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!

2019 Round-up

Books 2019

Hi guys! Happy New Year for those it is the New Year for. I know, I know, I haven’t posted in an age. Been struggling to get myself in the right headspace and the end of the year really took it out of me for a few reasons I shan’t go into.

Anyway, going to do a bit of a round-up of things I read in 2019 and then hope to do much better on the blogging front this year. The round-up with be some stats breakdown on what I read before doing a top 5 books to finish.

I read a little over 60 things last year, but some were short stories. I have done my stats based on what my Goodreads has told me. Note that some of the stats in regards to the sexuality/disability status of authors will be wrong because many of them do not state such on their bios (which is entirely reasonable) but it means that I assume that the numbers for those may be higher than I know.

Genre 2019This chart shows a breakdown of the genres I have read over 2019. It’s a mostly even split between Fantasy and Science-Fiction with a sneaky Horror book creeping in there.

A few of the books I read could also be classed as literary fiction, but I personally prefer to stick them in a genre one as I am strongly of the opinion that literary does not have to mean they are worthier as a result.

 

Rating 2019Next we have my ratings, this uses the blog rating where possible but otherwise takes my Goodreads one (since I failed to write full reviews for everything I wrote, I shall try and do some catching up, we shall see how we go).

I read a lot of excellent books last year it must be said and this is shown by 4* being my most common rating, which a whole 15 managing to make it to 5! Seriously though, I read some damn good stuff.

Have a large TBR pile so we shall see how well these hold up this year in comparison!

Gender 2019Right, then a brief look at gender breakdown. I was very pleased to see that books written by women vastly outnumbered books written by men in my read list for the year. I am a bit disappointed that no non-binary or genderqueer people seem to be present,  but again, it may be that there are some but the information I could find on the web did not make that clear.

This year I shall definitely have at least one since I am currently reading a book by a non-binary author and I shall see what else I can hunt down to read too.

Ethnicity 2019I want to be clear in regards to this next one, mixed stands for mixed non-white ethnicity, I think some of the authors on my list may be mixed with white, but I am not entirely sure and again, not all of that information is easy to find online.

Whilst the majority of the authors I read last year are unsurprisingly white, I have managed to get a decent amount of others in there as well and honestly, it’s enriched my reading no end. I am going to continue this trend this year as well where I can manage it.

LGBTQIA 2019Now we get to the probably pretty inaccurate stats categories. I am pretty sure that this next one is under representing the stuff I have read, if there are not more queer authors amongst my read pile for last year I would be deeply, deeply surprised.

As a queer woman myself I actively seek out books with this representation in them and a lot more of the books I read had it than I could be sure of the authors sexualities. So I would imagine that the number is higher, I am going to continue to seek out queer authors of SF&F for this year and see if I can’t get this higher.

Disability 2019Last, but not least, disability. Again, this is really hard to be remotely sure of. Weirdly enough most people aren’t comfortable sharing this sort of thing in their bio so there are only a handful I am sure of and that’s because they have spoken fairly openly about it.

I am also disabled and representation on this front in fiction is still dire. Would definitely love to see more of it and see it done better, but there is still a long way to go for the moment.

Still, I shall be keeping my eyes open for anything with good representation in it and believe me, you will know when I find it!

Top Five Books

I am going to do this solely for books that came out in 2019 (in either hardback or paperback, since I don’t read hardbacks and I want to have some choice in what I choose)

  1. Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri (review soon) – Honestly given how much I loved her first book there was always a chance that the sequel wouldn’t quite live up to it. Instead, it surpassed it. The book made me cry, it was beautiful and lovely and ugh, just all the feelings. Read it (and Empire of Sand)!
  2. Atlas Alone by Emma Newman (hopefully also a review at some point) – I adore this series, Emma manages to blend near future Science-Fiction with explorations of trauma, mental health and the human condition in a breathtakingly amazing way. This book, featuring an asexual protagonist, went through my emotions like a hurricane and I loved every minute.
  3. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie (yeah, yeah, still to review I know) – I adored the Ancillary series and was desperate to read this since I first heard she was doing fantasy and it definitely lived up to my expectations. Shakespearean in scope, perfection in execution, I adored it and found it almost impossible to put down in places.
  4. Rosewater: Insurrection by Tade Thomson – Probably a little weird to put the middle book in a trilogy on a top 5 list, but this one is actually my favourite of the three. The way the story twists and turns, never quite going in the direction you thought it would is done superbly and the trilogy as a whole is still the most unique and breathtaking alien invasion story I have ever read.
  5. Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky – I have no idea where he got the idea to basically write a Dungeons and Dragons style dungeon crawl as a Science-Fiction horror story but hot damn does it work to perfection. If you are thinking that this story is silly, not remotely, it’s creepy and powerful and I honestly fell in love with it pretty quickly.

Well, that’s pretty much it for the round-up. I hope to have my review of Tasha Suri’s Realm of Ash up over the weekend so please keep an eye out for that!

Girls of Paper and Fire (5*)

Book: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

GoPaFFirst off, apologies for the quiet. Work is pretty busy in the run up to Christmas and I have also been struggling to get into the right mindset to write these. Not sure how well I shall be doing on reviews since I am planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I shall at least endeavour to update you all on my progress with that.

I have been excitedly wanting to read this book since I heard about it. Natasha came to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club and did a reading and from that and what she said about the book I knew I needed it in my life.

To start with, there are not nearly enough genre books written by people of colour and that also tends to mean that the ones that do get published are pretty outstanding and this one is no exception.

The premise also appealed, a love story between two women is still something we also don’t see enough and I am a sucker for fictional romance in many forms.  Not just that, but the nature of the setting being in a harem and dealing with sexual assault meant that it appealed on that front as well. Let me explain that one a bit better. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and to see that sort of story reclaimed by a female writer and including a love story between two survivors, that definitely appealed in a way that male written rape narratives generally do not.

The story follows the lives of women called Paper girls, who belong to the Paper caste and have been chosen to serve in the harem of the King for a year. We mostly follow Lei, who is a late addition to the girls and did not go through the contest to be there that the rest of them did. The relationships between the Paper girls and also others in the Court is well presented and the characters come across as having real depth to them. Even the King is shown to be a complicated person and no one is drawn in straight up black and white terms.

I do want to address something that never struck me as anything of an issue, but after having a conversation with a couple of women at a book event it seems to be a problem for others so I wanted to talk about it. I mentioned before that there are castes, one of which is Paper, who are all human. One of which is the Moon caste, who are fully demon (which in this setting means anthropomorphised animals) and Steel caste, who are part demon, part human.

When I was talking to the two women in question they asked me if I had an issue with the Moon and Steel caste characters being furries, or how did I imagine it in my head since they had sex with humans. The honest answer is, I suppose I have had a good bit of exposure to the idea of animal aspected demons from various Asian cultures so to be it didn’t really seem strange or odd and I certainly never got weirdly sexual about it, though that may be more to do with the fact that I am asexual than anything else.

My advice is, suspend your disbelief, don’t think too much about it and don’t make it all weird. All of the characters in the book are thinking, feeling people, whether they are human or not. If you do that I think you will get a lot more out of the story and not get too hung up on something that I am pretty sure is a difference in cultures.

Honestly this book was fantastic and the story really got to me, both in the power of the representation, the themes of the book in regards to prejudice, society being stratified by race, dealing with sexual abuse and rape. It doesn’t pull punches without being gratuitous. I highly recommend it.

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.”

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