BooksOfTheMoon

How Long ’til Black Future Month?

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

I approach every NK Jemisin story I read with trepidation that is mostly undeserved. The reputation of the Broken Earth books casts a long shadow, and to me, the author has the kind of reputation that meeting her would lead to me cowering, in the submission position, while backing away as politely as possible. This reputation, if it exists outwith my head, is undeserved, if this collection is anything to go by. Yes, it has the (deserved) anger of a black woman who has finally found a voice, but there’s joy and playfulness in there too. Stories such as L’Achimista, about a chef given a chance to prove her greatness, after a fall from grace; and The City Born Great, telling of the birth of the soul of the city of New York are beautiful and joyful.

There’s conversation within the genre, with responses to Heinlein and Le Guin and there’s dread, pain, death (and other anthropomorphic personifications) and, of course, hope.

I wish that Jemisin had provided a few words on each of the stories. I always enjoy hearing the context in a which a story was written, to help foster a deeper appreciation, but although it’s something Asimov did a lot, and did well, I’m not sure how common it is these days.

I’ve encountered a few stories before in other forms (often in audio form on Escape Pod and its siblings), but there was only one story which I skipped entirely because it was difficult enough first time round (Walking Awake, where alien Masters possess human bodies like puppets, if you’re wondering). And despite my memory, Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is a fantastic story and a great way to round off the collection. Oh, and this story also has the most memorable metaphor in the whole book: “blue sky hard a cop’s eyes”. Ouch.

So 4.5 stars, rounded down. A fantastic collection, with just one or two stories that just didn’t gel for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512549
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2018

Runemarks (Runemarks, #1)

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 4 stars

I read and enjoyed Joanne Harris‘s Loki books, and this more or less picks up from those. It’s five hundred years after Ragnarok and Maddy Smith is a teenage girl with a ‘ruinmark’ on her hand. All knowledge and stories of the old world are forbidden by the Order, but such things are far away from Maddy’s valley. She leads a normal life until something happens that changes it forever, and she finds herself entangled with the old gods, order, chaos and everything changes.

Maddy is an engaging character, and it’s fun to watch her learn about the gods and demons and how to use the power within her. I also enjoyed the wider world-building, especially the idea that Ragnarok isn’t the end of days, but is something that is cyclical and just repeats in different forms.

The Order is sort of interesting, although they initially seem to be just your typical totalitarian government, controlling the population by controlling knowledge and through fear. But they also have the Word; something even the gods fear.

The chapters here are short and punchy. The dialogue is engaging and each character feels different, with even the secondary ones getting something to do, and feeling important in their own way. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and the story feels complete in itself as well. You could certainly read this on its own without having read the Loki books, and although I know there’s a sequel, you could leave this book quite happy without actually reading it (although I probably will).

Book details

ISBN: 9781473217065
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2017

Asimov’s Mysteries

By Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4 stars

This book is science fiction of the old school: where characters are there purely to drive the plot, but the plot hinges on some extrapolation of actual science. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really started to appreciate more sociological and character-driven SF, but this is the stuff I grew up on, with all its strengths and flaws.

Asimov presents thirteen of his science fiction short stories, all with a mystery theme to them. Several of them feature Wendell Urth, an “extraterrologist” with extreme agoraphobia, who has never travelled further than he can walk. And yet, he has a detailed knowledge of the worlds outside of Earth and uses this to help the police solve crimes from around the solar system. Some of the stories are funny (a two page shaggy dog story that was there purely to set up a pun had me cackling), some are serious. There’s a spy story that seems like it’s inspired by James Bond, except that the author says he wrote it before he’d heard of Bond. And the final story in the collection: The Billiard Ball is the only whodunnit I’ve read in which the key to the mystery involves general relativity!

As ever, Asimov’s own words on his stories are part of the fun. He provides fore- and/or afterwords on each story, with a bit of history or context, and his authorial voice is charming. I do wish I could have met the man.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, but, as ever with SF of this era, YMMV. There are almost no women to speak of and there’s not much in the way of depth of characterisation. But if you want a set of solid whodunnits, in an SF context, you can’t go far wrong with this.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586029299
Publisher: Panther
Year of publication: 1969

The Glass Woman

By Caroline Lea

Rating: 2 stars

In 17th century Iceland Rósa marries the wealthy Jon, a chief in a distant village, so that her elderly and ill mother will get the food and warmth she needs. In her new husband’s home, she finds no love, only fear and distrust, and something lurking in the attic.

The comparisons in this book to Jane Eyre (the locked attic) and Rebecca (the mysterious first wife) are clear, but I didn’t find The Glass Woman nearly as compelling as the other two. There’s a relentless misery to Rósa’s life with Jon, and her fear, rising to terror at times, of him is painful to read. His isolation of her and his insistence that she be an obedient wife just make make angry. It may be accurate for the period, but it’s still infuriating.

What’s also really infuriating, is that so much of that could have been resolved simply through trust and conversation. Not all of it, perhaps. Jon’s apprentice Pétur is a troubled young man, and Egill, the priest, is greedy and small-minded. Trouble would be inevitable, but it needn’t have been so between Jon and Rósa, if he’d been able to trust her enough that she felt able to come to him with her fears. And that’s frustrating.

Also, from the time that she marries Jon, Rósa’s life is unrelentingly grim. There’s no bright points in their marriage at all, which makes it unpleasant to read, for my taste, at least. In saying that, it’s a very readable book, with the mystery drawing me ever onwards.

The Icelandic landscape and climate is very vividly drawn, becoming a character in its own right, as it draws the characters in, ever more claustrophobic. The clash between the new religion of Christianity and the old, Nordic, gods is interesting and feels real. The new religion needs to stamp itself to the land and so any reference to the old is forbidden, on pain of exclusion or death, but the roots aren’t so easily expunged.

I was promised a modern gothic novel and I suppose I got one. But one that felt too unrelenting to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405934619
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2019

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition 3

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 4 stars

At the start of this volume of Alita’s story, she’s given up the motorball arena and is enjoying having family and friends, as she continues her hunter-warrior work. But the hunter Zapan can’t forgive past slights, and returns to wipe out everything she holds dear. The second arc sees Alita being given a new life as an agent of Zalem and on a private mission to search out her lost father-figure, Ido.

I think there’s a quite intelligent story questioning what it means to be human at the core of Battle Angel Alita. This was mostly buried under sport and angst in the last volume, but it’s closer to the surface here (although the huge amounts of violence do distract from it). In the first arc, Alita has earned a family, and this is torn away from her, while she struggles to retain her humanity. At her weakest point, she’s offered a deal with the devil and gives in to it, leading to the second arc, where she tries to abandoned all thought and revel in killing. But this isn’t her either, as her encounter with Figure Four shows. The larger story is also foregrounded more here, especially in the second arc, as Zalem starts to play more of a part in the affairs of the surface.

The art style is pretty consistent with what has come before, with all that that implies, including the fact that fight scenes aren’t always easy to follow.

So an enjoyable story in and of itself, and also expanding the world for the future as well.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632366009

The Psychology of Time Travel

By Kate Mascarenhas

Rating: 3 stars

In the 1960s, four women invent a time machine, but one of them, Barbara (Bee), has a nervous breakdown live on TV and is banished from the group. In the late 2010s, an inquest for an unexplained death brings Bee and her granddaughter Ruby back into the orbit of time travel.

For a lot of this book, I thought it was more thriller than psychology. It’s got that format: short chapters with terse writing that drives the plot forward; but I did eventually realise that the state of mind of the women involved (and the vast majority of the characters are women) was vital to that plot. The chapters jump around to different perspectives and times as it tells the story and the states in particular of Bee, Ruby and Odette, the woman who found the body and who feels a compulsion to identify her, are all vital. Not to mention Margaret. One of the original four scientists, who takes charge of what becomes the Time Travel Conclave and runs it with an iron fist, and moulds (some would say perverts) it to her will.

I probably found the Conclave more interesting than I was supposed to. I can’t help being distracted by questions of procedure: why is the Conclave allowed to exist as this independent entity; why isn’t the government and military all over it (especially if, as is mentioned early on, other nations won’t catch up with the technology for decades); what exactly do time travellers actually do?

As for the whole idea of the Conclave running its own system of “justice” which involves secret courts, trials by ordeal and the possibility of execution, for an organisation that is supposed to be created out of the mid to late 20th century Britain, it seems positively archaic. I can sort of see that that comes out of the psychology/neurosis of Margaret and how she runs the Conclave, but the idea of time travel being so addictive that almost nobody is willing to give it up voluntarily so they go along with her doesn’t really work for me.

Spoiler
Also, I don’t understand why Ruby was tried for Margaret’s murder. She played Candybox Roulette. The bullets went into the machine, but she didn’t force Margaret to stand in the way of it. It was Angharad who had the device reconstructed and put back in Margaret’s way. I don’t understand why Ruby both felt responsible, and was tried for it.

But despite all this, the plot is engaging, the characters interesting and the time travel even, mostly, makes sense.

Book details

ISBN: 9781788540124

A Conspiracy of Truths (A Conspiracy of Truths, #1)

By Alexandra Rowland

Rating: 3 stars

An elderly master Chant (a Chant being a storyteller/sociologist) finds himself accused of witchcraft and is caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with an indifferent advocate. He finds himself caught as a pawn between the rulers of the nation and must elevate himself to player to keep his life and liberty.

This was a decent story about the power of stories and I found it enjoyable, but I don’t think it’ll be hugely memorable for me. Chant (although Chant is a title more than a name, so I feel it should be the Chant, but the book never gives him the definite article) is crotchety and opinionated, with a sharp tongue (as you would expect from someone who needs to tell and learn tales for his livelihood). The politicking early on in the book where he told people whatever it was he thought they wanted to hear and which might earn him some little comforts in prison almost turned me off entirely. Thankfully, this didn’t go the way that I feared, but I nearly put the book down permanently at that point.

There’s a lot to like here though. Women seem to have complete equality with men, serving in pretty much all walks of life. Chant’s apprentice Ylfing is gay, but this isn’t a Thing, but is just accepted as part of life. He just happens to make puppy dog eyes at every cute boy he sees. Chant finds this exasperating but it sounds about right for a teenage boy.

The characters are fairly well defined. Chant himself, obviously, but also Ylfing (a sweet, innocent boy), Chant’s advocate, Consanza, and some of the rulers that Chant is entangled with. They have their own personalities and feel different enough from each other.

The book is very much about the power of story though and stories themselves are scattered throughout the book. Stories are used as metaphors, for comfort and just to pass the time. As someone who loves stories myself, I appreciate that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534412811
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Year of publication: 2019

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