Kingdom of Souls (4.5*)

Book: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Player of Games (3*)

Book: The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

The Wolf in the Whale (4*)

Book: The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

The Goblin Emperor (4*)

Book: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo Short Stories

Stories:

Well here we are at the end of the reading I did for the Hugos. I will do one last post covering other categories I voted for, but after that it will be back to reviews. I may do something from WorldCon, but I am not sure if I will actually find the time to do so, especially since I will need to write and post from my phone so we will have to see how that goes.

I have to say that this was an excellent bunch of short stories and there weren’t any of them that I didn’t enjoy so I highly recommend that you check them out, they are all linked above.

The Court Magician

A street kid becomes fascinated with street magic and gains the attention of someone in the court who offers him a choice, he can stick with the street magic or learn real magic but there will be a cost for it. The story then follows his choice and the consequences of it.

It’s well told and has a very interesting premise at the heart of it regarding the nature of power and what it can cost to use it.

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society

A group of supernatural creatures sit around and lament about the Scottish lass who stole their hearts and dumped them.

I enjoyed this, I always like tales of positive female sexuality. The author should learn that a Scottish shape-shifting creature that sometimes looks like a horse and likes to drown people is called a Kelpie, not a Pooka. Otherwise a very fun story.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

George Washington was famous for having a set of false teeth. I must admit I don’t know the history of them, but I do know that slave teeth were often used for them so it is certainly a strong possibility that they were.

Anyway, the story is basically telling the tale of the people the teeth were taken from and it’s wonderfully written, given a voice to people often overlooked. Very well done story.

STET 

One of the most unusual short stories I have come across given the form it takes is of notes between an editor and the writer of a piece written about the effects of driverless cars. It is deeply personal and quite raw, especially given how it’s presented. Excellent piece of writing and well deserves it’s place on the list.

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat

I have to say that the story title alone is absolutely fantastic. The story itself is the strangest of fairy tales about, well, pretty much what the title says it is. Empowering, well written and a whole lot of fun.

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies 

This story is about a librarian, who is also a witch, trying to work out what she should do about one of her regular customers, a young boy who is desperately seeking escape from the life he is trapped in.

I found this story struck a deep personal chord with me and I was actually trying at the end of it. Beautifully well written and honestly explains the reason why I love fantasy worlds so much and also why the idea of portal fantasies spoke to me on such a deep level growing up.

I have to say that choosing the order for these was really, really hard. I dropped the two less serious tales to the bottom, but both of them were still excellent. In the end my choice was between A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies and The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington and I ended up going with the first one, largely because of how personally I felt the story.

But seriously, this is such a good list of stories, it makes me really keen to read more short stories to be honest if this is what the field is like currently.

Hugo Novellettes Part 2

Books:

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

HarmlessThe Only Harmless Great Thing

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

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

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

Ghost storiesThe Thing About Ghost Stories

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

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

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

StarlessWhen We Were Starless

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

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

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

Roundup

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

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

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

Hugo Novellettes Part 1

Books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TemporalThe Last Banquet of Temporal Confections

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

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

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

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

Nine Last DaysNine Last Days on Planet Earth

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

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

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

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

Hugo Novella Roundup

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

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

The Best Novella List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artificial Condition (4*)

Book: Artifical Condition by Martha Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.