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.

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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.

The Calculating Stars (4*)

Book: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Continuing my catch-up I am moving onto The Calculating Stars which I read as part of my book club, I can’t remember if it was before the Hugo nominations were announced but I know it won the Nebula between it getting nominated for book club and our meeting about it.

calculating“Without a plane, what was I supposed to do? Math the problem to death?”

This is the story of Elma York, a mathematician and pilot who ends up training as one of the first female astronauts. It’s strange to classify this book as science-fiction because in some ways that’s not entirely accurate, it’s an alternate history rather than anything else. The story is centered around a meteorite which crashed into the Earth in 1952, which starts a chain reaction which will ultimately wipe out humanity from the planet so they look to go to the stars as a way out.

I have to say that the story comes across as being genuinely well researched. I heard the author talk on her podcast Writing Excuses about the book and that she talked to real astronauts about it and got them to correct any mistakes she had made and that works to create an amazing sense of realism in regards to what they are actual doing in the book that works very well.

One of the things I loved in the book is how it shows the mysogyny of that time period very well without forgetting that racism was also very much a thing and not something that the white main character really thinks about until it is pointed out to her and that was done splendidly. As a white person I know how much I have had to educate myself on this (and still am) and it was important to me that they made a point of showing that intersectionality needs to be a thing in the advancement of women.

But anyway, getting off my feminist high horse for a moment one of the other main things I wanted to mention was the fact that other than the death of the planet, there is another antagonist to the story in the form of one of the male astronauts who is very against women joining the programme. He is very well done as he is not portrayed as a mistachio twirling villain but a very realistic person. He can be kind to people, he clearly does care a lot about what he does and yet on the other hand he can be horrible too. This is so important since a lot of people assume that if someone is nice to them then they cannot be a “bad guy” and this book shows very clearly that it is not the case.

“Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids.” 

Honestly my main complaint about the book is the fact that there is a lot of sex in it. And if it wasn’t a story told in first person, I might not have minded so much, but instead it feels like someone’s memoir of their time getting to be an astronaut and for some weird reason they decided to include a lot of details about their sex life with their husband. Maybe it’s my asexuality shining through (though honestly I am quite a fan of a good written sex scene so I don’t think it’s that), but I think it’s more likely the constant rocket/penis comparisons that made me cringe so badly that it did end up detracting from my enjoyment of the story. I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler since the book practically opens with her talking having sex with her husband when the meterorite struck, but yeah, something to bear in mind.

Still, I do think this is a very good book, well told and deals with an interesting subject in a really good way. I haven’t read some of the other Nebula nominees, so I cannot say whether I feel it deserved the win, but I definitely do rate it highly and I shall be endeavouring to pick up the sequel when I can.

Empress of all Seasons (4*)

Book: Empress of all Seasons by Emiko Jean

empress“Do not let your fear decide your fate.” 

I picked this up as part of my ongoing effort to read things set in at least a background of non Western cultures, especially ones written by PoC. When I read the blurb for this one I was pretty captivated. Japanese mythology is something I do not know nearly as much about as I would like (see previous rants about the lack of decent mythology books for so many cultures) so I was definitely interested to read something inspired by it written by someone of Japanese decent.

It also has a very beautiful cover, which never hurts to attract me (I am a magpie that way). Seriously, look at that, it’s gorgeous.

But anyway, the book is the story of Mari, who is part of a group called the Yokai, who are considered to be monsters and are not looked well on by most people in the Empire. She has trained for a long time to take part in the competition to win the Prince’s hand and become Empress. Taro is the Prince of the Empire and struggles with his position as it stops him from following his own passions and hates that he must be a prize. Akira is an unusual man in that he is half-Yonkai and half-human. All three of them have a part to play and their decisions may change their Empire.

“Our bodies are not ornaments, they are instruments.” 

Well first of all I loved the idea of women competing for the Prince so they can become the next Empress, it’s such a fascinating reversal of the usual tropes of women being a prize for men and it’s very well executed as a premise.

The worldbuilding was also well done, I felt like I could see the society and the people within it very well. The characters also felt quite real for the most part, a little light in some places, but generally well done and that includes some of the secondary characters.

Pacing wise it does get a little weird in places and speeds up towards the end in a way I would have preferred to be a bit more drawn out. Still, the way things wrap up mostly fits with the characters and their behaviour through the novel up to that point and I generally found the conclusion satisfying and leaving me wanting perhaps a bit more of it.

The book does deal with some deeper issues regarding both the enslavement of people and discrimination and dehumanisation and does it well. I also appreciate female friendships playing a strong element in the story, too often those can get sidelined in favour of connections with the men in a female character’s life but that isn’t done here.

“You should want to be better for yourself, not for someone else.”

My biggest complaints were perhaps that some things felt a little shallower than I would have liked. It’s hard to explain what I mean without examples and I don’t want to do that in the spoiler free part so more on that below.

Overall it was good though, I would guess it’s pitched at a YA audience but there is enough to enjoy for adults too.

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Captain Marvel

“I don’t have to prove anything to you.”

captain marvelI had fun reviewing The Umbrella Academy so I definitely think I am going to try and do more TV and film reviews when I am moved to do so. This time I wanted to talk about Captain Marvel. I may try and do so in two section, the first spoiler free for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, the second includes them. There will be some dead space inserted between the two.

But anyway, I have been looking forward to this film for a while. Definitely about time Marvel gave us a female-led superhero film and it shouldn’t have taken DC succeeding with Wonder Woman to bring it about. It is likely that there will be comparisons to Wonder Woman in the review, mostly because the only other films I can compare it to that are led by women are Catwoman and Elektra and I would rather not.

Please do note that I do not intend to do comparisons to put one against the other. It’s great that we can have more than one lead female superhero. I would like far more than two. In fact it would be lovely if I didn’t have such scant material to draw from, but here we are so I will just have to make do.

So brief overview of the story in case anyone doesn’t know. Vers is an amnesiac Kree warrior who ends up getting separated from her team and crashing on earth along with a number of Skrull shape-shifters who appear to be after a scientist. She ends up teaming up with Nick Fury to try and track down the Skrull, at the same time winds up finding out that she has memories that connect her to Earth.

Of course it ends up being more complicated than that and she finds out that she is a human called Carol Danvers, not only that but her Kree mentor Yon-Rogg killed her previous mentor, Dr Wendy Lawson (who was a Kree called Mar-Vell) and she in turn exploded the engine he was after and the energy from that fused with her being, giving her the powers she possesses. She also finds out that the Skrull are not the enemies, they have been systematically hunted by the Kree for not submitting to their rule and Dr Lawson/Mar-Vell was helping them hide and wanted to get them far away from the Kree.

In the end she defeats Yon-Rogg and the Kree sent to eliminate the Skrull, along with the help of her best friend, Maria Rambeau and a cat called Goose (who turns out to be a creature called a Flerken).

Firstly I want to say that overall I think I enjoyed this film more than I enjoyed Wonder Woman. Mostly because the love interest thing in Wonder Woman really annoyed me, as did the lack of any significant female interactions with Diana after she leaves her home fairly shortly into the film. I am not opposed to love interests in films, but that one felt pretty weak and too quickly formed and it bothered me. Whereas Captain Marvel features a lot of strong relationships between the women in the film and I was all there for that.

So to start with we see her meeting the Kree Supreme Intelligence, an AI being that appears to someone in the form of the person they most admire. In Vers case it is someone she doesn’t recognise, but we later find out is Dr Wendy Lawson. We then find out she designed the planes that Carol and her friend Maria fly. I do wish we had perhaps a few more flashback scenes to get even more of a connection between the two, but the fact that they gender flipped the character to give her an older female mentor was extremely well done.

Then we have the relationship between her and her best friend Maria. Again, similarly to her relationship with Lawson, I do wish that more was seen of this before, but the scenes we do get between the two show a strong bond which is only strengthened when the obvious love and care of Maria’s daughter, Monica. That Monica also looks up to both Carol and her Mum as heroes and inspirations is wonderful to see and I adored it.

My biggest gripe about any female character in the film is that they criminally underused Gemma Chan as Min-Erva and if she doesn’t make an appearance in future films with a bigger role I will be absolutely fuming.

In regards to relationships in the film, they did still centre a lot of it more around Carol’s interactions with Fury, Yon-Rogg and the leader of the Skrull, Talos, which was somewhat frustrating. Personally I would have preferred the film to be braver and take more of a step in the direction of representation of women than they did, but given how long it’s taken Marvel to actually make a female led super hero in the current MCU, I am guessing they were taking baby steps here.

It is frustrating though considering how well Black Panther showcased its excellent female characters, giving them their own stories and letting them show off their talents, even as supporting characters and honestly out of the two films I would generally say Black Panther’s portrayal of women is better, even though they are not the central character of the film. The part when T’Challa is thought dead and is unconscious means that they are actively driving the plot at that point and there is no way he could have managed half of what he did without their help.

The specific bits of acknowledging women’s issues were on the lighter end of the scale and not dealt with in much depth either. We have the comments about Maria and Carol not being allowed to be combat pilots in the 90’s and this being because they lacked the necessary equipment to be in the cockpit.

At one point she is told she should smile by a random biker, who she ignores at first but after he goes into a shop she steals his motorcycle and some clothes and rides off.

There is also a theme of comments from Yon-Rogg throughout the whole film about Carol being too emotional, about her letting her emotions get the better of her and that’s why she can’t beat him in a fight without using her powers. The weird thing there is that she isn’t particularly emotional at the start, somewhat jokey at times, but generally she’s calm and level-headed for a good chunk of the film. I did appreciate that her accepting her humanity and being more comfortable with her emotions did not make her weak and in fact helped her to unlock the powers they had tried to control in her.

Right at the end she fights Yon-Rogg (I also loved that she actually got to fight many men in this film and not in the overly sexualised sorts of fights we tend to get) and he taunts her to try and get her to fight him without powers and she blasts him and then just says “I don’t have anything to prove to you” and I honestly loved that.

Overall it is an good film, doesn’t quite have the sparkle I would have liked to see and I honestly think that is because they played this too safe. If they had pushed more into the exploration of a female hero and did more than the brief nods to what being a woman can be like, I think they could have had something as special as Black Panther.

Still, it’s doing well at the box office so I have every reason to believe that future solo Captain Marvel films may well appear.

To end with here’s a picture of Goose, everyone’s favourite scene-stealing cat (Flerkin).

goose

The City of Brass – 4*

Book: The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty.

This is a fascinating book based in middle eastern mythology I think, sadly it’s an area of mythology I don’t know much about so I can’t speak with any certainty on the matter. It’s a source of perpetual annoyance to me that I can get hundreds of books on Celtic, Norse, Greek or Roman mythology and very few on any other area of the world.

But anyway, enough of my personal gripes (though if anyone has any good recommendations for books on Myths and Legends by all means contact me!) This book follows a young woman called Nahri who grew up alone on the streets of Cairo and now makes a living as a conwoman, though she has some strange powers she does not really understand.

Her life is changed when she accidentally does magic and attracts the attention of a creature that seems to want to cause her harm and other that insists on taking her to the City of Brass, a place where all the Djinn/Daeva live.

It’s incredibly well written and carries you along with it into a strange world populated by powerful, yet somehow very human beings (who would loathe being referred to as being so). There are politics between factions in the city that are done very well and the relationships in general are excellent. One of the other things I love is how the book plays with the concepts of what is moral, what one faction thinks is good, another thinks is evil and you learn all the various motivations for them which makes it much harder to believe that any of them are entirely correct.

The only complaint I have about the book is that the ending is a bit too sudden. The rest of the book takes its time unfolding and it felt a bit to me that everything then happened all at once at the end and that was a shame because it meant that some of the elements felt more forced than they should have been.

It’s a pretty minor point though as the book is utterly gorgeous and had me on tenderhooks as to what was going to happen. I am currently greatly disappointed in myself for reading things only in paperback (I find kindles awkward and my joints won’t let me hold up most hardbacks without pain) as now I have to wait until the paperback is out and that is frankly going to be an agonising wait.

City of Ghosts – 4*

Book: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

I have been pretty excited to get hold of and read this book since I heard of it. I know that the author has now moved to Edinburgh and it is a place that is very close to my heart. I grew up in Fife, the county to the north of Edinburgh and we visited a fair few times when I was growing up. When I went to University I went to Edinburgh and I fell in very deep love with the city. Even though I have been living in England for the past eight years now, I still miss it and whenever I go back to visit it always feels like I am coming home.

There’s not many of the sort of books I tend to read that are set in Edinburgh, which I have always though was a shame given it’s long history and very gothic architecture. So a ghost story set in Edinburgh? Yes, sign me up please, the city has a wealth of ghost stories to draw from and I was really curious to see how the book would read.

The book is the story of Cassidy, or Cass, a young woman with ghost hunting parents who can actually see them herself and whose best friend is a ghost called Jacob. Her parents get their own TV show investigating the most haunted cities in the world and their first stop is Edinburgh where Cass stumbles across a really scary ghost who could threaten everything as well as meets another young woman with the same abilities that she has.

One of the things I really loved about this book is how well it gets the atmosphere of Edinburgh right. It helped that I know the city so well I was walking the places with the main character and it made me really happy. The other fantastic thing is that the main character had never been to the city before so I got to see my city from the perspective of someone totally new to it and it made me think of it a little differently.

It’s a YA book and pretty short on length, in fact that is about the only thing I can hold against it. The story moves along at a pretty fast clip and I suppose I would have preferred the ending to be a bit more drawn out and perhaps a little scarier, but then of course would that fit the main market it’s being aimed at so I can see why the author made the choice that they did.

Still, the characters are very clear and the ghost stories within it are suitably creepy. There’s plenty of information in the book that comes straight from Edinburgh’s history and ghost stories, which I absolutely adored. The Mackenzie poltergeist in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is well known and has his own ghost tour (Edinburgh has many ghost tours). So all of the weird and creepy places in the book are real and you can go there.

As someone who loves both Edinburgh and ghost stories I admit that it would have to have been pretty bad for me to hate it, but I had every faith that the author would deliver on the potential of this idea and to me she very much did not disappoint. I am looking forward to seeing what other places future books might explore. I hope that she manages to bring them to life the way she has done to Edinburgh.

The Silent Companions – 4*

Book: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

I bought this book after meeting the author and listening to her doing a reading of her new book, The Corset, at a Super Relaxed Fantasy Club meeting. I don’t read much horror these days but I do love gothic novels full of weirdness and this promised to deliver so I picked it up.

The book follows the story of Elsie and covers multiple timelines from her current life inside an Asylum, to her past spent in the ancestral home of her late husband. The book slowly unravels what happened to Elsie that led to her current state and it does so whilst building up wonderful atmosphere and suspense.

One of the reasons I don’t read much horror is that I am very much a fan of subtle is better. Where you may see monsters or know for sure exactly what is going on with no questions left unanswered, I will often feel dissatisfied as a result. I am the same with horror movies, usually the second I see the creature I am bored. So this book was a lovely, refreshing change where I found out bits and pieces of the puzzle but still had unanswered questions at the end in ways that leave a shiver down your spine.

Also I love that the story is centred around the tales of women and for a horror story to do that without sexualising what happens to them or being full of many other irritating tropes was a joy.

So I loved this one and I am definitely going to be picking up The Corset when it’s out in paperback. If you like more nuanced horror that leaves you unsettled and wanting more then this is worth a look.