BooksOfTheMoon

The Calcutta Chromosome

By Amitav Ghosh

Rating: 3 stars

This alt history re-examines the discovery of how malaria is carried and transmitted. It was discovered by Dr Ronald Ross in the 1890s, but this book posits the question of what he he didn’t do it on his own, but was prompted in that direction, by some unknown force?

In the near-ish future, Antar, a worker for the International Water Council, discovers the damaged ID card of a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross and his work, but who disappeared and starts investigating. We spend time with said colleague (L. Murugan), in long flashbacks, as well as some of the people Murugan encounters in that time.

There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book, coming mostly from Murugan, and yet, despite that, it still manages to be confusing and open-ended. It’s very well-written and easy to read, but I had trouble following the layers of the mystery, and I don’t think the end really pulled it together at all. Murugan is eccentric, but quite a likeable character as he powers around Calcutta, scattering people in his wake, trying to solve the mystery.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the top level of the nested structure, with Antar in the “present” added much to the story. I found the lack of closure frustrating, but was kept going all the way through it. Not sure I’d read it again though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848544154
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2011

Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book Six

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

The sixth hardback collection of Fables collects three story arcs (maybe four, but the middle two are linked). The first takes us into the occupied Homelands, and tells the story of two of Geppetto’s wooden people who fall in love and petition him to make them flesh, and the price that is extracted from them. This is interesting as it’s the first time we’ve had a story from the point of view of the occupying forces of the Homelands. It’s nominally tangential to everything else that’s going on, but the end suggests that plans are being laid.

The second story sees Mowgli’s search for Bigby through Asia and North America, and his eventual return to Fabletown, where Prince Charming makes him an offer he can’t refuse. The third story starts out with Bigby’s mission (and the trip to the cloud kingdoms is really fun) and ends with him and Snow White finally getting their Happily Ever After.

The final story is a really fun adventure with Cinderella as she tries to sign a treaty with the cloud kingdoms to get their cooperation against the Adversary. It shows her in full badass mode, chewing gum and prodding buttock. I don’t think we’ve got to see much of Cinderella thus far, and showing her spy skills and getting to do cool action stuff is really good fun.

I enjoyed this volume a lot. With the Bigby/Snow White plot winding down, it feels like a good place to pause the series. Regular artist Mark Buckingham shares duties with guest artists for the first and last arcs. All the artists are excellent at their work and make reading the book a pleasure. Now, I just need a bit more of Flycatcher and Red Riding Hood…

Book details

ISBN: 9781401237240
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2013

Machine (White Space, #2)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

Dr Brookllyn Jens is a rescue specialist on an ambulance ship operating out of Core General – the biggest and best equipped hospital in the Synarche. She’s currently got a mystery on her hands regarding an ancient generation ship off course and with a missing crew, and a modern ship attached to it, with its crew in hibernation. Bringing them back to Core General sets her investigating a bigger mystery that could crack open everything she’s worked her life for.

The first book in this series involved space pirates and the philosophy of government and social order. This one involves space rescues and a deep dive into the nature of faith, especially faith outwith religion. This series shows that Bear is a master at packing in big ideas in entertaining ways.

I’ve been a big fan of James White’s Sector General stories for years, so a book so obviously inspired by them was an obvious choice for me (Bear talked about this in an article about it, and again in the author’s note at the end of the book). I loved all the little callbacks to Sector General (from the giant but oh-so-polite flying bug as the protagonist’s best buddy [he even liked spaghetti!], to the name of the administrator of Core General’s oxygen sector). One of the things that I really love about White’s work was that it was non-violent. The heroes were medics, working to save lives, not shooting blasters indiscriminately. We see that here too, as Llyn and her team work selflessly to save the crew of the generation ship – including the badly damaged shipmind.

Of course, there’s a dark secret lurking in the heart of Core General, and when Llyn eventually discovers it, it shakes her to her core. It makes her question the thing that she’s dedicated her life to and, indeed, the only thing that she’s ever had faith in. This was nicely built up, through Llyn’s PoV over the course of the novel, and the inevitable reveal is as heartbreaking for the reader as it is for Llyn.

Goodlaw Cheeirilaq, the giant preying mantis of a police officer from the previous book, is the only character from that book to have a major appearance in this one, although Singer does turn up as well. I was sort of disappointed not to see Haimey (although I can see that it might have been difficult to get her in), but Connla ended the last book working as an ambulance pilot for Core General, so I was disappointed that he didn’t show up, even as a cameo.

The mystery in the book held my attention well. I really liked Llyn as the protagonist and Core General is a wonderful setting, a worthy successor to Sector General. I’m sure there are more stories to be told in the Synarche, and I hope that we get to see them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473208773
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project

By Diana M. Pho (editor)

Rating: 4 stars

This is a good little collection of fiction where a number of authors write a flash piece around the quote “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” It’s an unsettling quote and all the authors take a good stab at “persisting”. Obviously, some stories work better for any individual than others, and for me the contributions by Maria Dahvana Headley about the first American non-human astronauts, and Charlie Jane Anders’ story about a woman who creates an unauthorised AI stand out in the “fun” mode.

Alyssa Wong and Seanan McGuire’s stories are hard-hitting and brutal, while Nisi Shawl and Amal El-Mohtar provide melancholy and eerie stories.

The collection won’t take long to read, each story being only a few pages long, but it’s thought-provoking and definitely worth your time.

Book details

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir

Rating: 4 stars

There’s been some positive buzz around this book on social media which intrigued me, but I was wary that it was the first part of a trilogy, until someone I trust said that it was (mostly) readable as a standalone. I’m glad I did pick it up, as it’s very enjoyable. I especially like the narrative voice of the protagonist, Gideon. She’s fairly young at just eighteen, and something of this immaturity comes across in her voice, in a good way (I laughed much more than I should have done at the “that’s what she said” jokes).

Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth House – owing them for her upbringing. She’s been trained as a swordswoman, and when the head of the house, the necromancer Harrowhark, is called to service by the Emperor, she reluctantly follows Harrow as her cavalier. They find themselves along with pairs from the other Houses in a race to unlock the secret of immortality.

There’s something a little And Then There Were None about the way that the groups are taken to an isolated location with a mystery to be unlocked in a race against time, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The necromancer/cavalier pairs from the other houses were distinctive and interesting, from the jovial married couple of the Fifth House to the “terrible teens” of the Fourth to the creepy, sanctimonious Eighth. Maybe the military Second House didn’t get much beyond being uptight military types, but they were probably the exception.

I loved the relationship between Gideon and Harrow, how these two girls who have known and hated each other their entire lives have to start to rely on each other to survive the challenges they’re thrown and how that eventually turns into trust. It’s an old trope, but carried off with aplomb.

The world is classic science fantasy. Although there’s a thin veneer of SF in the form of space travel and genetics, most of the action involves magic and the fights are all sword fights. I’ll handwave it away via Clarke’s Third Law though. There’s enough worldbuilding to keep us interested without drowning us in exposition (although there are more hints in the glossary at the end).

Spoiler
From the moment we find out what Ianthe had to do to achieve Lyctor-hood, we sense that Gideon’s days are numbered. This is a shame, but what a way to go out. There’s scope for her to come back in some form (they never found the body!) and there’s still a number of mysteries around her. As I said above, I enjoyed her narrative voice a lot. I’ll miss her if she’s gone permanently. I mean, I’ll read a book about Harrow, but I’ll be thinking about Gideon.

The epilogue sets up the next book and I’ll be intrigued to see where it goes – it seems to be getting ready to widen the scope an awful lot, from a single isolated mansion to the whole galaxy. I can’t wait to see where the story goes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250313188
Year of publication: 2020

Stories of Hope and Wonder

By Ian Whates

Rating: 4 stars

This collection follows in the footsteps of Flotation Device: A Charity Anthology in being pulled together quickly near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in order to raise money for the NHS in the UK. Floatation Device was the local effort of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, while this was edited by Ian Whates of NewCon Press so has access to a much larger range of writers. There are over fifty stories here, comprising nearly a quarter of a million words. In all that, there are bound to be some that work better for an individual taste than others.

There are stories from across genres: lit-fic, SF, fantasy, horror and more. I’m not really a horror fan so those didn’t really work for me, but there were more than enough others to make up for it. There are stories from well-known names including Stephen Baxter, Christopher Priest, Tade Thomson, Lauren Beukes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter F. Hamilton and many, many more. It’s hard to pick out individual stories in such a large collection, read over so long, but I really enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Wars of Worldcraft (the pun in the title along endeared it to me) and Ian McDonald’s An Eligible Boy, set in the same world as his novel River of Gods.

So if a story doesn’t work for you, just move on, it’s not not like you’re short on choice. And it’s for a good cause.

Book details

Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

By Roman Mars, Kurt Kohlstedt

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast for quite some time now and it’s one of my favourites. I was excited when I heard about the book and made sure I pre-ordered it. There’s a lot to enjoy in the book, but much of it is adapted from stories that the podcast has run over the years (at over 400 episodes at the time of writing, that’s a lot to choose from), but as someone who has listened to all of them, it’s a little disappointing that there wasn’t more original work in the book. The stories themselves are well-chosen for the most part, although some could do with a bit more depth than the page or two that they get. They’re grouped first into chapters with very wide scope and then into sub-chapters that collects related topics, whether that is signage, synanthropes (animals that have adapted to live alongside humans in cities), or safety.

The one big thing that’s missing from the book are photographs of what it describes. There are some neat line illustrations by Patrick Vale that give you an idea, but sometimes they’re not clear enough to properly illustrate the subject under discussion. I can see that using the illustrations gives the book a unifying feel, and that getting appropriate photographs might have been more difficult, but it is something that I think would have really helped a book that is, fundamentally, about architecture and design.

The stories are all very much 99PI though so are all interesting to read, even if I recognised them from before. And I couldn’t help but read the whole thing in Roman Mars’ delicious voice.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529355277
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Champion of Mars

By Guy Haley

Rating: 4 stars

It took a while to get into this story, but once I figured out the flow, it was much smoother. It’s a tale told from both ends of history: in the early 22nd century, Dr John Holland is a scientist studying the remains of Mars’ native life, before the terraforming effort wipes it out; while in the far, far future, Mars is dying a second time and the disgraced champion Yoechakenon and his spirit lover Kaibeli are tasked with finding the long-lost Great Librarian of Mars to save it. We also have chapters that cover the future history between these two time periods, as we jump further and further into the future, and see how the two are linked.

I really liked the tone of the piece. I liked that the voice of the near future was so different to the far future. The near-future stuff was no-nonsense hard SF, while the far-future felt much more mythic and grand in scope, reminding me of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom.

The novel is also concerned with AI and how it will co-evolve with us over the millennia in a symbiotic relationship. Add to that a form of human immortality, as a person’s memories are recorded at death, and later returned (to some degree) to other, newborn bodies at some time in the future, and we have the makings of a love story that spans the ages, as an AI spirit follows the one she chose across time and space.

I’ll confess that I wasn’t sure it was all going to come together, but it did so in the last few chapters, as it tied the whole story together and links Holland’s time to that of Yoechakenon. So a lot of good ideas and some writing that’s very enjoyable to read. It can be a little clunky at times, but I found it worth persevering.

Book details

ISBN: 9781907992841
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2012

Ancestral Night

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This is a thoughtful space opera, that combines action, character and philosophical musings on the balance of the rights of the individual versus the collective. Haimey Dz and her salvage partners find something amazing on the edge of known space, and they have to try and get it back to the Core before pirates catch up with them.

I enjoyed the world building that went on here, especially in regard to the interstellar, inter-species society known as the Synarche. The balance between individualism and society is very much a core concept here, with members of the Synarche, including humans, undertaking “rightminding” to alter their minds such that they will want to be better citizens, all working for the common good. Of course, this isn’t without problems, both with the “clades” that take it too far, becoming introspective cults where they are all programmed to agree with each other (Haimey is a survivor of one of these clades) and those who reject the concept entirely and live on the edges of society, parasitical upon it, and proud of their sociopathy.

Haimey is an interesting protagonist: her past in the clade has damaged her, despite the psychic reconstruction that she underwent after she escaped. One example is that she’s afraid of relationships, so has had her sexuality turned off entirely so that she can avoid them. She mostly avoids thinking about her past, but as the book goes on, is forced to confront it. We don’t get as much insight to her salvage partner Connla, just some tantalising hints about his own troubled past, growing up on a world that fetishises hyper-masculinity, and suppresses their feelings. The AI, Singer, is probably the most balanced of the crew, but even he decided that he wanted to spend his time barely making a living, on the edge of known space. It’s also convenient that he’s a politics geek, making an easy way to fill in the world-building of the society.

I got lost a couple of times as big idea piled on top of big idea – symbiont that lets the host sense and modify gravity; sentient space whales; incredibly ancient spaceship from lost super-civilisation; structure imposed on reality; big dumb smart object outwith the galaxy. Despite this, there’s a lot to enjoy, and hopefully some more of this will be explained in future White Space novels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473208759

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress