, and even though I saw the ending of it coming a mile off, it’s still powerful. Look away now until “spoilers endeth here” if you want to remain spoiler-free!

The betrayals were also fairly expected, but it still works — it’s so amazingly sad that Blackthorn found someone from her old life again, opened up to him, and was even beginning to hope that it might mean she could act against Mathuin… and was betrayed. Especially the way her love for her dead family is used against her by someone who knows very well how to use it. I found the reappearance of that character suspicious, and didn’t particularly like him, but I did find myself hoping it wouldn’t happen. Alas.

Blackthorn and Grim work beautifully together as a partnership, and I’m a little sad that it’s clearly trending towards a more conventional romance in the end. I was really hoping that they would remain as they are: non-sexual and non-romantic, but nonetheless deeply necessary to one another. Their bond read that way to me from the start, and I find it more interesting than a conventional romance. I’m hoping Marillier can stick the landing and make me happy about it, but I’m not convinced yet by a long shot. As ever, though, the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim is what holds the book together and makes everything work. It’d be interesting without them, but it wouldn’t be so full of feeling — for all that these are characters who don’t talk much about their feelings.

Still — and the spoilers endeth here — it’s an engrossing story, and I found myself tearing through it. Marillier evokes this half-fairytale Ireland well, and though I didn’t find myself surprised by the plot, it definitely gave me feelings!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Necessity

Posted July 29, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Necessity by Jo WaltonNecessity, Jo Walton

It took me far too long to get round to reading this, but I’m glad I did so after just now having reread the first and second book. I think it would’ve been rather odd to jump back in without preparation: by this point, there are so many names and things to remember, not to mention following which city believes what and who is related to whom exactly. It’s definitely not a good book to start with, but I never do think that about series — I find it so weird when people jump in at the middle! I could have done with a family tree by this point, even having read the other books so recently; that might have helped me keep everything straight!

In any case, Necessity takes place on the new planet Plato, just after Pytheas — Apollo incarnate — has finally died, leaving behind a whole tribe of descendants. One of his descendants is a point of view character, but we also get Apollo himself, Crocus (the Worker who first became sentient!) and a Silver-ranked member of the city, Jason, who is rather in love with one of Apollo’s grandchildren. Oh, and the planet has just been conquered by the first other humans to venture out that far from Earth the conventional way.

Most of the story is taken up with chasing Athene through time, and it turns out that she did have another reason for setting up the Republic. There’s also a new god — an alien god — and the inclusion of alien characters, the Saeli. In other words, there’s magic, tech, philosophy, romance, aliens, spaceships, prophecies, gods, and more or less everything else you can think of, in a nice big melting pot.

I’ll admit that this trilogy hasn’t been my favourite of Jo’s works; I did love The Just City, but The Philosopher Kings didn’t work as well for me. I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book, though I think it finishes out exploring some of themes of the whole trilogy beautifully. And I read it in a day, almost without pausing; Jo’s prose is always so clear and leads you on effortlessly from page to chapter to oops I finished the whole book in a day. So though it’s not my favourite, I have to say I admire it — I wasn’t sure how things could pull together, and not go sprawling off into infinity, but this does pull it off. It’s a satisfying end, and there’s so much more I could talk about!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Storm of Locusts

Posted July 28, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Storm of Locusts by Rebecca RoanhorseStorm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

After the events of Trail of Lightning, Kai’s back, but he hasn’t been to see Maggie. Maggie hasn’t entirely been idle, helping out the Thirsty Boys, and it’s when she’s with them helping out that she finds herself saddled with a new charge… and almost immediately afterwards, with the news that Kai’s been kidnapped. The two incidents turn out to be linked, of course, and it’s off on another journey to figure out what’s going on, maybe save Kai, and kick some ass along the way.

My feelings about this book are much the same as the first: I really appreciate the setting, and the fact that the background mythology is somewhat out of the ordinary. It’s certainly a quick read, and short of feeling that sometimes the plot requires Maggie to be hit with an idiot stick, I enjoy it. It doesn’t stand out for me from the urban fantasy crowd, though; in the sense of the tone and style and overall plot arc, it feels fairly typical. Maggie and Kate Daniels are not a world apart by any means.

I’m not uninterested in future books in this world, but I’m not dying to get my hands on them right now, either. (I mean, good, because there are no other published books in the series, but you know what I mean.) I enjoy them, but it doesn’t feel as fresh as I’d like. It doesn’t have to — I’m not saying Roanhorse has to come up with something amazingly new and fresh in terms of plot, just because she’s using something off the beaten path for the setting; it’s perfectly fun as it is! But for me, I’d have liked to go a bit further afield.

Rating: 3/5

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