Molly Southbourne Novellas (4*)

Books: The Murders of Molly Southbourne and The Survival of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

As you may have noticed from my reviews of the Rosewater trilogy books, I am a bit of a fan of Tade’s work. One of the first times I met him was at one of the SFX cons in London where he talked about how he always thinks of how characters react to bodily fluids when making them. He also talked about the first of these novellas and I admit that the concept absolutely intrigued me, so when I finally managed to get hold of them I plowed through them both in no time.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne

She loves that writers make words their servants and bend them to their will.

MurdersSo the premise for the first novella is that Molly creates clones of herself every time she bleeds and these clones invariably try and murder her so she has to learn to defend herself against them from a very early age, with the help of her parents. Of course as she gets older she wants more from her life, to study, to maybe falling in love and that sort of thing.

She still has her clone problem to contend with as well, not to mention the mystery of why she is the way she is, all of which will definitely impact her attempts to live her life.

I did enjoy that Molly is a properly well realised female character who is entirely believable as such, she has a definitely distinctive voice of her own and tells her story in the way she wants to. Given how many bad examples of men writing women there are out there (there’s a whole Twitter account dedicated to showing them) it’s always refreshing to see it done well.

There is a very interesting thread of trauma and survival that runs through the book. In order to survive her life, Molly has to try and get used to, and deal with, some pretty awful experiences and the story does an excellent job of showing what living in survival mode does to someone. As someone who spent some years doing that, there are parts of the book that resonated with me very powerfully.

On the whole this is a strange and surreal tale, beautifully told that packs a remarkable amount into such a short number of pages and the ending is something that you do not entirely see coming either.

The Survival of Molly Southbourne

Warning, talking about this book in any way is going to involve spoilers for the first one so I would highly recommend not reading on unless you have already read it or don’t care about spoilers. Continue reading

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.

Hugo Novella Roundup

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

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

The Best Novella List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artificial Condition (4*)

Book: Artifical Condition by Martha Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black God’s Drums (4*)

Book: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

drums“Fighting it has to be like trying to push back a flood. In my head, Oya laughs. You can run from those old Afrikin goddesses. But they find you when they ready.” 

So I am around half way through the novellas for the Hugos now and this one is something I hadn’t even heard of. I must admit I don’t tend to read a massive amount of novellas and the quality of the works I have been reading for the Hugos is telling me that perhaps I need to change that as I have been loving this category so far.

This story follows a young teen known as Creeper, a street kid living in New Orleans in an alternative history/fantasy version of the United States of America where the Civil War has not ended, but New Orleans is a free port run by ex slaves after an uprising.

What Creeper really wants is to see the world beyond her city though and she manages to see a chance when she overhears a conversation and seeks to sell the information to a ship called the Midnight Robber and its Captain, a woman called Ann-Marie.

Creeper has another secret though, other than the one she seeks to sell. She carries some of the power of Oya, an orisha of wind and storms and the goddess has her own agenda regarding what is going on.

I really loved how well this novella does its worldbuilding. It covers a lot in a very short space of time and does so in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel like you’ve been hit over the head with the plot exposition stick. It’s also a very fascinating setting that draws you in and makes you want to learn more about it and the people who live in it.

I also loved that not only is the main character female, but almost all of the important speaking characters are and that was amazingly refreshing to the point where I was assuming that the author must be female and was pleasantly surprised to find that this is not the case. Also one of the main character is a black, lesbian airship pirate and that is really fucking cool. The characters were also well done, given the shortness of the story and whilst I would have loved some more depth on many of them, it was a good introduction.

One thing I was a little unsure of was in regards to the use of language. The story is told from the perspective of Creeper who is not very well educated and some of the language is clearly how she speaks and thinks, which gives it a very distinctive voice in a good way. But then the words she uses to describe things are then sometimes more sophisticated than I usually would expect from a character with little education. She is described as smart though so it may not necessarily be entirely out of character and I also understand the author needing to balance the voice of the character with weaving the setting in the best way and the use of language really helped to bring it to life so if that is why the word choice I cannot entirely fault him for it.

The story does also have some small moments that do surprise you, though there’s nothing in it that is not also set up in some way in the text (which is not a criticism, I honestly think they made excellent use of the form here).

A part of me feels a little guilty for giving it only four stars, but the ending is a little bit too rushed (I know it’s a novella but I would have liked to see a little more of the resolution than I got). But I definitely enjoyed it and I may well look at getting more by the author and I really do hope they write more of this setting (I had a brief look at their other work but I couldn’t see anything that looked the same) as I would love to read more of these characters and the world (or the world with new characters).

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!

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.