The Truth of Valour (Confederation, #5)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

Former Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr has now left the Marine Corp and is making a life in civvie street with her partner, Craig Ryder. Although the war with the Others Primacy is more or less over, space is still a dangerous place, as she discovers as their ship is attacked and Craig is taken by pirates, and she is left for dead. Unfortunately, the pirates made a big mistake in not making sure of it, as Torin gathers together some of her former colleagues and goes after them.

I think this is the first book not to be told exclusively from the point of view of either Torin or Craig, as we get into the head of Mackenzie Cho, the pirate captain who took Craig. And that’s not a pleasant place to be. Interestingly, Cho’s deep sense of entitlement and anger at supposed denial of his rights are reminiscent of the kind of man who frequents the worst areas of 4chan and the ‘manosphere’, coupled with ruthlessness and cruelty that make him an incredibly unpleasant person, and you look forward to him getting his due at Torin’s hands.

Torin is outwith her comfort zone here, with no chain of command, and without the resources of the Marine Corp at her back, and we see the strain that this puts on her, and her colleagues see it as well. Perhaps not burdened with a direct involvement and also still delegating to her, they see the situation more clearly than she does at times. No longer soldiers, but not fitting into a civilian life, they jump at the chance to be doing something as a unit again.

The ending is somewhat intriguing, as the Confederation acknowledges that their current structures aren’t suitable for post-war civilisation and Torin is asked to pull together such a fast-response team. That leads into a new trilogy which I look forward to investigating in due course (and I’m sure those plastic aliens will be back as well…).

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169742
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2010

Kings and Wizards (Girl Genius: The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne Volume 4)

By Phil Foglio, Kaja Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 17 of the collected Girl Genius graphic novel moves the story on quite apace. It feels like there’s a lot more plot than the last couple and most exciting it was, with both the Other and the undead Storm King attacking Paris. It takes the combined efforts of Agatha, Martellus, the Master of Paris and their various hangers on to win through, and the cost of victory is very high.

It’s very often the secondary characters in this series that are the ones that shine and this volume gave small, but choice, roles to Castle Heterodyne and the Beast of the Rails – both currently in adorable mini-clank form. The regular Jagermonsters are back as well and have some fun, and we get to see Agatha doing real Mad Science while under enemy fire, which is always fun.

So one of the better entries of a consistently good series, and one that moved the plot on. I look forward to the next one now, as Agatha leaves Paris for London.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856670
Publisher: Studio Foglio
Year of publication: 2018

Valour’s Trial (Confederation #4)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr is involved in a major battle and is thought killed in action. However, unknown to everyone, she ends up in a prisoner-of-war camp. Which is interesting, since, as far as everyone knows, the enemy don’t take prisoners. First she has to sort out problems in what is nominally her own side before she can pull a team together and get on with the serious business of escaping. What she finds may change the course of the war.

This is a fun, fast-paced novel that doesn’t let go once it’s started. As usual, there’s a mostly new set of faces around as Torin is dropped into a new situation without (most of) her crew but a few familiar faces are present. And the old spot-the-ones-about-to-die game is present and correct (although I guessed completely wrongly).

I’ve come to like Torin an awful lot over the course of these books, even if I haven’t fallen quite so far into her cult of personality as Darlys. She very obviously cares about the people under her care and does her damnedest to get them out alive, even in circumstances well beyond her control.

I’m looking forward to reading the last in the series now.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781169728
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2008

Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There?

By Jim Al-Khalili

Rating: 3 stars

In this fairly short book, Jim Al-Khalili pulls together a number of scientists, some quite well known, to try and tackle the Fermi Paradox, from a whole bunch of different angles. The first section looks at the idea of alien civilisations and their place in popular culture. Then we move on to questions around what makes for a habitable planet and the search for life within our solar system, before an analysis of what life actually is and theories around how it could begin. The final section actually looks at methods of searching for extra-terrestrial life.

It’s all interesting, although the essays are quite short and necessarily brief. There’s a decent bibliography for further reading, and a suggested list of films featuring aliens, from the chapter on alien life in cinema.

I came away from this book not sure what to believe about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life (Matthew’s Cobb’s chapter on the improbability of intelligent life is both compelling and depressing), but having had a decent introduction to a number of different ways of thinking about both SETI and what life is and mechanisms that we are using for detecting it, whether that be through analysing Martian soil samples or sampling the spectra of a planet many light-years away and analysing it for traces of atmospheric gases that might be indicators of life. It’s a good primer, and each chapter is well-written and engaging, without getting too technical. Even if, at times, it feels like it could be a bit more technical.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781256817
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2016

Drive: Act Two (Drive, #2)

By Dave Kellett

Rating: 4 stars

Act 2 of the Drive webcomic picks up where Act 1 left off: the crew of the Machito has rescued the gentle (but Vinn-ified) Nosh and have taken him to the headquarters of the dreaded Jinwiwei, the Empire’s secret police, in the hopes that they can cure him. What follows is a breakneck adventure, with the crew of the Machito continuing their mission to try and find Skitter’s people, as the Vinn march on, invading both the human empire and the Continuum of Makers with whom the humans are at war.

We get to meet new alien races and find out more about exiled Maker called Ahmis, whose crashed ship helped Conrado Cruz build his own FTL drive. Of the alien races, the Sill are possibly my favourite, a species who had conquered half the galaxy, before finding something between religious fervour and a psychic drug that was so good that they stopped conquering, and reproducing and, well much of anything, really.

I’m very much enjoying the story here, but am looking forward to the end, so that I can go back and read the whole thing in one go to keep the whole story in my head at once (this is a problem with long-running serial stories that are drip-fed, one page at at time, Girl Genius being the worst offender, given how long it’s been running for).

Book details

ISBN: 9780984419081
Publisher: Small Fish Studios, Inc


By Roald Dahl

Rating: 5 stars

Matilda was always one of my favourite Roald Dahl books as a child, and after seeing the musical recently (which is rather marvellous, by the way, and if you get the chance, you should go and see it), I was inspired to re-read the book. I’m very pleased that it holds up very well to adult reading, and still made me laugh as much as it did when I was young. It’s got the trademark Roald Dahl darkness as well, which is just delicious, most obviously in the character of Miss Trunchbull, but also in Matilda’s neglectful parents, who think that books are pointless and who fail to see anything special in Matilda herself.

A fantastic book, that well deserves its place in the canon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140327595
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1988

Queen of Roses

By Elizabeth McCoy

Rating: 3 stars

I got this book as part of the 2019 feminist future story bundle, and it was the excerpt from this book that honestly sold the whole bundle to me. Sarafina is an AI, until recently working for a bank, which has now gone into administration. Her tenure is sold to the owner of a cruise ship, and she finds herself installed as the main passenger interface AI on the Queen of Roses. Here she has to deal with people on a regular basis, including passengers, crew and a drunkard, intolerant captain. Add a bunch of stowaways into the mix and it’s not exactly an easy first cruise for her.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but looking back at it, I do think it could have done with another pass from an editor, especially towards the end, as the plot started to ramp up, and I’m not sure that McCoy kept hold of all the threads all properly. There were some minor things (such as the specifically mentioned handed salutes between two characters) and some less minor things (such as how did Mrs Selsda get hold of Sarafina’s programming key?), but in general I liked both Sarafina herself, and Pilot, the other AI on the ship. The “biologicals” were a mixed bunch, who mostly played to type: the drunkard captain; the roguish first officer; the competent engineer, but were all decent characters.

I liked how McCoy showed us how Sarafina split her attention amongst her myriad tasks, something that can’t be easy to imagine or describe given that humans can’t split our attention amongst more than a handful of tasks. I thought the world-building could have been improved. We didn’t get any real impression of how the galaxy is organised, or about the Xanadu system or why it was a threat, not to mention more about Keevey and Keelin. And most importantly for me, no real discussion of the ethics of (even temporary) enslavement of sentient creatures. Yes, the AIs can work their way out of debt, but it still feels icky to me. We don’t make our children pay back the cost of their creation and raising, after all, why should we do that for an AI? I can totally believe that it would happen, but it would have been nice to get at treatment of it in the book.

The prejudice against AIs, on the other hand, requires no leap of the imagination to believe, but I’m glad that the opposite was there as well. The relationship between the free AI Loren and Mr Corvhey was quite sweet.

An enjoyable, if flawed, romp with a very likeable lead character, and bonus points for that lead being very both female and very believably non-human.

Book details

ISBN: 9781476412122
Publisher: Smashwords
Year of publication: 2012

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

Yeine Darr is an outcast, chief of a faraway kingdom and is shocked to get a summons by her grandfather to the capital. She’s even more shocked to find that she’s been named as his heir, to fight with the other two such named for the privilege of taking his place. In the city of Sky, effective capital of the world, she must learn politics and intrigue and strive to tell her pitifully few friends from her many foes. And that’s before the imprisoned gods get involved with anything.

I hadn’t realised until I read the interview at the end that this was Jemison’s debut novel. It is well-written and assured throughout. If this is her at the start of her career, I can definitely see why she ended up winning a trifecta of Hugo awards for her Broken Earth series. I’ve avoided that as everything I’ve heard suggests it’s extremely dark, and that’s not for me. You can get a foretaste of that here, in the coldness and ruthlessness of the Arameri (Yeine’s estranged family and erstwhile rulers of the world), and it’s something Yeine herself has to learn quickly as well.

Some of the other reviews here have commented on the sex in the book. I must say that this took me aback, since it mostly passed me by. Yes, there was some, but it wasn’t something I thought was particularly graphic or excessive. The line about the god’s phallus did make me giggle though, which may not have been the intention!

In a lot of ways this book reminded me of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, it also has a distant scion of a powerful family thrust into the centre of the political world and having to adapt quickly to changed circumstances. But both Yeine, and the story itself, is much harder than Maia and Emperor. That book left me feeling sort of warm and fuzzy; this one has a satisfying ending, but I wouldn’t call it warm or fuzzy.

The worldbuilding here is fantastic, with its central Three gods, and the story of how one overthrew the others woven into Yeine’s story. How the idea of light, dark and balance is central to the whole book. The characters are all fascinating. Most of the human ones, other than Yeine, don’t get a lot of characterisation (although her dead mother is a central driver and we learn more about her than about many of the living people) but the gods and godlings are brilliant. Nahadoth, god of night, and Sieh, the childlike god of mischief are particular standouts.

Excellent worldbuilding, great characters and a definite page turner. I enjoyed this a lot, and I look forward to reading the others in the trilogy.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841498171
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Grandville Force Majeure (Grandville, #5)

By Bryan Talbot

Rating: 4 stars

The fifth, and final, instalment in DI LeBrock’s adventures is a bit of a corker. Framed for murder and on the run from his colleagues, he’s got to solve the murder, deal with the gangster Tiberius Koenig, who wants to bring London into his criminal empire, and save his family, all while being pursued by his own mentor, the Holmesian retired DCI Stamford Hawksmoor.

The story trots along at a good pace, and although the last quarter or so is wrapped in plastic, as an anti-spoiler mechanism, I figured out most of the big twists in advance (and on that, in my considered opinion, the idea of Roderick Ratzi selling out LeBrock is the most unbelievable thing in the whole series. And this is a series with steampunk Zeppelins, crazy red dinosaurs, and sexy anthropomorphic prostitute badgers) but it was still fun taking the journey. There are some great one-liners and mad mob-boss Koenig steals every scene he’s in.

The art is, once again, amazing. Talbot goes into the process a little in his piece at the end of the book, and part of the explanation as to why this is will be the last Grandville book is that each page would take 3-4 days to complete, which just isn’t long term commercially viable. The usual warning regarding the art applies though. Although it’s quite cartoony looking, and there are talking animals, this is a violent book, with adult themes that is very definitely not suitable for children.

At some point now, I think I need to go back and re-read the whole series in quick succession, to get a clearer feel for the characters and the overall plot, but this was a highly enjoyable conclusion to a highly enjoyable series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910702246
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year of publication: 2017

Rule 34 (Halting State, #2)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 3 stars

DI Liz Kavanaugh is head of the Rule 34 squad, a sort of punishment for something that went wrong several years ago. It’s up to her and hers to police internet porn in an independent Scotland. Anwar Hussein was a small-time Internet fraudster who’s spent time behind bars and is trying to go straight, for the sake of his family. The Toymaker is wondering who’s killing all the folk he’s trying to recruit to his large scale organised crime Operation.

Like its predecessor, Halting State this book is told entirely in the second person, a technique that I’ve never been very fond of, but there are solid reasons for that in this book, as Stross sets out in the crib sheet for the book on his blog (note: obviously spoilers at that link!). And I got used to it as well; I think it feels most icky when we’re in the head of the gangster, the Toymaker, who’s creepy as all hell.

For me, this book is at its strongest when it’s doing the police procedural thing, with lots of cool future-tech extrapolated from the early 21st century. At times, though, the pace of new ideas being thrown at you gets a little overwhelming (it feels a bit like Cory Doctorow at times) when the ideas outpace the story. Mostly, though, Stross keeps a handle on that and the book is certainly thought-provoking, not least in its ideas on different kinds of AI.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841497730
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2011

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