Tag: SF/F

Review – Desdemona and the Deep

Posted September 20, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. CooneyDesdemona and the Deep, C.S.E. Cooney

Desdemona and the Deep is a novella featuring a descent into the underworld/otherworld, following mostly the title character, Desdemona. Fae and goblins and the weirdness of the otherworld are the order of the day, though Desdemona starts as a spoilt, rich girl, totally cranky about her mother’s benefit for girls with “phossy jaw” (an element of real-world history which is more or less copy/pasted into Desdemona’s world, which is quite conscious of other worlds). From there, it’s not entirely clear why she takes exception to her father making a deal with a powerful underworld creature, tithing 10% of his miners’ lives in order to get new reserves of oil. Nonetheless, she does, forms a plan for going there, and sets out to win back those lives which have been traded away for her comfortable existence.

(She never really seems to care that this has happened before and it’s not just the 36 names she’s seen in the paper that have been sacrificed on the altar of her love of luxury, including a woman to dress her, endless amounts of good alcohol, designer dresses, art, artists, and more or less anything else she wants.)

Throughout the first half of the book, her best friend Chaz is referred to with male pronouns. Once she reaches the underworld with Desdemona, though, she transitions magically and female pronouns are immediately applied — and Desdemona later says that she always knew Chaz was really female. The tight third POV thus makes Desdemona a misgendering asshole, and the fact Desdemona and the narration all switch to she only when Chaz has a physical form that matches is a really shitty way to deal with a trans character.

The rest of the story is kind of a meh plot that’s been done a gazillion times before: descent into the otherworld, fae contract must be broken, captive must be saved, etc, etc, etc. I liked Chaz, of whom there was not enough and who was misgendered for half the book; I was not keen on Desdemona, who besides being spoilt was a misgendering mean girl who also made shitty comments about the girls with phossy jaw. I think we’re meant to come to like Desdemona, but I never got past the impression that she was playacting concern. The ending maybe alleviates that a little, but too little and too late.

People have commented about the beauty of the prose; it definitely had some high points, but it didn’t stick out to me in particular, so that wasn’t a saving grace for it either. I might have generously given it a three on enjoyment, but I’m also toying with the idea of a one because of the grossness surrounding Chaz. For now, let’s say it averages out to two.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Thornbound

Posted September 19, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Thornbound by Stephanie BurgisThornbound, Stephanie Burgis

Thornbound is the sequel to Snowspelled, set in a Britain where Boudicca beat back the Romans, leading to a British system where women rule and make the hard decisions, and softer, more emotional men do magic. The partnership between a spellcaster and a political woman is important in this world, leaving somewhat more equality between the sexes in some ways, but shutting down the career prospects of women who are capable of magic or men who wish to do otherwise. Cassandra chose to do magic while her brother chose to be a historian, despite their famous family and legacy, and though Cassandra has lost her own magic, now she’s set up a school to teach other girls like herself. Unfortunately, there are certain political forces set against her…

I don’t 100% love the gender role flip, to be honest. It feels a little too, well, flippant. I’d like to see a bit more of how it works and why it works before I really believe in it? Which these novellas are a little too slight to provide.

Nonetheless, in other respects I like this book a lot: I enjoy Cassandra’s relationship with her family, and particularly her relationship with her sister-in-law. I adore that these are people who care about each other and build each other up (and I wish it wasn’t set against the petty woman who wants her to fail because it might disturb the social order — obviously in this setting a man wouldn’t have the pull a woman would, but I hate the tropes of women bullying and sniping at each other in rivalry, and this kind of hit that for me).

I also adore Cassandra and Wrexham; there’s not really enough of that relationship in this book for my tastes, and yet it is at the heart of what Cassandra is doing… I adore that they sit down and talk about it (eventually) and start figuring out a course in life that will work for both of them, fulfil all of their dreams.

I’d happily read more in this world, for sure, I’d just like some things firmed up a bit so they don’t feel so contrived.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Spectred Isle

Posted September 18, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spectred Isle by K.J. CharlesSpectred Isle, K.J. Charles

Spectred Isle is set in the aftermath of the First World War, and much of the book is spent trying to find sense and a place in that post-war world. One main character is Saul Lazenby, an archaeologist who ended his war in disgrace after his homosexual love affair landed him in hot water; the other is Randolph Glyde, heir to an illustrious family and last survivor. Saul’s getting by through working for a harmless crank who wants every last sacred well or mysterious ghost story investigated, and Randolph’s trying to do all kinds of jobs at once, carrying on his family’s ancient duty to protect the land from supernatural influences.

Naturally, the two come together, both personally and professionally; they spend a good portion of the book dancing around it, but then quickly find that the other offers everything they’ve been lacking — Saul gets a purpose again, while Randolph finds Saul the answer to his worries about a significant part of his family duty, but then also they offer healing and hope to each other on a personal level as well. I love the way their relationship is written: they communicate forthrightly, make it clear what they each want, and also make it clear what the catch is. Randolph might be eager to have Saul in his life, but he’s not eager to do so on false pretences.

(For those mostly here for the romance, yes, there is a HEA, and there are several sex scenes.)

I’d love to know so much more about this world, which means I’d happily read any other books in this world, which at the moment means The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I have so many questions about the other characters, about the way things work, about the complications doubtless ahead for Randolph and Saul with the guardianship of the Moat, with the Shadow Ministry, etc, etc. Sadly, looks like book two has got into some tangles and is on hold. Luckily, Saul and Randolph’s story is complete enough in itself to be satisfying, so don’t let that hold you back!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Strange Practice

Posted September 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian ShawStrange Practice, Vivian Shaw

Yep, I reread it again.

Strange Practice is a delight of a book which grows (it seems to me, anyway) from a question: “What do monsters do when they get sick?” And then, “What kind of ailments would they have, anyway?” Greta Helsing (yes, a descendent of that Helsing) is a doctor who specialises in the diseases of the monstrous. Mummies with decaying bones, ghouls with depression, banshees with sore throats — and vampires with concerning stab wounds they somehow aren’t recovering from. Which is where the story starts, really, and from where Greta plunges into a fight to protect the monstrous of London.

The reason I find it so delightful is because it has so much heart. I know “hopepunk” is typically considered to be more on the scientific end of spec-fic, but this book fits the bill for me. It shouldn’t be radical when Greta says that it is her duty to help and heal the monstrous, regardless of what they have done. But it is — her caring is radical, and a message I think is deeply necessary when Britain is splintering in the way it is. Has probably always been necessary, because humans are far too prone to drawing sharp lines.

I also enjoy that Greta is a deeply capable doctor, and that she relies on the people around her to do things that aren’t medical. However much she wants to be a hero (or at least doesn’t want to be the one left behind wondering how the heroes are doing), her first priority is the importance she has in the community. She knows that if they lose her, they lose something they need, and so she accepts the need for her companions to go and face the Big Bad without her.

Speaking of her companions… it is also delightful to follow Sir Edmund Ruthven and Varney the Vampyre around modern London. I adore the way the book deals with their long lives — Varney with much melancholy and hibernation, Ruthven by learning new skills constantly. Including, for example, latte art. Also, he drove an ambulance during the Blitz. There are so many delightful details in the way Shaw brings these characters to life.

This was the third time I read this book, because I was feeling down and glum and needed to whole-heartedly enjoy something which wasn’t grim, or cynical, or angry. This was an excellent choice, once more, and I heartily recommend it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – To Be Taught, if Fortunate

Posted September 2, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky ChambersTo Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers

This novella is a stand-alone which explores many of the same themes as Chambers’ award-winning Wayfarers books: there’s a deeper focus on science, but there are also the same themes of family, friendship, what’s worth it in life. It follows the fortunes of a small crew who are surveying planets far, far from Earth, investigating all manner of things — including life. It’s an optimistic view of the universe in terms of biology: there’s some form of life everywhere the crew go. Throughout, it’s clear that what they’re doing is not necessary — this isn’t about terraforming, finding somewhere new for people to live, finding resources… it’s about discovery, the joy and wonder of it.

It’s not much of a story, really. There’s a fair bit of explanation about why the scientific things are significant, and there’s a dryness to the tone in a lot of places because of the format (a report back to Earth). There is a payoff, but it definitely wasn’t as emotional as the Wayfarers books, and I didn’t feel particularly close to the characters. In fact, I’ve mostly forgotten their names already, though I do remember some things about them and how they reacted to the events — I’m not saying this is a dead loss, at all.

It’s a good short read, with a theme I can get behind — the importance of discovery for discovery’s sake — but I hoped for more, I think is my conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Blue Salt Road

Posted September 1, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The Blue Salt Road, Joanne Harris

The Blue Salt Road is a take on the myths of selkies: seal-people who can shed their sealskin and become humans, and can be trapped on land by the theft of their skins. This is mostly told in a stripped back, fairytale sort of register; you’re told how characters feel, but there is a lot of telling (and intentionally so: that isn’t a criticism, because that style is deliberate). For the most part, it’s a straight retelling: a girl lures a selkie from the sea and loves him, and then hides his sealskin to keep him on land with her.

What Harris adds to the tale is a little more psychology — examination of the girl’s reasons, of the selkie’s feelings, of how he tries to fit in with the human world he’s been pulled into… and examination of the grief and loss and betrayal inherent in the story.

For all that the shape of the story is pretty traditional, I found the ending a surprise — and in a good way. I’m not sure I believe that the selkie will be happy with the final shape of his life, and there’s still a lot of grief and betrayal… but there’s also a very human and real determination to make something of it. Nobody dies of pure grief here, as in a fairytale: instead, people must carry on.

I enjoyed this a lot, and thought it did quite a bit with the story while keeping a fairytale-style narration.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Turning Darkness into Light

Posted August 31, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Turning Darkness into Light, Marie Brennan

Received to review via Netgalley

I wanted to get this reviewed before it came out, but I also didn’t want to do it a disservice and rush it. To be quite honest with you, I basked in having this world to dive into anew, after some time has passed in that world; I adore what Brennan does in the Lady Trent books with showing scientific progress and academic endeavour, and I had the same feeling here. Being both a biology graduate and a literature postgraduate (and one who focused on languages and translation fairly heavily for a while), this world has now reflected so much of my experience it makes me quite squeeful. I know Audrey is much better at translating Draconaean than I ever was at Anglo-Saxon or Old Icelandic, but some of the struggles in reading are similar — and the process of academic review and piecing things together across texts is even more familiar.

(I mean, nor am I as experienced and high level a biologist as Lady Trent is a naturalist; still, there are commonalities, and Isabella and Audrey’s struggle for status is still relevant for female-bodied folks in STEM today, soooo…)

The thing is, in conclusion, that Brennan is just so clever in the way she puts together the work. The way she invents these ancient texts: the structures of them, the lacunae, the difficulty in understanding things that rely on context. The way she understands the process is so clear — which makes sense, given her background in anthropology, but that doesn’t always mean one will be good at writing it. Brennan is.

And that only touches on half the book! There’s also an exploration of what it might be like to be the granddaughter of someone like Isabella, explorations of the developments in Draconaean civilisation since she found the Sanctuary… and delightful bits like Audrey causing a riot (of course) and Isabella dismissing someone as a potential partner for Audrey because he’s not a sound scholar, and all the politics which Audrey manages to entangle herself in… It all comes together very satisfyingly.

Perhaps my only criticism is that Audrey is very like Isabella; their voices are similar, and you can be pretty sure that whatever Isabella would have done in a situation, Audrey will do as well. Obviously, there’s reasons for that, and good ones, but it makes the book feel less its own thing and more like it’s more of the same. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I hope if we see more of Audrey, she does more forging of her own way. (I absolutely want to see more of Audrey.)

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Within the Sanctuary of Wings

Posted August 28, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the last of these books, Lady Trent’s last memoir, and it’s a doozy. It delivers on tiny promises made throughout the other books, drawing everything together so it all makes a new kind of sense. I’m a bit baffled by people who think that the plot twist in this book comes out of nowhere and is not in keeping with what has happened before — we’ve been getting clues about this, hints about the importance of the Draconaeans to Isabella’s story even though she’s not all that interested in them. In some ways, I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming more. It fits exactly with what came before.

So what happens in this final novel? Isabella is told of the body of a new sort of dragon, found preserved in ice somewhere entirely unexpected. Naturally, Isabella has to embark on a hare-brained quest to find the body and record the new information it might bring, and Suhail and Tom are along for the ride. Of course they are.

And of course things don’t go entirely to plan. I fear to say too much even at this point, to avoid spoiling the surprise too much for anyone who still wants to experience it anew. Suffice it to say that this turn in Lady Trent’s career is great, and makes perfect sense.

And I cannot wait for the book following her granddaughter. In fact, I’m going to pick that up right now.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Late Eclipses

Posted August 27, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuireLate Eclipses, Seanan McGuire

In Late Eclipses, there’s a poisoner on the loose, and there’s little doubt in Toby’s mind that it’s someone from her past — Oleander de Merelands, of course. Throughout the book she leads Toby a merry dance, poisoning her allies and friends, and setting her up to look like the bad guy. Obviously some people are eager to seize on that and chase Toby down as a murderer, while others (the usual suspects) are arrayed beside her and behind her, ready to protect her and commit acts of courage and stupidity to keep her safe.

My main problem with this book was that it felt drawn out painfully by the fact that someone kept hitting Toby with the idiot stick. Things that are obvious to the reader are far from obvious to Toby. I can’t believe someone so trusted by her liege, someone who is an investigator no less, would keep making stupid mistakes like this. It’s not even a matter of trusting the wrong people this time — Toby just puts her head down and starts bulling through the obstacles, instead of using her head the less painful way.

There are some great moments — many of them involving Tybalt — and some payoff from hints we’ve been hearing all along. Amandine makes an appearance, remarkably sane for her. It’s fun, I just feel like about 80 pages could’ve been cut by letting Toby use her brain instead of her skull.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Perihelion Summer

Posted August 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Perihelion Summer by Greg EganPerihelion Summer, Greg Egan

Received to review via Netgalley

Perihelion Summer is a what-if story. What if a pair of black holes passed by the solar system, dragging the planets from their established orbits? What would happen on a warmer Earth, with bigger seasonal variations — variations big enough to make parts of the Earth uninhabitable at certain times of year? The novella follows a group of characters who are all kind of blind, including the protagonist whose name I kept forgetting as soon as I learned it. It’s more of an opportunity to play out the what-if than it is to do any kind of introspection. What if there was a group of people on a floating fish breeding factory in the middle of the ocean? What if they worked as part of a flotilla to move people around the world in these circumstances?

If hard SF is your thing, then this might be more your speed: while I can enjoy an idea-based story, I normally require some relateable characters, and to feel like there’s something I care about at stake. I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters or situations; I was reading to be finished, I’m afraid. That’s not as bad in a novella as it might be in a novel, but still. Not really one for me.

Rating: 2/5

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