The First Bright Thing

By J.R. Dawson

Rating: 3 stars

For me, this is a book about dread. After the Great War, the Ringmaster and her circus of marvels spend most of the book fleeing from the black tents of the Circus King and in fear of the war to come. The circus is a haven for those with the Spark – magical powers that started appearing during the War. Like the X-Men, those with the Spark are feared and hated, shunned by the majority. The Ringmaster gathers Sparks and her circus travels the US, helping those who need it. But the fear of the Circus King is always in the back of her mind. Her own Spark is the ability to travel through space and time. And now powers have grown such that she travels forward far enough to see that the War that’s just been fought isn’t the “war to end all wars”, but that they’re in the eye of the hurricane and there’s worse to come.

That’s a new time travel idea that I’ve not seen before. That someone in that interwar period knows that there’s a new war coming, and that despite their best efforts, they can’t prevent it. And won’t be able to save the family they’ve put together. That those people will taken by the upcoming war and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. And if that’s not enough, the bogeyman you’ve been running from for years has found you and is taunting you. So yes, dread. It was a difficult book to read. I dislike chase stories anyway, where our heroes are being pursued for the length of the story. I find them stressful to read, and this was no different.

Although most of the book is told from the point of view of The Ringmaster (who just goes by that name, like she’s a Time Lord), there are some flashbacks to someone whose Spark is mind control, allowing them to compel other people to do as they say. It becomes clear how Edward is related to the Ringmaster fairly early on, and I hated those chapters. Edward is a terrible person, no matter how much he tries to convince himself otherwise. He sometimes tries to not use his powers, but always ends up giving in, to get what he wants. And what he wants is Ruth. He compels her to run away with him, and does horrible things to her mother who tries to stop him, and later he marries her. It’s never made explicit, but the implication of rape in that situation is inevitable and I shuddered through every one of those chapters.

The other thread in the book is the dread that underlies the future and the upcoming war and the fact that they can’t stop it. In this sense, all they’ve got is to live in the present and make the post of the time they’ve got. This is something that the Ringmaster and her family (especially her wife Odette and best friend Mauve) have to learn to do.

In the end, I’m left with a difficult rating. I would say that I appreciated this book more than I enjoyed it. How much of that is down to the book, and how much is just down to the fact that I’ve been reading very lightweight stuff over the last while is unclear. I loved the found family, but found the chase followed by cat and mouse, and the mind control stuff difficult and uncomfortable. It’s good, but I probably wouldn’t read it again.

Book details

ISBN: 9781035018192

Starter Villain

By John Scalzi

Rating: 4 stars

Charlie Fitzer isn’t having a great time of it. His wife divorced him, he lost his job, and he’s back in his childhood home, after the death of his father (which he doesn’t, technically, own). And then his uncle Jake dies and his life gets worse. Jake was a billionaire, and, it turns out, a supervillain. And he’s left his villainous empire to Charlie. Despite Charlie never having met him since he was five years old.

Like its predecessor, Kaiju Preservation Society, Starter Villain is set in a present-day Earth that’s just a little… twisted. Charlie is thrown into the society of supervillains without any help, other than his uncle’s super-competent right hand woman, Mathilda Morrison. His new empire comes complete with volcano lair, giant laser and foul-mouthed dolphins. Oh, and sentient cats. This book is a huge amount of fun, but also manages to satirise late-stage capitalism, discuss labour relations, and the fecklessness of holders of inherited wealth in under 300 pages. It’s pretty light and easy to read but makes no bones about where it’s coming from and who Scalzi would have up against the wall when the revolution comes (spoiler: it’s billionaires). And in that, he’ll have my axe. Until that happens, I guess I’ll just keep buying his books.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529082951
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 2023

Wynonna Earp: All In

By Beau Smith

Rating: 3 stars

This volume collects the entire Wynonna Earp comics from the start of the TV show. Wynonna is now modelled after Melanie Scrofano and we have TV favourites Doc Holliday and Agent Dolls in the cast, as well as some of the characters from the previous comics (Smitty and Valdez). This series also introduces Waverly (who was always my favourite character) to the mix.

Still very different to the TV show, this has more of the gung-ho, badge-waving, gun-toting feel of the original comics. There’s different origin stories for both Earp sisters and no mention of Dolls being anything out of the ordinary (in fact, Dolls doesn’t get an awful lot to do in this series, with Smitty and Valdez, between them, taking his mentor-figure role).

It was a fun run of comics though, even if some of the storylines didn’t actually seem to go anywhere (the Immortalis Consortium one, for example). It was just nice to catch up with the characters that I enjoyed hanging out with for four years (and I couldn’t help but read Doc’s dialogue in his very distinctive TV show accent).

Book details

ISBN: 9781684058686

Full Share (Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, #3)

By Nathan Lowell

Rating: 3 stars

The third book in the Solar Clipper series starts promisingly, with what might be considered some plot – there’s an incident that leaves the Lois McKendrick damaged and the crew have to race to save her, and themselves. But this fizzles out quite early on and we’re back to the usual Ishmael shenanigans. This time he finds himself with a temporary promotion to systems engineer and with the officers of the Lois pushing him towards the officer academy.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Ishmael is a Mary Sue character. His abilities seem to know no bounds, from being a coffee expert, to magically deeply understanding women, to, as we see here, being an expert programmer and systems engineer. It’s enough to make me roll my eyes extra hard.

Despite that, I’ve come to like the characters as we’ve gone on, even if there’s not much in the way of actual plot. It’s been fun spending time with the characters and I don’t regret the time taken to read these books. Despite there being many more books in the series, this one seems to draw the Lois McKendrick trilogy to a close, and there’s enough closure that it seems like a good place to say goodbye to the series.

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Year of publication: 2008

Heroine Complex

By Sarah Kuhn

Rating: 3 stars

Aveda Jupiter is San Francisco’s superhero, protecting it from the demons that randomly appear in little portals all over the city. Evie Tanaka has a harder job – being Aveda’s assistant. But when an accident puts Aveda out of commission for a bit, Evie is persuaded to stand in for her boss, but that’s easier said than done, when she has to keep one eye peeled for Aveda’s diva tantrums, and the other on controlling her own powers.

This was a recommendation from a podcast that I enjoy, but I didn’t really get on that well with it. I found Aveda too unlikeable in her diva personality and wrapped up in herself. There were also some really cringe scenes when Evie is filling in for Aveda and I really don’t do well with cringe comedy. I usually prefer to skim rather than skip, but I had to skip that whole scene. I nearly put the book down entirely at that point, but I’m glad that I didn’t. The burgeoning romance between Evie and team scientist Nate is lovely, and she tries very hard to be a stand-in parent to her teenage sister (even if some of those “parenting” decisions are… less than ideal, they come from a place of love).

It was entertaining enough (as long as you don’t mind cringe), and having two female Asian-American leads is definitely a good thing, but, I didn’t really have have the “just one more chapter” feeling about this book, and I have no real desire to read any of the sequels.

Book details

ISBN: 9780756413279
Publisher: DAW Books Inc

Wynonna Earp Volume 1: Homecoming (Wynonna Earp #1-6)

By Beau Smith

Rating: 3 stars

Following the disappointing Strange Inheritance, this newer set of Wynonna Earp comics ties into the TV show. Wynonna now looks like Melanie Scrofano and both Agent Dolls and Doc Holliday appear for the first time.

To be honest, the stories in this volume are nothing to get too excited about. There are a number of supernatural events around the country that mean Wynonna has to run around shooting things, and getting shouted at by Dolls when the good guys die. These lead up to her being called back to Tombstone for another showdown at the OK Corral. This also results in her finally getting hold of Peacemaker, the magic gun she wields in the TV series.

The art is decent, but workmanlike, rather than special. It’s an enjoyable read for fans of the TV series, but it doesn’t tie particularly closely into it (no WayHaught, for a start). Hopefully that will change with later volumes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781631407499

Wynonna Earp: Strange Inheritance

By Beau Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I suspect like many people, I came to this via the TV show from the mid 2010s, and in that context, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. The 90s and early 00s were not great for women in comics, as the awful representation of Wynonna here show. In the first two thirds of the book, she’s pure cheesecake: scantily clad, with physics-defying breasts and big guns. The final third, which was written in 2011 fares better. The art now depicts Wynonna with a more believable body shape and sensible dress. The big guns are still around though. It also really leans into that 90s/00s ultra-violence thing as well.

In terms of storytelling, it’s also very different to the TV show. Rather than an unwilling member of the Black Badge Division, Wynonna is recruited and is an enthusiastic member of the Division, travelling the country, shooting paranormal things until they stop arguing. Whereas the TV show restricts the action to a single town and its surrounding areas, the comic goes all over the US, from the mid-west to New York to Alaska. I do wonder what made some TV execs look at this comic and decide that they wanted to buy the rights to it. Especially given how differently the TV show turned out from the source material.

It’s maybe interesting from an historical perspective, but it’s not that great, to be honest, and maybe only one for a completist. I’m just glad that I read it through Kindle Unlimited and didn’t pay any money for it.

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Year of publication: 2016

Salt & Broom

By Sharon Lynn Fisher

Rating: 3 stars

This is a pretty straightforward retelling of Jane Eyre, but with magic. In this version Jane Eyre Aire is a witch, rather than a governess, but most of the other beats of the original story are present. Interestingly, the author decides to remove the big twist in the original and have Rochester’s wife die before the beginning of the book, doing away with the bigamist element of the original. Many of the locations and people from the original are present and easily identifiable, including Thornfield, Lowood, Mr Brocklehurst and Mrs Fairfax. The author definitely softens Mr Brocklehurst though, and even gives him a bit of a redemptive arc.

To be honest, I spent probably the first half of the book wondering if magic was actually a real thing in the book. It mostly consisted of herb work and minor doggerel verse that you might hear from an old wifey in a Regency or Victorian novel. I did wonder if they’d go down the Scooby-Doo route and that the “ghost” would be unveiled as Old Man Withers from the local funfair. But later on, it does become clear that the magic of this world is definitely real, just very understated.

It’s an enjoyable riff on the original, but I sort of wish it had strayed further from its source material and found more of its own story to tell. I want to go and read Jane Eyre again now…

Book details

ISBN: 9781662515682

Against the Witchy Tide (A Witch on the Rocks Cozy Mystery, #6)

By Lily Harper Hart

Rating: 3 stars

This sixth volume of the series kicks off with Hali and her boyfriend Gray in a consultation for Hali’s long-delayed surgery, something that should really have happened six books ago. All the usual ingredients are present: Gray is possessive, Hali is sassy, there’s something that’s nearly but not quite plot-shaped. At least this time, Hali’s friend Carrie gets a date with an actual woman and there’s some indication that the author understands that turning gay people straight isn’t a thing.

The most disappointing thing is that the epilogue from the previous book mostly gets undone here. There was the appearance of some intrigue between the wolf shifters and the long-term big bads, the merrow (who have really been damp squibs so far, six books in) but, unless there’s some deep 4D chess going on, that all comes out very quickly, with a whole lot of contrition.

It’s a popcorn book, and you can tear though it in a handful of hours. By this point, you know what you’re going to get. I’m happy to read these on Kindle Unlimited, but I don’t think I’m invested enough to continue reading once I cancel that.

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Half Share (Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, #2)

By Nathan Lowell

Rating: 4 stars

The second book in this series moves the focus from trading to interpersonal relationships, specifically between our protagonist, Ishmael Wang, and three of his fellow shipmates that he gets close to. There’s his new boss Brill, after his move from Steward to Environmental; his former bunkmate Beverly; and his new co-worker Diane. Ishmael is attracted to all three women, but his ship, the Lois McKendrick has a strict no fraternising rule. The book is mostly him working how to live with this situation.

There’s quite a bit of male gaze at the three women which isn’t great, and it’s not exactly balanced by the attention that they focus on his physical appearance – to remind people, this is an eighteen year old. But everyone is pretty respectful all the way through. Ishmael, in particular, shows a lot more emotional maturity than I would expect in a young man his age, as he comes to understand quickly about the limits of seeking comfort ashore.

There’s also a slightly unexpected strain of mysticism running through the book, related to some pendants that some of the crew buy for trade goods and which later ties in to Ish’s replacement on the mess deck, Sarah Krugg. Nothing that took me out of the story particularly, but just unexpected in this sort of book.

While I missed Pip and Cookie, who fade into the background here, the additional development of Brill, Beverly and Diane is lovely. I was a bit disappointed how quickly that Sarah’s story came out and how little a mark that her history seems to have left on her, although I guess we’ll see in future books, which I fully intend to read.

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