The Priory of the Orange Tree (4*)

Book: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds of Prey (film)

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn

bop posterGonna to take a brief break from books to talk about this film, which I have been looking forward to for a long while. I have been meaning to do a few non books reviews and failed to get round to it so I am pleased I have managed to sit down to write this.

I have been a fan of the character of Harley Quinn for a very long time, since she was introduced into the 90s Batman cartoon.

If I am honest I can’t entirely remember why I loved her back then, I think something about her brokenness called to my own. As a teenager I loved the whole Harley/Joker thing, as an adult I am far more aware of the problems and after seeing Suicide Squad especially, I was certainly looking forward to seeing what this film could do for the character.

I shall also admit that I don’t really know much at all in regards to the Birds of Prey group so don’t expect any particular comments or criticisms in regards to that as I don’t know enough to care one way or another as to whether they are as they should be according to the comics. And if anyone is wondering, the main thing that puts me off superhero comics is the oversexualisation of the female characters, combined with the sheer amount of them there are, it’s a little intimidating.

But anyway, very brief (spoiler free) synopsis of the plot is that Harley has broken up with the Joker and is dealing badly with the break-up. When she publically outs herself as single she now has to deal with a whole lot of people who want to kill her or hurt her for her past misdeed, this include Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Added to the mix is that teen thief Cassandra Cain may have stolen a very important diamond and people are desperate to get their hands on it and her.

Harley

When watching the film it is exceptionally clear how female led the film is: female director, female writer, and two female producers (one of which is Margot Robbie). This was pretty much Margot Robbie’s pet project, though I think at first she had wanted to do a Gotham City Sirens film (something I would kill to see, gimme Harley/Poison Ivy already). The women are sexy and gorgeous, but the camera does not linger on boobs and asses and it was such a rare and refreshing treat. There is even a point when Harley is soaked to the skin and there’s no nipples or sexualisation of it.

There are also some unsettling scenes with women being treated badly by men and even the way those are framed is really different. Usually there is something in them which makes them weirdly sexual, violence against women is often used to titilate male viewers and I felt like that there was none of that here and honestly it was a delight.

birds-of-preyThe film itself is a riotously coloured parade of violence with some rather unsubtle women vs men bits in it. It puts the womens’ stories front and centre, many of them being women of colour or queer women (or both!) This was definitely my jam and I really, really want them to make more films like this please!

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.

An Unkindness of Ghosts (4*)

Book: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body. Do you think my body couldn’t decide what it wanted to be?

AUOGThis is the book we did for our January meeting of the London Science-Fiction and Fantasy book club. That meeting was done on a theme of LGBTQIA+ authors and this was the book that won, which I was pleased about as it had been something I had heard about before and had been wanting to read for a while.

The story follows Aster, one of the residents of a generation starship called the HSS Matilda. Aster lives on the lower decks which are populated with those who work the field decks, or other tasks vital to the running of the ship which are less glamorous and considered above those who live on the upper decks.

When the sovereign of the ship gets sick, his symptoms are similar to those recorded in Aster’s mother’s diaries before her death twenty-five years earlier. The link sends Aster investigating what happened to her mother and how it relates to what is happening on the ship currently.

There’d be no forgiveness this time. It was one thing to destroy a person, but to destroy their work was a sacrilege Aster couldn’t easily forget. All that was left of a person’s life was recorded on paper, in annals, in almanacs, in the physical items they produced. To end that was to end their history, their present, their future.

First off I would say that this is overall not exactly what you would call a fun read. The lower decks and the treatment of the people who live there is a clear analogue for slavery and how people were treated during it. As a result there are a number of very challenging scenes to read involving torture and abuse, though sexual trauma is talked about and implied in the text, there are no graphic scenes of such (which I am very thankful for).

One of the things I loved most about this book was the portrayal of Aster who is coded as what seems to be to be someone on the Autistic spectrum, she takes things very literally and struggles with information that is coded or unclear. When people ask her questions or talk in certain ways, she gets very confused or annoyed when her being direct does not resolve the issues or causes more, things I found pretty relatable even if she operates on a more extreme end of being literal than I do.

Her struggles against the restrictions of her world are very relatable and I also really enjoyed the relationship between her and the Surgeon (Theo) which I thought was done really well. I really love it when an author manages to convey complexity in relationships of all sorts and that really comes across here. What is between them is far from simple and it is also something that is still evolving and changing throughout the course of the book as well.

It’s not a perfect book, there are some definite pacing issues, especially towards the end and the ending is definitely a little abrupt. I don’t think I disliked it in the same way that some people in my book club did, but I could see why it would be problematic for some people as well, who were left wanting to know more about what would happen next.

There is also not a lot of description or detail about how the layout of the ship works and there were a couple of places where I got confused and couldn’t quite picture how the travel times that seemed to be the case didn’t seem to be consistent. Now, it’s not a massively important thing to the story so if you are swept along in the narrative then it’s a fairly minor issue, but for someone struggling to connect with what is going on it is definitely something that will throw them further out of the book and cause more issues.

Truth was messy. The natural order of an entropic universe was to tend toward it.

The writer of the book is non-binary and they do some interesting things with gender and gender presentation as part of this book. Early on there is a reference to a larger proportion of the population of the lower decks are more ambiguous in regards to gender, it’s not entirely clear what this means, it could perhaps be suggesting that they are more likely to be intersex. Aster herself is certainly described in ways that suggests her gender presentation does not skew towards solely feminine. I really liked the way that this was handled and it was clearly something that personally mattered a great deal to the author as well.

Overall it was a good book and I am very pleased that I read it. It’s very well written and I can certainly see why the author was shortlisted for the Astounding award for best new writer. This is also certainly someone I will look at reading future works by as well.

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!