Meru (The Alloy Era, #1)

By S.B. Divya

Rating: 3 stars

Jayanthi is a young woman living in a post-capitalist world where humans now live in tune with nature and the world around them, and try not to extract resources and abuse it. Her parents are post-humans, known as alloys, who are anthropologists who have chosen to live on Earth, but she’s fascinated by the new habitable planet Meru that has been discovered and which could support a human colony, except that humans are prohibited from doing so by their ancient compact with the alloys. But Jayanthi gets permission to travel to Meru as part of an experiment to see if she can live there without contaminating the planet. She travels with an alloy pilot named Vaha, someone who is still living with zir parent’s disappointment in zir.

There’s quite a lot to unpack here. I veered between finding this future world utopian and dystopian. A world with high technology and nobody going hungry, but where ambition is discouraged and humans are prevented from most space travel and the sorts of scientific experimentation that might lead to new discoveries and having their name recorded for posterity in the repository of knowledge that they call the Navid. Genetic manipulation is commonplace, using a combination of designing and randomness (which is how Jayanthi ended up with sickle cell disease), although it seems that alloys have much more control over this than humans do.

I didn’t really find Jayanthi that compelling a character. Her motivation seemed a little all over the place. Vaha is much more interesting to me. Zie spent zir whole life disappointing zir parent, who eventually abandoned zir in disgust, something which is shocking to the reader, and which left Vaha with a crushing inferiority complex. Putting these two together leads to a rather weird romance, which is almost buried under all the politicking. Throw in an amnesia plot and it feels a bit soapy.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The world-building, the relationship between the human and alloy societies, the people who live on the edges of the society. But for all that, it didn’t entirely work for me. I struggled to put myself into the mindset of this human society where everything is considered conscious and worthy of protection, even non-living things. I couldn’t really work through the implications of that mindset. It feels like you’d spend your life metaphorically hunched over, trying not to take up any space, and apologising for every step.

An interesting constructed universe, but I’ll not be jumping to seek out the sequel.

Book details

Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2023

The Blind Dragon: A Tale from the Canon of Tarn

By Peter Fane

Rating: 3 stars

When I started reading this book, I wondered if I’d stumbled into something mid-series, as there was an awful lot of stuff just thrown at you, as if you should know about the civil war in this kingdom and what the political situation was. But from looking around online, this is Fane’s first novel, although I get the impression that he’s been building and telling stories in this world for a long time. Just regarding the physical book, when I picked it up, it looked like a good hefty, 450 page tome, but when I opened it, the whole thing is double-spaced, so it would probably be about half that size if it was more traditionally formatted.

The book tells a coming of age story, as Anna Dyer, an apprentice to the dragon riders of Dávanor has to overcome treachery from within her duchy with the aid of the newly hatched, blind dragon Moondagger, with whom she forms a bond.

The book keeps up the pace, with lots happening on a very frequent basis, but I’m not sure we really get enough time spent getting to know Anna to fully appreciate some of the more emotional beats in the story. The book is also very violent, with faces being bitten off, entrails ripped out and more. Maybe I’m just getting old, but that, and the culture of honour and violence that Anna (a fourteen year old girl) is embedded in seemed a bit over the top to me. But then I’m also at a point where swearing fealty to nobility and the feudal system seems like a terrible idea. As Monty Python so memorably put it: strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

Looking beyond that, though, despite a Surfeit of Capitalisation, the book is well-written and kept my attention all the way through. Coming out the end, I feel that I better understand the world. I was amused that in the chronology at the end, despite having a 12,000 year history, about 10,000 of those are just marked at “the plague years”. Sometimes I feel that writers throw around big numbers like that with abandon without really pausing to think about them. Science fiction is really bad for that, but fantasy can be too. I’d remind you that the whole of recorded human history, is barely 6000 years. We have literally no experience with any single organisation stretching half that length of time, never mind the tens of thousands that this book is bandying around.

Fun enough, although despite the book literally being called “The Blind Dragon”, the dragon’s blindness was barely a feature, beyond the first few pages, throwing in a magical workaround in passing. As I say, an entertaining way to spend a few hours, but I’ll not be looking out the sequels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781944296025
Publisher: Silver Goat Media

Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

By Sangu Mandanna

Rating: 4 stars

Having read, and adored, Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, I went looking for more works by her and found this children’s novel available in my local library. It’s very different in style and tone to Witches, fitting much more into standard portal fantasy territory, albeit with the added twist that the girl who goes through the portal, the eponymous Kiki Kallira, has fairly crippling anxiety.

At the start of the book, Kiki is out with her friend Emily and Emily’s sister and friends to the fair. A chance remark makes her realise that she can’t remember if she locked her front door on the way out, which leads her immediately to a worst case scenario (burglars have broken in and killed her mum) and she can’t stop until she leaves her friend and goes home to check. This is a strong opening, showing us just how baked in Kiki’s anxiety is, and that it’s not your everyday worrying, but something deeper. Later, Kiki finds a world that she’d drawn in her notebook coming to life and she has to go in to stop the demon who she created to terrorise it, helped only by a group of rebel kids.

Kiki has to deal with all the traditional problems that a portal fantasy protagonist has, and with her anxiety on top of that, for extra fun. There was a twist towards that end that I should probably have seen coming, but I was having too much fun with the plot to be self-aware enough of what was going on.

I don’t read much children’s fiction, but I found this very readable, with extra points for an Indian protagonist and Hindu mythology folded into the plot as well. It doesn’t talk down to the audience, and even as a middle aged man, I found Kiki well-realised and easy to relate to. I’ll be looking out for the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444963441
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
Year of publication: 2021

The Draco Tavern

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

I love a good sci-fi pub, whether that’s Callahan’s place, the White Hart, or the Ur bar. So I was glad to add another one to the list (thanks to the good people at File 770 for the recommendation). The Draco Tavern is run by Rick Schumann, and caters to the aliens who visit Earth after first contact and the humans who want to talk to them. While it’s perhaps not as cosy as Callahan’s, or the White Hart, it’s certainly an interesting place, where many tall tales are told. Whether that’s the the one where an alien gives Rick the secret to building an artificial intelligence; or the one where a priest engages two of them in a discussion about god; or the one where a human makes a wish off an alien bioscientist.

The stories are very short, more vignettes than anything else, but Niven is great at the form, and he’s able to sketch a great little idea in that short space and he’s great at spinning stories out of the cultural conflict that inevitably arises when two (or more) very different cultures collide.

It might not have the heart of Callahan’s, or the shaggy dog stories of the White Hart, but it’s still a great collection for dipping in and out of. I wouldn’t mind popping in to Draco’s for a drink and to eavesdrop in on some conversations.

Book details

The Perfume of the Lady in Black

By Gaston Leroux

Rating: 2 stars

The shadow of the villain of The Mystery of the Yellow Room looms large over this book. The fear of Larsan causes terror and almost hysteria in almost every major character, to quite a wearying degree. It felt really overdone to me, to the point where I mostly just stopped caring. Our detective, Rouletabille, is a shadow of his previous self here, as he quakes in terror of Larsan, and some personal stuff relating to the eponymous Lady in Black, quite removing his ability to drive the plot in any meaningful way until right at the end of the book.

While I’d enjoyed The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the overwrought writing style here feels very different. The narrator is attempt to install a sense of dread in the reader. To this reader, at least, it backfired badly.

On top of that, the physical book that I had didn’t do the story any favours. It looks like a badly OCR-ed print-on-demand edition with so many typos that really distract from the story. It’s also printed on a page size larger than a standard paperback, making the lines just slightly too long to read comfortably, and is missing at least one illustration – the plan of the castle where most of it takes place, which would have been very useful in visualising what was going on (although there is a large gap in the text to indicate where it should be).

The book is in the public domain, but doesn’t seem to be on Gutenberg yet (if anyone wants to undertake that, there’s a scanned copy of the book at Hathitrust).

I’d say this may be of historical interest, but I didn’t find the plot engaging, or the characters particularly interesting.

Book details

ISBN: 9781533186461

All the Names They Used for God: Stories

By Anjali Sachdeva

Rating: 3 stars

I honestly can’t remember where I heard about this collection of short stories, but I’d heard good things and decided to give it a go. There was certainly a lot of quotes at the front of the book praising it – eleven pages worth, in fact, which made me raise an eyebrow and wonder if the lady doth protest too much.

Of the nine stories, over half have some tinge of SFF to them, whether it’s an alien invasion, a mermaid, or mind control. But the genre element is rarely to the fore. It’s usually something to force the characters to think or act in some way. Like the mermaid in Robert Greenman and the Mermaid, where it acts as the (somewhat traditional) siren that lures the sailor from his wife and his happiness, as he becomes obsessed with her. Or the alien overlords in Manus with their ridiculous accents and their insistence of the taking of human hands and replacing them with artificial ones, and what resistance looks like in such a society.

I suspect you might get on with Killer of Kings much better if you know who the “John” who’s the protagonist is. I had to wade about half way through before I had enough clues to be able to google it and come up with John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame.

Mostly, I felt that this collection was worthy. I could see the author trying very hard to Make A Point and I’m sure that a lot of people react well to that. I like plots and light, fluffy stories. These were generally quite melancholy, open-ended and more interested in characters than plots. And generally characters that I didn’t necessarily feel much engagement with, at that.

So, worthy, character-driven fiction. I was hoping for fiction that made my mind explode (really, I was hoping for another Ted Chiang, but that sort of lightning doesn’t strike more than once), but I don’t begrudge the time I spent with the collection.

Book details

ISBN: 9780525508687

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

By Sangu Mandanna

Rating: 5 stars

Found family, check. Romance, check. Cosy, check. This book ticks pretty much all my boxes at the moment – there’s even an Northern Irish love interest! I thought I’d enjoy it from the description, and it turns out that I adored it!

Mika Moon is a witch who follows The Rules. She keeps her head down and doesn’t get too attached. She even only sees other witches once every few months, for a few hours. She’s repeatedly told by her guardian that it’s the only way for witches to be safe, and she’s become used to being lonely. And then she’s asked to tutor three young witches, and unwillingly finds a group of people who she can trust and open up to. Not to mention the glowering, but handsome, librarian who’s dragged kicking and screaming into unwillingly admitting a mutual attraction.

I loved Mika as a protagonist. I love the trope of a closed off person, unwilling to love and be loved, finding a person or persons who will love them unconditionally. Here, Mika meets not only librarian Jamie, but Ian and Ken, a couple who have been together for decades, and Lucie, the mother hen of the group, as well as the three children who she comes to care for immensely. Mika finding her place in the family made my heart grow three sizes.

What peril there is in the book is very mild, with almost nothing bad happening. The main antagonist is a lawyer (sounds about right), and the racist, homophobic gammon is set against the beautiful diversity of Mika and her new family. There’s never any doubt as to who’s going to come out on top, and a lot of satisfaction in seeing how he’s dealt with.

It may be too saccharine for some, but there’s enough darkness in Mika’s childhood and early life to balance that for me, and make me feel she really deserves the life she ends up with.

Book details

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Descendant Machine

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

This book returns us to the Continuance fleet about fifty years after the events of Stars and Bones, this time following another navigator – a young woman by the name of Nicola Mafalda – whose trust in her Vanguard scoutship, the Frontier Chic is severely dented by the severe measures it takes to keep both of them alive after an unexpected attack. Some months after this, the Chic comes to her with a mission, one that involves an old flame of hers, and which she can’t turn down. This leads her into a plot to reactivate a giant machine that’s been dormant for millennia, or longer, something that could have terrible ramifications for the galaxy.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It seems that half a century in the Continuance makes a lot of difference. It feels more self-assured now, and they’ve run into many more alien species and are taking part in a loose galactic society. Nicola fits well into this new, more assured Continuance, or she did until the event that leaves her hiding out in a cottage half way up a simulated mountain. She’s a great protagonist, and most of the book is told from her point of view, with occasional deviations to the Chic and one or two others.

Powell does scale well. He showed this in Stars and Bones with the scale that was going on there. In this one, he introduces megaships that dwarf even the arks of the Continuance; mechanisms that require whole stars to power them; and a galaxy turned almost entirely into computronium. And yet, he manages to keep the scale at a human size as well, with the focus being on Nicola and the people around her. Her friends, her rivals, her lovers, the ones she trusts with her life and the ones she’d give her life to protect.

So a huge amount of fun, with a lot of fantastic world-building, and a climax that doesn’t descend into ultra-violence. Powell has created a fantastic sandbox of a world here and he’s enjoying playing in it. In the best possible way, this reminded me of Iain M. Banks Culture novels. It’s got the same scope for telling stories, without needing them to be connected. I look forward to whatever he does with it next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789094312

Kidnapped (David Balfour, #1)

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Rating: 3 stars

David Balfour is newly an orphan at seventeen. A message from his late father directs him to seek out his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws to make his fortune. Said uncle, however, betrays him and sees him on a ship bound for slavery in the Americas. Through a series of unlikely events, David makes it back to Scotland with his new companion Alan Breck Stewart and begins a journey across the highlands to reclaim his inheritance.

I didn’t know much about this book before I saw an absolutely stonking theatrical production put on by the National Theatre of Scotland. I adored that and was inspired to seek out the original text, which didn’t disappoint (mostly). It’s a cracking read, well-paced, full of adventure, and male bonding. Despite having lived in Scotland for well over half a lifetime, I confess I don’t know its history hugely well. But I did, coincidentally, just read up a bit on the Jacobite rebellion not long before reading the book, which provided invaluable context.

I do think it slightly ran out of steam towards the end. By the time David sees Alan away on the ship to France and turns away to go to a bank, I was just sort of left bemused. Like there were a few pages missing, maybe? But no, a quick check on Wikipedia reveals that’s where the book ends. Seems like an odd note to end on, but the main body of the book is a great fun read, that still works into the 21st century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780439295789
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2002

Heir of Uncertain Magic (Whimbrel House, #2)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

In the second book in this series, Hulda has to deal with people from her organisation’s parent company come over to appoint a new director, a post she’s being considered for, along with one of the gentlemen who come over. While this is going on, Merritt is getting settled into his newly disenchanted house, with its former spirit, Owein, now happily inhabiting the body of a dog. Merritt is trying to get used to the magic that he suddenly discovered at the end of the last book but he’s struggling to control it, and is also avoiding confronting his family over the revelations that the man he called his father, and who threw him out of his family home, isn’t.

This one felt really quite soapy in a lot of ways. The whole family thing with the stepfather feels right out of Days of our Lives, and then you’ve got the moustache-twirling villain who’s trying to take over BIKER, and the shadow of the first book’s Big Bad looms large. But despite that, it’s a lot of fun, I do enjoy the characters (very intrigued to find out more about Baptiste’s past – he’s obviously more than just a chef) and the romance between Hulda and Merritt is almost painfully sweet.

The idea of magic having negative consequences for its wielders was a bit more prominent here than in the previous book, especially near the start when Merritt was unable to control his ability to understand animals and plants, which robbed him of his own voice. I still think it could have been embedded more into the world and be more of an issue for magic users, but it is what it is.

I thought that this was the second of a two-book series, but there’s a third on the way, and since I enjoyed this so much I’m definitely going to pick it up.

Book details

Year of publication: 2023

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