BooksOfTheMoon

Shades of Milk and Honey (The Glamourist Histories, #1)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane Ellsworth is an accomplished, but plain, young woman in Regency England. Her father has put aside enough money to ensure good dowries for her and her sister, but she isn’t sure that she’ll ever find a man to marry her, no matter her dowry, or how good her ability with glamour is.

This book wears its Jane Austen influences on its sleeve. From the very first page, it riffs on Pride and Prejudice, inviting the reader to note the similarities and differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the existence of magic in this world, in the form of glamour – the power of illusion, of drawing it from the ether and forming it into shapes, sounds and even smells. Jane’s ability at glamour incites jelousy in her sister, Melody, as much as Melody’s beauty does with Jane, although Melody, the younger sister, is more willing to show it.

I’m a great fan of Pride and Prejudice, and this homage to that world, while adding its own magical twist delighted me. It captured the spirit of Austen’s work very well, although at times the writing didn’t entirely feel authentic. Although that can be forgiven given that this is Kowal’s debut novel. Although the worldbuilding is broad, it’s done well and gives you the information you need.

We get everything we expect in a Regency novel, and then some – we get a ball, gossip, jealousy, a wayword younger sister and even a duel! Jane is a delightful protagonist (I mean, she’s no Elizabeth Bennett, but then, who is?). It’s fun trying to figure out which of the men in the novel will be the Mr Darcy to her Lizzy. Will it be the charming neighbour? Or the childhood friend? Or maybe the new glamourist hired by their aristocratic neighbour?

This was a lot of fun as a homage to Austen’s work and I’m really curious to see where it goes next. The world is really interesting, so now that we’ve had the homage, I look forward to something more off the beaten track.

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Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1)

By Rachel Caine

Rating: 3 stars

I picked this up mostly because I’m a big fan of books (obviously!) and libraries, and I also love Genevieve Cogman‘s Invisible Library series, so I thought another series of books about a magical library (sorry, Library) would be right up my street. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.

Jess is the son of a London book smuggler in a world where owning books is illegal. The Great Library of Alexandria never fell in this world, and there’s lots of books, that people can access, but they just can’t own them. And even after reading the book, I’m really not entirely sure why. The printing press was independently invented several times over in this world and has been suppressed by the Library each time. I still don’t entirely understand why the Library would want to do that. Jess is sent to study at the Library, as part of a cohort of postulants, all competing for the few available positions.

This is a book about power and how it leads to complacency and corruption. The hierarchy of the Library is happy with how things stand and will do anything to preserve the existing structures. They also value books and knowledge over people, sending Jess and his fellow students into a war zone to retrieve the original books held at a library, while not being able to help the people at all.

We have some well-known archetypes in Jess’s fellow students, including the technical expert, the arrogant aristocrat and the genius student, and it’s as much about how they bond as a group as it is about the corruption of the Library.

I must confess that at the first mention of a war currently going on between the Welsh and English, I sort of laughed, since being attacked by the Welsh seems about as threatening as being savaged by a puppy, but when Jess et al are dropped into the middle of that war, it’s anything but funny. Still, it does raise questions about the world – apparently the English never totally subjugated the Welsh in this world. What does that mean for Scotland and Ireland? Was there ever a United Kingdom? A British Empire? How has the Library’s influence altered history?

But despite the likeable protagonist and interesting setting, I’m not sure I’ll continue with the series. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction and especially in the middle of a global pandemic I find myself craving lighter, fluffier fiction. Also, there are five books in the series. A trilogy I could maybe have handled, but I don’t think I can bring myself to slog through another four books set in a world I don’t enjoy.

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ISBN: 9780749017224
Publisher: Allison & Busby
Year of publication: 2015

A Quiet Afternoon 2

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed the previous volume of Grace & Victory’s “low-fi” speculative fiction anthology, and am pleased to report the same for this second volume. This one is bigger, with twenty eight stories (although some of the stories are more like flash fiction, only a couple of pages long) where the stakes are low, and the peril is mild. It was definitely a good choice to read this alongside Bear Head, a book that made me pretty anxious and stressed.

Some of the stories are whimsical, like the opener, Sadedali and the Secret Life of Clouds, about a cat and her human making friends with clouds; or The Many Kidnappings of Princess Zania, about a princess who keeps getting kidnapped by a sorcerer, until she figures out what he wants. Some of the stories are melancholy, such as In Case of Emergency, Break Heart, where broken hearts can be replaced by mechanical ones, and if they stop you from feeling, well, that’s a feature, not a bug; or Wings of Memory which is a lovely story about identity, and self, and determination.

I favour the warm, sweet ones over the melancholy ones. Remembering Simulacra, for example, tells of a number of painted concrete dinosaurs who, every night, climb out of the amusement park where they live to a nearby hill to watch the skies in memory of the great fire that killed the creatures they were made in the image of. And I’m always up for a Glasgow story, and Brian Milton’s Rab the Giant Versus the Problem Neighbour is just lovely (full disclosure, I know Brian, and loved the previous story featuring Rab).

In general, a lovely idea for an anthology, with a lot of very pleasant stories; and with a donation from the profit from the book going to charity (as they say, “quiet afternoons are too often a privilege when they should be a right”), I heartily recommend it.

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ISBN: 9780994009760
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2021

Bear Head

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Jimmy Martin is a construction worker on Mars. He’s used to doing a bit of data smuggling in his head to feed his drugs habit, but he’s not used to the data talking back. Jimmy has a fully fledged bear in his mind, and one that wants to talk to the other colonisation effort on Mars. The one nobody wants to admit is there. And Jimmy’s got to along for the ride, whether he likes it or not.

I enjoyed Dogs of War a lot, but I struggled with its sequel. The themes of sanctity of thought and slavery are fully front and centre in this one even more so than its predecessor, this time with added rape. I really hated Jonas Murry, from the first book, but Warner Thomson leaves Murry in his dust. I mean, Tchaikovsky isn’t exactly being subtle here about Thomson’s model here: the empathy-less, narcissistic businessman turned politician, who jumps on whatever right-wing bandwagon is rolling. Every time he turned up, I felt my stress level go up in anticipation of what horror was going to happen to Carole, his PA (and whose PoV we see through in chapters featuring Thomson) and I just wanted to scrub my skin.

This book certainly doesn’t feel as fun as its predecessor. Partly it’s that we don’t get as many bioforms, most of the PoV characters are human (or, at least, humaniform, since the people sent to Mars have been heavily modded to help them survive). Honey, the bear from Dogs of War, is the only Bioform PoV that we get, and she’s older and more worn down than the young, idealistic bear of yesteryear. Jimmy, whose head Honey ends up living in, isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs either. He’s a washed-out, drug-addicted construction worker, mostly there to let other people spout exposition at him.

It’s a depressing, dystopian future that Tchaikovsky has created here, where hard-won freedoms are being eroded, and the Bioforms are finding themselves new targets of old racisms. But it’s the casual way that “Collaring” (basically slavery that makes you permanently loyal to a person or company) is being being promoted by the corporates of this world that depresses me the most. Sure, I can very much believe that rich and powerful people and corporations would jump at a return to slavery, but seeing such an imagined future spelled out is difficult to stomach.

I appreciate the writing and the plot, and the very clever use of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but despite all that, I felt that this was a slog to read, and didn’t really enjoy the experience.

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ISBN: 9781800241565

Hilda and the Midnight Giant

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 4 stars

The second Hilda comic (it’s really too short to be called a graphic novel) sees Hilda encounter the Elves that live around her home in the wilderness (once she signs the paperwork, at least) and a giant giant who’s waiting for someone.

Beautifully drawn, in a simple but engaging style, and very sweet, this is an adorable comic. Suitable for children of all ages, including ones in their forties.

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ISBN: 9781909263796
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Year of publication: 2016

Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End

By Sophie Aldred

Rating: 4 stars

Ace was probably my favourite companion of the Classic Who era (nothing to do with me being a growing boy on the first approach to adolescence, no siree). She was no-nonsense, and rather than screaming, made her own explosives and attacked Daleks with baseball bats. It was only later, on rewatches as an adult, that I saw how the writers had been carefully crafting her story arc. This is something we take for granted now, but in that period, companions mostly just stood around to let the Doctor spout exposition, look pretty, and scream on demand.

This novel, (co-)written by Ace actress Sophie Aldred, has us catch up with Ace, sorry, Dorothy, thirty years after her travels with the Doctor ended. She’s now a middle-aged lady, who throws herself into her work directing a disaster aid charity, when she gets wind of others who have been having the same sorts of nightmares that she does: of being irresistibly drawn towards a strange structure, menaced by something that she never quite manages to see. Then an alien spaceship appears in orbit around the moon, and Dorothy wangles her way up there, only to run into the Thirteenth Doctor, with Yaz, Graham and Ryan in tow.

I was really impressed with how much this felt like a Doctor Who story. The structure and pacing felt just right. Aldred is obviously comfortable with Ace, even after so many years and her voice feels right, a combination of that teenager from thirty years ago, tempered with age, and maybe wisdom. Not that that stops her from still making her own home-made explosives.

She gets the Doctor’s voice right too, both the Thirteenth, and the Seventh, who we encounter in flashbacks, when Ace still travelled with him. The current companions don’t get a huge amount to do, other than run around and sometimes get kidnapped (some things never change), but she does hone in on Yaz, and how she feels, finding this possibly older version of herself – someone who loved travelling with the Doctor as much as she, but gave it up. There’s something of the meeting between Rose and Sarah Jane around it, but neither of them are willing to talk about it properly.

There are centaur-like aliens, rat-people and more. The plot, involving kidnapping the young and disenfranchised, people that probably won’t be missed is mostly secondary to Ace getting catharsis for the way that she and the Doctor parted. There’s loads of Easter eggs too, mostly to Old Who, but I suspect you’d enjoy it just as much without getting them.

A fun story with a good heart that captures the essence of Doctor Who very well.

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The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper

By A.J. Fitzwater

Rating: 3 stars

The author says in the introduction to this linked collection of short stories that joy is political, and they certainly set out to prove that here. Cinrak is a dapper, lesbian, poly, pirate, unionised capybara. She’s kind and understands the importance of family, especially family that you choose.

I quite enjoyed these gentle stories, but I didn’t find them entirely satisfying. There was a lot of gaps between them, so we go straight from Cinrak stepping on a pirate ship for the first time to her being a captain in her own right, to her wooing the queen. I enjoyed the message of the book and its gentleness and insistence that love is love and that everyone deserves to be loved and respected for who they are. Oh, and that unions are a good thing.

And despite being called Cinrak the Dapper, we never really got much description of her wardrobe (other than her being fond of bow-ties). There’s a lot of world-building in few words, but sometimes the stories felt a little vague. Enjoyable, fairly fluffy, and making an important statement, but it didn’t gel quite as much as I’d hoped.

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The House in the Cerulean Sea

By T.J. Klune

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not sure this is a book that I would have found on my own, but I got a recommendation from a Glasgow in 2024 online conversation on anthologies. This book isn’t an anthology, but one of the people involved, Ann VanderMeer, spoke very highly of it.

I must confess that it didn’t start entirely promisingly for me. Our protagonist, Linus Baker is a bureaucrat. He’s a case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, reviewing orphanages for magical children to make sure that they’re suitable and up to code. He lives by the Rules and Regulations and prides himself on not getting too close to any of the people he reviews, as that Wouldn’t Be Proper. In the evenings he comes home to his cat, and listens to his records. But his latest assignment sees him sent to Marsyas Island where the rules break down and regulations are more like recommendations.

I found Linus (sorry, Mr Baker) frustratingly wet and somewhat incompetent at first. He’s given the files for the children of the orphanage and told not to read them until he gets off the train at his destination. He reads the first one, and then fails to read the others until after he’s he’s surrounded by the children, being shocked and surprised by their abilities again and again. Something that wouldn’t have happened if he’d got over himself and just read the damn files.

Still, he does grow on you, as do the kids at the orphanage. And its master, Arthur Parnassus. The latter isn’t quite presented in a sunbeam, in soft focus, when we first meet him, but he might as well be. The romance between him and Linus is signposted a mile off. It’s awkward and you roll your eyes a bit, but it’s sweet.

This is a story of found family, and love, but also fear and xenophobia. Marsyas is an island, and the nearby village on the mainland fears and resents the orphanage. In this, they’re encouraged by the government, with signs reading things like “See something, say something”. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor for the post-9/11 era, but it makes its point.

I was pretty much won over in the end. It has issues (lack of subtlety being the main one), but it’s a sweet and wholesome book, with a lot of charm.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250217318
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2020

The Godel Operation

By James L. Cambias

Rating: 4 stars

Another discovery from Scalzi’s Whatever, I thoroughly enjoyed this far-future space opera about a droid and his boy, as they gallivant around a solar system turned into a Dyson Swarm and filled with trillions of inhabitants, both meat and machine.

Zee is an inhabitant of a habitat in Uranus orbit who makes friends with Daslakh, a mech fellow inhabitant who is much older than it seems. (Aside: in Hindi, “daas lakh” means ten hundred thousand, aka one million. I wonder if that’s deliberate or just a coincidence?) Through a series of improbable events, Zee ends up chasing after, and then finding, an imaginary former lover, and then on the trail of, a legendary ancient weapon that could change the face of the solar system.

I loved the setting here, which Cambias calls The Billion Worlds, with uplifted animals, humans, cyborgs and frighteningly powerful AIs, all coexisting (relatively) peacefully. It’s a more or less post-scarcity society, with energy being the system-wide currency. I really liked Daslakh, who is the first person narrator of the story. It makes it clear early on that it’s an unreliable narrator but also takes the mickey out of itself by repeatedly claiming to be “old and cunning” and then doing something simple and obvious.

The flashbacks showing us the cat and mouse escapades of two rival AIs who were on opposite sides of a war in ancient System history span thousands of years, as they repeatedly try to out-manoeuvre each other, and you can see them changing over the millennia, as the story slowly ties together with the present. I especially liked the glimpse of the faded magnificence of Kasaleth habitat, and would love a story set there in its glory days. You could tell a really cool Agatha Christie-style murder mystery there.

This was a really fun story, with a setting that’s huge with lots of space for more stories. And, indeed, the author has said that he intends to write more in the setting. I look forward to reading them.

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Minor Mage

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 4 stars

Oliver is a very minor mage. He only knows three spells, and one of those is to control his allergy to his armadillo familiar. He’s also just twelve years old. But none of that stops the people of his village from sending him on a quest to bring the rain to a drought-ridden plain.

Oliver is a very sympathetic protagonist. He’s well aware of his own limitations, and he tries as hard as he can to overcome them. This results in a perceptive, introspective boy, balanced by a sarcastic armadillo (the armadillo is such fun!). He has several adventures on his journey to find the cloud herders, including encounters with bandits, cannibalistic ghuls and a minstrel with a somewhat unique talent.

It’s a very fun story that moves at a good pace, with lots of action, but which keeps us centred in Oliver’s head and reminds us that whatever else he is, he’s still a child, who was put in a terrible position by a frightened mob. Regardless, he’s resourceful, and uses his two useful spells in very clever ways to get out of predicaments on his journey.

A key sign that I enjoyed this was that, unusually for me, I’d love to read more of Oliver’s adventures.

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