BooksOfTheMoon

The Cat Who Saved Books

By Sōsuke Natsukawa

Rating: 4 stars

Rintaro Natsuki is a high school kid whose grandfather, and closest relative, dies, leaving him to pack up the family bookshop and go and live with an aunt he’s never met. And then a talking cat comes into his life, asking him to come with it, on a mission to save books. Well, how can he refuse?

This is a sweet little book mostly about love of books and reading, with a side order of dealing with grief. The four labyrinths that Rintaro must navigate all have something different at their centre, and each helps him learn a bit more about himself, and to teach the labyrinths’ masters something as well.

At times, the book can feel a little didactic on what constitutes “good” reading. As someone whose reading is usually quite light (particularly these last few years!), I sometimes felt a metaphorical finger being wagged at me, but it felt quite good-natured, for the most part. There are a handful of other characters in the book – Rintaro’s fellow student and book lover Ryota Akiba and his class president (and love interest) Sayo Yuzuki, but they don’t get more than broad brush strokes of characterisation.

There were some Japanese terms that the translator chose not to translate (there’s an explanatory note at the back explaining the reasons). This is fine, but a glossary would have been useful. I can understand why you would struggle to translate words like hikikomori in the text, and there’s always Google, but a glossary would have provided for a longer explanation where required, while still leaving the text intact.

It’s a short book and a pleasant and, dare I say it, light read. Albeit one that leaves you thinking afterwards. Definitely one for anyone who loves books.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529081473
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2021

Blackthorn Winter (Comet Weather, #2)

By Liz Williams

Rating: 3 stars

Picking up a few months after Comet Weather, Blackthorn Winter once again follows the lives of the four Fallow sisters, this time in the deep midwinter, around Christmas and the early new year. While the last book was very much an ensemble piece, this one feels much more like Serena’s story – with her latest collection being shredded just before Fashion Week and Christmas. Poor Luna gets hardly any chapters from her point of view and while Bee gets a bit more to do, her part of the story seems vague and unfocused, and Stella is often relegated to being Serena’s sidekick.

Part of what I loved about Comet Weather was its deep attachment to place, and rural place. Magical London has been done to death, but having contemporary magic in rural England felt fresh to me[1]. This one is more focused around London, and less around the Fallow family home in Somerset. That makes it feel less special to me.

We did get a lot more of Ward in this book, and I really enjoyed that. He’s a plummy chap, I imagine as a mid-career Hugh Grant, perhaps, but he’s not thrown by the magical world he’s thrown into, and his devotion to Serena is a pleasure to read. We also get a new character, Ace, who’s somewhat mysterious, but fun as well.

The major problem with this book, which was an issue in the previous one too, but somehow left less so, is that the sisters are mostly quite passive. Things happen to them, and they’re often saved by other people, but don’t often get to do any heroics themselves. They’re mostly wandering around in the dark while others hoard their dark secrets (looking at you, Alys!). There’s also a lot of threads left untied. We still have no idea where Alys was off to, or what agreement she has with the Hunt, or why various magical things are after (or, indeed, want to protect) the Fallows. And after feeling like Nell had some secret in the last book, she isn’t even mentioned in this one.

So I found it a little frustrating, but still enjoyable. If there are more books in the series (which I very much hope there are), I shall certainly read them.

[1] yes, I know we’ve had Alan Garner and many others doing that sort of thing, but this series is resolutely twenty first century, rather than 1970s or earlier

Book details

ISBN: 9781912950799
Publisher: NewCon press
Year of publication: 2021

The City We Became (Great Cities #1)

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

I read Jemisin’s collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month and very much enjoyed it, especially The City Born Great, so when I heard that this was an expansion and extension of that story, I was excited. Some cities are alive, and their souls are human avatars. New York is just being born, but it’s already under attack by extra-dimensional horrors. Its new avatar manages to fight them off, but it’s too much, and he falls into a coma. But he’s not alone – the city has five other avatars: one for each borough. They need to come together to find the primary and to defeat something that wants to destroy them all.

I really enjoyed this book. Most of the urban fantasy that I’ve read tends to centre on London, so having this one focus on New York was a bit more “exotic”. I mostly know that city through Hollywood films, but Jemisin is deft enough to take you with her as she explores the city, even if you’re not familiar with it. We’re introduced to the avatars one at a time, starting with Manny (aka Manhattan), and we have different ideas of what it means to be a New Yorker – the bright-eyed newcomer; the up and coming; the hard as nails, takes no crap; the immigrant.

And then there’s Staten Island. I have to assume that Jemisin is being fair in her assessment of Staten Island: a haven of conservatism, inward looking, and which doesn’t want to be part of New York. Staten Island’s avatar is a young white woman called Aislyn and the chapters from her point of view are, for want of a better word, sad. She’s living with her parents, particularly her overbearing cop of a father, and is terrified of everything that might be different or foreign. I feel desperately sad for her, but also want to shake her and tell her to get a grip.

Something I quite liked is that the Lovecraftian horrors from Beyond Reality get their own avatar, and she’s quite talkative. This lets us see things from their point of view, and you actually sort of think that she’s got a point. Although her solution is terrible, it feels like the sort of thing where it might be possible to try and work out a solution, if everyone wasn’t so busy trying to kill each other. It’s something I hope will develop over the course of the trilogy.

For a book with five nominal protagonists, someone was bound to get the short straw. In this case it was poor Queens. Being an immigrant of Indian descent, she was the one I was most interested in, but apart from being young and good at maths, we don’t get much about her at all. Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, as well as Staten Island get a lot more screen time. In fact, I think Queens only gets one chapter from her PoV (each chapter is from the PoV of one of the characters). I hope that this will change in later books.

Apart from that minor quibble, it’s greatly enjoyable book, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512686

Entropic Angel: And Other Stories

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve not read an awful lot of Powell’s work, but when I saw this special edition on offer, I thought I’d give it a go, based on having read Embers of War and Light Chaser. And I’m rather glad that I did. I enjoyed this collection a lot, there’s a lot of interesting ideas and settings, and some great writing too.

There’s a couple of far-future end of the universe stories: Sunsets and Hamburgers postulates two humans resurrected at the end of time, and encouraged to have children, despite hope seeming lost; while The Redoubt features two humans given the opportunity of a million lifetimes, to travel the universe until the end of time.

I loved the basic idea of the title story, which involves these winged creatures seeking out sources of energy – power stations, wind turbines and the like, and increasing the entropy within them until they fail and break. There’s a lot packed into a short space here and I enjoyed the stuff that was left unsaid as much as what as said.

There are a few linked stories as well – Fallout and The New Ships both set in an England after an alien ship crashed in the West Midlands, irradiating most of the area and what people do to survive. And then there’s The Last Reef and Flotsam with a setting of a solar system in which AIs go post-Singularity, but most of which turn inward as they ramp up their evolution and burn out.

Eleven Minutes was probably one of my favourites in the collection, in which two squabbling Nasa technicians running night shift duty on a Mars rover see something in the camera that they really don’t expect.

There’s a few stories that didn’t work as well for me – Lift Up Your Face isn’t really SF, but I didn’t really get it much at all; while This is How You Die features a pandemic and the second person voice, neither of which I’m particularly fond of in stories.

But all in all, this is a strong collection from a pretty consistently good writer.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910935392
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2017

Comet Weather (Comet Weather, #1)

By Liz Williams

Rating: 5 stars

The four Fallow sisters are all dealing with the fact that their mother, Alys, is missing, maybe dead, in different ways. But now a comet is coming, and all four are drawn back to their ancestral home in the depths of England, helped by the star spirits and the ghost of their grandfather.

I rather loved this somewhat dreamy and somewhat spooky story of four sisters who aren’t quite the same as other people. All very different from each other, and with two of them having had a major row at the start, the book nonetheless shows us how deeply they care for and respect each other, and how they are able to lean on each other when there is trouble.

The book is set in the present day, but unlike a lot of modern fantasy, it shies away from the great urban centres. London does feature, but much more important are the wilds of Somerset, giving this a very different feel to other primary world fantasies set in the present. All four Fallow sisters are protagonists, with rotating chapters from each sister’s point of view, often quite short, but enough to engage your interest and to create clear pictures of the personalities of all: steadfast Bee, who remained in the family home after their mother disappeared; single mother and fashion designer Serena, living in London; Stella who’s DJs around the UK and the Mediterranean; and Luna, who lives in a horse-drawn wagon, following the Gypsy Switch around Britain.

The story emerges organically, with the mystery of Alys’ disappearance, the mysterious Stare siblings and the Behenian stars all playing a part. The magic feels organic, coming out of the landscape, and the history of the land, without much formalisation.

I feel the end of the book feels a bit rushed, and there’s still several mysteries left unsolved. I feel I sort of missed something going on with Nell, their American cousin who’s visiting and seems oblivious to everything going around her. I don’t know if the sequel will answer those questions, but I just want to spend more time with the Fallow sisters and in Williams’ glorious writing. I’ve already got it ordered.

Book details

ISBN: 9781912950454
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

The Beauty of the House is immesurable; its Kindness infinite. So believes Piranesi, who lives in the House – a vast labyrinth of Halls, with innumerable statues in the endless halls and the ocean in the basement. He lives here alone, except for The Other, and and always has, or so he believes. He lives a contented life, until the messages start to appear – there is someone new in the House, and this sets up a chain of events that leads to hidden truths being uncovered and relationships changed forever.

This is a slim volume, but it took me a while to get into it. The world of the House is dense and Clarke does throw you into the middle of it. The novel takes the form of journal entries of the narrator (the Other calls him Piranesi, but he’s not sure that that’s his name). The random capitalisation that the narrator throws in doesn’t help either. It takes a while to get into the flow of it.

But once you do find the rhythm of the book, it’s a joy to read. It’s lyrical, haunting and beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed following the narrator on his personal journey of discovery of both himself, and the world around him. I can imagine that it’s a book that rewards rereading, and I’m definitely going to give it another go before too long.

Clarke certainly isn’t prolific, but a new novel from her is an event that’s worth the wait.

Book details

ISBN: 9781526622433
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane and David Vincent are newlywed, deeply in love, partners in work as well as life and with the favour of the Prince Regent. Life looks good as they go on honeymoon to Belgium to see one of Vincent’s old friends and colleagues. But this is a Europe only just coming out of war. Napoleon may be conquered but he has many allies on the continent. The Vincents find themselves amongst all this, and worse, when Vincent is captured, leaving Jane as the only one who can save him.

I really enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey and this continuation of the Vincents’ story was just as enjoyable. The blurb for the book played up the kidnapping, but in actual fact, that was a relatively short section towards the end, with most of it being spent focusing on their life together, Jane finding herself pregnant, and her increasing worry about being cut of of Vincent’s life.

The rules of this world are that women can’t do glamour when they’re pregnant. It’s not clear if that’s a solid rule, or if it’s something with some flexibility (like not drinking alcohol), but Jane sticks to it and starts to fear that because she can’t be her husband’s creative partner any more, he’s stopped valuing her. Kowal does a good job of setting up Jane’s fear and the reasons for it, but I never entirely believed it, seeing Vincent with somewhat clearer vision, even through Jane’s eyes.

The period setting is good. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the last book, but this one had me sucked right in. Kowal’s writing is noticeably improved, even between her first and second novel

I’m now fully invested in Jane and Vincent’s life and can’t wait to dig into the next book.

Book details

Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2013

Prime Deceptions

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

The second book in the adventures of Captain Eva Innocente picks up about six months after the first, with the crew of La Sirena Negra now picking up missions from Eva’s sister, Mari, to harass The Fridge, the organised crime ring that Eva thought had kidnapped Mari and forced her to work for them to pay her ransom in the first book. Now the group that Mari works for offers them a mission to find a missing scientist (and also, coincidentally, the brother of new engineer Sue, who was also kidnapped by The Fridge). Unfortunately, the trail leads Eva to the site of her greatest failure, and something she’s been running from for years.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s fast-paced, full of action, and a lot of fun. Eva is a great protagonist: hot-headed, always preferring to look after she leaps, and full of enough angst to satisfy a gaggle of emos. The rest of the crew are still not as well-developed, although there was a slightly delightful geek romance going on (which self-absorbed Eva obviously didn’t catch on to until way later than she should have). I was disappointed that although Leroy made an appearance, it was more a cameo than anything else. He had a really interesting background that I would have loved to see explored in more detail.

I was also a bit disappointed that the amorous emperor from the first book pretty much disappeared in this one, hand-waved away with a one-line explanation. After his return at the end of the last one, I thought he’d play more of a part here. Oh well, that still left plenty for the crew to get their teeth into.

In the last book, we had a pop-culture reference in the shape of Portal guns. Valdes goes one better here, by introducing evil Pokémon (there’s another one later one, but given the glee I felt when I figured it out [much later than I should have!], I’ll not spoil it for viewers at home).

This is a really fun series. I don’t speak Spanish at all, but I’m happy to treat the Spanish language stuff as set dressing, something that adds atmosphere without necessarily needing to go into it in great detail (at least I hope not, since I rarely reached for Google Translate). There’s another book in the series coming, and I look forward to spending more time with Eva, Vakar and the rest of the crew of La Sirena Negra.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514437
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2020

Light Chaser

By Peter F. Hamilton

Rating: 4 stars

Amahle is a Light Chaser, the pilot of a starship that makes a long, slow circuit around human space, at nearly the speed of light, carrying trade and information between worlds, coming to each planet in her circuit roughly every thousand years. But a name keeps coming up again and again, and with it a conspiracy as deep and ancient as human spaceflight.

I’m guessing that the pace of this cracking belter of a space opera must come from Powell. This is sort the sort of idea that Hamilton would make a door-stop trilogy (at least) out of. Despite the brevity, we get a good thumbnail sketch of this interstellar human meta-civilisation, as Light Chasers are rare and many planets are stuck at different stages of civilisation, whether this is age of steam, feudalism, all the way up to post-scarcity. What Amahle uncovers leads her to wonder at why these various societies are as static as they are.

Amahle is engineered for longevity, and her relativistic travel basically puts her outside of all human societies, other than her peers (none of whom make an appearance here). Even by her relative standard, she’s probably hundreds (maybe thousands) of years old. From the point of view of the outside world, she’s timeless. And yet, even her enhanced human mind can’t hold that many memories, so she’s resigned to the old constantly making way for the new, losing more of herself with every planet she visits.

There’s also a mystical strand that runs through the story, with the idea of reincarnating souls and (literally!) star-crossed lovers destined to meet across many lifetimes, which is a bit weird but it fits.

I went through a Hamilton phase in my 20s, where I read everything I could get hold of (although I’ve not read anything by him in probably a decade now). I’ve not read as much Powell, but this is a neat fusion of the two, not really feeling like either but a solid third voice. It’s a very enjoyable light space opera that breezes through different human societies in pages, where it could have spent whole chapters (or even books) in them, racing towards its finale at breakneck speed. A lot of fun to read.

Book details

Publisher: Tordotcom
Year of publication: 2021

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 5 stars

Mona is a teenage girl with the very specific magical ability to work with bread. From telling it not to burn, to making gingerbread men dance, Mona is the very definition of a minor wizard. But she’s happy being a baker, working with her Aunt Tabitha, and using her magic to help her. Until the other wizards of the city start disappearing, until soon she’s on the run for her life. And then, she’ll be the only thing standing between her city and an invading army.

I loved this little novella. It was charming, but with enough of a hard edge to make it worth savouring. Mona is a great protagonist, whose actions feel believable all the way through (up to and including the giant gingerbread golems). She doesn’t want to be doing this, she’s a teenage girl, and she’s (rightly) angry that all this has fallen on her shoulders. Why wasn’t the duchess stronger? Why didn’t other people speak out? Why was it left up to her?

But despite it all, she rises to the occasion (pun very much intended). With obligatory Little Orphan Boy (Spindle) at her side and with the help of her familiar – a sourdough starter called Bob (really, it’s scarier than it sounds) – she fights bigotry, rogue wizards and bureaucrats (as well as the aforementioned invading army).

The world is well-developed, without any big infodumps and the writing is clear and a joy to read. I’d love to read more of Mona’s adventures, but that would require her to be a hero again, which would make her angry, and she might set Bob on me.

Book details

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio

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