The Ten Thousand Doors of January (5*)

Book: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

As you can tell I am continuing to work through my backlog of Hugo Novel finalist reviews. This is something I had the paperback on pre-order for. I had been hoping to read it before the rest of the Hugo packet dropped, but unfortunately the release date got pushed back due to Covid-19, which meant that it came out around the same time instead.

The reason I wanted to read this had a lot to do with her short story, which was my favourite of last year’s Hugo nominations (see my blog about the short stories for more on this) and basically made me want to read more of what she has written. Have to say, I was not remotely disappointed. Her short story made me weep buckets and this novel made me do the same.

“The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it.”

DoorsIt’s a very interestingly structured book, it’s told as someone writing down their own story, but in a very almost stream of consciousness way. The main character is a woman named January Scaller, who tells the tale of her life and also intersperses it with the story contained in a book called The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the story of which is entwined with her own.

I really liked the way that was done, we learn the relevance of one story to the other as the book goes on and I felt that unfolded in a really great way. I did work out what was likely going on before it was revealed, but I think that is probably fairly typical and it doesn’t ruin the impact in the slightest, well it didn’t for me anyway.

One thing I should make clear is that the book is set in the past, in the early days of the 20th century and the main character is mixed race so the book does touch on issues of racism as well as the rather awful practice of “civilising” people from non-white backgrounds so definitely be aware of that if it might cause any issues. It seemed like this was dealt with well to me, but I am also aware that I am a very pasty person so this really isn’t an area I can talk about with any authority.

There is a theme of helplessness in some way, of someone’s power and agency being removed by someone else that gives a very claustraphobic feel to the book in places. I honestly felt like I was struggling to breathe at points as I knew what it felt like to be constrained, to be pushed into acting a certain way in order to be accepted by those around you. My own sense may come from a different place in some ways (though the fact this is something most women do experience is the same), but I strongly empathised with what the character was going through and how it feels to freeze instead of acting in ways people might expect you to act.

“Let that be a lesson to you: If you are too good and too quiet for too long, it will cost you. It will always cost you, in the end.”

Overall this is a beautifully written book which takes you on a very personal, very emotional journey. By the end I was in floods of tears and needed to move the book away so I didn’t cry on it. Definitely a deserved Hugo finalist and damn, this is going to be a very hard year to pick a favourite! On the plus side, whatever book wins won’t be too much of a disappointment.

The City in the Middle of the Night (4*)

Book: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Right, so I have been bad at catching up with these again, this whole pandemic is not doing wonders for my mental health I will admit. I am most of the way through all the reading I have been doing for the Hugos so I have a lot of posts to catch up on!

“Part of how they make you obey is by making obedience seem peaceful, while resistance is violence. But really, either choice is about violence, one way or another.”

CitySo first up (since I already did A Memory Called Empire) is The City in the Middle of the Night. This was something I had already bought for myself and hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. We also did it for my book club recently so I got to combine my reading in a really efficient way!

I will admit that I wasn’t a big fan of her first book, All the Birds in the Sky, just not quite my thing (though I know loads of people who loved it). The premise for this one really caught my eye though and listening to her talk about it on her podcast (Our Opinions Are Correct) got me really interested so I thought I would give it a go and I am honestly really glad I did because I very much enjoyed it.

The book follows two different protagonists whose lives get tangled up together in the course of the book. The world that the book is set on is one that is stuck with one half in the light of the sun and the other half in darkness, so the only habitable area is the twilight region between day and night. Sophie is a young woman from the poorer side of Xiosphant is a student and a revolutionary. She ends up exiled into the darkness and is saved from it, an event that will change the course of her life and potentially the planet. The other woman is Mouth, a traveller seeking to preserve the memory of her lost people. The two of them will get caught up in the troubles of the world and will have to find a way to work together to get through it.

“You might mistake understanding for forgiveness, but if you did, then the unforgiven wrong would catch you off guard, like a cramp, just as you reached for generosity.”

As I mentioned before the setting of this book really got my attention, the idea of a civilisation perched in twilight, caught forever between a day and a night that would kill them was something I find fascinating, especially in regards to what a society would look like in those sorts of conditions. There’s an interesting contrast between Xiosphant, a city that is built on order, on using shutters to make a fake day and night to give the residents the sense of routine that they had on Earth, whilst the other city is relaxed, more chaotic as the residents have much more freedom to do what they want.

One of the main focuses of the book is also on the relationships between the characters, which is always a favourite thing for me. Though a warning, there is a very toxic relationship portrayed in it that could be pretty triggering if you have been through something like that. It is very, very well done and I often found myself screaming at the character in the book, not because I blamed them for their choices, but because I desperately wanted better for them and it was painful to watch them go through it all. Which I mean, is excellent characterisation, the whole thing wouldn’t have upset me as much had I not cared about the characters and if the depiction hadn’t been quite so realistic, so masterfully done on the author’s part.

The ending is a little open in some ways, I don’t want to get into detail because I don’t want to spoiler it for anyone. I think overall I liked the way it ended, it wrapped up enough of the story to feel like some sort of ending, whilst still leaving other things to your imagination, in a way I really did like. The book tells the story it wants to tell and I got really invested in it, it’s not my favourite out of the Hugo novel finalists, but it definitely deserves it’s place there. Well worth a read.

Gods of Jade and Shadow (4*)

Book: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Right, time to start blitzing through my backlog, this means that there may be a lot of posts in relatively quick succession (I hope). Basically I will be queuing them up to go out every couple of days so I can get onto the Hugo stuff sooner.

This book is another one that I read for my book club, we’re doing things online now due to the lockdown. I was pretty pleased when it came up though I can’t say I know too much about Mayan mythology, largely due to it not exactly being easy to find books on (or at least I don’t remember coming across any when I collected books of myths). I also don’t think I have ever read a fantasy based in Mexico, so I was pleased to be able to do so.

“It was as Hun-Kamé had told her: life was not fair. Why should she be fair? Why should she suffer? This was not even her story. This kind of tale, this dubious mythmaking, was for heroes with shields and armor, for divinely born twins, for those anointed by lucky stars.”

Gojas

To start with I do just want to say, look at that gorgeous cover art. Is it not utterly beautiful? All kudos to the artist behind that, it really is quite something. I am entirely a sucker for a pretty cover so I likely would have picked this up book club or not.

Anyway, the premise of the book is that it is set in the Jazz age, the protagonist is a young woman called Casiopea Tun who has to do menial work for her rich family as she and her mother are considered charity cases by them as her mother married further down the social hierarchy and was cast out for it.

One day she opens a box in her grandfather’s room and accidentally releases the captured Mayan god of death inside. This leads her on a journey through Mexico and beyond as she helps the god recover his lost power, leading to a confrontation with his brother, the one who had him locked away to begin with.

“Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power.”

This might be considered slightly spoilery, but given the premise of the book it was something I had assumed would be the case from the outset and I want to talk about it so be warned. Basically the book does involve a supernatural romance angle, which as I said, I did see coming and was in many ways my least favourite part of the book. It’s the sort of thing myself as a teenager would probably have loved, but I understand a lot more about power dynamics now so that sort of thing is something I tend to find rather unsettling. I will say that the way it is dealt with does ease some of that twitch, I don’t want to go into too much detail but the way it plays out wasn’t what I was expecting and I definitely did like that about the story.

The plotline is quite linear, it’s a very familiar story structure in many myths and fairytales though so it works quite well for the story that is being told. It is perhaps a little short, I think I would have preferred a bit more detail and exploration in places, but it ends well and that makes up for a lot.

I did really like the character of Casiopea though, she was pretty relatable as someone who had been given a shitty deal in life, was angry about it and wanted something better. I liked the arc she was given overall and I would definitely read more stories about her in the future.

But yes overall I enjoyed this one quite a lot and if you like exploring different mythologies, it’s well written, the characters are good and it definitely does some interesting things with the story and with your expectations.

A Memory Called Empire (5*)

Book: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Sorry for the quiet, been struggling to write more than usual lately, probably a subtle way that the current state of things is getting to me, though I also weirdly have more of a social life going on now which has been eating some of my time.

We did this for our book club last month, and as it’s on the Nebula shortlist, honestly I cannot be happier that this one was what we picked because it was utterly excellent. Though the Nebula list for this year looks really, really good and I have Gods of Jade and Shadow to get through soon, Ten Thousand Doors of January on pre-order (I would have the paperback of Gideon the Ninth on pre-order too, but it’s still not up on Waterstones and I refuse to buy from Amazon).

“This was the most animated Mahit had seen Three Seagrass be so far, and it was really making it difficult for Mahit not to like her. She was funny. Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle was funnier.”

MemoryI was also excited to look up the author and discover that she is queer, I do adore finding more excellent queer writers, it makes me so very happy.

But anyway, the story follows a young woman called Mahit Dzmare who is from an independent mining colony who live on a space station. She is selected as the new ambassador to Teixcalaanli Empire after the unexpected death of the previous one. She has long loved the culture of the Empire, but now she has to balance the needs of her own people with her pleasure at being where she has always longed to be.

It’s basically a political murder mystery at its heart, but with some very interesting science -fiction twists that elevate it up much more than that. The main character has a technology in her head that gives her advice and sometimes memories from the previous ambassador, though the information is years out of date (this is a fairly minor spoiler as this is introduced very early on into the book). The role that this plays in the plot is really well done, though I don’t want to go into too much more detail because of more severe spoilers.

There is an aspect of this book that I feel is definitely either a love it or hate it thing. All throgh the writing there is a lot of discussion about the culture of the Empire, especially in regard to poetry, whether that is through poetry competitions, the use of it in encryptions, or referring to it as a way to describe the landmarks of the city. For me I loved this, I found it well done and very engaging, but from what I heard from others in our writing group, some of them found it somewhat pretentious and difficult. So just be advised that your tolerance for poetry based culture may influence your enjoyment of the book.

“Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.”

I was also very impressed by the pacing, it seems to be the hardest part of a book to get right and the hurdle that most debut authors stumble at. This one worked really well though, there was a lot of action in the book, but also plenty of intrigue and character moments that kept it flowing along very nicely. It built up very successful to the conclusion and I wasn’t left with a feeling of it being rushed, shoe-horned or full of last minute deus ex machinas to fix anything. I also felt that the way it ended made perfect sense for what I learned about the characters and I really loved that too.

This is a book that will definitely tug on your heart strings and I found myself enraptured by a number of the characters. I also loved how important friendships and trust was in the story,  Those were built up very well and she humanises her characters wonderfully. I felt I understood a lot about the personalities and motives of each one, in a way that brought them all to life for me.

Overall this is a pretty astonishing debut. It’s rare that I read a debut novel and know that I am going to be looking out for absolutely everything that the author publishes from now on, but I definitely feel that way about this one. More like this please!

The Priory of the Orange Tree (4*)

Book: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

In darkness, we are naked. Our truest selves. Night is when fear comes to us at its fullest, when we have no way to fight it,” Ead continued. “It will do everything it can to seep inside you. Sometimes it may succeed – but never think that you are the night.

PrioryI have had this one on pre-order for the paperback as soon as I heard about it. The premise that was given to me when listening to Samantha talk about her book at an event was that it was a feminist, queer retelling of George and the Dragon and that utterly sold me on wanting to read it. (Also look at that cover, it is absolutely gorgeous).

The book follows multiple perspectives, the two main ones being Ead Duryan, a foreigner who is part of the Queen of Inysh’s court and secretly protects the Queen from those who would seek to harm her.

The other main character is Tané lives far across the sea and is training to be a dragonrider, though her own life is about to run into difficulties due to a chance meeting with a stranger to her shores.

Both they and their world face a great danger that is awakening and the world itself is quite divided on views and unless they can find a way to overcome that divide it could cost them everything.

This is a story that sucks you into quite strongly from the start, she packs a lot into this book and whilst it may be over 800 pages the pace doesn’t let up much from start to finish, making it quite the page turner so it turns out to be a much quicker read than you might assume from the size of it.

She does a fantastic job of creating a world you can lose yourself in, populated by a diverse cast of memorable characters who are a good mix of people you can root for and more complicated people you end up with complex feelings about. There’s one particular character who goes through quite a journey through the book, despite mostly being a secondary character (though still a viewpoint one) and my views of them changed a great deal over the arc (I won’t say who as I don’t want to accidentally spoiler anything).

I really liked that the cultures felt quite real and very different from each other, they are clearly heavily influenced by real world cultures, but there is enough difference to make them their own thing. She clearly seems to have put a lot of thought into them and they came across to me as being more nuanced than a lot of Fantasy authors doing fictional versions of real cultures tend to manage (obviously this has the caveat of these are not based on my culture and as such I am not the best judge of this).

Honestly my biggest complaint, and the reason it got 4 stars and not 5, was in my opinion this would have worked better as a trilogy rather than one very large book. The reason for this is that some story beats got resolved quite quickly in some ways, which meant that the book didn’t quite have the emotional depth I wanted from it (only slightly, it is still excellent and the love story is particularly good). I mean I enjoyed it so much I pretty much wanted more of it, so I like to think that’s a pretty ringing endorsement.

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.

 

Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach (3*)

Book: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

GM&TLPI am almost at the end of the Novella category now, just one more to go after this. Unfortunately this one was my least favourite of the bunch, but I will get into that shortly.

The story is about a group of scientists going back in time to do a survey on the Tigris and Euphrates area during the Babylonian era and getting caught up with dangers and politics of that era, combined with those they brought with them from theirs.

I will say that I loved that the main character in the story is an elderly woman with prosthetic legs, certainly not something we see a lot of in stories and that was fantastic.

I did find that the story had a really slow start, much slower than I would expect from a novella I will admit given the much shorter length that there is in a novella. The setting is interesting but I think it didn’t perhaps need to be shown in the length it was at the start, which would have helped. I was also really put off by the constant use of the term “fat babies”. I did eventually work out that in many ways it was their version of “millennials” but it was very hard to divorce it from the highly negative connortations of the word fat in our society and as such was very off-putting.

When the pace of the story finally picked up I got really interested in the story and what was going on, curious as to where it was going (though a little disappointed that for the most part the little segments at the start of each chapter were actually ahead of the action so you spend a lot of the story knowing something of what is coming) and then I found the end happened rather abruptly and left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

There also wasn’t enough characterisation of those in the story, despite the slow start and that was also quite frustrating at times. We did learn something of the others by the end, but not in the depth I would have liked to get me to care more about what was going on and what would happen to them.

I also felt that in places the story seemed afraid to actually make much of a point about things using the setting and what they were doing with it and that was also a bit disappointing as the story does cover some interesting themes and I just felt that perhaps it would have been better in a longer format with more exploration, though that is of course down to my own personal tastes.

Overall I did enjoy it though, but not as much as I have enjoyed the other entries on the list, which is a shame because there are honestly some fascinating concepts in here and I could have loved it a lot more with some changes.

Binti: The Night Masquerade (4*)

Book: Binti – The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti TNMGetting to the end of the novella section for the Hugos. I am sure that you are aware that voting ends at the end of this month and may be wondering how I am intending to get it all done. Well, I am not to be blunt. I do intend to read through the Novellettes and the Short Stories though, I am currently blogging behind my reading (as I write this I am half way through the final Novella) so whilst my posts may end up being up after the Hugo voting has ended, I should have done the reading before then.

For the Novellettes I think I shall split them into two posts, review three in one post and then three in the other and one post for the short stories. I may then do a wrap-up of the Hugos and my voting as a whole and try and get all that scheduled before I run off to Dublin and WorldCon.

“Even back then I had changed things, and I didn’t even know it. When I should have reveled in this gift, instead, I’d seen myself as broken. But couldn’t you be broken and still bring change?” 

In regards to this book, I will start off by saying that I have not read the first two. I did debate as to whether or not to read the ones that were parts of a series I hadn’t read but decided that since it was shorter I might as well give it a go and see how I got on.

The story follows Binti as she and her companions head back to her home to see her family and find themselves in the middle of a conflict between two people, one that will cost Binti a great deal even as she tries her best to find a way to stop it before it gets too out of hand.

It did take me a while to get to grips with the story, largely because I had clearly missed explanations of terms and such that will have come up in earlier books, leaving me quite confused in places. I will say that by the end of the story I had caught up on everything and it did make sense, but it was a little slow going at first due to my lack of context.

It’s certainly a very interesting setting, the magical mathematics reminds me a little of the Foundation series by Asimov, though the feel is very different. I do think I would have gotten a lot more from the book if I had read the others first and I do intend to go back and read them as I did still enjoy the story.

One thing that I found a little distracting was that Binti did come across as something of a Mary Sue type character in places. Now, I don’t consider this to be irredemable, people rarely complain when a male character gets to be all sorts of awesome without any real flaws so when a female character does, especially a woman of colour, in some ways it can be a good redress of balance and I think in this case I would count it in that category. Yes, Binti does have an impressive list of accomplishments and abilities (this is also the third book so I may also be missing vital character development from the earlier ones), but she does also make mistakes and is not entirely perfect.

Some more spoilery thoughts below the cut.

Continue reading

The Tea Master and the Detective (5*)

Book: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

the_tea_master_and_the_detective_by_aliett_de_bodardNow I have gone through the Best Novel category for the Hugos I am onto the list for the Novellas.

I actually read this before I knew it had been nominated as I have been in love with the concept of it ever since I heard about it. Since I prefer to read things in physical form that made it harder for me to get hold of, but luckily for me Aliette was at EasterCon and she had a copy for sale which I managed to nab.

What drew me to the story was having it described as Sherlock Holmes if Sherlock was an Asian woman and Watson was a spaceship. I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes and was delighted to discover that the author of this and I have the same favourite castings of both characters (Jeremy Brett as Sherlock and Lucy Liu).

The story follows The Shadow’s Child, a retired military transport with issues related to a trauma caused during that service. She works as a tea maker, someone who makes brews that people need to deal with space travel. During this time she meets Long Chau who needs a brew and also to go into what are called the deep spaces in order to find a corpse.

What results in the two of them becoming embroiled in a mystery that makes the both of them confront things from their past, including something that The Shadow’s Child has been hiding from since she left service.

I haven’t yet read the other novellas set in this same universe, but after reading this one I will definitely be doing so. The setting that is conjured up is rich in texture and voice and I could see, hear and smell what was going on at various places in the story. The tale is excellent told and her versions of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are both recognisably those characters whilst simultaneously being a unique and interesting take on the dynamics.

The mystery itself is well constructed and resolves itself in a way that is both satisfying and thoughtful. I mean the only thing I really have to complain about is that whilst the other novellas are set in the same universe they are not about these characters and I would love to see more of this take on Sherlock, which is the best modern adaptation I have come across in a very long time.

Trail of Lightning (4*)

Book: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

trail of lightning

“Everything you’ve done, your past, it’s all just a story you tell yourself. Some of it is true, but some of it is lies.” 

Continuing on with my Hugo reads, this is one that I have wanted to read for a while since I heard the premise of it so I was pretty pleased that doing Hugo voting has given me a chance (as far as I know it’s not out in the UK in paperback yet and I don’t buy e-books).

The book follows Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and a supernaturally gifted fighter. When she helps a small town deal with a monster problem is sets her on a chain of events to uncover who created the monsters and why.

She teams up with Kai Arviso, a medicine man, and together the two of them need to unravel this mystery and Maggie will also have to face up to something from her own past that she would rather avoid.

One thing this book does do is use a lot of Navajo language words from the start, but it does it in a way that you can understand them easily enough from the context of what is going on so I felt that they added, rather than subtracted from the story. Especially for this one where the characters are likely dual language so them thinking in two different languages for different terms makes a lot of sense and adds to atmosphere.

“We were safe. Safe from the outside world, at least. But sometimes the worst monsters are the ones within.” 

In terms of the overall premise this does seem on the surface like a fairly standard urban fantasy just one based in a culture we might not often see stories told in. For me it does go a bit deeper than that, looking at not only questions of belonging but also at what makes a monster and what makes a hero. Whilst looking at these questions is also not entirely revolutionary the book deals with it really well and overall produces an excellent story that has you guessing at what is going on.

It plays a lot with the idea of are people what they appear to be on the outside, the main character dealing with issues which makes her think that she is a monster or could easily become one. Her loneliness and isolation is shown quite clearly from the start of the book and how much her own trauma has harmed her in her relationships with others.

My main complaint with this book is whilst there are some other female characters within the story, the main focus is with Maggie and her relationships with male characters and that did frustrate me a lot. I do have reason to think from how things end that this may change going forward in the series so we shall have to see.

I am hoping that the nominations that this book has achieved will lead to the author’s books becoming more easily available in the future because I know that this book is just the beginning of a series and I am quite fascinated with where it will lead.