The Apex Book of World SF 4 (Apex Book of World SF #4)

By Mahvesh Murad

Rating: 3 stars

I’ll get on to the important stuff in a minute, but did anyone else notice the smell of their book? I don’t know if it’s something to do with the binding process used, or the glue, but it really doesn’t smell like a book at all. In fact, it smells sort of unpleasant.

Anyway, skipping over that, this was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It was very definitely speculative fiction, not science fiction. There was a reasonable amount of fantasy as well as SF and more horror than I would have liked.

Highlights included The Gift of Touch, a space opera about a freighter transporting some passengers, which reminded me a bit of the marvellous The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet; The Boy Who Cast No Shadow, a tale of being different, literally and metaphorically, powerful and melancholic; and The Symphony of Ice and Dust about an expedition to the far reaches of the solar system and the remains that they find there.

There were a number of misses for me as well, stories that I just didn’t really get, including Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith, which may have been a Jewish zombie tale, but I’m not really sure. I felt completely lost for most of that one. Jinki and the Paradox was going okay until the end, when it lost me again. I’m really not sure what to make of the last story in the collection, A Cup of Salt Tears, it’s not the way that I would have chosen to end the book, this Japanese almost fairy tale about a woman whose husband is dying and a kappa comes to her and tells her it loves her. Very odd, a bit melancholic and (there’s a theme emerging here), I got completely lost by the end.

I like the little flash pieces in between some of the longer stories. While they weren’t all to my taste, they were short enough to not outstay their welcome if they weren’t. And they were nice little palate cleansers between the chunkier stories.

So an interesting collection albeit one that I sometimes struggled with. I don’t know if that’s just the stories picked, or the international nature of some of them. I certainly felt that there were a few where knowing more about the cultural context would help me understand them, but it was good to read stuff from a different point of view to the usual British/American perspective. I’m not sure that I’d buy any of the others, but I might look for them in the local library.

Book details

ISBN: 9781937009335
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Year of publication: 2015


By Naomi Novik

Rating: 4 stars

Agnieszka lives in a valley menaced by a Wood from which nothing that goes in comes out. Or at least, comes out unchanged. Their valley is protected by a powerful, unaging wizard called the Dragon, but he demands payment for his protection: every ten years he takes a young girl from the valley. Although everyone knows that this time round it will be beautiful, brave Kasia who will be picked, it isn’t, it’s Agnieszka. She leaves her valley behind and her world changes forever.

I really liked this book. Agnieszka’s story is great fun to follow, and the opening chapters are oddly funny. Although Agnieszka herself is terrified for a lot of it, as the reader, we’re already starting to see what she can’t through her fear, and that lends those chapters an element of farce, as the poor girl stumbles and wrecks everything she comes into contact with. Obviously this doesn’t last, and it’s a joy to see Agnieszka come into her power and start to drive the narrative.

In fact, this book doesn’t do something that often annoys me, particularly in books with female protagonists: Agnieszka is never passive. She needs a push to get going, but she chooses her own destiny. She drives every major decision in the book, and is never just caught up in events or pushed around from pillar to post and that’s something that I admire, both in the character and the author.

The book never hides from the consequences of violence. Agnieszka agonises over this even as she does what she must, but it’s never romanticised. Violence is shown for what it is: nasty and brutish.

The only bit that didn’t really convince was the romance. I can see where it came from, but I would have been just as happy without it. (Personally, I don’t think that every protagonist needs to find romance to have a happy ending, but that’s a rant for another day).

Book details

ISBN: 9781447294146
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Year of publication: 2015

The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter

By Benjamin Woolley

Rating: 3 stars

An interesting look at the life of a woman who is mostly recognised today for her impact on the world of computing. While Ada Lovelace is often regarded as the first programmer, for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, Woolley pulls back from this claim, saying that Babbage himself had written such “programs” as well and that Ada’s mathematics wasn’t great. But this book is about much more than her contributions to computing; it pulls back and looks at her life in the context of a rapidly changing world and where science and art were in the process of being torn apart.

Woolley makes a lot of Ada’s parentage. Indeed, the first two chapters are entirely spent on telling of how Annabella Milbanke married Lord Byron, the poet. He portrays Annabella as a cold, analytical woman, contrasts her to the hot-blooded poet and then considers what would happen in the fusion of these two people.

To be honest, while the book is very readable, it’s a bit soap-opera-y too. Woolley does go on a bit about Ada’s split heritage and how her artistic side was suppressed by her mother. He also seems to be “on Byron’s side” for most of the book (despite the fact he dies in Ada’s childhood and never got to see his daughter beyond infancy) and portrays Annabella in a fairly negative light, being a controlling influence on Ada throughout her life. Without going back to the primary sources it’s difficult to know how accurate this portrayal is but I instinctively dislike it in what should be a work of fact. However, to balance that, the book is very readable and provides a decent introduction to someone I’ve known about for so long (my first programming language at University was Ada) but knew very little about.

Book details

ISBN: 9781447272540
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 1999

Ten Cities that Made an Empire

By Tristram Hunt

Rating: 4 stars

It appears that this book has taken me exactly five months to read. Not because it’s difficult, or complex, or dull, but I just have trouble with non-fic, especially history. I tend to read a chunk, put it down, meaning to pick it up again the next day and get distracted by a graphic novel or space opera. Still, I’m very glad that I did eventually get through this book, which uses ten cities to provide a breakneck tour of the history of the British Empire, from its first phase in the Americas through its turn towards the east, and right down to its end and the impact on Britain itself.

It’s an odd mix, but the architecture of the cities is only ever there in the background and never as important as you think it’s going to be, but still, weaving together the history of the cities with the wider context of Empire is fascinating. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hunt, as he seems to be on the right wing of the Labour Party but his history seems balanced. He talks about how the British Empire alternated between waves of free trade imperialism and more traditional conquering imperialism, but is never flag-waving. He never shies away from the dark underbelly of the Empire, particularly the slavery that formed the basis of the West Indies economy for so long, and the racism that was evident in India (and elsewhere), compared with the ‘white colonies’.

My knowledge of the Empire has always been patchy, and this book has helped fill in some of those gaps, particularly the broad brush of its rise and fall across a few hundred years and its actions and behaviour in India. Indeed, the Indian chapters were amongst the most interesting for me, especially the comparison between Calcutta and Bombay (as they were then), with New Delhi being the Empire’s last hurrah, despite the triumphalism that went into its building and its architecture.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141047782
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

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