Xuya Novellas & In the Vanishers’ Palace

Books: On a Red Station, Drifting; The Citadel of the Weeping Pearls; In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

You may have noticed that I have been reviewing a lot of novellas lately. I went on a mini buying spree in an online bookstore (not Amazon, fuck that company) to pick up novellas that are hard to get physical copies of in the UK and I spent a chunk of January reading them. Since they are shorter I have been grouping them together so I can get through them all.

Today’s spree is the three novellas by Aliette de Bodard that I bought myself. The first two are in the Xuya universe, which is the same one as The Tea Master and the Detective is set, the novella that I loved the most for the Hugos last year. The other is a f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I have been keen on reading since I first heard about it.

On a Red Station, Drifting (5*)

How dare she! How could she stand there, with everything that Prosper was in tatters, and look obscenely proud of everything she’d done?

oarsdThis is the oldest of the novellas (I believe) and the first one set in the Xuya universe. There seem to be other novelletes and short stories that I shall have to see if I can find somewhere so I can read them too as I am a big fan of the setting from what I have read so far.

The story begins with Lê Thi Linh arriving on Prosperity station, fleeing war and disgrace to find sanctuary among her distant relatives there. She was once a magistrate but upon meeting Quyen, who runs the station, the two do not get on particularly well.

With the problems the Station is suffering due to the ongoing war and the ones that Lê Thi Linh is bringing with her, the clashes between the two of them bring a very real danger.

One of the things I liked about the book is it had a weird Pride and Prejudice vibe, not with a romance element, but the dislike that forms between Quyen and Linh feels very much based on pride and prejudice in that one of them is too proud to bend and the other makes immediate assumptions about what the other is like as a person and it all goes downhill from there. It was a very realistic dynamic and I really enjoyed the way it unfolded in the story.

I could wax lyrical about the setting all day though, it is absolutely gorgeous and very well described. Though I have to say that glancing over the Goodreads reviews for this novella was a depressing place at times, the number of people giving it low stars because of failing to understand the culture presented in the text, or talking about the “Eastern flavour” as though the author isn’t herself French Vietnamese and doesn’t know what she was doing when she wrote it. I can entirely understand people not liking something because it’s not their sort of story, or they didn’t like the characters, or stuff like that. But claiming you can’t understand the culture because it’s not Western in its basis is just gross racism and I have no time for it.

The Citadel of The Weeping Pearls (4*)

Thirty years after the Citadel disappeared, Diem Huong woke up with the knowledge that today was the day- and that, whatever she did, the trajectory of her life would be irrevocably altered.

Citadel_ebook_RGB_webAn older Linh makes an appearance in this story, though it is not about her, but is instead a tale of the Empress seeking to find the lost Citadel of the Weeping Pearls, a place that was her daughter’s after she was exiled and is rumoured to contain all sorts of weapons.

As the Empire is on the brink of war, the Empress is desperate to find something to help them stand a chance against those who seek to conquer them.

The story surrounds the mystery of what happened to the Citadel, how many lives its dissappearance has affected and what it has to do with the new dissappearance of someone working for the Empress to try and recover the Citadel.

I enjoyed that at its heart this was another story about various relationships and as the story goes on we learn quite a surprising amount about the characters for sure a short piece of writing as well. There are a lot of stranger elemets to the story as well, mostly surrounding the Citadel and what happened to it and these didn’t seem to be explained in any particular depth to me, now I imagine that has to be at least partly because of the length, but it did result in that part of the plot feeling a little underdeveloped to me, so I didn’t enjoy it overall as much as I have her other novellas in this series.

Still an excellent read and I thoroughly love the universe that she has created and I definitely want to read more about it. There is some other stuff out there I shall have to get hold of

In the Vanishers’ Palace (4*)

We’ve discussed this before. Not just other people saying yes, but whether they mean it, or whether they’re just doing it because they’re afraid.

Vanishers

So when I heard that the premise of this one was a f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast I instantly wanted to read it. As mentioned before this one isn’t part of the Xuya universe, as far as I know it’s a stand-alone novella.

The story follows Yen who is sold to a dragon as payment for a healing done on a member of her village. She finds herself in the Vanishers’ Palace, a vast complex that used to belong to the race who dominated the world before they left, leaving dangers in their wake.

The dragon, Vu Con, sets her to teach her children and the two of them share a strange attraction, though the secrets the dragon holds will threaten everything and Yen must decide where she will be truly happy.

I am quite amazed at just how much worldbuilding Aliette manages to get into this novella given its length. The detailed pictures she paints of how this world works is utterly stunning and I found myself entirely captivated by it. Not everthing is entirely explained, but it doesn’t need to be and I actually liked that there was still some mystery surrounding the Vanishers by the end of it.

A lot of why this is a 4* and not a 5* book for me comes down to personal preference in regards to romance. I much prefer slow-burn stuff that allows the characters to get to know each other quite well and that isn’t really what happens here, in fact by the end in some ways I felt they still didn’t entirely know each other as well as I would like. This meant I didn’t find the romance as believable as I would have liked to, so it was a little lacking in that department. It’s probably a lot to do with how I work as a person though, so probably not something that will be a factor for most readers of the novella.

It is honestly a beautiful read and I feel it is well worth people’s time, especially since you can easily inhale the whole thing in an hour or two. And look at that cover, it’s a stunning book. The more I read of Aliette’s work, the more of a fangirl of hers I am becoming if I am honest.

Wayward Children Series (5*)

Books: Down Among the Sticks and Bones; In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

As may be gathered from my previous reviews, I am a big fan of this series so this is me finally getting round to reading books 2 and 4 (I started with book 1: Every Heart a Doorway and then jumped to book 3: Beneath the Sugar Sky because of the Hugo nomination last year).

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

The thought that babies would become children, and children would become people, never occurred to them. The concept that perhaps biology was not destiny, and that not all little girls would be pretty princesses, and not all all little boys would be brave soldiers, also never occurred to them.

datsabIn the first book we meet Jack and Jill, sisters who both went through the same door together and who both left that world together. I won’t go too much into the details of what happened with them in the first book because of spoilers.

This book basically tells the story of how they grew up together and the circumstances that led them to living on the Moors and also why they ended up leaving (some of this is covered briefly in book 1, but this story goes into a lot more detail).

I really enjoyed that we got to see more of a world through one of the doors and the Moors are an excellent look at a world which is basically made of Hammer Horror tropes. The conflict between the Vampire and the Mad Scientist is pretty perfect in that regard. The world is put together brilliantly, creepy and with a logic all of its own.

One of the main themes of the book looks at the dangers of trying to mould children into who you want them to be instead of letting them be themselves. Also that shoving your children into very prescribed gender roles can be really dangerous to their development as people. Jack and Jill’s parents want to bring them up in a very particularly way, Jack (or Jacqueline) is brought up to be a very proper young woman who dresses and acts like a Princess, even when that role does not fit who she is inside. Jill on the other hand is more of a tomboy in her upbringing, meant to be the substitute for the son her parents didn’t have and so has very different expectations put on her as a result.

I love this sort of subversion and Seanan does is really, really well. It’s clear as you read that there are elements of the roles they have been shoved into that they do like, and others that constrict them in ways that result in them finding their door. Gender roles, especially when rigid, are a definite bugbear of mine. I was a tomboy growing up because the presentation of what girls were supposed to be was so different from what I felt myself to be that I couldn’t see myself in women. It took a long time and a lot of undoing of my internalised misogyny before I found a way to fit myself into my gender comfortably, more because I realised that there is no one way to be a woman and we get to choose who and what we are.

So this is an incredibly affirming story along those lines, not to mention the fact that it is also a queer story as well since Jack is a lesbian and I also love how that is shown as well, especially in a series that will appeal to young adult readers. This is the sort of book I wish I could have read as a teenager, I think it would have helped me a lot and I am sure it will be of great help to lots of people in helping them find who they are and who they want to be.

In an Absent Dream

She discovered the pure joy of reading for pleasure, and was rarely – if ever – seen without a book in her hand. Even in slumber, she was often to be found clutching a volume with one slender hand, her fingers wrapped right around its spine, as if she feared to wake into a world where all books had been forgotten and removed, and this book might become the last she had to linger over.

In_an_Absent_Dream_coverThe fourth book in the series is another backstory book, in this case it covers the story of Lundy, another character we met in the first book who helps run the school and for some reason is aging backwards.

I have to say that I had a instant connection to Lundy from so much of her early life resonating with me. I had some friends growing up, rather than none, but I moved every 4-5 years so I often felt like an outsider and friendships, especially close ones, are still something I can struggle with today.

There was a lot of hardship and darkness in my childhood between bullying that started pretty much immediately I went to school and then only got progressively worse and then the other abuse happened when I was 14. All of that meant that books were very much an escape to me, I could lose myself in other worlds for a time and it helped me get through all of it, so I understood that part of Lundy on a deeply personal level.

The way the Goblin Market is described and shown is also fantastic. It’s a concept that has been used a fair amount in fiction but I have never quite seen it done like this before. I don’t want to go into too much detail about why this portrayal is different because that would mean giving away some excellent twists that the book throws at you and I absolutely do not want to do that.

One thing I will say is that the Goblin Market gives people the choice as to whether they stay or not when they turn 18, but if they choose not to then they can never return to the Market. As such people tend to flit between the two worlds before they make their choice and that conflict, between which world does Lundy belong in, is a major component of the plot of the book.

It was also very interesting, especially since I am not aware of too many Portal fantasies playing that much with the conflict. The Narnia books sort of do, but given that they always seem to be able to return having lost no time, it seems to be a lot less of a problem than it is presented here where time spent in another world is time that passes in their birth world as well. So you cannot easily have both without any consequences or issues, which I really, really liked. I mean, it tears your heart out in many ways, but I do tend to love that sort of story so this was very much up my street.

I have also discovered that the next one in the series is now out so I have ordered it so there should be a review of that at some point in the near future.

The Murderbot Diaries (5* Overall)

Books: All Systems Red; Rogue Protocol; Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other.

All Systems RedI had heard of these books for a while and after reading the second one (Artificial Condition) for the Hugo Awards last year, I really wanted to get them all and read them. Getting them in the UK in physical form does not seem to be that easy, but thanks to an online company that isn’t Amazon (fuck them), I managed to get them for myself and took great delight in reading through them all.

Perhaps having started off with the second book was not the best way to do it, though it did not really ruin the series for me to do so (but I am glad I then read them in order as it would have ruined any further into the series).

The books follow the various adventures of Murderbot, a security droid built to protect humans who hacked their own governor module and is now operating as an independent entity. The first book opens with Murderbot on a mission to protect a group of humans on a survey mission to a planet.

What starts out as a standard mission goes wrong when it turns out that there are another group of people on the planet who are trying to kill the humans that Murderbot is there to protect. Much to Murderbot’s annoyance as now Murderbot has to put actual effort into protecting them and can’t spend as much time watching their shows.

It’s a very action heavy book, but not in a bad way. The action is well written and gripping and I found it very compelling. The books would make an excellent adaptation as film or TV. The action is nicely interspersed with the drama between the characters and the unfurling of what it is the bad guys are up to and why.

The setting is also very well written without getting too bogged down in technicalities you are still left with a clear sense of what is important, how things work and what parts of it are pretty horrifying to our current modern sensibilities.

I didn’t care what humans were doing to each other as long as I didn’t have to a) stop it or b) clean up after it

The second book is Artificial Condition, see the link for my talking about that back when I read it for the Hugos.

Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

rogue-protocol-coverThird in the series is Rogue Protocol. Murderbot continues to go after the company who tried to murder the humans they protected in All Systems Red, looking for evidence of what they were up to so that they can pass it back to those humans to help them with their lawsuit against the corporation.

Instead what Murderbot comes across is another group of humans who need their protection after the people who are supposedly meant to be protecting them on their mission turn out to be trying to kill them as they are in the way of them removing the evidence that Murderbot is after by destroying the station.

So poor Murderbot has to leap into action again and protect more dumb humans and get the evidence they need in the process. It’s a hard life being a Murderbot for sure.

I was impressed how what on the surface could seem like the same plot threads again (group of humans in danger, Murderbot must protect) is still done in a way that keeps you engaged and interested in what is going on and where things are going. Partly it does this by unfurling more of the ongoing plot to do with what the corporation is up to, but also in Murderbot’s journey of self-discovery as they learn what it means to be them, what they want and what they want to do with their life.

I was having an emotion, and I hate that.

exit-strategyThe last one (so far, I believe that there is something new out soon?) is Exit Strategy. In this book Murderbot heads back to give her evidence in only to discover her beloved humans are in danger and that the doctor may well have been kidnapped by the very corporation they are trying to bring down, so of course Murderbot has to try and get her back.

I think overall this may be my favourite book of the series. I really loved the return to the characters we met in the first book, with all the awkward emotional baggage that it brought and how those relationships were written in the story.

The portrayal of Murderbot trying to deal with their emotions is definitely one of the most relatable things I have ever read, not to mention their interactions with humans in general. Just look at the quotations I chose from each book for a good idea of the dry humour and sarcasm that the voice of Murderbot brings and makes the books such a joy to read.

Also, the ending of this one will likely get you all choked up, if it doesn’t then I am quite sure you may be lacking a heart entirely. I mean, or for some reason these stories are not your thing (but really, it’s definitely the heart thing).

Honestly, the character of Murderbot is the reason that these books are so well loved, never will you find a more relatable character than the one who is frequently annoyed by the stupidity of the people they are trying to protect, not to mention getting their own desires interrupted to have to take care of other people. Also emotions, emotions are the worst. The thing I really love about Murderbot though is the fact that Murderbot is not human and does not want to be human and I absolutely adore that. It’s a typical thing that all artificial life shown in science-fiction wants to become human, or be as human as possible and that is not the case here. Murderbot is a person, but they are NOT human and I am so there for that story.

The Raven Tower (5*)

Book: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

(In Vastai this is usually part of a petition for the God of the Silent to send one a good husband and a happy marriage. These three, however, were asking for the forest to preserve their friendship so long as they lived, and keep undesirable complications like husbands far from their doors.)

Raven TowerBit late getting this one up, though in my defence it’s because I have been ill with flu for the last week, rather than any particular failure of mine, so that’s something at least. I am mostly recovered now (other than a persistent cough) so back to review writing I go!

This is another book I was pretty excited to read, when I realised the paperback had come out I pretty much squealed in delight and ran to buy it (I should have pre-ordered it, but apparently I forgot to sort that out).

I fell in love with Ann Leckie’s writing, characters and world-building in the Ancillary series (I am currently finally getting around to reading the last one, I kept putting it off because I didn’t want it to end) so the fact that she had written a fantasy book definitely got my attention!

The book itself is written in the second person perspective, which is an unusual choice but Ann pulls it off with her usual talent. At first we don’t really see or perhaps entirely understand what is telling the story, it seems to be being told to the character of Eolo, a companion to Mawat, the Heir to the Lease. It’s made pretty clear early on that Eolo is a trans man, which made me pretty pleased to see, we definitely need more representation of trans people in SF&F.

Mawat has returned to take over the reins of Lease (a position that seems to be half King and half Priest) from his father who is due to make the required sacrifice of himself when the avatar of the Raven god of Vastai dies so that the sacrifice can power the rebirth of a new avatar and allow the god to continue his duties to the land.

The two of them return to find that Mawat’s uncle is now Lease and his father is nowhere to be found, vanished without a trace from a tower that there is supposed to be only way out of. Mawat and Eolo must now try and work out what happened and what is going on in the Kingdom.

We also slowly learn more about the gods and their origins through the tale of a god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who tells us about the origins of Vastai as well until both stories eventually tie together in an absolutely beautiful way that left me really wanting to read more in this world because it’s done so wonderfully well.

There’s something very Shakespearean in part of the story. The events surrounding what happens with Mawat/Eolo in Vastai definitely contain elements of Hamlet if you look for them, though obviously it’s not exactly the same, nor done in the same way. This is a book with lots of different levels and meanings to it and I look forward to finding out more of them next time I read it.

I cannot comment much on how well the trans male character is done. From a cis perspective, he seemed to be handled sensitively and well, but I am not trans so I cannot claim to be an expert on the trans experience. I have heard much praise from my trans friends who have read it, so generally seems to be good overall.

The worldbuilding is very original, I have never seen a take on gods like the one that Ann Leckie presents here and she takes us on a masterful tour of how it all works very well. We learn the rules, what can and cannot be done and how the magic of the gods seems to work and how their interactions with humans also work. There are some gaps in our knowledge, even by the end, but that didn’t feel like a bad thing, I quite like having more questions than I had answers to by the end of a book unless those questions are fundamental issues that leave whole chunks of the plot unresolved in an infuriating way and that was not the case for me here.

But yes, I highly recommend this one, it’s brilliant. Also, if you haven’t read the Ancillary series starting with Ancillary Justice, I recommend those as well. Not sure what she has coming out next, but whatever it is you can guarantee I will be buying and reading it. She’s definitely made my list of must read authors.

Atlas Alone (5*)

Book: Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

But I hold him tight and I pretend that I have forgiven him for being nothing more than I am: a cold collection of trained responses, pretending to be a person.

atlas aloneI am continuing to catch up on reviews of books I should have done last year, this one is my number 2 book of 2019, Atlas Alone.

It’s a book that meant a lot to me personally, for reasons I will go into in more detail as we go along. As you may have seen from my earlier reviews of this series (you can read it here if you want).

As can likely be gathered, I am a big fan of these  books and when I heard that the newest one had an asexual protagonist I think I may have made a loud squealing noise. I even bought it in the large paperback format so I could read it earlier (which is one reason the fact it’s taken me so long to write this review is super embarrassing).

This story follows on from the events in After Atlas, taking place what seems to be a very short time after that book ends. It follows Dee, who appears in After Atlas, and is a fellow survivor of the serial abuse and horror that is being indentured in a corporate future. She’s an avid game player and gets invited to join an elite server. When someone she kills in a game dies for real it sets of a chain of events that shows that something awful is definitely going on as the ship travels towards its destination.

The book is the blend of mental health and psychological thriller that characterise a lot of the series and it is done with her usual style and knack for drawing you into the story and not letting you go until it’s over.

For me, this story also took a very personal hold over me. The combination of someone who was an abuse survivor and asexual (and the story is clear that the second is not a product of the first) meant that Dee’s story felt incredibly real to me, I understood her on a level I don’t always manage with characters in books and there were places where I felt that had I been more unlucky in my life, without the love and support of my friends and family, I could see myself being a lot like her.

I have heard some criticism of the book for having an asexual protagonist who is at times cold, distant and struggles to get close to people and I do understand where people are coming from. There is still a lot of use of asexual coded characters who are presented as aliens, robots, or people who are cold and distant and “not quite human”. The lack of good representation means that any representation tends to be interrogated in more detail for anything that can make us look in a bad light.

But for me the reason this was important is that I am someone who went through child sexual abuse and for years I thought it was the abuse that gave me my issues with sex, that I was broken because of that. It took a long time to realise that no, I hadn’t been particularly interested before then and that this was just a part of me and I wasn’t broken at all.

Dee made me feel seen, like I was understood and shown in a way that I had never really had before and that matters a great deal to me. We’re not exactly the same and she makes choices in the book that I would not do, not without my life having gone in a very different direction, but I understand why she is who she is and what makes her take every step she takes on that road.

It’s a hard story to read, harrowing in places and uncomfortable in others, but I am very glad that she told it and I absolutely adored it.

Realm of Ash (5*)

Book: Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Right, time for me to kick off the reviews for this year, by reviewing the book I choose as the best new book I read last year… Yeah, I know I am behind, I didn’t get much of anything other than work done towards the end of last year. Still, things are calmer now so I am hoping to get back into this properly this year. Going to aim to have two blog posts going up a week, so let’s see how I get on!

RoAEver since I read Empire of Sand – 5*, Tasha’s debut novel, I have been pretty excited about the follow-up (they are both in the same universe and each follow a sister’s story, but they are mostly separate with the second having some spoilers for the events of the first one).

A second novel is often described as a tricky beast by many authors, you are expected to produce something better than the first one in a lot less time and that’s quite a bit of pressure to be under. So I was extremely pleased to find out that this book more than lived up to my expectations of it.

As I mentioned above, the plot follows the sister of the main character from the first book, she’s a young widow, the survivor of a massacre that took the life of her husband and she’s trying to deal with all that she has been through whilst finding how to cope with her changed circumstances and what they mean because of the restrictions of the society (widows are not permitted to marry again).

She finds herself working closely with the Emperor’s illegitimate son to try and find a way to break the curse on the Empire, to do so they must explore the Realm of Ash, uncovering secrets about both of their heritages on the way.

So without spoilering anything, a lot of what I loved about the book is how well it portrays a lot of things. The main character, Arwa, is a pent up ball of rage from all that has happened to her and it just made so much sense to me. Between having to pretend to be someone she wasn’t during her marriage, to being at a massacre and surviving it alone to now being trapped in a life of prayer when you are barely 20 and are not ever meant to have anything else other than that… I mean, the lack of choice and agency she has over her own life is certainly something that would turn me into a ball of rage.

It may not be a feeling that everyone who reads it has experienced, but there is a claustrophobic sense of being trapped. Not physically, but by societal expectations, by trying to fit yourself into who you are told you are supposed to be. It’s not an uncommon thing to experience when you present as female and it is absolutely horrible. That feeling came across really strongly to me, so strongly that at points the book makes it difficult for you to breathe. I don’t say this as criticism, I found the fact that the book conjured it to be really powerful.

There are other themes in the book it’s harder for me to talk about, because I am coming at them from a position of someone they are not going to affect. For example, Arwa is the product of two cultures, she’s been brought up and taught to supress the heritage she got from her mother, to regard it as bad, as inferior, and that plays an important part in her story as she has to come to terms with what she has been taught and what that means in her life now.

The Realm of Ash that the book is named for is also an amazing concept which she describes impeccably. It’s a way of travelling into people’s memories and the descriptions are beautiful, eerie and incredibly evocative. The whole thing is not particularly like anything I have come across before. I had thought the dance magic in the first book was amazing, this is even better. It also works wonderfully as a way to not only advance the plot, but also the character development of the two main characters and their blossoming romance (and don’t scream spoilers at me for mentioning the romance, it’s a fantasy romance novel and they are the main characters so I mean, it pretty much goes without saying).

Talking about the romance, I loved that as well. I am a big fan of slow burn romances, I get fed up with people who seem to fall in love at the drop of a hat despite knowing nothing at all about the other person. Honestly, if I haven’t stayed up till 3am bearing my soul to someone then they don’t really have much of a chance with me, so I struggle to relate to how it could be possible to love someone you don’t really know. I am sure physical attraction at first sight is a thing for some people, but I struggle to accept that it could honestly be love without a deeper understanding.

But I do love reading about that learning process as people get to know each other, find common ground and you can see where and how they fall for each other. This was done really well in this case and I love seeing the connections form, even through difficult circumstances and the whole thing melts your heart quite nicely.

I adore Tasha’s work and I am not sure what is coming next from her or when, but you better believe I will be buying it, reading it and hopefully recommending it to everyone I know!

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.

Every Heart a Doorway (5*) and Beneath the Sugar Sky (4*)

Books: Every Heart a Doorway and Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan Maguire

every heartEvery Heart a Doorway

“You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.”

A friend of mine actually bought me Every Heart a Doorway for my birthday as she knew how desperate I was to read a fantasy with an asexual protagonist (that and the premise distinctly appealed to me).

Whilst the novella that is in the list is the third book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, since I was behind in my reviews anyway I figured I would review both of these at the same time. And you may have noticed I have not included the second one on here, I haven’t read that one yet but you can easily read the third one after the first with no difficulties.

The setting for the series is the modern day in a school for children who have come back from going to other worlds through various doors and are struggling to adapt to being back in the world of their birth.

The main protagonist for the first book is a young woman called Nancy who is a newcomer at the school. She has returned from an underworld where everything was quiet and still and struggles to deal with the noise of the world she is in now. A murder a the school not long after she arrives leads other to wonder if she is the killer and now she has to help find out the truth of what happened or perhaps risk the new home she has found here.

So, to start with, as I mentioned before the main reason I wanted to read this book is because of the asexual protagonist. I have not read many things that I get to see this aspect of myself in, so unless the book fucked up that representation it was going to be hard for it to be something I would dislike. I am saying this as it is possible that my high praise for the story comes in part from the emotions this book gives me for Nancy and how excellent she is.

I could wax lyrical about the various varieties of identities on the asexual spectrum, but that would significantly derail things but if you want to learn more, please do google the subject, there’s a lot of good resources out there and I would suggest starting with AVEN (the asexual visibility and education network). Nancy is a heteroromantic asexual, which means she is romantically attracted to the opposite gender, but doesn’t look at them and want to have sex with them. So we’re not quite the same thing, but that doesn’t matter, having her sexuality confirmed without a fuss and it not being everything the story is about is wonderful.

“Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken.” 

To be fair, I do also love that the story is a murder mystery and the premise of the setting is absolutely fantastic. I grew up reading portal fantasies and few of them really deal much with what it would be like to come back having had an entirely different life elsewhere only to have to try and adjust to life here with no one believing you about where you have been and why you are different now.

The setting is vast in terms of how many doors there seems to be and whilst we do not get massive details for all of them, the author does a damn good job of making them feel like real, internally consistent realms from what we do find out. The story is also an excellent analogy for found families over born ones.

Those who go through the doors tend to do so because they are in the wrong world and they find what they are missing there. This can echo for people who grew up isolated and bullied for having interests that weren’t shared by others, for those whose sexuality or race set them apart, or being neurodiverse or being trans or non-binary. This is the other reason why the book called to me so strongly. I have often felt I don’t properly fit into the world and the idea of finding somewhere that fits and then losing it is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

Beneath the Sugar Sky

sugar

“You are not a cake, you are a human being, and I can see your vagina”, snapped Nadya.

The stranger shrugged, “It’s a nice one, I’m not ashamed of it.”

Now we get to the one which is actually up for Hugo consideration. This is the third book in the series, but the story follows on fairly well from the events in the first book (as mentioned above) and that works really well.

I will say that even the premise for the third book is something of a spoiler for things that happened in the first one so I am actually going to put pretty much the whole of the rest of this review under a cut as I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone.

So probably best to read on only if you either have read the series (or part of it) already or having plot points to stories spoilered is not something that remotely bothers you. Either way, consider yourselves suitably warned!

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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.

Spinning Silver (5*)

Book: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

spinning silver“But the world I wanted wasn’t the world I lived in, and if I would do nothing until I could repair every terrible thing at once, I would do nothing forever.” 

Another one in my series of Hugo reads. I actually bought this one in paperback when I finished it because I loved it that much.

The story starts off following Miryem, the young daughter of a moneylender whose father is too kind to collect on his debts leading them to live in poverty. When her mother gets sick she takes over collecting to ensure she can actually care for her family.

It turns out that she has a knack for it and she turns around the family business, commenting that she can turn silver into gold. Unfortunately for her this boast is overheard by a race of creatures bound to the winter and hungry for gold who want to use her abilities for their own ends.

The book actually has a number of different narrators, mostly women, adding more voices as the story goes on. If I have any complaint at all about the book, it’s the fact that some of the narrators didn’t entirely feel necessary to me and at one point it actually took me a moment to work out whose point of view we were seeing things from, which threw me out of the story for a moment.

But mostly what I loved was that this book gave us several very well realised female characters, with their own problems, motivations and story arcs and the crossover between them was handled very well. She managed to balance showing us the troubles that women of the time might go through, without making them perpectual victims and also whilst still sticking to the very well done fairytale atmosphere of the book.

“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.” 

I was very impressed at how she blended a feeling of realism in the way the characters acted and how the setting works, especially how well she conjures up a sense of cold (and deprivation at times). I felt entirely swept up into the world she created and it was honestly a book I struggled to put down at points.

Previously I have only read the first of the Temeraire books (which I did very much enjoy), but this is so much better than that. I have been told by others that Uprooted is even better and if that is the case then it really must go up my priority list to read because honestly this was such an excellent book. I must admit I am a sucker for modern fairytales (well written in the modern era in this case) so this book was entirely up my street, the feminist leanings just made it even better.

One of the other main things I feel I need to mention is the clever way that she twists the stereotypes of the Jewish moneylender and actually does something positive with it. Given the loaded history of such characters and how often they have been used to harm the Jewish community, it was really pleasant to see them reclaimed in this manner, especially given that anti-semitism seems to be once again on the rise at the moment. A timely book and well deserving of its place in the Hugo nominees.