Tag: SF/F


Review – The Magpie Lord

Posted 23 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Magpie Lord by K.J. CharlesThe Magpie Lord, K.J. Charles

As always with Charles’ work, this book is entertaining, sometimes funny, and an almost distressingly quick read. I wanted more! Not that the story isn’t complete: that isn’t it. It’s just that I ended up wanting to spend more time with the characters: not just Crane and Stephen, though the tension between them and their back-and-forth is undeniably fun, but Crane’s man Merrick as well. Crane is the remaining scion of a dissolute family; Merrick has been with him since he was banished to China, and is as faithful to him as a hound. They’ve been through all kinds of adventures before Crane is ever cursed, so he trusts Crane and wants to save him from the curse. Stephen Day, a magician who says he can help Crane, hates him on principle due to the depredations of his father and brother.

Of course, Stephen quickly finds out he’s wrong to assume the present Lord Crane is the same as his family, and he finds himself drawn into Crane’s orbit as he struggles to figure out the magic that surrounds him and unwind the hatred and dark magic that seems to be choking Crane and his estate. As an additional draw, Crane turns out to be the descendant of a powerful magician, one all English practitioners know of. Also, surprise surprise, he’s physically attracted to Crane. (If you know Charles’ work, this shouldn’t be a surprise at all — nor is it a spoiler that they get together.)

The background story is pretty dark and icky, and there’s one awful scene — well-written, but horrible to read — in which another magician forces Crane to choke on his own cut hair. All’s well that ends well, though, with plenty of room for more stories. Which I know exist, so I’ll be off in search of those now.

Obviously not one for people who aren’t into LGBT romances, but a fun fantasy-mystery for those who are. There are sex scenes, which didn’t seem to be absolutely necessary for the plot, but did add to character development.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ballad of Black Tom

Posted 22 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValleThe Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle

It would probably help me appreciate this if I’d read Lovecraft’s original story, but on the other hand, I don’t really ever want to read Lovecraft, so there’s that! LaValle rewrites one of Lovecraft’s short stories, partly from the point of view of a young black man. Unsurprisingly, it comments on racism in the US both modern and longer entrenched: that part is easy enough to appreciate, even for an outsider. The response to Lovecraft is a bit beyond me: I don’t know if Black Tom is a character from Lovecraft or invented for the purpose, even.

It doesn’t feel like a novella about a character or a place or even an event, in the end: it does feel very much like a response — to the original, and to the world. I enjoyed that, though I imagine plenty of people will be complaining about stupid SJWs, etc.

There are some genuinely icky-squicky bits (well-written, but difficult to read) and moments of horrid claustrophobia, along with the awful and all too familiar treatment of people of colour by the police, which is equally horrifying. It’s well written, but I feel like I’m missing the point through not knowing the original.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Hobbit

Posted 15 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

A long-time love of mine, I reread this because I wanted the Werther’s Originals taste/feel of the book, because stresss (which is over now, hurrah!). The main charm for me lies in what came of it later, along with the paternal and knowing tone of the narrator. The narrative voice has always felt warm to me — cognisant of the characters’ faults, and sometimes gently pointing them out, but always with a deep good-naturedness. And then, of course, there’s the world: perhaps not quite fully realised by the time of writing The Hobbit, but stretching out before and beyond it, even if the brushstrokes are broad.

There are many things tone-wise that don’t quite fit with The Lord of the Rings, and the text itself was revised to fit in with the later material — but so cleverly, playing with the textual history of the story, tying together the real with the imagined. I love all the things Tolkien did with creating texts within his stories: that too is part of what makes his world real, that there are books and histories that are relevant to the world… there are few people who do it quite as well, and it’s always a delight.

Of the story itself: a rather ordinary middle-class hobbit, comfortable in his world of small social engagements, good food and convenience, ends up swept into an adventure involving trolls, goblins, magic rings and (in the end) a dragon. He’s the most clearly delineated of the characters, with many of the dwarves being mere thumbnail sketches: nonetheless, it works (with one or two dwarves picked out for slightly more detail here and there to keep them from being entirely props, and Gandalf being the enigmatically fascinating sorcerer of somewhat unknown motive in the whole affair). It’s definitely pitched more at children, though there’s something about the tone that I think makes it a delight at any age. As a fantasy book, taken alone, it’s not all that astounding. It mingles some lore together, barely hinting at the more cohesive and seriously built world Tolkien would later introduce to us.

In the end, it’s a typical quest story  — it’s Tolkien’s world and his narrative voice that make it for me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – War Cry

Posted 11 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of War Cry by Brian McClellanWar Cry, Brian McClellan

Received to review via Netgalley

I haven’t read any of McClellan’s longer work yet, so this novella from Tor seemed like a good point to jump in, really! It’s set during a war in a fantasy setting, with very familiar attributes — there’s propaganda, there’s airplanes, everyone’s running short and coaxing coffee out of months’ old grounds… but there’s also wizards, of at least two kinds: shapeshifters, and those who can cast illusions. We don’t get some big overview of the war: it’s fairly tight in to a little squad who have been taking losses, fighting hard, and living right on the edge. They get a chance to do a risky mission to get some supplies so they have food and maybe even coffee. And, predictably, it goes wrong.

It feels like there’s a lot more room for story in this world, whether that be an extended version of this story or a series of novellas. It’s not terribly unsatisfying on its own, because there is a kind of end to the immediate plot, but there’s so much more in the world that we don’t get to see, so much more for the characters to do, that it doesn’t feel like a stopping point (more just a pause). There’s room for awesomeness, but it feels like it’s mostly potential right now — an opening act, rather than a story in itself.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – One Way

Posted 8 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of One Way by S.J. MordenOne Way, S.J. Morden

One Way was, in the end, too like a grimmer version of Death of a Clone for me to really enjoy. Even though I’m fairly sure neither was trying to copy the other, the similarities made One Way less enjoyable, mostly because it was the second one I read, and partly because it was rather darker in tone. I’ve seen comparisons with The Martian, but again, I think it was darker in tone than that, and less fascinated by the technical minutiae.

The book follows Frank, a convict who killed his son’s drug dealer in a pre-meditated fashion, and went to prison for it. He’s offered a way out by a company who are trying to build a base for NASA on the moon: he and several other convicts must ship out to Mars, there to spend the rest of their lives, and build the base. It’s cheaper than robot labour for them, and it’s a way out for Frank and the other convicts, so of course they say yes. They go through some gruelling training, but only six months of it (which should probably be a hint right there about how expendable they are, but they don’t seem to twig that fact), and then off they go.

Once they’re woken up from cryosleep on the other end, though, people start to die. As each team member finishes their job and becomes expendable, there’s an equipment failure, a weird leak in the hab… and there’s Frank, slowly realising that these deaths really aren’t accidents.

It’s not a cast particularly designed to arouse sympathy: they’re not out and out bastards in everything they do, but you know that each of them killed people, and each of them is capable of some terrible things. The camaraderie between them is fragile, and so is the reader’s willingness to root for them. In the end, I was mostly sitting back to see how each one of them died and when, without really caring much about the outcome. Not ideal!

It’s not a bad idea for a novel, but peopled with such generally terrible people, it’s not something I found particularly compelling either. And I never believed in the promise of a second chance that Frank was offered: it was too obviously too good to be true. That left me feeling like it was just going through the motions, and I was glad to be done.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Daughter of Mystery

Posted 2 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose JonesDaughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

It took me ages to get round to reading this, but it turned out to be pretty delightful once I finally did, and I want to read more set in the same world. (Good thing there is more!) It’s basically around (I think) 18th century Europe, only with magic, and it’s set in a Ruritania-like fictional European country, with mixed European elements to the language and culture. The two main characters are two rather different girls: one girl from a well-off but not noble family, and one girl with no family name who serves the nobility as a swordswoman. The general cultural attitude toward women is somewhat straitlaced, and Margerit is headed for a dancing season and then marriage as quickly as possible, despite her scholarly tendencies — while Barbara is an oddity and not exactly socially acceptable, though protected by the patronage of the baron she serves.

Of course, the Baron has it in mind to meddle, and the two girls are quickly thrown together after he dies, leaving his title to an annoying relative but all the non-ancestral lands — and his wealth — to Margerit, his goddaughter… along with Barbara, who remains in service and thus can be more or less given to Margerit through the terms of the will.

As the story unfolds, it slowly becomes apparent that there’s a deeper game going on, with political implications — and also that Margerit is more remarkable than those around her thing, as she’s able to see and manipulate the ‘mysteries’ by petitioning the saints. There’s a solid and satisfying story there even without the relationship that develops between Margerit and Barbara. In itself, the romance is a fairly slight story, with the standard impossibilities and misunderstandings and lack of communication: it kept my attention because of the larger story within which it plays out.

It’s a fascinating take on the usual ‘medieval European fantasy’ type setting (although not quite medieval, I know), and I enjoyed it. It mostly steers clear of tarring any character with too black a brush, though I found it weird that Margerit’s cousin is quickly forgiven by her for attempting to sexually assault her, and I wasn’t entirely keen on how often the threat of rape and abduction arose (often just to explain why Barbara would need to stay so close to Margerit, I think). Some of the side characters are fascinating, and I’ll be glad to see more of them in the other books, particularly Antuniet.

Overall, as a fantasy novel alone it’s not groundbreaking, and as a romance alone it’s probably too focused on the other plot. Taken together, and with the fact that it’s a lesbian romance, it turns into something quite absorbing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – In the Vanishers’ Palace

Posted 1 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 10 Comments

Cover of In The Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de BodardIn the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard

Received to review via Netgalley

I wanted and expected to love this story. It’s a queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast, based on Vietnamese folklore with sci-fi elements as well, and dragons. There’s even a sci-fi library that I really want to exist. I pre-ordered it, requested it on Netgalley, and generally waited on tenterhooks. How did I find it? Well.

It opens promisingly enough: Yên, the daughter of a healer, is traded to a dragon in exchange for her healing powers. It’s clear they live in a post-apocalyptic universe, with viruses wracking the human population and contagion spreading from person to person. As a failed scholar, she’s just not valuable to her village, and so she’s traded away in order to save one of the leaders’ daughters. Off she goes to live with Vu Côn, the dragon, to look after her children — and it turns out that Vu Côn lives in a palace made by those who wrecked the world and disappeared, and the children aren’t any ordinary dragons.

After the start, though, I rarely felt like I understood what was happening or why. Or rather, I could give you a running summary for the whole story, but I felt all adrift; I didn’t know why things were happening, I didn’t catch the undercurrents, and the relationship between Vu Côn and Yên came completely out of nowhere from my point of view. I do like a story where I have to work for it, where I have to figure out where I stand and how this world is different to ours, but I don’t think that was the problem. It was more the characters and their motivations that never worked for me (or when they did, it was only for a few pages). The setting itself was fascinating, but. But.

I seem to be fairly alone in that, looking around at bloggers I trust, which makes me almost reluctant to admit that I just really did not get it. And it makes me reluctant to give this a poor rating, but… my ratings have to be my ratings, not how I think I ought to rate a book.

It’s clear there’s plenty here that’s enchanting other people, and in many ways I’m an aberration. I’ll be passing on my copy to my sister and seeing if it ticks her boxes!

Rating: 2/5

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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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