Girls of Paper and Fire (5*)

Book: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

GoPaFFirst off, apologies for the quiet. Work is pretty busy in the run up to Christmas and I have also been struggling to get into the right mindset to write these. Not sure how well I shall be doing on reviews since I am planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I shall at least endeavour to update you all on my progress with that.

I have been excitedly wanting to read this book since I heard about it. Natasha came to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club and did a reading and from that and what she said about the book I knew I needed it in my life.

To start with, there are not nearly enough genre books written by people of colour and that also tends to mean that the ones that do get published are pretty outstanding and this one is no exception.

The premise also appealed, a love story between two women is still something we also don’t see enough and I am a sucker for fictional romance in many forms.  Not just that, but the nature of the setting being in a harem and dealing with sexual assault meant that it appealed on that front as well. Let me explain that one a bit better. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and to see that sort of story reclaimed by a female writer and including a love story between two survivors, that definitely appealed in a way that male written rape narratives generally do not.

The story follows the lives of women called Paper girls, who belong to the Paper caste and have been chosen to serve in the harem of the King for a year. We mostly follow Lei, who is a late addition to the girls and did not go through the contest to be there that the rest of them did. The relationships between the Paper girls and also others in the Court is well presented and the characters come across as having real depth to them. Even the King is shown to be a complicated person and no one is drawn in straight up black and white terms.

I do want to address something that never struck me as anything of an issue, but after having a conversation with a couple of women at a book event it seems to be a problem for others so I wanted to talk about it. I mentioned before that there are castes, one of which is Paper, who are all human. One of which is the Moon caste, who are fully demon (which in this setting means anthropomorphised animals) and Steel caste, who are part demon, part human.

When I was talking to the two women in question they asked me if I had an issue with the Moon and Steel caste characters being furries, or how did I imagine it in my head since they had sex with humans. The honest answer is, I suppose I have had a good bit of exposure to the idea of animal aspected demons from various Asian cultures so to be it didn’t really seem strange or odd and I certainly never got weirdly sexual about it, though that may be more to do with the fact that I am asexual than anything else.

My advice is, suspend your disbelief, don’t think too much about it and don’t make it all weird. All of the characters in the book are thinking, feeling people, whether they are human or not. If you do that I think you will get a lot more out of the story and not get too hung up on something that I am pretty sure is a difference in cultures.

Honestly this book was fantastic and the story really got to me, both in the power of the representation, the themes of the book in regards to prejudice, society being stratified by race, dealing with sexual abuse and rape. It doesn’t pull punches without being gratuitous. I highly recommend it.

Kingdom of Souls (4.5*)

Book: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

KoS (2)Yup, I know I said I was going to be doing intermittent TV reviews, but since I am a little behind due to getting distracted by LARP things (another hobby of mine) I wanted to get this one done for when the book officially comes out (which is today).

I picked up an ARC of this one from WorldCon, partly because of the utterly gorgeous snake cover (and accompanying snake badge) and partly because fantasy series based on African mythology are still far too rare and I really liked the sound of this one.

Inspired by West African mythology, it’s set in a fictional Kingdom called Tamaran, a young woman called Arrah comes from a magical family but possesses no magic herself. When children in her home city go missing she becomes desperate to find out who or what is responsible and trades years off of her life for the magic she needs to find out. This sets in motion a chain of events that will alter the course of her life.

I could say a lot more about the plot of the book, but anything else would be deeply spoilerific so I won’t do so. There was a lot about this book that I loved though, it has a very strong opening first half, though it does go into pretty dark places so that is definitely something for people to be aware of.

There’s a very Lirael (by Garth Nix) feel to the beginning, a young woman surrounded by her magical family but doesn’t have the same talent and longs for it. It’s a very suffocating feeling and it’s painted really vividly, the pain and longing it causes her is very real. The relationships she has with her parents are also very well done and quite a contrast between the warm, loving relationship with her father and the complicated mess she has with her mother.

Rena weaves a rich tapestry of characters in this world as well as a setting rich with details that really drew me into it, from the beginning with the festival of the clans, to the contrast of life in the city.

Some of the reviews I have read have criticised the pacing and it does get a little frayed towards the end, but I disagree with those who say the book should end after the unconvering of the main mystery, what happened after was a series of emotional gut punches, but I thought was still very good story. I had some slight issues with some of the stuff around the ending which is hard to go into without spoilers.

Honestly though, it was a fairly minor point as the story was excellent, especially for a debut novel and I really look forward to where it’s going from here! It’s going to be a tricky ending to follow on from, but I do believe from what I have seen so far that she can manage it.

 

The Player of Games (3*)

Book: The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

Games“It was not so difficult to understand the warped view the Azadians had of what they called “human nature” – the phrase they used whenever they had to justify something inhuman and unnatural”

And here’s where I feel like I am committing some sort of faux pax in Sci-Fi circles by failing to be particularly fond of the Culture novels which seem to be fairly generally beloved.

I have to admit that I went into this after having failed to get through one of his non Sci-Fi novels as a teenager so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. In the end I didn’t dislike the book as much as I thought I was going to from the start, but I also didn’t find anything particularly amazing in it either.

Perhaps I am reading this at the wrong sort of time, I have read a lot of books that deal with similar subject matter in a way I vastly preferred to this that were mostly written later on, it’s hard to say for sure though since I can only deal with it in the context of when I have read it, which is here in 2019.

The problem I have with it isn’t that the writing is bad, it certainly isn’t (otherwise this score would be a whole lot lower), it’s more that the main protagonist is an ass, I dislike the Culture and the Azadian people he ends up visiting are basically current human society if we had somewhat better tech and had gone to the stars, but also removed almost every good trait from us and were basically just a load of asshole with no visible redeeming features. I basically spent the whole thing wanting bad things to happen to everyone in it and that… was not massively enjoyable I have to say.

Now for sure, it did come across that the author also agrees that his main character is an asshole, but the problem was that I wasn’t really given anyone or anything to really care about for the whole story. This, combined with the fact that I ended up disliking both civilisations, left me cold. There is also a reveal at the end which came across in a smug, superior way and yes, this is meant to be because of who is narrating it, but it was just pouring oil on a fire to me. I do want to explore this more, but I need to get into spoiler territory so I shall do that further down.

Before I do that I did want to try and find some positive things to say, because I didn’t hate the story, it just disappointed and annoyed me in a number of places. I will say that The Culture is, in some ways, a fairly progressive setting for its time, so it is a shame that it is barely explored at all. I do like that the main character is mostly presented as an unlikeable asshole, too many authors would seem to love this sort of character unironically and he doesn’t.

There are also good themes and ideas in the book, which I did appreciate. Just for me I have seen them done elsewhere in ways more suiting to my taste. I will also admit I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Culture, but a genderfluid, sexuality fluid utopia written in the late 90s was not it (good surprise if you hadn’t guessed). I will say that I thought The Left Hand of Darkness did this sort of exploration of gender differences in a much better way and earlier. The fact that Gurgeh, a straight male (he is clearly shown as such in the books) was the protagonist of such a culture was honestly deeply disappointing.

“All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules.”

Continue reading

The Wolf in the Whale (4*)

Book: The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

WolfI am going to continue to catch up on books that I have read further back and failed to review yet, so this is another of my normal book club books that we did a few months back and I haven’t written up.

The setting for this book definitely caught my interest, it’s set I think in Greenland, or if not there exactly certainly some area of Canada where the Inuit are from. The time period is around 1000AD and deals with both a clash of cultures between the Inuit and a group of Vikings in the area, but also between the clash of the old gods and the new Christian ones to some extent.

Our lead character is Omat, who is training to talk to the spirits of the land for their tribe, as well as being one of their warriors. The tribe are in difficult times and risk starvation unless they find better hunting or more people. Into this arena come both a group of new Inuit with somewhat different ideas as well as a group of Vikings. Both of which will change the course of Omat’s life.

Right, properly talking about this book is going to be pretty impossible without spoilers so I am going to put everything after this point under a cut. One of the things I am avoiding talking about is often spoilered on the back of the book, but just in case people haven’t seen that (I hadn’t and I felt much better off for it) I shall keep it under a cut for their sakes.

Continue reading

The Goblin Emperor (4*)

Book: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

GoblinSorry for the delay in updating, was a bit wiped out between WorldCon and the shitty situation in the UK at the moment so it has taken me a while to find the energy to get back to this.

This book I did for a bookclub (not my usual one, a different one run by some friend of mine from Super Relaxed Fantasy Club) but it’s something that I have heard mentioned before and was interested in reading.

I have to say that overall I really enjoyed this one. It’s lovely to have a Fantasy book where the protagonist is not an action hero, it’s a very different book from that. But I am getting ahead of myself, I should probably actually give you an overview of the book first before I go any further.

The book follows Maia, the youngest and overlooked son of the Emperor who ends up inheriting his father’s title when his father and brothers all die in an airship crash and he is the next in line. Having never really been raised in court, not to mention his mother having been a goblin and not an elf, he has a lot of things to deal with in regards to working out how to be an Emperor and who to trust. Whilst doing that he also needs to deal with the fact that his father’s death may not have been an accident but instead a deliberate act of sabotage. Can he work out who his allies and enemies are before it’s too late?

The story basically gives us the tale of someone woefully underprepared for the role he is thrust into overnight. The character is not unintelligent, but he is very ignorant and aware of that. So we get to watch him grow and learn how this world works and how best he might operate in it, whilst having the setting unfolded around us. The world building itself is well done, though as the book centres on things in the Palace and we see nothing else except through reports from other characters, it does mean that there is depths that are not really touched in this book, but perhaps may be things we see in the future.

I loved how Maia is quite kind and thoughtful overall, even when others do not wish him to be so. It’s a core of his character that he clings to even in so cutthroat an environment. I generally approve of unusual male heroes and he really fits the bill and was done pretty well in my opinion.

Despite the tight focus of the story on Maia and his journey, we do get to know a number of the supporting characters quite well too, which is nice. It’s interesting that we only get to see them through his eyes, which can be problematic at times for seeing a great deal of depth, but even so there were definite standouts for me amongst them.

The setting has fairly stereotypical roles for women, but how those women were presented made all the difference to me. The writing showed plainly how amazing these women were, even one who was a villain you could see where her being able to make full use of her talents would have led her down a very different path. Highlights were a mention of a lesbian pirate Aunt (who I would give anything to see in a future book) and the Emperor’s intended, a competent young woman who should really be more of a knight.

For me the main downside was that the ending was perhaps a little abrupt and the tight first person narrative did cutdown our ability to see more deeply into the world and the other characters. It’s still an excellent book though and well worth a read in my opinion.

Hugo Awards

2019-08-19 14.39.14

This years Retro Hugo (left) and Hugo (right) awards

I had not been to the Hugo Awards before (having never been to a WorldCon before). In fact I had only been to two award ceremonies before it (The British Fantasy Awards last year and the Arthur C Clarke Awards this year). I am glad I managed to get to go though as I had a pretty damn enjoyable evening and there are some things I want to talk about as a result.

One of the awards given out at the Hugos is something that is administered by the convention but is not a Hugo, which is the John W Campbell award for new writer. This year’s writer, Jeanette Ng, gave an amazing acceptance speech which has caused some controversy as a result.

You can watch it here and I do recommend that you do because it is quite something. There was a lot of cheering when she starting speaking and more at the end. But it has put some people’s noses out of joint as they feel she was lacking respect for the honour she was given. I say, fuck that. She has every right to use the platform she was given to speak about this issue. I love how diverse the genre is getting these days in terms of voices, but it was not always so. Go look at the award winners for all the previous years for the Campbell, or the Hugos (and other awards for the genre) and count how many of them are white men. John Scalzi wrote an excellent post in defence of Jeanette, which you can read here and it is well worth a look. I appreciate that he has used his platform to defend her.

For years getting anywhere in the genre if you were not a white man was nigh on impossible. John W Campbell would likely be horrified by the fact that Jeanette has been able to have a voice in the genre at all and she is absolutely right to call this sort of thing out. Even now, it’s not easy to get published if you are not male and harder still if you are not white. I have heard too many authors tell stories of being turned down, not because of the quality of their work but because they “already have one of those” meaning perhaps an Asian inspired fantasy, or an African one, as if after decades upon decades of fantasy rooted in our white, Western culture we can’t have too many books that don’t fit that mold.

Fuck that. Some of the best Science-fiction and Fantasy I have read in recent years has been written by people of colour and rooted in cultures that are not my own and I fucking love it. And looking at who won the Hugo Awards, I am not the only person who loves the diversity that we are getting. This isn’t to say I have stopped reading white men altogether, but they have to be more than mediocre to get my attention when there is so much other excellence around.

But as to the other winners, they were overwhelmingly women, many of whom were people of colour, all of whom deserved their place there. I was pleased that so many of my first choices won, though I do not begrudge the ones that weren’t from their win. Still it makes me really happy because the winners and nominees were chosen by fans. Fans overwhelming picked a short-list that was this diverse and included queer people in it. I watched Becky Chambers pick up her Hugo for best series wearing a suit (and looking fucking amazing as she did it). I watched the first deaf-blind person win a Hugo and also a fan archive set up to help diverse writing in fan-fiction win.

It was an incredible night for diversity, an incredible night that lifted up people who have long been ignored or passed over for others. It gave me hope for where the future of the genre is going and maybe, just maybe, the future of society as well.

And as for keeping politics out of the genre, politics have always been part of it, right from the start (and not always left-wing politics either). What people usually mean is they don’t want identity politics in it, they don’t like it that they see themselves less than they used to.

I want all of the voices. I want to read things written by queer people, by people of colour, by trans folk, by disabled people, by neurodiverse people. I want characters of all those voice too, written by people who either know personally what they are writing about or are willing to put the effort in to get things right.

As for the awards. Maybe we need to look at who we have named them after and if the person’s legacy is not one we want to support, perhaps renaming it would be a good idea. Where are the awards named after Octavia Butler, or even Mary Shelley? There’s a Bram Stoker award for horror, but nothing I could find for her.

Jeanette has challenged us to do better and I think we can do so, awards have been changed before now and they can be again. The genre is changing for the better and it would be good if the awards we give out could reflect that legacy too.

Hugo Novellettes Part 2

Books:

As promised here is part two of the Novellettes post, including my round-up and who I voted for in the end. As before there are links to those of the stories that you can read online for free.

HarmlessThe Only Harmless Great Thing

Well this is not at all an easy story to read and I do not say that lightly. That isn’t to say it is a bad story, but it deals with unpleasant subject matter so if you do seek to read it, be aware of that before you start.

The story is interwoven between the story of a radium girl working in a factory and her interactions with an elephant worker, both of whom are getting sick with radiation; stories from elephant history; a future meeting between elephants and humans regarding the use of elephants as radiation warning symbols.

All of the threads come together in the end and the story balances various elements involving corporate greed, how connections are made between one incident and a whole group of individuals and the harm that can do. Like I said, it’s not an easy read but it is well done and I certainly felt the power of the tale, brutal as it is.

Ghost storiesThe Thing About Ghost Stories

I have to say that I am a big fan of ghost stories so I was interested in this one just by the title. It follows a woman who is going aroung asking local people for their ghost stories for research for a book she is writing. On the way some of the people she meets tell her that she has her own ghost who is trying to communicate with her.

It’s a very personal story where the pursuit of ghost stories gets tangled up with the main character and her dealing with the loss of mother, first to Alzheimers and then when she died.

Dealing with grief and loss is never easy and I liked how the story wove strands of the personal along with the weird, it works really well as a contrast and to make the story matter more to the reader.

StarlessWhen We Were Starless

This one is a pretty weird story, partly because the protagonist is a lizard woman from a very strange civilisation. There are a lot of terms and cultural nods that are confusing at first, but I do like the way that the story unfurls them, it combined keeping you interested in the background and the story with not info dumping everything in a way that makes no sense for the characters or setting.

The tale follows our protagonist, who is a scout for her clan who can also put ghosts to rest. During one of these missions she encounters something near where her clan are camping that is one of the most dangerous kinds of ghosts, but it begins to talk to her and soon she has to choose between learning more about the things that the ghost can tell her or obeying the laws of her tribe.

It’s very well told, compelling and has some surprises in it that are very well deployed. The pacing is excellent and you learn a surprising amount about the main character for such a short piece of writing. It’s definitely worth a read if you get the chance.

Roundup

Well there we go, all my mini reviews of the novellettes are now done so I thought I would explain my voting and why I chose the way I did. I have to say that overall it was not an easy choice to make, they are excellent stories and well deserving of their place in the shortlist.

  1. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”
  2. “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”
  3. “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”
  4. “When We Were Starless”
  5. “The Thing About Ghost Stories”
  6. The Only Harmless Great Thing

Above is my order of voting. The top was because I loved the juxtaposition of the temporal pastries with the flashback memories and the way they brought out the story. Beautifully told, excellent described and with excellent deeper meaning. Zen Cho’s story was such a close second because of the positivity of the tale. The next three it was incredibly hard to decide on an order and I could easily have put them another way. The only reason the one in last place is there is because given all the stuff in the world, I really wanted something more positive to win and the story is so bleak that I just couldn’t love it as much as the others.

Hugo Novellettes Part 1

Books:

Running later with this than intended due to being wiped out at the weekend and not having had a free evening yet this week to get this written up. But here we are, time for my first part of the Novellettes I read for the Hugos, the second one to come soon.

As a note, if you want to read any of these there are links above to them all and you can read them for free. There is also an excellent audio version of The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections on the Cast of Wonders podcast which is well worth a listen.

SucceedIf at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again

So this story follows an imugi (a Korean lesser dragon) in their quest to become a fully fledged dragon, failing a number of times over thousands of years (each attempt can only be done once every thousand years).

Along the way their path meets that of Dr Leslie Han and they end up more entangled in human affairs than they would ever have thought possible.

I will not go into more detail than that because it would be too easy to spoiler this story and I absolutely do not wish to do that! It’s a beautiful tale and honestly it really got to me emotionally. I was quite teary by the end of it. I mean to be honest, given how much I love dragons this story was always going to get to me on some level, but it actually got me on several levels and I absolutely adored it.

Please read it, it’s well worth a look and an excellent start to what was a category full of excellent stories.

TemporalThe Last Banquet of Temporal Confections

With this one, I actually heard half of the Cast of Wonders audio version of it before I got to reading the category, but had to finish it in the text as the second one wasn’t going to be out when I needed it to be. I have now heard both parts and definitely worth a listen.

The story is about a land where it is now ruled by an oppressive regime. In this land there is a baker and his wife, he has developed a way of making pastries that trigger memory responses in those who eat them and the rule now holds banquets for their court with the pastries as a central part.

One of the most impressive things about the story is the way it uses the premise of the pastries as a vehicle to explore how events led up to the banquet at the centre of the story. It also deals with ideas of revolution and the quiet ways that people can resist an oppressive or harmful government.

There are parts of the story that can be hard to read at times, though it is in no way graphic about it, but it does resonate with elements of our current political situation and is very well told.

Nine Last DaysNine Last Days on Planet Earth

In this tale we follow LT, a young man in an alternate version of history where a meteorite shower seeds the earth with strange plants that seem to be from another world.

The story entwines him growing up, dealing with his sexuality along with the growth of the plants and humanity’s struggle to deal with the problems caused by them.

Again, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what is going on with them because it will spoil the story and it is something anyone can read for free.

There was a lot I liked about the story, it’s always nice to see positive gay representation and this does that very well. It’s also an unusual take on an alien invasion that reminded me a little of Rosewater by Tade Thomson (which is also definitely worth a look), though not quite the same scenario and definitely not the same sort of ending.

Hugo Novella Roundup

All my Hugo reading is done and my votes are submitted so I have this post to round up my views on the Novella category, I am going to do two posts on the Novelettes (with the round up in the second one) and one post on the Short Stories with then one final post about what else I voted for.

On a similar note I am judging the Short Story section of the British Fantasy Awards this year, though don’t expect any blog posts about that since that would seem to be deeply unfair to those with a story in the competition (also I would be surprised if I was allowed to). I am looking forward to it though, I have all the stories now so I shall be tackling those after WorldCon.

The Best Novella List

  • The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
  • The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
  • Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan Maguire
  • Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

I have to say that overall I am so pleased that I read all of these. Some of them I had not heard of before and there were none of them that I found no enjoyment in. Some of the series have also made me even more keen to read their earlier installments so I am looking forward to get a chance to do that in future too.

Writing a good Novella can’t be an easy endeavour. I mean, the fact that they are much shorter does make it sound easier, but the very reason most books are longer is because you often want the time to make sure that the audience knows your characters and that the plot is well paced rather than rushing all at once, and even at novel length there are often failures in one or both of those elements. So to manage to put together a good and coherent story that works in this length of format is an impressive thing to achieve and these are good examples of the form.

Honestly trying to choose which one to put at the top was a struggle for me. I do feel slightly bad that Binti did not rate higher, but without having read the earlier ones it was lacking something for much of it and that made it hard for me to enjoy it as much. I shall hope to re-read it once I have read the others and see what difference that makes for me.

I love Seanan’s work and this series is something that is deeply personal to me and I was surprised to find that I didn’t love it as much as I loved the first one in the series. It is still very good, but the quest didn’t quite work for me on the same level. Still excellent and I will be reading as many of the series as she writes most likely.

The Black God’s Drums was a delightful surprise. I really loved the setting and the story was also very intriguing and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for any future works by this writer (especially after reading a short story by them for that part of the Hugos as well).

But for me the one I loved the most was The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard. The combination of science fiction and Sherlock Holmes worked really well for me and I fell utterly in love with it and with the way she did the characters. I am not sure if it will win overall, but it’s definitely my personal choice.

My winner: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard.

Artificial Condition (4*)

Book: Artifical Condition by Martha Wells

artificialThis is the last the of the Hugo Best Novella category. I have managed to get all the reading done that I had hoped so there will be future posts from me on those categories and my overall thoughts as well.

This is another one I haven’t read the earlier one in the series but I have to say that it honestly stands up very well as a stand alone and whilst it does reference some things that clearly happened in the first book, they make enough sense to be something that will be added value for fans of the series but does not ruin the enjoyment of the story.

The story follows the tale of a Murderbot, a construct which is a cyborg basically, one designed for security which means they are a very efficient killing machine. This one has broken their programming and is trying to find out more about their past and that takes them to a mining area to uncover the secrets of an area abandoned by a violent incident involving bots, on the way they get entangled in working for a group of humans who have no idea that the Murderbot is not a human security expert.

There was a lot I enjoyed about this story, not only was it excellently paced with a very compelling set of characters (especially considering that a number of them are not human), it also had an engaging plot which kept me interested right up to the end. I also liked that it was clearly a mix of ongoing plot and plot that was just for this story which meant that it had more than one layer to it but was still fine as a stand alone if you haven’t read the others.

One thing that did niggle at me a bit was that at one point the Murderbot is having an internal thought process regarding sex and their complete lack of interest in that sort of thing. Now, on one hand this does make sense for a being that was built to do what humans said and kill those they needed killing, but it does unfortunately reinforce the bad stereotype of asexuals being something other than human. I don’t think that was deliberate on the part of the author, but it was somewhat frustrating. Note that this sort of depiction of asexuality would be a lot less of an issue if it wasn’t the main sort of representation you can find.

I very much enjoy the sort of exploration of what it means to be a person that the series is engaging with and I will definitely be looking to read the rest of them and see how it all goes.