BooksOfTheMoon

Entropic Angel: And Other Stories

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve not read an awful lot of Powell’s work, but when I saw this special edition on offer, I thought I’d give it a go, based on having read Embers of War and Light Chaser. And I’m rather glad that I did. I enjoyed this collection a lot, there’s a lot of interesting ideas and settings, and some great writing too.

There’s a couple of far-future end of the universe stories: Sunsets and Hamburgers postulates two humans resurrected at the end of time, and encouraged to have children, despite hope seeming lost; while The Redoubt features two humans given the opportunity of a million lifetimes, to travel the universe until the end of time.

I loved the basic idea of the title story, which involves these winged creatures seeking out sources of energy – power stations, wind turbines and the like, and increasing the entropy within them until they fail and break. There’s a lot packed into a short space here and I enjoyed the stuff that was left unsaid as much as what as said.

There are a few linked stories as well – Fallout and The New Ships both set in an England after an alien ship crashed in the West Midlands, irradiating most of the area and what people do to survive. And then there’s The Last Reef and Flotsam with a setting of a solar system in which AIs go post-Singularity, but most of which turn inward as they ramp up their evolution and burn out.

Eleven Minutes was probably one of my favourites in the collection, in which two squabbling Nasa technicians running night shift duty on a Mars rover see something in the camera that they really don’t expect.

There’s a few stories that didn’t work as well for me – Lift Up Your Face isn’t really SF, but I didn’t really get it much at all; while This is How You Die features a pandemic and the second person voice, neither of which I’m particularly fond of in stories.

But all in all, this is a strong collection from a pretty consistently good writer.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910935392
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2017

Comet Weather (Comet Weather, #1)

By Liz Williams

Rating: 5 stars

The four Fallow sisters are all dealing with the fact that their mother, Alys, is missing, maybe dead, in different ways. But now a comet is coming, and all four are drawn back to their ancestral home in the depths of England, helped by the star spirits and the ghost of their grandfather.

I rather loved this somewhat dreamy and somewhat spooky story of four sisters who aren’t quite the same as other people. All very different from each other, and with two of them having had a major row at the start, the book nonetheless shows us how deeply they care for and respect each other, and how they are able to lean on each other when there is trouble.

The book is set in the present day, but unlike a lot of modern fantasy, it shies away from the great urban centres. London does feature, but much more important are the wilds of Somerset, giving this a very different feel to other primary world fantasies set in the present. All four Fallow sisters are protagonists, with rotating chapters from each sister’s point of view, often quite short, but enough to engage your interest and to create clear pictures of the personalities of all: steadfast Bee, who remained in the family home after their mother disappeared; single mother and fashion designer Serena, living in London; Stella who’s DJs around the UK and the Mediterranean; and Luna, who lives in a horse-drawn wagon, following the Gypsy Switch around Britain.

The story emerges organically, with the mystery of Alys’ disappearance, the mysterious Stare siblings and the Behenian stars all playing a part. The magic feels organic, coming out of the landscape, and the history of the land, without much formalisation.

I feel the end of the book feels a bit rushed, and there’s still several mysteries left unsolved. I feel I sort of missed something going on with Nell, their American cousin who’s visiting and seems oblivious to everything going around her. I don’t know if the sequel will answer those questions, but I just want to spend more time with the Fallow sisters and in Williams’ glorious writing. I’ve already got it ordered.

Book details

ISBN: 9781912950454
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

The Beauty of the House is immesurable; its Kindness infinite. So believes Piranesi, who lives in the House – a vast labyrinth of Halls, with innumerable statues in the endless halls and the ocean in the basement. He lives here alone, except for The Other, and and always has, or so he believes. He lives a contented life, until the messages start to appear – there is someone new in the House, and this sets up a chain of events that leads to hidden truths being uncovered and relationships changed forever.

This is a slim volume, but it took me a while to get into it. The world of the House is dense and Clarke does throw you into the middle of it. The novel takes the form of journal entries of the narrator (the Other calls him Piranesi, but he’s not sure that that’s his name). The random capitalisation that the narrator throws in doesn’t help either. It takes a while to get into the flow of it.

But once you do find the rhythm of the book, it’s a joy to read. It’s lyrical, haunting and beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed following the narrator on his personal journey of discovery of both himself, and the world around him. I can imagine that it’s a book that rewards rereading, and I’m definitely going to give it another go before too long.

Clarke certainly isn’t prolific, but a new novel from her is an event that’s worth the wait.

Book details

ISBN: 9781526622433
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane and David Vincent are newlywed, deeply in love, partners in work as well as life and with the favour of the Prince Regent. Life looks good as they go on honeymoon to Belgium to see one of Vincent’s old friends and colleagues. But this is a Europe only just coming out of war. Napoleon may be conquered but he has many allies on the continent. The Vincents find themselves amongst all this, and worse, when Vincent is captured, leaving Jane as the only one who can save him.

I really enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey and this continuation of the Vincents’ story was just as enjoyable. The blurb for the book played up the kidnapping, but in actual fact, that was a relatively short section towards the end, with most of it being spent focusing on their life together, Jane finding herself pregnant, and her increasing worry about being cut of of Vincent’s life.

The rules of this world are that women can’t do glamour when they’re pregnant. It’s not clear if that’s a solid rule, or if it’s something with some flexibility (like not drinking alcohol), but Jane sticks to it and starts to fear that because she can’t be her husband’s creative partner any more, he’s stopped valuing her. Kowal does a good job of setting up Jane’s fear and the reasons for it, but I never entirely believed it, seeing Vincent with somewhat clearer vision, even through Jane’s eyes.

The period setting is good. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the last book, but this one had me sucked right in. Kowal’s writing is noticeably improved, even between her first and second novel

I’m now fully invested in Jane and Vincent’s life and can’t wait to dig into the next book.

Book details

Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2013

Prime Deceptions

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

The second book in the adventures of Captain Eva Innocente picks up about six months after the first, with the crew of La Sirena Negra now picking up missions from Eva’s sister, Mari, to harass The Fridge, the organised crime ring that Eva thought had kidnapped Mari and forced her to work for them to pay her ransom in the first book. Now the group that Mari works for offers them a mission to find a missing scientist (and also, coincidentally, the brother of new engineer Sue, who was also kidnapped by The Fridge). Unfortunately, the trail leads Eva to the site of her greatest failure, and something she’s been running from for years.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s fast-paced, full of action, and a lot of fun. Eva is a great protagonist: hot-headed, always preferring to look after she leaps, and full of enough angst to satisfy a gaggle of emos. The rest of the crew are still not as well-developed, although there was a slightly delightful geek romance going on (which self-absorbed Eva obviously didn’t catch on to until way later than she should have). I was disappointed that although Leroy made an appearance, it was more a cameo than anything else. He had a really interesting background that I would have loved to see explored in more detail.

I was also a bit disappointed that the amorous emperor from the first book pretty much disappeared in this one, hand-waved away with a one-line explanation. After his return at the end of the last one, I thought he’d play more of a part here. Oh well, that still left plenty for the crew to get their teeth into.

In the last book, we had a pop-culture reference in the shape of Portal guns. Valdes goes one better here, by introducing evil Pok√©mon (there’s another one later one, but given the glee I felt when I figured it out [much later than I should have!], I’ll not spoil it for viewers at home).

This is a really fun series. I don’t speak Spanish at all, but I’m happy to treat the Spanish language stuff as set dressing, something that adds atmosphere without necessarily needing to go into it in great detail (at least I hope not, since I rarely reached for Google Translate). There’s another book in the series coming, and I look forward to spending more time with Eva, Vakar and the rest of the crew of La Sirena Negra.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514437
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2020

Light Chaser

By Peter F. Hamilton

Rating: 4 stars

Amahle is a Light Chaser, the pilot of a starship that makes a long, slow circuit around human space, at nearly the speed of light, carrying trade and information between worlds, coming to each planet in her circuit roughly every thousand years. But a name keeps coming up again and again, and with it a conspiracy as deep and ancient as human spaceflight.

I’m guessing that the pace of this cracking belter of a space opera must come from Powell. This is sort the sort of idea that Hamilton would make a door-stop trilogy (at least) out of. Despite the brevity, we get a good thumbnail sketch of this interstellar human meta-civilisation, as Light Chasers are rare and many planets are stuck at different stages of civilisation, whether this is age of steam, feudalism, all the way up to post-scarcity. What Amahle uncovers leads her to wonder at why these various societies are as static as they are.

Amahle is engineered for longevity, and her relativistic travel basically puts her outside of all human societies, other than her peers (none of whom make an appearance here). Even by her relative standard, she’s probably hundreds (maybe thousands) of years old. From the point of view of the outside world, she’s timeless. And yet, even her enhanced human mind can’t hold that many memories, so she’s resigned to the old constantly making way for the new, losing more of herself with every planet she visits.

There’s also a mystical strand that runs through the story, with the idea of reincarnating souls and (literally!) star-crossed lovers destined to meet across many lifetimes, which is a bit weird but it fits.

I went through a Hamilton phase in my 20s, where I read everything I could get hold of (although I’ve not read anything by him in probably a decade now). I’ve not read as much Powell, but this is a neat fusion of the two, not really feeling like either but a solid third voice. It’s a very enjoyable light space opera that breezes through different human societies in pages, where it could have spent whole chapters (or even books) in them, racing towards its finale at breakneck speed. A lot of fun to read.

Book details

Publisher: Tordotcom
Year of publication: 2021

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

By T. Kingfisher

Rating: 5 stars

Mona is a teenage girl with the very specific magical ability to work with bread. From telling it not to burn, to making gingerbread men dance, Mona is the very definition of a minor wizard. But she’s happy being a baker, working with her Aunt Tabitha, and using her magic to help her. Until the other wizards of the city start disappearing, until soon she’s on the run for her life. And then, she’ll be the only thing standing between her city and an invading army.

I loved this little novella. It was charming, but with enough of a hard edge to make it worth savouring. Mona is a great protagonist, whose actions feel believable all the way through (up to and including the giant gingerbread golems). She doesn’t want to be doing this, she’s a teenage girl, and she’s (rightly) angry that all this has fallen on her shoulders. Why wasn’t the duchess stronger? Why didn’t other people speak out? Why was it left up to her?

But despite it all, she rises to the occasion (pun very much intended). With obligatory Little Orphan Boy (Spindle) at her side and with the help of her familiar – a sourdough starter called Bob (really, it’s scarier than it sounds) – she fights bigotry, rogue wizards and bureaucrats (as well as the aforementioned invading army).

The world is well-developed, without any big infodumps and the writing is clear and a joy to read. I’d love to read more of Mona’s adventures, but that would require her to be a hero again, which would make her angry, and she might set Bob on me.

Book details

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio

Cage of Souls

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 2 stars

Shadrapar is the last remaining city on Earth, with the remnants of humanity having retreated behind its walls. Stefan Advani wears many hats, but the most important one when we meet him is that of prisoner. Taken away from Shadrapar, to the Island, the brutal prison where all the city’s outcasts are exiled.

The most immediate comparison that came to mind when I read the blurb for this book was Clarke‘s The City and the Stars, but Shadrapar is no Diaspar. A more fitting comparison might be to Jack Vance‘s Dying Earth series. It’s got that sort of vaguely mythological feel to it, a mix of high and low technology, and a grime embedded by building on countless previous civilisations that have risen and fallen on the planet since our day – so long past that even myths of our time have been lost.

But Tchaikovsky’s world is far more depressing than that of either Clarke or Vance. Stafan’s world is just the Island, where the Marshal rules with a rod of iron, under the mostly absent Governor. He rules through fear, killing merely as an example; throughout the whole book we never see him betray any emotion other than hatred. Alongside him, is Gaki. A fellow prisoner, but one that Stefan fears as much as the Marshal. He doesn’t do much beyond scare Stefan for most of the book, until the end when his true psychopathy becomes clear.

Amongst the pain and grime of the Island, there are little elements of hope. Stefan befriends a warden named Peter, who is kind to him throughout his life on the Island, and he makes a few friends amongst fellow prisoners, but these are pinpricks in the misery and hopelessness that the book is steeped in for much of its length.

The book offers flashbacks to Stefan’s life prior to the island, and we get to see both Shadrapar and its Underworld. The city is corrupt, with the elite chasing each other’s debt and mutilating themselves for fashion. And the Underworld has its factions and its poverty, but it seems to have a sort of energy to it that the city proper hasn’t.

And then there’s the ending.

Spoiler

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that ends with the vast majority of the remaining human race killed off, and off-screen, at that! The book is vague about the remaining number, but seems to come down on the side of it not being a viable population to recover from. So Tchaikovsky basically makes the Human race extinct. And yet… it’s not entirely hopeless. The web-children may not be a direct genetic successor, but they are our inheritors, the ones who will use Stefan’s mind-power knowledge and maybe create something better.

I mean, that’s bare scratchings of hope – basically burn it all down and start again from scratch, in the hope that it’ll be better. Humanity has had its chance, and it’s been found wanting. Not my idea of hope, but not as bitter an ending as I’d feared.

So yeah, Tchaikovsky is an accomplished writer, very capable of creating vivid characters, worlds and scenes. But he also seems to be a pretty dark writer. Between this and Bear Head, I think I’m putting his books down and walking away.

Book details

A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot, #1)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 4 stars

Sibling Dex is a monk whose vocation is to travel the lands and listen to people’s problems – a sort of travelling therapist. But they feel dissatisfied with their life, and so begin a journey that will take them out of the human lands, into the wild spaces that were given over to nature, and to where the robots retreated when they gained consciousness. They meet one such robot, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, and begin a conversation.

Dex is an interesting character, aware that something’s not quite right but unable to identify it and change it themselves. Mosscap is a very different personality entirely, curious about everything and delighting in the world around it. It doesn’t show up until about a third of the way through the book (until then we’re learning about Dex and the world of Panga in which they live, where humans try to tread lightly through the natural world), but livens up every page thereafter.

The book is optimistic and hopeful; portraying a world where humans realised the damage they were doing during the oil-burning “Factory Age” and made a conscious effort to stop. They use their technology in a very different way now, and although I can’t quite see how we’d get there from here, it’s definitely something to strive towards.

Like all of Chambers’ writing, this story is kind and humane, and a pleasure to read. I might grumble about the cost of novellas, but that won’t stop me from snapping up the next one as soon as it’s available.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250236210
Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2021

Chilling Effect

By Valerie Valdes

Rating: 4 stars

Eva Innocente is the captain of the small freighter La Sirena Negra (or The Black Mermaid for those of us who don’t speak Spanish). After some dodgy stuff in her past, she’s trying to go straight, and then she discovers that her sister has been kidnapped by the ruthless organised crime organisation known as The Fridge. Eva will do whatever she has to to free her sister, and if that means giving up her crew and the life she’s built, then so be it.

This was a fun, if fairly episodic, space opera, with Eva dashing between assignments for The Fridge, inevitably getting into trouble at each stop, and trying to keep everything from her crew for as long as possible. There’s a creepy guy who makes a pass at her at one of these who Eva turns down. Except that he turns out to be an emperor who won’t take no for an answer, and keeps popping up after that with his fleet, trying to add her to his harem. Oh, and there’s psychic cats.

Apart from Eva, the crew of La Sirena Negra don’t get much characterisation, which is a shame, since there’s a lot of potential there, especially for Leroy, who spent years as a “meat-puppet soldier”, with his body being piloted remotely in some unknown war, and who now has PTSD. There’s also Pink, the ship’s medic, who also served with Eva in her shady past, and Min, the pilot, who spends more time linked to the ship than her own body. And then there’s Vakar, the new engineer. He’s the only non-human (other than the cats) on the ship and I don’t think he was really described very much, other than having “pangolin-like” skin and “face-palps”. I’m struggling to picture him at all. His most interesting feature is that his scent changes depending on his mood, something that makes it very hard for him to lie, if you can understand the scents.

Valdes has created an interesting world. As is more usual these days, humans in this universe are johnny-come-latelys, not kings of the hill, and are currently in the process of applying to the current galactic federation (the amusingly named BOFA), not that Eva has much time for politics, between trying to keep her crew afloat and trying to save her sister.

The episodic nature of the story does sometimes feel a bit like going through computer game levels (something only heightened when they come across what can only be described as Portal-guns, although that made me laugh out loud when I figured out what they were).

Despite those minor complaints, there’s some decent twists, and Eva is a lot of fun, with her Mysterious Past and her found-family crew. I’m definitely looking forward to the second book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514420

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