Valour and Vanity (Glamourist Histories, #4)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane and David Vincent are travelling to Venice to try and experiment more with recording glamour in glass, with the famous glassblowers of that city, when they are waylaid by pirates and left destitute. An apparently kindly gentleman takes them in, but they eventually discover that it’s all been a huge ruse, and start plotting the ultimate heist to get back what is theirs.

This is a great fun, fairly lightweight regency story, with a bit of magic. I’ve enjoyed all of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories so far, and this was no exception. Jane’s a great character: determined, loyal and kind, but not above a bit of petty revenge, when given the opportunity – something that makes her more human and relatable.

I was on tenterhooks for the first half of the book, knowing that the Vincents were going to get scammed, and it still took me by surprise. But then we have the pleasure of pulling the heist together for the back half. A heist that involves not just the Vincents, but, in proper heist movie style, they pull together a gang to help them out – a gang that includes nuns, a puppeteer and Lord Byron! Oh, and speaking of, I loved Kowal’s adaptation of some of his poetry to talk about glamour (not that I’ve read the originals, and only knew they were adapted because of the afterword).

I like the very nuanced view that the book takes of motherhood, especially since Jane had suffered a miscarriage in the past. She’s clear that she’s happy, and whether or not she’s able to have them in future, she doesn’t really know within herself if she’d like to have children at all. No simple, false dichotomy here, and I appreciate that. The other thing that I appreciate is the strength of the Vincents’ marriage. They have squabbles and argue, especially after they lose everything and are struggling to put food on the table, but they communicate clearly and honestly with each other (a lack of which is becoming more and more a pet peeve with me these days).

A great fun story and I look forward to getting on to the next, and final, book in the series soon.

Book details

Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2014

The Master Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #3)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 2 stars

I had been irritated by Ceony, protagonist and apprentice paper magician, a bit in The Glass Magician, but I found her so bad here that I nearly put the book down several times. I wasn’t convinced by the big reveal of the last book, that a magician can unbind themselves from their chosen material and rebind to something else, and the fact that Ceony uses it here almost as a superpower is just a bit dull. But beyond that, her paranoia and obsession with getting involved with things when others are perfectly competent to deal with them is almost upsetting. Saraj Prendi is the big bad here, upgraded from henchman in the previous book (and yes, I do find it slightly dubious that the only non-white character in the series is the bad guy) and she gets obsessed with finding him, worrying about her family and her mentor, Emery Thane. At one point, Saraj even points out to Ceony that not everything is about her, something which she should really have taken to heart much earlier.

The relationship between Ceony and Emery is now much more open (something which is still a bit dodgy) and to ensure that there’s no accusations of favouritism when she comes to do her magician’s test, he hands her off to someone that he had bullied as a child, ‘cos that’s going to go down well with everyone, isn’t it? Not that Magician Bailey gets much to do other than to glower and be Not As Good As Emery. The attempts by the author to manipulate us into disliking him are pretty obvious.

I’ve tried to ignore it, but the setting here has had me twitching since the start of the series. I’ve tried to palm it off as just an alternate world where Things Are Different, but there’s too much where Holmberg brings in real-world things that just break my suspension of disbelief. This very much didn’t feel like early Edwardian Britain, but more modern day America in terms of attitudes and actions. The stuff with Ceony’s sister sort of came out of nowhere, but it really felt much more like she was a 1990s rebellious teenager (complete with cigarette), not someone from the turn of the 20th century.

It’s a shame as, despite the flaws, I’d enjoyed the first couple of books in the series (although I thought the first was definitely better than the second) but this really didn’t work for me. After her stupidity throughout the book, I almost resented Ceony’s happy ending, which is not the way you want to leave a series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781477828694
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2015

The Glass Magician (The Paper Magician, #2)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

I mostly enjoyed this second story set in a world where magicians can bond to a single type of man-made material and are forever bound to work only with that. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m turning into a grumpy old man, but I found Ceony’s pining over her mentor, Emery Thane, a bit wearing. It felt like another case where a good heart to heart conversation would have settled things.

And then there was a bit towards the end of the book where Ceony takes it upon herself to confront the Big Bad almost just out of pique at being left out of the discussions that are going on amongst the full magicians (she’s still an apprentice, after all). She gets into trouble and I had very little sympathy for her.

Ceony’s friend Delilah is charming. Apprenticed to a glass magician, she’s our view into some of the interesting things that can be done with glass and mirror magic. Abilities include communicating and transporting through mirrors, and using glass as CCTV. While not as imaginative as some of the things that could be done with paper in the first book, it was nicely thought out.

Not quite as good as the first one, but still a lot of fun.

Book details

ISBN: 9781477825945
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2014

Untouched By Human Hands

By Robert Sheckley

Rating: 4 stars

This marks the second (second!) time that I’ve paid full price for a new edition of a Robert Sheckley book. Traditionally, he’s the sort of author that you find serendipitously in the depths of a second hand or charity bookshop, but recently, Penguin have put out first his novel Dimension of Miracles and now this collection in their Penguin SF Classics range.

I always thought Sheckley was strongest in the short form, and there’s some great stories here. I mostly enjoy his humorous style. He’s good at taking an absurd concept and writing about it completely straight. Like the story Seventh Victim, whose premise is that war has been abolished by making murder legal, but only for volunteers, and if you successfully kill your Victim, you have to take your turn as being someone else’s prey. Beautifully set up and followed through. An almost textbook example of how to do it!

Then you’ve got The Monsters, dealing with first contact from the viewpoint of the race being contacted, and how their morality and customs are so normal to them and horrifying to the visitors, and vice versa, while being utterly absurd at the same time.

My favourite story in the collection is Specialist about a collaboration between species, where everyone has their role, whose Pusher dies and they need to find a replacement to get back home. It’s a lovely setup, introducing the different species and their roles in the ship, and doing some clever worldbuilding in a short space.

These stories might have been written in the 1950s but for the most part they feel pretty fresh, other than the lack of women and some of the attitudes of the characters. But the ideas all feel relevant to the twenty first century, a sign of a great writer.

Book details

ISBN: 9780241473023
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 2021

Gobbelino London & A Contagion of Zombies

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

Gobbelino and Callum London are hanging out in a cemetery (for social, not work purposes). It’s all going swimmingly until a dog chases a stick and fetches an arm. From then on, Gobs and Callum are in a (hah!) cat and mouse game with the living dead. They need to find out who’s creating zombies and how to stop them.

This was a lot of fun, I like Gobbelino’s snarky tone. He acts all mercenary but he wouldn’t really walk away from someone in need. Not when Callum would spend the rest of the week giving him those big puppy eyes, anyway. We have several returning characters in this volume, as well as a number of new ones, the best of whom is Gertrude (aka Grim Reaper Leeds) who, when not reaping the souls of the dead, runs a pet cafĂ© featuring baby ghouls with her partner Emma.

There’s a surprising amount of action in the book, especially the big sequence where the zombies overrun the market towards the end of the book which was tenser than I was expecting! We also get a glimpse into Callum’s history. Not much, but enough to contrast well with who he is now and to pull us into the story.

Also, if I distrusted the Watch in the first book, I out and out loathe them now. Claudia might be okay (for a peeler) but the rest of them are a good example of why we need to abolish the police!

Watt writes deliberately upbeat and cheerful stories. This is a great example of doing that really well, keeping a tight plot and exciting action at the same time. Just what I needed after a whole collection of really miserablist Rachel Swirsky stories!

Book details

Year of publication: 2020

How the World Became Quiet

By Rachel Swirsky

Rating: 2 stars

Urgh, I hate having to review books like this. This is another case of me really not enjoying the contents of the book, but very much appreciating its literary merits. It’s difficult to give a star rating in such a case. There’s no doubting Swirsky’s talent, but she seems to have taken to using writing as a substitute for therapy. There’s a lot of grimdark and depressing stories in this collection, far too many for my tastes. The collection starts as it means to go on, with the first story, the novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window starting with a powerful sorceress being murdered and then recalled on a recurring basis and seeing the land change over the millennia. The protagonist of that story is a very hard woman, who despises men and from a culture that uses lower caste women as walking uteruses. The second story, A Memory of Wind retells the start of the Iliad from the point of view of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, who must be sacrificed to appease the wrath of Artemis.

The collection begins with a warning that there’s explicit sexual violence in two of the stories. And while The Monster’s Million Faces softens that a bit, With Singleness of Heart is just about unbearable as it gives a close-up of rape as a weapon of war.

There are some points of light in amongst the misery. The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth is a whimsical fairy tale, and The Taste of Promises is a great little SF adventure story set on Mars, where two boys have run away from home.

There’s a lot of talent in this collection, which I mostly picked up because I knew Swirsky from her time editing the audio fantasy fiction magazine Podcastle, and from her Hugo-winning story If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love. But after reading it, I’ll not be going out of my way to find more of her fiction. As I say, a talented writer, but really not to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781596065505
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Year of publication: 2013

Galactic Hellcats

By Marie Vibbert

Rating: 4 stars

Ki is a small-time thief. Her best friend wills her a solo flier and rather than fencing it quickly to make some money, like a sensible person, she flies away, gathers some other lost souls to her and fights crime. Well, cops. Same thing, mostly.

This was another book I discovered through Scalzi’s big idea at Whatever and it was a huge amount of fun. Ki, former military store clerk Margot and bored rich girl Zuleikah are all broken, in their own different ways but are thrown together, along with prince Thane, who Zuleikah persuades the others to “rescue” from a life of misery, all come together as a found family – one of my favourite tropes.

They get up to lots of stupid adventures, some of them not even their fault, and obviously all need a lot of therapy, but instead make do with space motorbikes. (The cover paints these like the floating cars from Star Wars, although I imagine them more like Tron’s light cycles.)

One thing I sort of would have liked to see more of was Ki’s grief over Ethan’s death. Once things start to happen, there’s rarely enough time for personal reflection, but that seems like it’s quite an important part of Ki’s history and personality. We get a bit of time with Margot, who’s out of the military, failing to find a job and dealing with disapproving parents. We spend less time in Zuleikah’s head. We have hints that her family life is tough as well, but I’d have liked to see more of that. Thane gets more development – a prince whose life is anything but pampered, as he’s put on show in a matriarchal society, with staff around him that are contemptuous of him, and a mother who tortures him – where it won’t show, obviously – for minor infractions.

While there could be many further adventures of the Galactic Hellcats, the ending was satisfying, and I’m actually happy to let them go on to their adventures together without needing to bear witness to them. I salute the Hellcats (while keeping a very close eye on my property)!

Book details

ISBN: 9781952283079
Publisher: Vernacular Books
Year of publication: 2021

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