The Girl Who Drank the Moon

By Kelly Barnhill

Rating: 4 stars

Every year the people of the Protectorate leave a baby to be sacrificed to the witch of the forest. The witch of the forest, Xan, has no idea why the people of the town keep leaving a baby out every year, but she dutifully collects it and takes it carefully to the other side of the forest to a family who will raise it well. One year, she accidentally feeds the infant moonlight instead of starlight, filling her with magic, which could be dangerous, so she decides to raise the child, who she calls Luna, herself, locking the magic away until she turns thirteen. And as that date nears, everything starts to change.

This is a delightful coming of age story, with a vein of darkness running through it that many children will love. Luna’s story is inevitably interwoven with that of the Protectorate, and we learn more about that unfortunate state as we go. I love a good story about stories, and this is a warning of letting a single person control the stories that a people tells. There are the stories that mothers tell their children, teaching them to spurn hope; there are the stories that Sisters of the Star tell to the madwoman locked away in their tower, and the stories they whisper to each other when their Mother Superior isn’t around. There’s the boy Anatain, who can’t forget the screams of one mother as they took her child, and the love of Luna’s adoptive family – not just Xan, but Glerk the swamp monster and Fyrian, the tiny dragon.

A lot of the history of what’s gone on before to leave the Protectorate in its current state is drip-fed to us slowly over the course of the book, leaving the reader to put it all together to see the magnitude of the crime. It’s cleverly done and leaves you a bit breathless at the end of it.

I kept expecting there to be a big confrontation between Xan and the enemy, where she would break out some awesome magic and prod buttock and chew gum, but it’s not really that sort of book. Xan is an old woman, and that’s not the message of the book. This isn’t a standard Hero’s Journey, but relies much more on love and togetherness. It’s a great message to send to kids.

There are a few things I still didn’t understand – like why Fyrian was so tiny for so long – but the narrative is mostly satisfying and it’s a great story for older children and and adults alike.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848126473

Advanced Triggernometry (Triggernometry, #2)

By Stark Holborn

Rating: 4 stars

Following the events of the first book, Professor Malago Browne is now living under an assumed identity south of the border, with a big stack of gold, when a group of women come to her asking for help dealing with a corrupt sheriff who’s draining their town dry. Against her will, Browne is drawn back to the mathmo world.

This was a fun little novella which manages, in few words, to widen the world from the first one. The idea of maths as a sort of magic that makes you deadly in combat is still somewhat hilarious. In this one, though, I got a much stronger sense of parable – of a world in which intellectual thought is frowned upon and learning is feared. Remind you of anything?

It’s only as I come to write this that I realise that Browne had gathered a group of six other mathmos around her to form her own magnificent seven. Ha, I hadn’t even noticed that, but that’s nice.

And I liked the trope of the group that comes into town to help protect it and, through tragedy, overcomes the distrust of the town and everyone pulls together to carry the day. And we end on a very definite pointer for the next book, as Browne and her comrades are no longer content with hiding and being driven away and hounded wherever they go. They’re going to make a stand, and I’m here for it.

Book details

Publisher: Rattleback Books
Year of publication: 2021

Vets Might Fly

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

I was wondering what this fifth volume of James Herriot’s (fictionalised) memoirs would be like, given that the last had him leaving his wife and practice to join the RAF during WW2. As it turns out, although we do get a little bit of life as a trainee airman, he mostly uses incidents in the military as jumping off points to talk about other events in his veterinary career (although I did enjoy his playing truant in order to go and see his pregnant wife, and how he played the corporal who spotted him). Mostly, these books are gentle and very easy to read, and this is no exception. Apart from the chapter where someone in the town is poisoning dogs with strychnine, and six out of the seven creatures that Herriot treats die. I was not prepared for that!

Apart from that, we have mostly enjoyable anecdotes of veterinary life in the 1930s. It was hard, and a way of life that has pretty much entirely died out with the changes that have come in the latter half of the 20th and now the 21st centuries, and this provides a fascinating snapshot into a period of history, and a way of life that I mostly don’t know much about.

I’ve come to really like the other characters that Herriot deals with regularly – his partner Siegfried and the perpetual student Tristan, but my favourite character has to be Grenville Bennett, the expert in dogs and general bon vivant, in whose company Jim invariably ends up completely plastered, and showing himself up. It’s utterly cringeworthy (and normally I hate that) but so much fun, just to see how the utterly oblivious Grenville (who is really most jovial and friendly, and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body) spoils Jim’s day this time.

Speaking of drinking, the one thing that always jars in these books, and brings home just how much societal attitudes have changed, is the way that many characters, Herriot included, go the pub, have a few drinks and then just hop in their car and drive off. From a modern perspective, this his horrifying, but it was completely normal at the time.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoy this series. It’s not something I would have picked up for myself, but I’m glad that my friend bought them for me. I look forward to reading more of Jim’s veterinary and air force adventures soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443586
Publisher: Pan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2006

Mission Critical

By Jonathan Strahan

Rating: 4 stars

I liked the idea of this anthology: of things going wrong, and going wrong quickly, and the people who have to deal with those situations and comes out the other side. There’s a lot to enjoy here. It displays its mission statement with a strong first story, This is Not the Way Home by Greg Egan, involving a space tourist trapped on the moon when contact with Earth disappears. This is followed up with a very different take on the idea in Rescue Party by Aliette de Bodard, set in her Xuya universe. This one posits the idea that people can be removed from society and “stored” to be used as living memory banks, if their cultural impact or worth is judged to be more important than their individual liberty, and the rescue party that comes to help the protagonist.

Other highlights include John Barnes’ The One Who Was There, which sort of snuck up on me. You start off thinking that the protagonist is a journalist who’s never been to Ethics, only interested in the story around the Saturn system, before it expands and shows you something much more nuanced. I enjoyed this a lot by the end. Then there’s Mutata Superesse, a fun first-person story with a rapid-response soldier/paramedic dashing in to rescue some colonists who’re in over their heads, and spinning some yarns as they go. The Fires of Prometheus is a story about first responders dealing with someone who just wants to die on Io, but the rules won’t let them leave him alone. It’s a poignant piece with some nuance to it.

I don’t think there’s any particularly bad stories in here, although some worked better than others. Some of the misses for me included Hanging Gardens about attempts to terraform Mars, and the children who get caught in it; Genesong which was just a bit grim, involving a pirate attack that kills almost everyone on a ship that was capturing an asteroid to bring back to a terraformed Venus; and while it’s not exactly bad, Cyclopterus isn’t the story I would have chosen to end the collection with, set in a post-climate change planet, where the megacorps are still intent on wringing all the profit they can out before it all collapses.

Strahan has a good eye for pulling the right stories into his themed anthologies. If you like a a bit of disaster-porn, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085806
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

The Cat Who Saved Books

By Sōsuke Natsukawa

Rating: 4 stars

Rintaro Natsuki is a high school kid whose grandfather, and closest relative, dies, leaving him to pack up the family bookshop and go and live with an aunt he’s never met. And then a talking cat comes into his life, asking him to come with it, on a mission to save books. Well, how can he refuse?

This is a sweet little book mostly about love of books and reading, with a side order of dealing with grief. The four labyrinths that Rintaro must navigate all have something different at their centre, and each helps him learn a bit more about himself, and to teach the labyrinths’ masters something as well.

At times, the book can feel a little didactic on what constitutes “good” reading. As someone whose reading is usually quite light (particularly these last few years!), I sometimes felt a metaphorical finger being wagged at me, but it felt quite good-natured, for the most part. There are a handful of other characters in the book – Rintaro’s fellow student and book lover Ryota Akiba and his class president (and love interest) Sayo Yuzuki, but they don’t get more than broad brush strokes of characterisation.

There were some Japanese terms that the translator chose not to translate (there’s an explanatory note at the back explaining the reasons). This is fine, but a glossary would have been useful. I can understand why you would struggle to translate words like hikikomori in the text, and there’s always Google, but a glossary would have provided for a longer explanation where required, while still leaving the text intact.

It’s a short book and a pleasant and, dare I say it, light read. Albeit one that leaves you thinking afterwards. Definitely one for anyone who loves books.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529081473
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2021

Blackthorn Winter (Comet Weather, #2)

By Liz Williams

Rating: 3 stars

Picking up a few months after Comet Weather, Blackthorn Winter once again follows the lives of the four Fallow sisters, this time in the deep midwinter, around Christmas and the early new year. While the last book was very much an ensemble piece, this one feels much more like Serena’s story – with her latest collection being shredded just before Fashion Week and Christmas. Poor Luna gets hardly any chapters from her point of view and while Bee gets a bit more to do, her part of the story seems vague and unfocused, and Stella is often relegated to being Serena’s sidekick.

Part of what I loved about Comet Weather was its deep attachment to place, and rural place. Magical London has been done to death, but having contemporary magic in rural England felt fresh to me[1]. This one is more focused around London, and less around the Fallow family home in Somerset. That makes it feel less special to me.

We did get a lot more of Ward in this book, and I really enjoyed that. He’s a plummy chap, I imagine as a mid-career Hugh Grant, perhaps, but he’s not thrown by the magical world he’s thrown into, and his devotion to Serena is a pleasure to read. We also get a new character, Ace, who’s somewhat mysterious, but fun as well.

The major problem with this book, which was an issue in the previous one too, but somehow left less so, is that the sisters are mostly quite passive. Things happen to them, and they’re often saved by other people, but don’t often get to do any heroics themselves. They’re mostly wandering around in the dark while others hoard their dark secrets (looking at you, Alys!). There’s also a lot of threads left untied. We still have no idea where Alys was off to, or what agreement she has with the Hunt, or why various magical things are after (or, indeed, want to protect) the Fallows. And after feeling like Nell had some secret in the last book, she isn’t even mentioned in this one.

So I found it a little frustrating, but still enjoyable. If there are more books in the series (which I very much hope there are), I shall certainly read them.

[1] yes, I know we’ve had Alan Garner and many others doing that sort of thing, but this series is resolutely twenty first century, rather than 1970s or earlier

Book details

ISBN: 9781912950799
Publisher: NewCon press
Year of publication: 2021

The City We Became (Great Cities #1)

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

I read Jemisin’s collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month and very much enjoyed it, especially The City Born Great, so when I heard that this was an expansion and extension of that story, I was excited. Some cities are alive, and their souls are human avatars. New York is just being born, but it’s already under attack by extra-dimensional horrors. Its new avatar manages to fight them off, but it’s too much, and he falls into a coma. But he’s not alone – the city has five other avatars: one for each borough. They need to come together to find the primary and to defeat something that wants to destroy them all.

I really enjoyed this book. Most of the urban fantasy that I’ve read tends to centre on London, so having this one focus on New York was a bit more “exotic”. I mostly know that city through Hollywood films, but Jemisin is deft enough to take you with her as she explores the city, even if you’re not familiar with it. We’re introduced to the avatars one at a time, starting with Manny (aka Manhattan), and we have different ideas of what it means to be a New Yorker – the bright-eyed newcomer; the up and coming; the hard as nails, takes no crap; the immigrant.

And then there’s Staten Island. I have to assume that Jemisin is being fair in her assessment of Staten Island: a haven of conservatism, inward looking, and which doesn’t want to be part of New York. Staten Island’s avatar is a young white woman called Aislyn and the chapters from her point of view are, for want of a better word, sad. She’s living with her parents, particularly her overbearing cop of a father, and is terrified of everything that might be different or foreign. I feel desperately sad for her, but also want to shake her and tell her to get a grip.

Something I quite liked is that the Lovecraftian horrors from Beyond Reality get their own avatar, and she’s quite talkative. This lets us see things from their point of view, and you actually sort of think that she’s got a point. Although her solution is terrible, it feels like the sort of thing where it might be possible to try and work out a solution, if everyone wasn’t so busy trying to kill each other. It’s something I hope will develop over the course of the trilogy.

For a book with five nominal protagonists, someone was bound to get the short straw. In this case it was poor Queens. Being an immigrant of Indian descent, she was the one I was most interested in, but apart from being young and good at maths, we don’t get much about her at all. Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, as well as Staten Island get a lot more screen time. In fact, I think Queens only gets one chapter from her PoV (each chapter is from the PoV of one of the characters). I hope that this will change in later books.

Apart from that minor quibble, it’s greatly enjoyable book, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512686

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