Tag: SF/F

Review – Shades of Milk and Honey

Posted 21 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey is essentially meant to be the novel Jane Austen would write if a magic called “Glamour” was considered an art that gently bred women should practice as part of the small touches that make a house a home. Jane Ellsworth is a plain woman, almost old enough to be entirely on the shelf, but she has a good heart and a talent for magic. Despite her fears of being a spinster forever, her talents draw the attention of several men in this book. And despite her fears of being eclipsed by her pretty sister Melody, her good sense and her talent are what carries the day, as she finds romance with someone who initially overlooked her and disparaged her talents, but who grows to appreciate what she can do and the person she is.

I don’t know what it is about this book, but it’s really grown on me with each reading — and even though it wasn’t something I loved the first time I read it, it really stuck in my head somehow. Partly because Kowal does do a compelling job of weaving magic into a fairly Austen-esque Regency novel: she’s fit it into society, thought about the implications for various trades, for war, etc. Possibly I’m also a bit of a sucker for the romance, for the way plain Jane and surly Vincent come together.

Also, it’s just really good to sink into and read all in one go.

I suspect it also helps that the later books use the setting but go on to fill it out: it’s not just magic and manners, but also political implications, and a bit more of the alternate history that would result. Having read Glamour in Glass and Without a Summer, this sets up a larger plot about progress and change; this book doesn’t contain much of it, but without it the themes couldn’t be developed so easily in the other books. If you do find Shades of Milk and Honey a little slight, but find the world interesting, the other books definitely expand on that!

But I’ve come to appreciate it for itself, as well. Possibly I was still being a snob about romance the first time I read it…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Raven Tower

Posted 18 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of The Raven Tower by Ann LeckieThe Raven Tower, Ann Leckie

Received to review from the publisher

I was so excited when I first heard about this book, and extra excited to come back from a weekend away to a pre-publication copy waiting for me, along with a bag, pin and bookmark! So you can imagine that I was super-eager to dive into it — and dive I did.

To get it out of the way straight away: yes, the point of view is second person. But there is a character telling the story, not to the reader but to a character within the story, for a reason. I thought the narration was brilliantly handled, especially at such length. In retrospect, perhaps some of it came across a little exposition-heavy, but I was so fascinated with the ideas that it worked perfectly for me. Yes, the point of view does limit certain things, particularly the understanding of what characters (other than the Strength and Patience of the Hill) are thinking and feeling — but that would be the case with an ordinary first-person narrative as well, if you think about it.

This didn’t turn out the way I expected, really — I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, really, but certain characters drove events with a strength of feeling and stubbornness I wasn’t expecting. I don’t want to say too much, because spoilers at this stage are really unfair, and I do think that you need the whole book’s build-up to give you the slightly stunned daaaamn but also of course that I had at the end of the book!

I think the world-building is beautifully handled without relying on medieval fantasy tropes. I especially enjoyed that one of the main characters (the “you” the story is addressed to, in fact) is trans, in a way that is essential and authentic for the character, without the plot leaning on it. It flavours the interactions and decisions of the character without being a huge issue. I know for some people the question would be “is it necessary” — and to that, the answer is no, but my answer is “perhaps not, but is it necessary for the character to be cisgender?” (Also no.)

Also, it took me far too long to pick up on the fact that this is essentially Hamlet, in many ways.

All in all, for me, the hype was justified. Leckie hasn’t written a typical fantasy novel as some people expected, but she didn’t write typical SF, either. I’m not sure this one will have the impact of the Imperial Radch books, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, and I’m so glad and grateful I got to read it early.

Rating: 5/5

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DNF Review – Hidden Sun

Posted 25 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Hidden Sun by Jaine FennHidden Sun, Jaine Fenn

Received to review via Netgalley

Well, thank goodness for other people’s reviews.

I was enjoying reading this, intrigued by the world and rather appreciative of one of the main female characters’ and her drive to understand the world. I can definitely appreciate a scholar! There were a few things that I felt weren’t really set up well enough — rather than feeling like I was understanding the world as I read, I felt like I was missing key pieces of information. It took a long time to understand what was going on in terms of skykin/shadowkin, and I’m still not clear (having stopped around 30% of the way through the book) what’s going on with the shadowlands and the skylands.

I was quite prepared to sit tight and keep working through that, but I had a quick Google to see if the description of the book prepared me any better, or anyone’s reviews; maybe someone would say something that would make everything fall into place for me (and make me feel like an idiot).

Instead, I found The Captain‘s review. Thank goodness I did, because I’m fairly sure I would’ve found the described rape scenes upsetting; having skimmed ahead in the book, I know for sure that I find the behaviour of a main character’s brother, and the main character’s reaction to it, disgusting. It turns out, after a long search for him, that Rhia’s brother Etyan was part of gang-raping a girl who he then found dead after going to pay her off for her silence. Rightly fearing what would happen, having found her dead, he ran away. And Rhia decides to forgive him, because although he brutally raped a girl, he didn’t kill her. So she decides to forgive him, because he was just being young and stupid, and at least he wasn’t as bad as she’d feared.

Gag. Spare me. I’ll read something else. Some of the ideas in this book intrigued me, but I’m not going to invest the time for that payoff.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Greenwitch

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

Cover of Greenwitch by Susan CooperGreenwitch, Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the shortest book in the sequence — in my collected edition it is, anyway — but I find that there’s a lot more to chew on than in the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone. Here the world of the first book and the world of Will Stanton collide, and we glimpse both the high purpose and the kids at play. There’s more moral complexity here, a little more maturity… and then there’s also those very human kids getting jealous because Will’s friends with their Great-Uncle Merry.

I think the most appealing thing about this book for me is firstly the focus on Jane, on her actions, on her decency and insight as a human being actually being the key that unlocks victory for the Light… and secondly all the weird and wonderful hauntings of Cornwall that Cooper invokes. I want to know all the background of the weird night of horrors Jane glimpses relived due to the Greenwitch; I want to know who captains the black ship… It’s all fascinating and tantalising, and Cooper never explains too much. She leaves us wondering.

It’s not my favourite book of the sequence by far, but it has its own wild magic, for sure.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Dark is Rising

Posted 5 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

The Dark is Rising by Susan CooperThe Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper

It strikes me, reading these books now, that just as Tolkien tried to write ‘a mythology for England’, so did Cooper try to write ‘a mythology for Britain’. This book is addressed rather insularly to the British reader — the Old Ones are ‘as old as this land’, not ‘as old as Britain’: the reader is assumed to be British. However, and this is a relief for me, the reader is rarely if ever assumed to be a child or to belong to a particular era or group of people. Cooper is more subtle in her editorial than Tolkien or Lewis (given here as examples because both of them speak directly to the reader a good deal).

All the same, it’s a mythology for Britain, or even of Britain (don’t get Tolkien scholars arguing too much about which he said and what he meant): even in the most juvenile of the books, Over Sea, Under Stone, there’s a good deal about invaders assimilating and becoming British, about the power of the British character. It’s explicit, oddly enough, when Will’s father speaks to Merriman: “You’re not English, are you?” And Will is surprised to notice hostility in his usually mild father’s eyes. (And I was surprised to note that he said English; I shouldn’t have been, given the historical gulf between Welsh and English, but I thought this series in particular would be better about that, given the setting of the fourth and fifth books, and the narrative importance of King Arthur and his very Welsh son.)

Perhaps a modern liberal writer would be inclined to paint the Dark not as the invader, but the insider who refuses to change. Not the waves of invaders (or migrants, or refugees, depending on how you view them) but those who insist upon Englishness as an inherent good that can be corrupted and ruined by contact with the non-English… Mind you, Cooper covers that angle too, in Silver on the Tree, so I’m getting ahead of myself.

Putting the insularity of the book aside, The Dark is Rising is the first in the series to give a real idea of what’s going on. It’s here that the mythology takes shape: the Light versus the Dark, the role that Merriman (and now Will, and the other Old Ones we’re introduced to) has to play, and some of the tangled British legends that contribute — Herne the Hunter, the anonymous king given a partially Viking ship burial (suggested by Drout as being the son of Scyld Scefing, from Beowulf), Merlin…

It’s also the first to evoke and try to portray more adult emotions. Instead of being purely focused on children, this book has an odd half-life. Sometimes Will is a child (and behaves as such, forgivably — his moment of jubilation when the Dark are drawn back, which leads to the Lady having to expend her power, is a lovely touch in my opinion) and sometimes he’s much older than his years, understanding of the nature of people, time, religion… So you have both his delight in snow on his birthday, and his lonely understanding that he is now set utterly apart from his family, from everyone he has ever loved. The story of Merriman and Hawkin is full of love and regret, and is not a simple story of betrayal and forgiveness: there is much going on between the two that a younger reader can simply ignore, but the older reader can savour as a more complex layer on top of the adventure story.

There are also some beautiful set-pieces in this book: some of the descriptions of awe and delight in the magic of the Light, but also the moments of being part of a family, the warmth of Will’s family Christmas.

It’s worn better than Over Sea, Under Stone because there is a lot more to consider, but all the same, I think I need to set it aside for a couple more years now so I can come back to it fresh. That I will come back, I have no doubt.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Over Sea, Under Stone

Posted 4 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan CooperOver Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper

At one point, I read The Dark is Rising trilogy at Christmas every year, lining up the timeline of The Dark is Rising itself with the season, as the most obviously timed event in the books. I still maintain that it’s a good series: Cooper did some clever things with mythology and history. I recently read an article by Michael D.C. Drout, ‘Reading the Signs of the Light’, which made that very clear (though that essay is more focused on the second book of the series onwards than on this one). Cooper also has a very deft touch with character: the children behave like real children, with their bursts of moodiness, sibling rivalries, etc.

The main issue, really, is that I’ve read these books too much. Everything is all too familiar — though there are scenes that bring back the old dread and excitement even so, like Barney’s journey alone into the cave under the rocks, and Simon’s chase scene when he escapes with the map. This is the most juvenile of the books, and has worn the least well, all the same. It’s focused on the story from the point of view of the children, without a real idea of the seriousness and significance of the quest.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Tea Master and the Detective

Posted 14 December, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Teamaster and the Detective by Aliette de BodardThe Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

This is basically a Sherlock Holmes retelling, set in de Bodard’s Xuya universe of short stories and novellas, where Watson is actually a sentient ship, and the mystery involves a body dumped into the equivalent of hyperspace, through which humans can’t travel without a ship to protect them and a cocktail of drugs (served in teas, traditionally, though presumably the format doesn’t necessarily have to be a tea) to keep them from going insane.

Of course, the ship, The Shadow’s Child, is less blindly fascinated by the Holmes character (Long Chau) than Watson is in the original stories, and there’s a certain friction between them throughout. The ship doesn’t like Long Chau’s attitudes (she can be abrasive) and is suspicious of her past. The Shadow’s Child has her own tragic past, in which she lost her crew, her family, in an accident — in those deep areas of space that the mindships are able to navigate and from which humans need protection. Naturally, the mystery — and Long Chau’s incisive commentary on her understanding of The Shadow’s Child — end by drawing the ship into the space she fears, in order to prevent further tragedies. Likewise, there are links to Long Chau’s own history and her past disgraceful involvement in the disappearance of a young woman she was tutoring.

Ultimately, the story is perhaps less about the actual mystery and more about that interplay between the two personalities — and The Shadow’s Child eventual decision to face her fears in order to rescue Long Chau and another human, at the conclusion of the mystery. There’s definitely room for more in this world (of course, since it’s part of a whole series of not-necessarily-connected stories) and with these characters: I’ll be interested to read whatever might come of that in future.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Rogue Protocol

Posted 2 December, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha WellsRogue Protocol, Martha Wells

In this installment of the Murderbot series, our favourite SecUnit ends up protecting a new group of humans (at some risk to itself, as ever), finding out more conspiracies and hinky things going on, and making friends with a human-form robot who starts off too twee for words and yet somehow grows on both Murderbot and the reader. I do miss ART and dearly hope that all of Murderbot’s friends can come together somehow for Netflix and popcorn, but it’s another fun adventure all the same. The ending got to me, actually, more than I expected: Wells does a great job of making the companions of the week (so to speak!) relatable.

If you’re new to Murderbot, don’t start here. Despite the companion-of-the-week issue I slightly have with the series, the background information about SecUnits isn’t present in this book, which would make it unclear for a new reader, and Murderbot’s past is a big part of what drives it in the books too. Starting at the beginning and going through chronologically seems best to me.

I’m excited to see how the final novella wraps everything up: I have it open in my Kobo app. Here goes!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sandman Slim

Posted 30 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard KadreySandman Slim, Richard Kadrey

I’ve had this book for ages, so I felt it behooved me to finally pick it up! It turns out to be a fairly typical urban fantasy book: it feels very Supernatural, with the angels and demons and the humans stuck in between; the guns and blood and guts and gore (although of course I’m talking about later seasons when it comes to the apocalyptic stuff). The main character, Stark, always had a natural aptitude for magic, and let his arrogance about it suck him into a group that eventually sacrificed him to demons for power. Now he’s back, and he wants revenge. It’s all so familiar and a little tired, and Stark’s attitude is much the same.

I did enjoy his dedication to his murdered lover — he’s such a tough guy, but then he adores the very ground she used to walk on. However, that’s also a problem in terms of originality: a fridged girlfriend, really? Really?!

In the end, it’s fairly fast-paced (with one or two boggy parts) and amusing, but I’m not sold enough on the whole thing to actually pick up the rest of the series. Not enough room in one lifetime. It probably gets better later on in the series, but… the dark/gritty aspect is not really for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Testament of Loki

Posted 25 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Testament of Loki by Joanne HarrisThe Testament of Loki, Joanne Harris

Received to review

I’ve been enjoying Joanne Harris’ Norse myth based works for a while, but this one just seemed a bit too goofy for me, for all that I like the characters and the idea. In this book, after Ragnarok, Loki finds a way out of Chaos through… a mythology-based video game, and then the brain of a teenage girl. He quickly finds that Odin has also found the same way into the world, and of course, Odin also wants to bring his son Thor through, and he’s already found the perfect host for Freyja…

Honestly, the possession bit just freaked me out: Loki’s tendency to take over Jumps (his teenage host) when he feels like it is just squicky to me, while the Aesir in the bodies of teenagers is also a bit cringy. It’s a shame, because Harris’ take has been generally clever, funny and transformative in a good way; her Loki voice is great. But this specific story just really does not work for me.

Rating: 2/5

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