Gideon the Ninth (5*)

Book: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

I have been super psyched about reading this book since I first heard the premise of Lesbian Necromancers in Space, because I mean, why the hell would I not want to read that book? As normal I have trouble with hardbacks and since I prefer to own the physical book I don’t tend to buy ebooks because I don’t really want to buy them twice, so getting an e-copy of this in the Hugo packet was pretty much a dream come true.

Before I get into it I do want to say that I was expecting a book that was a lot of fun at heart and maybe didn’t entirely take itself too seriously. It turned out to be so much better than that and I loved every bit of it. Waiting for the sequel is going to be a trial, let me tell you!

“Nonagesimus,” she said slowly, “the only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it. The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted your ass kicked so hard, the Locked Tomb opened and a parade came out to sing, ‘Lo! A destructed ass.’ The only job I’d do would be if you wanted me to spot you while you backflipped off the top tier into Drearburh.” “That’s three jobs,” said Harrowhark.”

GideonThe book follows the main character of Gideon, a foul-mouthed lesbian who has had a less than excellent childhood and who only wants to get out of the personal hell she is living in and maybe get to romance or sleep with some hot woman along the way.

She is “persuaded” to come along with Harrowhark, the necromancer who rules the Ninth, as they head to another world for testing to become one of the Emperor’s chosen, which Harrow is determined to succeed at.

This turns into something of a murder mystery when certain of the other participants wind up dead and then there is a rush to discover if some dangerous creature is loose on the planet, or if one of the others is killing off their competition.

Gideon’s voice comes across very strongly in the book, she’s an easy character to love and honestly the more we find out about her the better it gets. She’s something of a secret sweetie, caring a lot more about other people than we might guess from her initial introduction into the story.

In fact Tamsyn Muir does an excellent line in slowly unravelling the layers of people’s characters so you get to know them a lot better as the story progresses and some of what you learn is really quite surprising. As the book is something of a murder mystery please be aware that characters you like may end up dead by the end, it’s pretty brutal in that regard.

“She had left Harrowhark a note on her vastly underused pillow— WHATS WITH THE SKULLS? and received only a terse— Ambiance.”

The setting is also really fascinating, especially as for the most part it seems like it would perhaps belong more in a fantasy book than in a science-fiction one, but the setting most definitely has elements of both. The magic is all necromancy based, but does appear to be treated almost as a science, whilst you do seem to have to have some innate talent to be a necromancer, study and understanding of the principles involved is a very important part of getting to be good at it.

It doesn’t feel vastly sci-fi, probably because the story is more of a weird mystery than anything else, but I get the feeling, given how the book ends, that the space part of the setting is going to be much more important in the future.

But yes, basically this book has a beautiful tongue-in-cheek humour (see the quotes for good examples) balanced with some excellent character work that really draws you into the story and has you rooting for people. I definitely wanted to know how things worked out and some of the surprises in it caught me entirely flat-footed. It’s well written, funny and very moving. Wish I had been able to read it sooner but better late than never I suppose!

The City in the Middle of the Night (4*)

Book: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Right, so I have been bad at catching up with these again, this whole pandemic is not doing wonders for my mental health I will admit. I am most of the way through all the reading I have been doing for the Hugos so I have a lot of posts to catch up on!

“Part of how they make you obey is by making obedience seem peaceful, while resistance is violence. But really, either choice is about violence, one way or another.”

CitySo first up (since I already did A Memory Called Empire) is The City in the Middle of the Night. This was something I had already bought for myself and hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. We also did it for my book club recently so I got to combine my reading in a really efficient way!

I will admit that I wasn’t a big fan of her first book, All the Birds in the Sky, just not quite my thing (though I know loads of people who loved it). The premise for this one really caught my eye though and listening to her talk about it on her podcast (Our Opinions Are Correct) got me really interested so I thought I would give it a go and I am honestly really glad I did because I very much enjoyed it.

The book follows two different protagonists whose lives get tangled up together in the course of the book. The world that the book is set on is one that is stuck with one half in the light of the sun and the other half in darkness, so the only habitable area is the twilight region between day and night. Sophie is a young woman from the poorer side of Xiosphant is a student and a revolutionary. She ends up exiled into the darkness and is saved from it, an event that will change the course of her life and potentially the planet. The other woman is Mouth, a traveller seeking to preserve the memory of her lost people. The two of them will get caught up in the troubles of the world and will have to find a way to work together to get through it.

“You might mistake understanding for forgiveness, but if you did, then the unforgiven wrong would catch you off guard, like a cramp, just as you reached for generosity.”

As I mentioned before the setting of this book really got my attention, the idea of a civilisation perched in twilight, caught forever between a day and a night that would kill them was something I find fascinating, especially in regards to what a society would look like in those sorts of conditions. There’s an interesting contrast between Xiosphant, a city that is built on order, on using shutters to make a fake day and night to give the residents the sense of routine that they had on Earth, whilst the other city is relaxed, more chaotic as the residents have much more freedom to do what they want.

One of the main focuses of the book is also on the relationships between the characters, which is always a favourite thing for me. Though a warning, there is a very toxic relationship portrayed in it that could be pretty triggering if you have been through something like that. It is very, very well done and I often found myself screaming at the character in the book, not because I blamed them for their choices, but because I desperately wanted better for them and it was painful to watch them go through it all. Which I mean, is excellent characterisation, the whole thing wouldn’t have upset me as much had I not cared about the characters and if the depiction hadn’t been quite so realistic, so masterfully done on the author’s part.

The ending is a little open in some ways, I don’t want to get into detail because I don’t want to spoiler it for anyone. I think overall I liked the way it ended, it wrapped up enough of the story to feel like some sort of ending, whilst still leaving other things to your imagination, in a way I really did like. The book tells the story it wants to tell and I got really invested in it, it’s not my favourite out of the Hugo novel finalists, but it definitely deserves it’s place there. Well worth a read.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (4*)

Book: Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh

Ugh, so behind with these. I have some time off work so I am going to try and blast through my backlog as I have started my Hugo reading now and I definitely want to cover that.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Temi twice and she is honestly a genuinely lovely person. Listening to her talk definitely made me want to read this, combined with listening to Emma Newman froth about it (they were at the same event together). As usual, I can’t do hardbacks due to stupid joints and their constant malfunctioning (they are too heavy basically and cause pain if I read them for any length of time) so thus settled into wait for the paperback.

Terra TwoThe book follows the story of six teenagers who are chosen to on a long mission to a planet that has been designated Terra-Two. Their journey is expected to take them 20-30 years so they will arrive when they are in their late 30s to early 40s. They are the back-up crew to the adults, expected to learn their jobs so they can take over when needed later on in the journey.

I will admit that I had assumed that the book was going to be covering the whole journey and dealing with the interpersonal problems that would arise from such a group of people being stuck with each other in such a small space for a long period of time, but that isn’t entirely how it goes. This isn’t meant as a spoiler, just as a warning, only a relatively short time of the journey is covered in the book.

There was a lot I liked about the way the relationships played out between the characters, there were some pretty dark moments as well, no sexual violence just the regular sort in case you are worried, but potential trigger for bullying type situations so be aware of that.

One thing that did bother me in regards to the character relationships and their development though. Early on there is a character who does not want to have sex, but the way it is framed she seems to think the whole thing is horrible and not something that she wants, which is a pretty clear indicator of a certain type of asexuality. Then later on she seems utterly happy to have sex with someone else, with no explanation of her very major change of views on the matter. As an asexual person who is often desperate for more representation, this was really quite frustrating.

The only other slight quibble I had may actually be more of a marketing thing than anything else. So I love Planetfall, I liked the weird mystical seeming stuff that permeating parts of that book. As a book where the premise was about a colony on an alien world that had been established after they followed a prophet to the place, that seemed to entirely match my expectations of what I was going to read. There is a similar element in this book where there are some weird dreams about the place they are going to, but in a book that was marketed without that expectation it felt a little jarring to me. Like I said though, not sure that is something I can particularly blame the author for but it is something to be aware of.

But overall I really liked the book and it’s a pretty good debut. The ending does feel a little abrupt and the way it ends may annoy some people, but it did make a certain amount of sense to me, even if a part of me can’t help but want to know how the story of the characters ends, even if that isn’t the story the book is telling me.

Annihilation (4*)

Book: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

This is another one of our book club picks, though I have been wanting to read it for a while since I heard about it because of the film. I did watch that first and I mostly enjoyed it and I was very curious as to how it would compare to the book, especially since I know a lot of people who had read the book didn’t like the film very much, if at all.

I am somewhat behind with my reviews as well, this is mostly just because trying to get into the right headspace at the moment can be difficult but I am going to try and struggle through, it’s a good distraction right now with all that’s going on.

“Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective—even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.”

AnnihilationFirst thing I will say is that I am unsure if Annihilation is a very short novel, or if it’s a novella. Not that it particularly matters either way I suppose, but it is certainly surprisingly short.

The story follows four women, none of whom are given names in the narrative, they are known by their job titles alone: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist (the leader) and a biologist who narrates the story. All of them are on an expedition into a strange area known as Area X.

Fairly early on they come across something that the narrator refers to as a tower and the others call a tunnel, it goes down into the ground but still make her think it’s a tower. What they find there will have long lasting consequences for all of them.

There is a lot of weird imagery in the book and the descriptions do a wonderful job of evoking a creepy and alien environment, made all the moreso by the fact that it is mostly like our world, but definitely not entirely so. I really loved the descriptions of the tower itself, they were very well done and create an excellent atmosphere and give you something of a hint of what sort of journey you will be going on in the story.

I did find it quite impressive how well I understood the personalities of the characters and it does go to show that a name is not the only thing that matters when it comes to making someone seem more real. Some of them are more fleshed out than others, but I still felt that I got a very good sense of who they were. I would have perhaps liked more about the rest of the expedition, but I definitely enjoyed the way the relationship between the narrator and her husband was unravelled through flashbacks and inner thoughts, the way it was handled was excellent and it does surprise you somewhat at the end.

Overall it was an excellent read, especially given the short length. Some may find the ending a little unsatisfying as it does leave things unanswered, but then there are other books so I can only assume that those loose ends will be tied up later on in the trilogy. It’s well written, wonderfully weird and I definitely enjoyed it.

 

Children of Time (5*) and Children of Ruin (4*)

Books: Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I have been excitedly waiting for Children of Ruin to come out in paperback because of how much I loved the first one. And since I apparently read the first one before I made this blog, now I am going to review the two together. As a warning, the review for Children of Ruin will contain some spoilers for Children of Time, so I would only read the review of the second if you have read the first one.

“You can never know. That is the problem with ignorance. You can never truly know the extent of what you are ignorant about.”

Children of TimeBasically this book was sold to me a civilisation of sentient spiders in space and that alone made me desperate to read it. Weird fact about me, I adore spiders, have done since I was 7 when I got to hold a tarantula. So a book that basically makes spiders smart, point of view characters with their own motivations and goals was definitely something I knew I wanted to read. This was in fact the first book by Adrian I ever read and now I have an ever growing pile of his stuff because he writes some compellingly he’s on my ‘must buy’ author list.

If you yourself are an arachnophobe and are thus unsure about reading this book, I cannot speak for the particular way your phobia works, but I will say that we read this book for my book club and we had several arachnophobes in the group and not only did they very much enjoy the book, but they actually found themselves rooting for the spiders! This, to me, is the ultimate testiment to the power of Adrian’s writing, he has an absolute gift to make characters who are distinctly alien in their ways of thinking and yet still very relatable. This book is the best example of him doing this that I have currently read.

Anyway, I have said all that and not even really gone into the actual plot of the book (oops). The premise is that in the last era of Earth, various scientists went out to try and terraform worlds into places fit for human habitation. One of these, Avrana Kern, was a genius who was not trying to terraform a place for humans, but instead was trying to uplift monkeys and bring them sentience and gift them with a new world all of their own. Something goes wrong though and the monkeys are killed, but the virus meant to uplift them still works on the terraformed world, instead, slowly through generations, lifting the arachnids and other creatures to sentience instead.

“Life is not perfect, individuals will always be flawed, but empathy – the sheer inability to see those around them as anything other than people too – conquers all, in the end.”

In the meantime a starship of survivors leaves Earth, heading out to the world that has been terraformed and had the uplift virus applied to it. They need to find a new place to live and are not expecting it to be already inhabited by a sentient species. Can the two civilisations find a way to work together or will there be conflict between them?

The book switches between seeing the development of the arachnid civilisation and the problems they face in their expidited evolution and with the crew of the human ship that is trying to find a new home. The main crew of the human vessel stays the same for the most part, due to them spending long periods in stasis, but the spiders change between generations, though a naming convention is kept the same which gives a sense of continuity in some ways.

As mentioned before, one of the things I love about the book is how well Adrian makes non human beings seem like people and it really makes the book stand out. It also deals with a host of social issues as well, from the internal ones in the arachnid civilisation, to the ones that the humans are fleeing from and going towards. At its heart it is an excellent exploration of the nature of what it is to be a person and what people would and should do in the pursuit of survival.

There is honestly so much I could talk about that I am struggling to work out what I should say and what basically would give too much of the book away to do so. Basically, this is one of the best bits of science-fiction I have read in recent years and honestly there is no one I wouldn’t recommend this book to (unless you are the sort of arachnophobe who absolutely cannot deal with spiders in any way, in which case, this book is sadly not for you).

“An inclination to play God was part and parcel of wanting to go out and terraform other worlds, but good practice was to at least play nicely with the rest of the pantheon.”

Children of Ruin

And now we come to the sequel: Children of Ruin. Like I said I had been looking forward to this one since I heard that he was writing a sequel and waiting for it to come out in paperback was an absolute trial let me tell you!

If you have not read the first book, please stop reading now, this will otherwise have spoilers for the end of that book and I don’t really want to do that so please be warned!

One of the things that appealed was the fact that this one was going to involve sentient octopi (he even acknowledges the scientific argument about what you actually should call a group of them and that was honestly a wonderful little nod). I am a fan of these beautiful and remarkably smart creatures and I definitely wanted to see what sort of culture he would develop for them.

The story follows on where the first book left off, with a ship crewed by a mix of humans and portids heading off to investigate other areas where human terraforming was meant to have been taking place. Interspersed with us following their journey and discoveries we get to see the stories of both the human terraformers who were working a planet in the area and also their investigation into the life that already existed on one of the planets in the system. One of the terraformers is the one who uplifts the octopoids to help with work on the water planet.

We do get some of the same development as done with the portids in the first book, but not to the same degree, we learn a lot more about their society from their interactions with the human/portid crew than we do from the flashback parts of the story.

One of the things I think Adrian pulled off really well in this book is making the true aliens, exceptionally so. The way they think and act is very, very different to humans and even to the other uplifted species that the series has introduced us to. They come across as truly creepy and terrifying in a way that may well give you nightmares. I will honestly never hear the words “we’re going on an adventure!” in the same way again.

The book, like the first one, still deals a lot with the idea of finding commonalities between very different species. There are a lot of issues between the humans/portids and the octopoids because they think in very different ways and I especially loved the difficulties they had in learning to communicate with each other and the misunderstandings it inevitably caused.

I didn’t quite love this book as much as the first, it’s hard to exactly put my finger on why because it is also very good. I think it might just be that the way it is structured doesn’t quite work for me in the same way as the first book did. There isn’t quite as much learning how the octopoids developed, or maybe not even that but the fact that the structure is more split up between three different groups/timelines and that meant I didn’t quite have as much attachment to the people or what was going on as I had the first time around.

That is the only real complaint I might make against it though, the book is a very worthy sequel to the first one and if you loved the first one then I do highly recommend that you get this one too. Some of my friends actually preferred this one to the first one, so you may even find yourself in that category. And let’s face it even if, like me, you don’t think it quite measures up to the first one, a slightly worse book than Children of Time is still a book that is vastly better than many books you could buy.

A Memory Called Empire (5*)

Book: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Sorry for the quiet, been struggling to write more than usual lately, probably a subtle way that the current state of things is getting to me, though I also weirdly have more of a social life going on now which has been eating some of my time.

We did this for our book club last month, and as it’s on the Nebula shortlist, honestly I cannot be happier that this one was what we picked because it was utterly excellent. Though the Nebula list for this year looks really, really good and I have Gods of Jade and Shadow to get through soon, Ten Thousand Doors of January on pre-order (I would have the paperback of Gideon the Ninth on pre-order too, but it’s still not up on Waterstones and I refuse to buy from Amazon).

“This was the most animated Mahit had seen Three Seagrass be so far, and it was really making it difficult for Mahit not to like her. She was funny. Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle was funnier.”

MemoryI was also excited to look up the author and discover that she is queer, I do adore finding more excellent queer writers, it makes me so very happy.

But anyway, the story follows a young woman called Mahit Dzmare who is from an independent mining colony who live on a space station. She is selected as the new ambassador to Teixcalaanli Empire after the unexpected death of the previous one. She has long loved the culture of the Empire, but now she has to balance the needs of her own people with her pleasure at being where she has always longed to be.

It’s basically a political murder mystery at its heart, but with some very interesting science -fiction twists that elevate it up much more than that. The main character has a technology in her head that gives her advice and sometimes memories from the previous ambassador, though the information is years out of date (this is a fairly minor spoiler as this is introduced very early on into the book). The role that this plays in the plot is really well done, though I don’t want to go into too much more detail because of more severe spoilers.

There is an aspect of this book that I feel is definitely either a love it or hate it thing. All throgh the writing there is a lot of discussion about the culture of the Empire, especially in regard to poetry, whether that is through poetry competitions, the use of it in encryptions, or referring to it as a way to describe the landmarks of the city. For me I loved this, I found it well done and very engaging, but from what I heard from others in our writing group, some of them found it somewhat pretentious and difficult. So just be advised that your tolerance for poetry based culture may influence your enjoyment of the book.

“Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.”

I was also very impressed by the pacing, it seems to be the hardest part of a book to get right and the hurdle that most debut authors stumble at. This one worked really well though, there was a lot of action in the book, but also plenty of intrigue and character moments that kept it flowing along very nicely. It built up very successful to the conclusion and I wasn’t left with a feeling of it being rushed, shoe-horned or full of last minute deus ex machinas to fix anything. I also felt that the way it ended made perfect sense for what I learned about the characters and I really loved that too.

This is a book that will definitely tug on your heart strings and I found myself enraptured by a number of the characters. I also loved how important friendships and trust was in the story,  Those were built up very well and she humanises her characters wonderfully. I felt I understood a lot about the personalities and motives of each one, in a way that brought them all to life for me.

Overall this is a pretty astonishing debut. It’s rare that I read a debut novel and know that I am going to be looking out for absolutely everything that the author publishes from now on, but I definitely feel that way about this one. More like this please!

Molly Southbourne Novellas (4*)

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

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

The Murders of Molly Southbourne

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Survival of Molly Southbourne

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

Xuya Novellas & In the Vanishers’ Palace

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

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

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

On a Red Station, Drifting (5*)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Citadel of The Weeping Pearls (4*)

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Vanishers’ Palace (4*)

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

Vanishers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.